Like Peter Pan, the Mazda MX-5 has never grown up. Nor will it, if drivers continue to believe in the transformational power of a two-seater roadster.
The MX-5 enters its second quarter-century as arguably the last and forever sports car – with production closing in on one million and a new model around the corner.
Already it holds the Guinness record for most two-seater roadsters: 931,977 as of the end of February, and counting. The MGB, its cultural antecedent, totalled 386,789 from 1962 through 1980.
So many rivals have come and gone. Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky, 2006-2009, were pretty cars cursed by hapless GM marketing and soft tops so confoundedly difficult you seldom see one running open. Gone as well: Honda CRX, Pontiac Fiero, Toyota MR2 and Celica, fun cars all, if not all roadsters.
Strictly speaking, two-seat sports cars haven’t disappeared – they’re just priced out of sight. Porsche Boxsters, Chevrolet Corvettes and Jaguar XK-Fs are beguiling entries accessible only to those with high-powered credit ratings.
Sports cars should be inexpensive enough to be an alternative to family cars, as the MGB was in its day. The MX-5 Miata made its debut for $18,250 in 1989. The 2014 MX-5 base price – with the Miata name long gone but safety equipment as well as horsepower added – is $29,250, or $36,045 with an electronically-folding hardtop.
We’re driving not only a GS but a 1991 British Racing Green special edition model (since sold for $4,000, with 252,267 kilometres on the odometer), ostensibly for comparison’s sake, actually for the fun of it.
The GS accelerates to 100 km/h in 8.2 seconds by my stopwatch, but this is of less significance to many MX-5 drivers than the top powering back at 12.7 seconds. Mazda made this car to frolic, not lay rubber.
Top-down, even polluted air can taste as sweet as spring, and all birds become mezzo sopranos. Still, the responses afforded by the moving parts are what counts, beginning with the way the Mazda’s thrust builds as the tachometer needle approaches 7,000 rpm.
Steering happens as you make the decision to turn. It’s that fast. The balance front-to-rear is so close to 50-50, you’re dancing. Shifting gears is as intuitive and satisfying as a familiar smartphone; an automatic is optional, but the manual shifts’ short throws are so slick they should cost extra.
One calming surprise: the GS accommodates potholes. The springs and shock absorbers are specified for comfort, rather than on-track capability.
The 1991 BRG edition isn’t so smooth and rattles a bit. But fun? Yes, its shorter wheelbase makes it even more agile. Power? The 1.6-litre engine’s 116-horsepower doesn’t pull like today’s 167-hp 2-litre, taking 10.9 seconds to 100 km/h. But it still revs to beat the band, and putting the top down is even faster, accomplished with a flick of the wrist.
The old car’s butterscotch leather interior seems warmer than today’s. Who cares if it’s not keyless or Bluetooth equipped. Will the next MX-5, set for 2015, introduce a touch-screen to displace the knobs in the centre stack that have served so well for 25 years? Hope not.
The MX-5 Miata cosmogony began – I believe – with an Alta sports car (2.0 litre, supercharged) purchased during the Second World War by American air force pilot W.B. Hall. Thereafter, only English roadsters would do for him.
From W.B. Hall, the Alta gene made its way to his son, Bob. Without this occurrence, the Mazda MX-5 Miata would have gone unimagined.
Home in California after the war, W.B. and wife Virginia raised twin boys while driving a Morris Minor convertible and an MGTD roadster. “I remember my mom used to drive us in L.A. when it was drizzly and she’d have her scarf on, and my brother and I would be under the TD’s tonneau cover lifting it up to see where we were,” Bob Hall said at the MX-5 25th anniversary display at the New York Auto Show.
W.B. moved on to a TR2 and two Austin-Healeys. Extended inhalation of the scents of leather, raw gasoline and electrical short circuits affected young Bob’s mind: He became an automotive journalist. “I was still in high school driving a Datsun 510 when I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if a car could have the character of a British car and the reliability of a Japanese car?’ I’d grown up thinking wires were actually hoses that had smoke in them ...”
As a young journalist, Hall interviewed Mazda executive Kenichi Yamamoto at the company’s Hiroshima headquarters, on April 15, 1979. “Okay, Bob-san, what kind of car should we do next?” Yamamoto said provocatively. Mazda had introduced the RX-7 sports car two years earlier.
“I said, ‘A cheap sports car,’” Hall recalled. “A cheap sports car? So I did this awful chalk board drawing and I had this concept of using the original GLC rear-drive hatchback platform.”
Hall was hired by Mazda North America two years later as a product planner. He was at work on a B-series pickup truck when Yamamoto said, “You should work on your cheap sports car idea.”
“I honest-to-God had forgotten about it,” said Hall, who subsequently hired designers Mark Jordan (from Opel) and Tom Matano (BMW). Their MX-5 concept was chosen over another drawn by Mazda designers in Tokyo. Hall, whose personal car was a Lotus Elan, was involved in the Miata’s development all the way to its approval for production in 1987.
So it was the MX-5 emerged as a Japanese sports car of British descent – albeit with seats copied from the Alfa Romeo Spider and Italianesque door release triggers. Hall wasn’t totally responsible, of course. A Triumph Spitfire imported to Hiroshima by Mazda’s test department played a part by exhilarating Yamamoto in a drive through the Hakone mountains switchbacks. British sports cars provided the standard, right down to such details as 5-cm gearshift throws.
Question is, can Mazda create lightning in a bottle a second time? Will the next MX-5 match the impact of the original?
Driving was dull in the 1980s. The MGB had expired in 1980, the Alfa Romeo Spyder and Fiat 124 were on their last legs.
“There was pent-up demand for a two-seater roadster,” Bob Hall said. “People remembered cars like the MGB, they were frustrated they couldn’t buy another. The timing of a new car’s launch is critical. The timing of the Miata couldn’t have been better.”
Today, pent-up demand for two-seaters doesn’t exist. One needs to be a certain age to recall British sports cars. Japanese and Korean coupes bid for young drivers’ favour, Mustang and rivals offer eye-popping power/dollar ratios.
The new MX-5 must look so startlingly different from today’s MX-5, so incredibly desirable, families are compelled to make room in their driveways alongside their kid-hauling crossovers. And believe it’s a bargain.
“A key part is approachability, the car has to be affordable,” said Derek Jenkins, design director of Mazda USA, about the challenge. “Beyond that, you have to capture the fascination of the younger generation.”
Whereas the first Miata was as simply shaped as a bar of soap, Jenkins said more musculature is needed now. Expect more beef over the front fenders, lines rising back to a far more substantial rear end – as surely as the chassis will be 100 kg lighter than the current car (advancing fuel efficiency and power-to-weight).
Peter Pan still rules Neverland. Mazda’s magic dust remains airborne, targeting the fourth-generation MX-5’s debut.
Canada is getting the same allotment of 25th Anniversary Edition Mazda MX-5s as the United States, 100 each, from a total production run of 1,100. The $40,295 special stands out with one colour, “soul red mica”, with black windshield pillars and a retractable hardtop. Canadian dealers already have orders for 90 of the 100 specials that are to be delivered in July.
Correction: The Jaguar convertible is the XK-F, not the XJ-F as previously stated.
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