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MX-5: 0utrun by its earlier incarnations

The Mazda MX-5 has stalked most enthusiasts through most of their motoring history. For over three decades it’s been the car that has always hovered in conversations among aficionados; the diminutive roadster everyone agrees is stupendously fun to drive. 

Ask a millennial and they’ll rattle off MX-5 stories that precede their driver’s licence — the Mazda has been a favourite in video games and movies, its sleek, infinitely customisable body capturing countless young imaginations. There’s undoubtedly a mythos surrounding this rare cross-generational icon.

But reputation can only take one so far; one has to adapt. Which is exactly what it has done recently, and in very noticeable fashion.

It helps to remember that when you find yourself a few short centimetres off the ground, in a cockpit that’s smaller than your shoe cupboard. What we have today is a distinct product of its heritage but also something unique in its own right.

Take a drive back to the 1980s to understand how this all began. With the world’s fascination with British roadsters beginning to wane, the opportunity presented itself to innovate: enter the Japanese Mazda assisted by its American design team.

In designing the first concept, the company promised that it would be governed by the principle of jinba ittai. This is a term that generally pertains to Yabusame — Japanese mounted archery — and represents unity between horse and rider. It was one of those rare times when pseudo-philosophical marketing ploys actually ended up becoming a legitimate design strategy.

That became clear soon after the MX-5 (or Miata, as it is known in the United States) was released in 1989. Drivers revelled in its pure essence, how it translated their actions perfectly to the wheels and carried the reverberations of every groove in the road back to the steering wheel. From a practical perspective, jinba ittai birthed a rear-wheel-driven, perfectly-balanced front engine artist.

The simplicity helped capture its audience. The MX-5 became synonymous with shedding all excess, with every ubiquitous car feature having to justify its existence on the dashboard. You could cherish its handling on a track as a car enthusiast or admire its austerity as a casual day-to-day driver. So many people loved it for so many different purposes that one of motoring’s most beloved slogans was born: “Miata is always the answer.” 

Naturally, there were a few design changes through the years, notably the abolition of the signature pop-up headlights (if you’ve ever wondered what happened to that style, it was new pedestrian safety regulations that forced Mazda and everybody else to give it up).

In 2016 the MX-5 was truly reinvented. In an attempt to force it back to the top of the roadster conversation, the MX-5 went on a diet, cutting weight and length off its already tiny figure. The result is the fourth generation: a sleek, modern but faithful interpretation of a cult favourite.

Which brings us back to where we started. We received the MX-5 RF, which is the primary model available in South Africa now, characterised by its convertible hard top and automatic transmission, and costing about R550 000. We wanted to know: does it live up to its fabled legacy? Well, sort of, but not really.

The soul of its ancestor is here. This is a no-nonsense provocateur; its stickiness to the ground would inspire the most mild-mannered driver into thoughts of flicking the wheel into a spin. The sparse cabin further embeds a track mentality: there is almost no space to put anything bar a slot on the side you can squeeze a car key into (keyless entry and ignition, of course). In lieu of a cubbyhole there is a decently-sized bin between the seats — not enough to prevent the practicality of it being on the same level as doing the breaststroke in a straight-jacket.

But, again, that’s kind of the point. This is supposed to be unrepentant fun. And fun you can certainly have. The MX-5 is still a wonder to corner. It floats around any bend, as if the laws of friction were temporarily suspended. Behind the wheel you are a butterfly, gliding freely through the traffic.

This is the childhood thrill of go-karting recaptured (doubly true for us taller folk, who have our heads sticking out the top).

It’s just a damn pity the gear stick is the wrong kind. Much of the experience is sullied by this being an automatic. And it’s hard to understand why a car that promises to be so unapologetic resorted to an option it thought would have the biggest audience appeal.

The engine is not particularly powerful. The normally-aspirated 2l block — producing 118kW and 200Nm — is by no means blistering on a straight line. If anything it wheezes as the pedal meets the floor.

Not being able to control the tide of that output severely limits the thrill of a car like this. Unless you deliberately hunt for winding stretches, regular driving will simply begin to feel ponderous.

It might still bring joy to some here and there, but not the universal pleasure its predecessors did.

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Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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