The underdog, the legend: why the Mazda MX-5 is still a motoring icon
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There are two main ways to craft a four-wheeled legend.
Way number one is the direction we see most manufacturers travel. It's through continual reinvention and adaption — a pursuit of new solutions and revolution over evolution. Each new model marches the narrative forward, and progress is king. Think about the likes of the hyper technical Nissan GT-R, or the trajectory of a brand like Tesla.
Way number two is arguably much tougher, despite — on the surface at least — requiring far less work. It's all about producing cars that remain faithful and loyal to where they came from. Cars like the Mazda MX-5.
In the 30-odd years it's carved up roads around the world, the MX-5 has captured many a motoring enthusiast through its weird juxtaposition of impractical sports-car values and 'practical' versatility.
It's always been one of the smallest, most cramped cars on the market. But on the flip-side, it can bridge the gap from economical daily driver to fun weekend plaything, to track-day warrior, to drift car, to fully fledged race car. All while remaining a reliable, affordable package.
You can buy one and keep it completely original. Or, you can dump a V8 under the bonnet. It's a four-wheeled canvas.
Of course, it's worth noting that Mazda's little convertible wasn't exactly an original package when it first hit the market. It was, for want of a better term, a new-age copy of the quintessential small British sports cars of the '70s.
Although, given that none of those lovable machines from the likes of Triumph and MG live on today, most consider the MX-5 to be a watershed entrant to the sports car game — rather than an impersonator or pretender.
It's no surprise that its popular in New Zealand. We're a nation of tinkerers, enamoured by the humble underdog, surrounded by some of the best curling b-roads on the planet. In some ways, it's a little car that feels like it was made specifically for us and our craggy geography.
That is, geography like Rod Millen's storied Leadfoot Festival driveway in Hahei.
Millen and Mazda go way back of course. Before those iconic record-breaking years at Pikes Peak with Toyota, he used Mazdas like the RX-3 and RX-7 to rip up gravel all over the world. And the relationship continues, through the hosting of events like Mazda New Zealand's 30th Anniversary MX-5 Club day — which we tagged along to last month.
All in all, 62 different Mazda MX-5s showed up. Some were old, some were new. Some were completely original, while others sported aftermarket body-kits, wheel packages, and more.
Curiously, the most prevalent generation present was the third-gen NC MX-5 model. The most dough-eyed of the group, the NC was the last to incorporate a hydraulic steering system — but pairs this with a modern safety structure. Perhaps more to the point; they represent a lot of bang-for-your-buck, given that a solid example can be had for well under $15,000 these days.
My brave co-pilot and I brought this with us; Mazda's latest 2019-spec MX-5 RF.
The changes made to the MX-5 for this year are mild but welcomed. They're simple changes; lighter internals, more power, more torque, and more revs — all things sure to widen the eyes of Mazda's enthusiast fan-base. With the changes, the new MX-5's naturally aspirated 2.0-litre SKYACTIV-G engine now makes 135kW of power and 205Nm of torque, while singing to a sweet red-line of 7500rpm.
The new MX-5's loyalty to its origins doesn't just manifest in its rear-wheel drive layout or naturally aspirated power, either. It also, unlike almost every other new-car out there, has managed to avoid bloating dimensions. While most other cars have compromised on weight and handling by getting larger, the ND-generation MX-5 is actually 33mm shorter than its late-'80s NA-gen forefather, while 59mm of extra width and 44mm of extra wheelbase enlarges its footprint.
We've got a lot more to say on our MX-5 RF tester, but that'll come at a later date in the form of a full road test.
Those who've attended a Leadfoot Festival event or seen images on TV or social media will know that it's a stunning ribbon of road. For Rod of course, it's just a driveway that connects his secluded home and car collection to society. But for many of the MX-5 owners attending on the day, it'd be as close as they'd get to a winding white-knuckle hill-climb course.
At the base of the summit, the road rolls up and down. The biggest challenge early is navigating the bridge, which sneaks up on the driver from behind a crest — involving a slight right-left shimmy before immediately handing you a cambered right-hander on the other side.
From there speeds rise to their peak; the road dipping away before a big lazy left-right chicane (often lined by hay bales). At this point, the driveway's complexion changes completely.
Following the chicane the road gets incredibly steep, requiring plenty of throttle input to keep a car's momentum in check. Then there's the sharpest hairpin on the driveway; a right-hander that sneaks up on you over a hill if you're not aware of its existence.
Not only is this hairpin tight, but it's also still placed on a steep bit of incline ... to the point that each MX-5's rear tyres would chirp out from the middle of the corner to the exit.
The rest of the course is relatively plateaued and flowing, with no bridges or hairpins to interrupt your flow. There is one tight chicane hidden in the thick line of trees, but that one's more about rhythm and reflexes. And before you know it, you've passed the finish-line.
Offering bags of mechanical grip, superb balance, and controls that balance lightness with predictability — our 2019-spec RF got better and better as we drove it. And our confidence grew with a similar trajectory.
That appeared to be a trend consistent across the board. Our final run was underlined by a shadowing car that appeared to want to turn the convoy into a full-fledged race — a challenge me and my right foot were happy to accept.
Each of us was able to hit the Millen mountain two times in convoy and, despite a speed limit of 70km/h, each driver was able to reach out and touch their MX-5's limits.
This has always been one of the MX-5's central qualities — the ability to experience the feel and thrill of the car's limit of grip at speeds that aren't going to send you immediately to prison. This is a big reason why MX-5s and their owners go so well at autocross and club-level racing events; they generally, inherently, have a greater understanding of how their cars behave at the limit the next guy or gal.
It's a logic that some of the platform's biggest critics are still yet to truly grasp, even if they've had 30 years to think about it.
Never underestimate the humble little Mazda.
Keep an eye out for Driven's full road test of the 2019 Mazda MX-5 RF