The best way to enter the Japanese city of Hiroshima is from the west along Expressway 4, through the Seifu tunnel. After four long kilometres of darkness, you burst into daylight on a bridge deck, the whole city suddenly laid out before you in its entirety. And thereʼs no better way to experience it than from behind the wheel of a Mazda MX-5 sports car.
Itʼs Saturday morning, with cloudy skies but dry tarmac. I settle in the right-hand seat of a charcoal-grey MX-5 and press the starter button, provoking the two-litre four-cylinder engine into a gruff little growl. Thereʼs some faffing about with the pay-parking machine, and then weʼre off, heading out onto relatively empty streets.
A Ferrari in Maranello, a Porsche in Stuttgart, a Lamborghini in SantʼAgata: Experiencing an iconic car in its hometown is a bucket-list item for many a gearhead, but letʼs face it, few of us have pockets deep enough to park something wearing a prancing stallion or a charging bull in our own garage.
However, nearly everyone can afford a Mazda MX-5. Over 30 years, the company has produced more than a million of them. Further, should you wish to visit Hiroshima and rent one, the cost is relatively reasonable. Introduced in 1990 as the Miata in the North American market and the Eunos Roadster in Japan, all four generations of the car are charming.
This one is the quickest and sharpest. The first-generation car is the most open-hearted. The second-generation car is a darty little performance bargain. The third-generation car, slightly overshadowed by this new one, is the most comfortable and practical, yet still highly rewarding to drive. Each has its own merits.
Likewise, Hiroshima has a unique spirit and personality, just waiting to be explored. Tokyo is unknowable in its size and sea of humanity. Just stand at the top of the Sky Tree tower at night, and you can see blinking red lights stretching out in all directions to the horizon. It dwarfs you.
But Hiroshima, while not exactly tiny at 2.2 million inhabitants, seems a friendlier destination, one you can shake hands with. Driving a little open-topped roadster around the place, you begin to understand both the car and the city that little bit better.
Bumping along the narrow roads of one of the shopping districts in the MX-5 RF with its retractable hardtop open, I see a group of bleary-eyed young people emerge from a nightclub, laughing and shoving each other. The universally familiar smell of a cooking breakfast wafts into the cabin.
This far from the buttoned-down, hard-headed business centres of Japan, people live in a little more loose-jointed fashion. Small wonder then that Mazda, founded here in 1920, has always been prone to take more risks than most of the major Japanese automakers. Those risks donʼt always pay off, but sometimes, as with a beloved little roadster, they do.
When the original Miata was conceived, back in the mid-1980s, the idea was a return to the ideals of the lightweight sports car. Mazda already had the RX-7 as a more-serious sporting machine, so this new vehicle would aim to be a more nimble and joyful affair.
As the story goes, some Mazda employees made arrangements for Mazdaʼs then-chief executive officer to drive a Triumph Spitfire to and from Tokyo on a business trip, using the mountain roads. He returned full of enthusiasm for the project.
Yet Hiroshimaʼs surroundings might have have set the hook even sooner. Unlike Tokyo, with its morale-destroying traffic and endless suburbs, Hiroshima butts up against layered mountains and endless canyon roads. As soon as youʼre outside of the city, the roads immediately become all twisty and interesting.
Darting though traffic in the RF, you can appreciate why Mazda tunes a little more give into the MX-5's suspension than, say, BMW does into their products. Some added body roll is no bad thing, especially when it helps iron out some of the bumps and ruts of the back alley shortcuts that your GPS inevitably ends up routing you through.
Then, up and into the wild. To the west is best. On the map, most of the roads resemble the lie-detector results of a perjurerʼs testimony, jumping and twisting and skittering up the mountainsides.
The RF has all the power you could ever safely exploit up here. Keep your supercars for track days and showing off at the curb; a Mazda MX-5, any of them, is the kind of machine that will have you seeking out the curviest sections of tarmac just so you can run through them again and again, laughing all the way.
At the launch of the fourth-generation MX-5, I recall interviewing the engineers and asking whether they had accepted feedback from current MX-5 owners. No, they assured me, they only wanted to use input from their own development team. Then they all excitedly showed me pictures of the MX-5s that they themselves already owned.
Which is what you expect from Hiroshima. The car culture here is more interested in driving than in being seen. The city is smaller, a little more relaxed. Thereʼs still plenty of bustle, and certainly throngs of tourists, but itʼs the kind of place that feels the right size.
So go there and explore. Put the top down and let the cityʼs breath flow through you. Watch the people as you move along their streets.
Then come home. Roll up the garage door, and appreciate your own little Mazda roadster that much more. It could only have come from a place such as Hiroshima. Going for a drive is the best way to understand both.
The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.
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