This summer, while on holiday in the Black Forest in Germany I stopped at a petrol station and from the corner of my eye I saw a car transporter which carried a number of cars that I looked at with the look of ‘I know you very well but I can’t quite place you’ – the car transporter was laden with various examples of the new MK4 Mazda MX5. I appreciate that the car world is divided about its looks but I think it looks lovely. The front end looks aggressive, bonnet pointing down sharply at the nose, and there is something quite F-type at the rear end which gives it a sense of purpose that no other previous MX5 has had. This is the first MX5 with a ‘nothing’s sweet about me’ attitude.
The MK4 has been a long time coming. Mazda wanted to get it right after the criticism which the MK3, especially the earlier ones, attracted. The previous model had grown slightly too tall and ever so slightly too heavy for the purists. And thankfully Mazda cares about the purists. Mazda spent a long number of years re-designing a car from bottom to top to ensure that it is true to the philosophy which lies at the very heart of the MX5 concept – a lightweight, fun, sports car. A true roadster. The original MX5, which was famously based on the 60’s Lotus Elan, was a car that you could drive every day to and from work with ease and in relative comfort yet which would also double as a fun, immensely communicative roadster. Drawing inspiration from the Colin Chapman philosophy of adding lightness resulted in a sub 1000 kilo car which was a joy to chuck about and although it was labelled by some as an ‘underpowered hairdressers car’, it was a lesson in balance, steering communication, a sublime gearshift and legendary reliability. The MK1 MX5 was a true masterpiece and went on to break every imaginable sales record. When I was given the opportunity to test drive the new MK4 at the local Mazda dealership I enthusiastically turned up ten minutes in advance with one aim in mind – to take this car out and to compare it with the MK1 MX5 – a car which I owned for a long number of years and with which I can unashamedly admit that I had a love affair.
The car which I tried out was a Black 2.0 Litre with leather interior, Bose sound system and all the perks which we have come to expect from modern cars such as Bluetooth, audio and USB connectivity and sat nav preparation. As I sat in the car I couldn’t help but notice how the touch screen juts out conspicuously above the dashboard and as I studied the layout I realised that it is more a matter of the dashboard being sculpted very low rather than the screen being perched high up. My suspicion is that the low dashboard was taken directly from the MK1 and it is refreshing to see a car in this day and age that draws inspiration for its interior from a classic car rather than continuing to throw larger, higher and more cluttered dashboards at us like there’s no tomorrow. If I were Mazda I would also have offered a no cost screen delete option especially in a world where our phones can double as screens whenever needed and when all required data including music can be streamed wirelessly. The seating position is very MK1, the gear shifter ever so slick and the car just wraps around you screaming ‘take me out’. I unlatched the single clasp roof and pulled it down with little effort and in two shakes of a lime’s tail I was out of the showroom. I’ve known the sales person who came with me for a spin for long enough to feel comfortable turning traction control off in his presence and he smiled telling me ‘do what you like as long as we’re back in one piece’.
Once on the road, the car felt uncannily familiar. It’s like meeting an old acquaintance who’s just started to wear glasses. Is it him or is it someone who looks like him? I knew I was in a MK4 yet memories from the MK1 were being evoked at every passing moment. The perfectly balanced chassis, the turn-in at the flick of the wrist, the apparent lack of power on low revs urging you to explore the top end of the tachometer and the ease with which gears ‘switch’ into position unlike any other car that I have driven except the MK1 MX5 and the Honda S2000. My MX5 was an early 1.6 and it was more eager to hit the red line than this Skyactive 2.0. I have yet to drive the modern 1.5 and most reviews I have read state that it is a freer revving engine and some reviewers actually recommend it over the 2.0. I recall having having had the same feeling when I had driven a 1.8 MK1 back to back to mine – there was an inertia in the flywheel which somehow detracts from the fun factor and makes the car feel ‘grown up’. I honestly do not know which of the two cars between my ex MK1 and the new MK4 2.0 would be quicker around a tight track, yet on a straight road the modern car feels faster, more composed and torquier. In terms of distilled ‘fun’ I believe the earlier car would win this test purely on the characteristics of the freer revving engine and the telepathic steering feel it possessed. Inevitably, one of the greatest attributes of the MK1 has been somewhat anaesthetised – the steering wheel. It does feel nice and weighted but there is something about the Nardi wooden steering wheel on my MK1 that this car can never dream of replacing.
In terms of an every day car though, this MK4 feels special. And at the price of 32,000 Euro on the road I cannot think of another new car which will give you half of the driving and aesthetic pleasure which the MK4 will give you. In my eyes it is one of the sexiest cars on the road south of a Porsche Boxster, and I think that it is the best looking MX5 ever made. The MK3 would never even have made the contest. The MK1 had the pop up headlamps in its favour and the XK8 looks of the MK2 made it look lovely from certain angles. But the latest iteration seems to look good from most angles. It is a very small car, actually shorter than the MK1, and it sits very low giving you excellent all round visibility from the driver’s seat. Getting in and out of the car is easy as there is virtually no ‘sill’, and the seats feel modern and supportive. At the first opportunity I got to slide the back out I realised that either the tires are gripper than the ones I had on the MK1, or this car offers more grip over all as a result of its modern suspension set up. It requires slightly more effort to slide out, yet comes back in with the characteristic dollop of opposite lock which comes so naturally to any 50/50 balanced front engine rear wheel drive car owner. Again, on the criteria of pure fun, the MK1 would get more points in this respect although it must be said that the lack of traction control made the original car a hazard in the rain or in less predictable road conditions. The fact that the MK4 was engineered to have perfect 50/50 balance with a driver in the driver’s seat though says so much about how this car was engineered and it is this meticulous, obsessive attention to balance and weight saving that translates into such a special driving feeling. There are sports car manufacturers that fail to deliver the precision and driving satisfaction which this car offers.
I am usually a vociferous defender of the argument that having fun in a car has very little to do with raw power and more to do with the way in which that power translates into driving enjoyment. The MK4, like the MK1 before it does in fact offer driving enjoyment which few cars on sale today offer irrespective of the power. I do feel however that a sports car in the context of today’s motoring world does need to offer a version of the car with a more powerful engine than the current top of the range MX5 MK4 for those corrupt drivers who have become junkies for that thud in the chest when a sports car is floored. I understand that extracting power from a naturally aspirated engine is virtually impossible in the context of today’s emissions regulations but I believe that a turbo, engineered to offer linear power delivery would transform this car into a serious Porsche Boxster contender at a fraction of the money.
Has the MK4 delivered on the promise of a reincarnation of the MK1? It has definitely moved onwards but not necessarily upwards. It has grown up without having grown bigger. It smiles where the MK1 laughed. It is a perfect car in a corrupt world. It will satisfy the good boys. But it left me wanting more.