Human beings have so few moments of true brilliance. From the rare moments of grace, certain works that transcend their era stand out. Rarer still is when a group of men and women, despite their differences, are able to achieve perfection. Of the tens of thousands of cars designed for about a hundred years, very few have captured the essence of the automobile and become something more than a simple car. One such car is the Mazda MX-5.
The MX-5 came into being in 1990 and at the time, it was known as the Miata in North America. To everyone else on the planet, it was the MX-5. This diminutive roadster was immediately hailed by a public starving for emotion. Remember that 28 years ago, having fun at the wheel was way down on the list of requirements when a car was being developed. The Miata was a throwback to the thrill of driving English roadsters in the 50s and 60s, and it was reliable to boot! And to top it all off, it was affordable. Nearly three decades later, the Miata, now known as the MX-5, is bigger by a few millimetres here and there and has gained a hundred or so kilos, but it has lost none of the visceral appeal that makes it unique.
Soft top or hard top
Michelangelo’s La Pietà is a masterpiece, but if you want to nit-pick, you could say that the Virgin Mary’s knees are misaligned. With that in mind, should we really dwell on the MX-5’s rather small cabin? If so, we have to specify that there’s a lack of foot room for the passenger and minimal storage space.
Heck, there isn’t even a glove compartment! When the canvas top is up, the cockpit is very noisy. The radio is incredibly complex to use, as is the navigation system. On the other hand, the soft top is a model of simplicity and lightness; it can be handled using only your right arm, and without ever leaving the driver’s seat— unless of course you suffer from bursitis, that is. Once open, this roof doesn’t encroach on the trunk space, which is fortunate, since there isn’t much of it.
2017 will see a new version of this cute roadster, the MX-5 RF (for Retractable Fastback but RF could very well also mean “roof”, but this name didn’t cut it with the decision makers in marketing). The MX-5 RF is equipped with a hard top that retracts into the trunk in 13 seconds, the time it takes for its four parts to insert themselves into (or out of) the trunk in a ballet that you’ll never tire from watching.
With the roof closed, the MX-5 RF is a quieter sports coupe than the regular MX-5, and yet it doesn’t spoil the car’s lines in the least. On the contrary, it gives it a unique personality that is also reflected in the different purposes of the two cars. While people drive with the top down in the MX-5 about 80% of the time, only 20% will do that with the more comfortable MX-5 RF.
Rather unimpressive on paper
Mazda has assigned the task of powering the MX-5 (RF and otherwise) to a decidedly unexciting 2.0-litre four-cylinder that develops 155 horsepower and 148 lbs.-ft. of torque. There are two available six-speed gearboxes, one manual and one automatic. Unless your daily drive involves heavy city traffic or if you suffer from chronic pain in your left leg, opt for the manual. Its stick is exquisitely precise, its shifting distances are short and just mechanical enough, and the clutch is perfectly firm. Basically, it’s a little marvel.
The automatic is no slouch either. And since it helps the engine run slower, you will reap the benefits. For example, at 100 km/h with the manual in sixth gear, the rev counter indicates 2,500 rpm, which is very high and you tend to look for a seventh gear. With the automatic, that number is 1,750 rpm, which is much better.
Mazda’s engineers understood what Colin Chapman, genius among geniuses and creator of the Lotus brand, understood 60 years ago: weight is the number one enemy. They fought this scourge and built a car that weighs barely 1,000 kilos. Although the engine isn’t very powerful, the weight-to-power ratio is favourable. As a result, this car takes just 7.0 seconds for the 0-100 km/hr sprint.
Unmoved by these 7.0 seconds, are you? Perhaps you’re more impressed by the 5.0, even 4.0 seconds that 600- or 700-horsepower cars boast. Well, you have to drive an MX-5 to understand that beyond the numbers, there’s the joy of driving a car that is perfectly crafted, providing its driver an unparalleled feeling of control. It’s enough to make you forget its small imperfections and savour the present moment. After all, standing in front of La Pietà, one cannot help but be moved. So who cares if the Virgin Mary’s knees are misaligned?
“This year, there are two MX-5s. There’s the original and the RF, which is equipped with a hard top that lowers and raises in 13 seconds.”
- Mazda MX-5: 87%
- Fiat 124 Spider: 82%
- Chevrolet Camaro: 79%