Every generation of the Mazda MX-5 decoded

Every generation of the Mazda MX-5 decoded

The Mazda brand wields an admirable resilience. An indomitable spirit that has seen it bounce back from a series of misfortunes. Foremost one calls to mind the devastation of war. In the wake of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 the company was essentially forced to start from scratch. Despite a setback that would render any enterprise dead, what followed was an illustrious history peppered with innovation.

The automaker became known for achievements like the rotary engine, whose anticipated return continues to keep forum commentary and speculation fueled. They took on Le Mans and blitzed the hallowed circuit, clinching overall victory in 1991 and setting records (Mazda is still the only Japanese marque to win at Le Mans – and the only manufacturer to win it using a rotary engine). Some of the seasons under ownership of the Ford Motor Company are perhaps parts of their history they would rather forget.

And yet, after an acrimonious split Mazda once again managed to regain its step. One of the elements underpinning a return to form was the birth of the fourth-generation MX-5. Oh yes, the good old MX-5: where exactly does one begin when addressing the impact of the best-selling roadster on the planet, as evidenced by those Guinness World Record books? Obviously, we would have to begin right at the start, with the 1989 genesis product. And so, we did.

A community of fervently passionate MX-5 owners – among them, industry colleagues – convened for a morning breakfast run and photography session. We are inclined to believe that a similar meeting has never been staged before on local soil, with every single generation (including the latest RF variant) present. This offered a physical timeline of the fascinating evolution seen by the iconic roadster. And in some ways, it affirmed the truism that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Everybody gets a roadster: 1989 to 1998

If the British invented the lightweight, two-seater roadster, then the Japanese perfected it. The year was 1989. The Berlin Wall had fallen. South Africa was on the cusp of democracy, amidst political, social and economic tumult to which there seemed no end. And on a lighter note, the world was about to see a revival of the small, affordable roadster genre.

The recipe was simple. Minimal mass. Rear-wheel drive. Entertaining (and safe) dynamics. Something that novices could exploit without awry endings. Something that could reward the more skillful helmsman. And it needed to be relatively cheap. It was all those things, as the press noted in their evaluations, following the debut of the model at the Chicago Auto Show in 1989.

Tipping the scales at a modest 980kg, power came from a choice of 1.6-litre or 1.8-litre engines, with a five-speed manual transmission. South African Car magazine (December, 1990) described it a “Red-blooded sports car of the real old-school benefitting from modern refinement, build-quality and reliability.”

And of course, it had pop-up headlamps: even the hardest heart is powerless to the doe-eyed expression of an NA-generation MX-5. Sadly, the model was brought to South Africa in tiny volumes. So, while everybody in major markets abroad got to indulge in its charms, the popularity of the MX-5 would only get into full swing locally with the arrival of the follow-up model.

The zenith according to some: 1998 to 2005

Every model has a generation regarded as the pinnacle of its lineage. And in the context of our market, the second-generation (NB) MX-5 is held in such esteem. Makes sense if you think about it. Finding a well-preserved example of this model is far easier than sourcing a unit of its predecessor. And obviously, the economic sense is far greater here to some who might find prices of the subsequent iterations a little intimidating.

The NB shed most of the cutesy styling elements of its forebear, ditching the rounded and surprised countenance for a more streamlined visage. Additional length and girth translated into a (slightly) roomier interior, which housed even more conveniences. The specification for our market was particularly impressive. Standard fare included leather upholstery and heated seats. And the model even scored an assuring four stars in the EuroNCAP safety tests.

But while the NB may have gained heft and kit, that did not dilute the tangible characteristics that made the first model such a hit. Arguably, it further distilled the experience. Power came from a tweaked iteration of the former 1.8-litre unit with a six-speed manual transmission. A stint behind the wheel enlightened its driver as to what the essence of spirited and engaging motoring is all about.

From the short-throw gearbox, to the zingy four-cylinder soundtrack and the entertaining (yet controllable) rear-wheel drive dynamics, the NB was and remains a hoot to drive. It was among the first cars that exposed this humble scribe to the nuances of vehicular control. This steed was a 2003, Garnet Red model that my parents had bought as a shared weekend toy. Little did they know that on weekdays, it would be borrowed by a teenager who had a license with ink that had barely dried.

Added flour and more power: 2005 to 2015

Substantial increases in size is inevitable with the progression of any life-cycle, whether human or automotive. And the third-generation (NC) certainly exudes an air of a person after Christmas indulgence, when compared to its slimmer forerunners. The bulkier NC carries a substantial amount of baking yeast – even in the engine department, where displacement went up to a 2.0-litre capacity. This is paired with a six-speed manual gearbox.

The model was purported by Mazda to be entirely new, sharing no components with the outgoing NB. And the engineers received due acclaim for their efforts, as the NC was hailed the champion in the 2005 Japanese Car of the Year awards. But with the former pair as frames of reference, one could tell that the model had sought to adopt a decidedly more sophisticated character. This was the middle-aged MX-5, mature, softer – enthusiasts can debate as to whether it remained true to the sensations of the original. That grown-up persona was cemented when Mazda decided to launch a model with a folding-metal hardtop in 2008.

Since the MX-5 moniker became synonymous with faultless balance, the introduction of such a variant was bound to raise eyebrows. And the upsetting of the recipe seemed inevitable, given the extra mass of a complicated ceiling system. Still, the NC was special, particularly since it coincided with the 20th and 25th anniversaries of the MX-5 nameplate.

It was also the first generation of the model to receive a noticeable upgrade in the middle of the production run, takin on then-contemporary Mazda cues like the grinning grille as seen on the 3 hatchback of the day. When viewed alongside its successor, however, the desirability of the newer product is simply unequivocal…

The same but very different: 2015 to present

In our first report on the fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 (ND); we concluded by deeming it one of the finest technical achievements of the decade. A comment that, in hindsight, might have bordered on sycophantic. But we stand resolutely by the conclusion. Because in the contemporary landscape of heavy, sometimes overly complicated automobiles, the simplicity of the ND poses an intelligent and simple riposte.

Yet it still satisfies all the important safety and emissions criteria – and certainly lacks for nothing when it comes to technological essentials. That it weighs a negligible amount more than the first iteration is telling. And that translates into a driving experience that few (if any) can match at the price point. The 2.0-litre, four-cylinder motor shows a keenness to be wound-up and a responsiveness that one sees less of in the current climate of ubiquitous turbocharging.

Swapping cogs via that six-speed transmission feels millimetric in precision. The cohesion of the steering, suspension and braking system is nothing short of excellence. And the inevitable grin you will be wearing attests to all this lyrical waxing. No doubt, Mazda has created something magical in the latest model on the timeline. An act that will be hard to beat when the replacement is due. But if, for some reason, you want to diminish the crux of what the new MX-5 is about, Mazda will offer a solution.

The MX-5 RF (pictured in Soul Red) offers a fixed C-pillar section and a partially-opening top, which, as you know, adds weight to what was a perfect mix. And it is also available only with an automatic transmission. Steer clear of this variant and go for the regular roadster: it stays faithful to the core of the original and we cannot reiterate enough just how fantastic it is to drive. Long-live the MX-5! – Brenwin Naidu (Pics: Waldo Swiegers)