Cars, They are made for a reason. To get people from A to B. To fill a hole in a very competitive, automotive market. Some are made just to look at. But no matter what the automotive companies turn out they are designed for a purpose. Some are big, some are small, long or short. Some have four doors, some have 7 seats. Some are marketed to be something or ‘do something for you,’ and end up being a useful weight for your driveway slabs. We are all aware of old British sports cars. The ones with the ill fitting rag top. The one your grandfather has in his garage stored away for nice summers days, the Lotus Elan for the obvious example. A bunch of clever people at one small Japanese company saw the demise of these cars and decided to bring the recipe back with Japanese dependability. And because it was the only thing on the market in its class at the time (ignore the Alfa Romeo Spider) it was hugely popular.
I explain all this because the car (as the titles says) that I’m about to write about is one of the very few that does exactly what its manufacture intended it to do, down to a T. A car that, for nearly 30 years, has delivered all the expectation to those who have owned one. But never understood by a lot of people. The Mazda MX-5. Launched in 1989, it was a small 2 seater sports car that had one object. To be nothing but a car made to take down a B road and have a blast in. Now this may sound strange, but I’m going to compare the Japanese marvel to something a bit more un-sporting. Everyone, and I mean everyone on this planet is aware of the Volkswagen Beetle. Most children’s childhood hero’s went along the lines of a cat owning postman or a short arsed man in a yellow hard hat. But there was me, sitting in front of the trinitron, Ribena in one hand and a pancake in the other, getting very excited about the adventures of Herbie. A magical race car that had a mind of its own. I don’t know who came up with the idea. But whoever he was captured knew exactly what cars are about and put his own spin on the whole thing. Its if Herbie was created to teach kids that cars are not just 4 wheels attached to a metal box. But, throughout the movie series (i believe there were 5) there was always a total piss take out of the poor car. Tossed off a ship, Laughed at, threatened with all sorts by people that knew no better than it being a ‘bug.’ But thats exactly what I’m getting at. Its no different in real life. The Beetle, a car that did exactly what it was meant to do. Ignoring its crude history of course, but there is no denying this little Germanic, air cooled car provided people with personal transportation at a very attainable level. But some people hated it. They hated its functional styling, its lack of power. But those are the people that never owned one and would rather take the bus instead. If there is one thing Herbie taught me, its that cars are human. If the Beetle were a person it be a German professor of literature. You couldn’t argue with him. If the MX-5 were a person. It be that Japanese girl you fell in love with on your trip to Tokyo. Are you seeing the similarities between both? The MX-5 is hated by some because of its lack of power, Its loose status as not being a ‘proper sports car.’ Or maybe because it has a feminine, hairdresser whiff about it. But as time has gone on both cars have a serious cult following. Those that love them modify them, restore them or wish they could own one. But if you have never driven either one. You have no right to comment on it.
Now that I have got that out the way, and if you are reading this, your either eagerly searching online to find the perfect MX-5 for yourself. Or you are interested to see what all the fuss is about. So, as someone who has owned an original MK1 model for nearly 2 years now. I feel its time i should now have my say.
Design and styling
First thing you will notice about the MX-5 is its cheeky face, pop up lights and from certain angles a shark like look. Its rather simple side profile is no bad thing. Iv’e had loads of young kids think its a Ferrari. Especially in the bright red that my car is in. Even though it isn’t a Ferrari. far from it in fact. It brings them joy to see it. Especially when you pop up the lights. The chrome door handles are a clear nod to old little sports cars in which this car was based on. Go round to the back and you see a very cleanly designed back end with the most unusually futuristic rear lights. The grid rear lights of the 70’ and 80’s are now dead by this point. True fact, these lights were so praised by designers they are on display at the Modern Art Gallery in New York. It sits low to the ground and, the pill shape wing mirrors that work on a ball socket rather than the mirrors themselves adjusting have this fantastic, retro look to them. The Mk1 MX-5 in general has a fantastic retro look to it. But its not so retro that it fills you with the same dread as you may get when you look at something like a Nissan Figaro.
Pull the door handle with your thumb and you hear the wonderful pop of the latch releasing, then you are greeted with a dark, timeless and very functional interior. Jump inside and the first thing you notice is how low you sit on the spongy cloth seats. The leather wrapped Momo steering wheel falls to hand very nicely and is the perfect size. The clear and easy to read dials and heater controls. The windscreen which is very narrow but wide. The raised arm rest to the left of you gives you this boxed in sense, But in a good way. Everything you touch has that classic Japanese tactile touch to it. Slight flimsiness, but the undeniable feeling that this car is a quality product. The amount of space for stuff inside is also surprising. The half moon shaped space behind the seats is very useful for jackets. The storage net to the front of that also proves very useful for loose items. The seats have a pockets on the back of them and the glovebox is a good size. You just get the sense everything was really well though out. After all it, is a 2 seater, rear wheel drive sports car.
Now, as I mentioned earlier on. Cars are built for a purpose. And the MX-5 was made for nothing but fun! Turn the key in the MX-5 and the brilliant 16v DOHC 1.6 inline four springs into life. Its amazingly smooth for a four pot, there is no buzz or vibration at all on start up. Amazing for a car that came out in 1989. You will find this its also the case thought the rev range. The standard exhaust has a nice rasp to it and always brings a smile to my face when i move out the garage. Its no hindrance driving around town in. You’d think you were in something ordinary like a city car. Steering is light and has a small lock to lock radius. The turning circle is amazingly tight and the clutch is light and has a short throw with a relatively high bite. But you ain’t reading this to know what its like on 30 MPH roads. You wanting to know what this cars like when you open the taps.
Find a B road. Any B road and then the MX-5 starts to make sense. Press the throttle and you will find its instant, instant response that it gives you. The engine is fantastic. 115 BHP (95 BHP on models after 1994) may not be a lot, but enough to make it fun. There is a little bit of torque, but power delivery is not as instant. Despite that, it is smooth. And the power comes once you have worked the engine up to 4k revs. Keep it in that sweet spot and its wonderful. The power stays with you right up to 7 thousand RPM as the fantastic throatiness of the engine fills the cabin. There is a 1.8 engine that came later on in the Mk1’s life, but forget that engine. Its torque is low down and its not as exciting to rev out. It also doesn’t rev as high. Once you stab the clutch down you are are met with (in my opinion) the best gear change of any production car in the world, period. Short, firm and the feel you get through your left arm is nothing short of addictive. Then you get to the MX-5’s true reasoning. Its chassis and very low weight of only 970 kg’s, And what a chassis it is. near 50/50 weight distribution is also present here. The car feels more than capable than the suspension it sits on. A lot of people say this is one of the best handling, responsive and engaging little sports cars ever. And you can understand why once you get to a corner and turn it in. You are introduced with a wonderful feeling of lightness and at the front end. You can feel the front tyres digging in to the tarmac, but with little plough. The steering doesn’t have too much in the way of feedback. But it does start to weight up slightly as you turn in. It is wonderfully sharp and direct, which more than compensates for its slight lack of feel. You can constantly feel the weight transfer going through the car as you accelerate decelerate. And thats what makes the MX-5 so special. The feel of its dynamics are constantly inviting you in for the ride.
The independent, double wishbone suspension and anti roll bars suit this car fine. But put it up against far more modern machinery and it would hold its own to a certain point. But thats not to mean its awful. Push it a little bit further and you can adjust your line using the throttle very easily. The car does have body roll, and it does rob a little bit of its composure, but all cars from this era had body roll and I think it adds a bit of character to the car. Most of its composure is in the grip of its tyres. My example has a set of Toyo Proxie TR1’s and they suit the MX-5 very well. Very, very grippy in the dry. Push it even further and you will get the tyres screeching. The oversteer or understeer is never sudden, it gradually steps out and a slight lift off of the power brings the rear or the front back in line. But, Before the back has a chance to come out the car will understeer. Either way, you are told that such is happening through your bum and as the steering starts to get gradually get lighter you are notified. You will be amazed at how hard it is to get the back swinging round. It all depends on how tight the corner is. Lifting off mid corner and chucking all the weight to the front again on a tight bend can sometimes upset the MX-5 and it will cause its light tack end to swing out. Accelerate fully on a really tight bend and the rear tyres get pressed down very firmly. This can get a bit too much for it and it will oversteer before the front starts pushing. It is never intimidating though. Correcting it with the steering is very easy and fun. You get very used to its dynamics very quickly and this also makes it quite a safe car to drive. Later cars have limited slip differentials which helps with cornering ability.
The brakes, sadly aren’t up to much. They lock up far too easily and they don’t slow you down in time. But you do get a fantastic, firm and informative pedal that even with the slightest modulation in pressure can regulate how much force is being applied. The very last MK1’s did have ABS but it is really rare to find. The brake and accelerator pedal are also perfectly aligned for heal and toe. That, combined with the gear box change gives you a great feeling of entertainment and confidence.
Once you are done throwing it into corners and you want to cruise down a motorway. The dampening opens up and the car rides very smoothly with minimal interruption through the cabin. Just a shame there is no 6th gear as the engine does get noisy. On rough surfaces the MX-5 also copes very well here. There is some vibration but its never jarring. Hitting a rough patch going round a bend doesn’t upset the car either. I reckon the independent suspension is what causes the car to be totally un-interrupted when this occurs.
Owning and running
You would think a car this old and of this type would be expensive to run. Ive ran one for 2 years and its been the cheapest car I’ve ever run. Its simplicity is the key here. Ive changed the oil a couple times, filter leads and plugs and it cost me no more than 150 quid for all that. They also sip oil. But they will drink it if it gets driven hard. Its good on fuel too. You can easily get 35 MPG out of it driving it carefully and if the tyres are pumped up correctly. The only thing that has gone wrong was the clutch slave cylinder. They are known to go on MK1 MX-5’s. And that brings me onto the next part.
If your looking to buy a MK1 MX-5. There are a few things to look out for. And number one thing in any review you will read on these cars is dreaded rust. Yes they do rust, very quickly. Due to UK roads in winter time, they cant help but dress them in enough salt to shame the Dead Sea. Finding a rust free one is pretty hard these days. back sills, back arches and round the front of the wings is where to look. But the sight of it will most likely find you before you find it. And the general rule of thumb is. If its bubbles on the outside its gone on the inside. One of these cars nearly killed me once. Me and a friend bought one to strip for parts, and we had it up on axle stands. I came out from underneath the car to get a socket, and the whole axle went through the floor of the car.
As mentioned before, test drive it to see if the gears are hard to change. This could mean the slave cylinder is on the way out. Usually the symptoms get worse as you drive it and will usually fail within the day of it dying. Electronics on these cars are very simple to fix and very reliable. There really is nothing much electronic to these cars in the first place. Pop up lights never miss a beat. They do get out of sync with age when they go up and down but thats about it. If they do go wrong, there are manual twist knobs under the bonnet to put them up. Apart from that check the usual things. Such as service history, (a lot don’t have them) belts, and whines from the transmission. These engines are non interference. Which means if the belt snaps, the valves wont be damaged. Get a new belt fitted and your away.
Prices of MK1’s are on the up. And with the 30th anniversary round the corner they will only continue to go that way. I have seen low mileage ones, and I mean low, go for 12 thousand pounds. A good one with a little work needed 1-3k. A mint one for around 5-6. And obviously garage queens for more.
There is a lot to like about the MX-5, but usually there are downsides. But really, I cant think of many with the MX-5. Im not considering practicality at all. Because if you have one of these or are looking to buy one, you have already considered this. And for what it is there is plenty of room in the car and boot for a weekend trip or a medium sized shopping trip. As mentioned before running costs are low and fuel economy is not bad. The roof is easy to come down if you want to soak up the sun.
If I have to be really critical and slightly unrealistic. Id say the wind noise on the motorway is bad, no 6th gear doesn’t help. The battery can be a nightmare to get access to if it goes flat. The standard speakers aren’t brilliant. Trying to get the roof up from inside the car is impossible without ripping your arm out it’s socket. I still cant work out why Mazda put a handle on the inside for it. The car has a tendency to be a bit tricky in the wet and hopeless in the snow. Keep the car in higher gears round roundabouts, don’t be so violent with the steering or throttle and you will be fine.
This brings me back to the statement I made earlier. How can you hate the MX-5? It’s not offensive in anyway. Drive one and you will understand it’s brilliance and why its so true to Mazda’s word. Especially if you really don’t have liking for it and you haven’t driven one. If you haven’t, I urge you find someone who has one thats willing to let you test drive it. Your mind will be changed instantly. Its a proper sports car in the meaning of it. And no matter what other cars I have driven. I always think of the MX-5. Back then it was a very good car. Now, its still a very good car, and it has aged superbly. With age it has become a useful tool too. If you ever want to learn car physics, RWD or improve on your driving skill. An MX-5 is the cheapest way into doing so. And I owe it a lot for what it has taught me. You won’t regret it. I promise!
1.6 DOHC 4 cylinder naturally aspirated