Mazda MX-5: ‘Daddy, can we do that again?'
Mazda's lightweight MX-5 roadster is a passport to motoring memories - and it's (maybe) even better than a McLaren, says William Scholes
CARS like the Mazda MX-5 are a passport to lasting memories, writes William Scholes.
I say ‘like’ the MX-5, but in truth there aren’t too many new cars that share its ability to turn a journey that would otherwise be humdrum and mundane into a truly memorable one.
I’m talking here about affordable, drive-it-anywhere, not-risk-your-licence-or-the-safety-of-yourself-and-other-roadusers cars.
Sure, driving a McLaren 720S also makes every journey memorable. But (a) it costs a squillion pounds and (b) you can’t really leave it parked at the cinema while you’re inside watching Captain Marvel or the Lego Movie. In any case, (c) how long could you keep your licence if you used more than a smidge of its performance?
The MX-5, however, is affordable. The most expensive version is less than £30,000 while the cheapest is less than £19k, or whatever that translates to in monthly payments.
Because it doesn’t cost the earth, you aren’t reluctant to use it and leave it parked in places the Porsche, Maserati or Ferrari owner might think twice about.
What’s more, you can park it in almost any space because it is tiny, the origami-sharp creases of its bodywork shrink-wrapped over the mechanicals and cockpit.
Nor is the MX-5 stupidly over-powered. This means you can drive it flat-out a great deal of the time, which is fun, but without running the risk of annoying the police or crashing off the road.
The latest MX-5 was originally designed around a little 1.5-litre petrol engine with only 129bhp and 111lb.ft of torque.
Neither figure is very large. Indeed, a diesel family hatchback from 15 years ago was brawnier.
It doesn’t matter, though. For a start, the MX-5 weighs less than a tonne, making it a featherweight by contemporary standards.
Light cars don’t need as much power to motivate them as heavy ones. Nor do their brakes need to be as large. Or their cooling systems, or wheels, or tyres… Slicing weight from a car is a virtuous circle.
The 1.5-litre engine, unencumbered by a turbocharger, is a gem. It loves to rev and is deliciously responsive to throttle inputs.
When you turn on the engine, the whole car gives a little shake, like a puppy tugging eagerly at its leash. It might be small, but it wants to get up and go; it buzzes with vim
When you turn on the engine, the whole car gives a little shake, like a puppy tugging eagerly at its leash. It might be small, but it wants to get up and go; it buzzes with vim.
That sense of mechanical connection is intimately conveyed through the six-speed manual gearbox’s shift action.
Put it this way: the buttons on the keyboard on which I am typing this feel like they have more slack than the MX-5’s transmission.
The clutch, the steering, everything you use to control the car, has the same sense of immediacy. The way the MX-5 responds to your inputs and commands will probably surprise you - in a good way - if you’ve spent years driving a regular family hatchback.
Because it’s so small and telepathically responsive, it feels fast - even when you aren’t actually going that quickly. This is the MX-5’s genius.
The effect is even more pronounced when you fold the roof. Most soft-tops these days use electric motors to lower and raise their roofs, but because these are heavy and complicated, Mazda doesn’t bother.
Instead, the MX-5 has a roof which can be go from closed to open in about four seconds.
Hey presto, al fresco; you pull a handle at the top of the windscreen to release the canvas roof, and then you can simply push it backwards behind the seat where it locks into place. It’s ridiculously simple; my nine-year-old son quickly became expert at it.
As you might have gathered, the MX-5 is not about outright power; its charms are more subtle than brute force and ignorance.
Along with the 1.5-litre engine, Mazda launched this latest fourth generation MX-5 with a 2.0-litre engine.
This was more powerful - though with 158bhp, not decisively so - but didn’t thrive on revs in the same way as the sweeter, smaller unit.
Mazda recently gave the MX-5 the more powerful engine it deserved from the start - more powerful, at 182bhp, but also revvier.
We wrote about it the new 2.0-litre when it was launched, and it is arguably one of the very best engines on sale today.
It was this engine which was fitted to the MX-5 I drove most recently.
That was a couple of months ago, and coincided with this winter’s coldest spell of weather.
Temperatures hovering around freezing, thick frost on the ground and patches of ice and snow don’t necessarily sound like ideal roadster weather.
The winter weather helped make every journey feel like an adventure; it created the backdrop for memories; like realising that the only way to get my son and his cello home from school - in the rain - was by opening the roof and carrying the instrument upright between his legs in the passenger seat
But the weather conditions helped make every journey feel like an adventure; it created the backdrop for memories; like realising that the only way to get my son and his cello home from school - in the rain - was by opening the roof and carrying the instrument upright between his legs in the passenger seat.
Or collecting him from Cubs late one February and taking the long way home; roof down, stars shining clear in the night sky and the car’s thermometer showing minus figures.
Moonlight took the edge of the darkness of the Co Armagh countryside and flurries of snow danced in the headlamps’ beams.
The MX-5 danced along the lanes, a faithful, invigorating companion, as my son and I drove home, wind whipping round our heads.
We got home, eventually.
“Can we do that again, Daddy? That was brilliant.”
He was talking about the experience of the drive, of a special memory forged and filed in his consciousness.
But he could equally have been referring to the MX-5, Mazda’s memory-maker.
AT A GLANCE
Mazda MX-5 2.0-litre SE-L Nav+
Price: £22,295. As tested £23,085, with soul red crystal metallic paint £790
Engine and transmission: 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol, rear-wheel-drive, six-speed manual gearbox; 182bhp, 151lb.ft
Performance: Top speed 136mph, 0-62mph in 6.5 seconds
Fuel consumption and CO2: 40.9mpg (combined), 37.8mpg (real world), 156g/km
Car tax: £530 in first year, then £145 annually (after April 1)
Benefit in kind: 35 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Four stars (84/80/93/64), 2015