It happened quietly, the loss of pretty much everything at the value end of the open-top spectrum. Peugeot 208? Gone. Mini? Axed. Renault Mégane? Shhhhnick. Opel? Lost. The only survivor is the Golf Cabriolet, hardly the last word in roadster fun, aimed as it is at those Camps Bay boulevard cruisers. The open-top brigade – the Fiat 500 and Citroën C1 and DS3 cabriolets – are more fun, but are hardly wind-in-your-hair freedom chariots. They are, at best, a compromise. Up the scale things quickly get expensive, from Audi’s gorgeous S3 Cabriolet (R663k, ouch) to Mercedes’ latest style-mobile addition, the barge-like S-Class Cabriolet (R3m or so).
All of this means Mazda has been very canny by introducing the MX-5 at a decent price. It is, make no mistake, a wholly new car, as far removed from the previous MX-5 as caviar from frog’s spawn. No mean feat then, keeping prices down. Well done to you, Mazda.
Looks like art, channels the 1960s
Stand next to it and the first thing that’s obvious is that it shrank. The previous MX-5, as is the way of so many third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-generation models, was a heifer of note, pretty in a nondescript sort of way certainly, but slabby, without much to recommend it in the way of design – it didn’t get pulses racing. So Mazda took a trip back in time, dusted off the original ‘88 plans (the original MX-5 was based on the Lotus Elan), shaved chunks off the third-generation model came up with a lot of marketing guff about horse and rider in sync, and produced a sublime, covetable little roadster. The union of sharp lines and origami-inspired flow gives the little machine the look of a sculpture, a work of art in itself. Look at the details – the headlights appear not to be there at all; you have to crouch down before their lidded anime eyes reveal themselves. The upturned bum not only helps a bunch with aerodynamics but gives the rear a literal lift. And the rear lights are a work of pure genius, a combination of ovoids and some startling sharp waves that are somehow able to work well together.
Inside, the synthesis of old and new is even better. The fussiness of the previous model’s centre console is gone, replaced by a simplified row of dials, also very ’60s. An iPad-like touchscreen lords over the whole, the interface with all the digital necessities of Bluetooth, connectivity and sound. The interior and exterior designs reference the best of the 1960s British sports cars, and indeed the trending joke is that Japan is now making the best English open-top sports car around. And that is about the sum of it – MX-5 channels the Elan, the Triumph Spitfire, MG, the Austin Healey ‘Frogeye’ Sprite, and TVR, certainly in looks. It’s no idle sales spin either; the Brit ethos of front-engine, rear-wheel drive budget fun has been adopted by Mazda and now the company guards it as zealously as MG and Triumph ever did.
Less weight, more fun
Fortunately, the ethos flows through to the driving experience. There is a simplicity here, a purity that is wholly non-existent in today’s anaesthetised cars. An immediacy of command and action, a call and response that is lightning fast. Put your foot down; it jumps immediately. Change down with the delightfully precise, short-throw gear shift and it happens in a millisecond. Even if you are not the ‘tail-out in a fast left-hander’ kind of driver, you’ll feel instinctively that this little tyke will submit easily and with great friendliness, no drama and no dire first-aid consequences.
This is drive-by-wire in the old tradition and will remind you of that Elan or Spitfire if you’ve ever had the privilege. The cool toplessness helps of course – you sit high in the MX-5 amid a compelling 360° scene, a visceral connection between progress and environment. Fast is always faster in an open-top and here it is extremely quick. The Mazda’s sizeable (at least, for a vehicle of this type) 2.0ℓ naturally aspirated engine does a fantastic job of bulleting the car with minimal fuss, and makes a glorious 1960s blorrrrt into the bargain. It’s not long before all the marketing nonsense of horse and rider actually starts to make sense. This is a car that is so easy to snake through traffic, make a charge at a horizon or ferret out winding roads, it just might be all the car you need. Certainly, it has character in spades – if ever a machine deserved a name, it’s this one, and it should be Fizz, or Champ or Booster.
There are howevers, however. Foremost among the buts is the fact that it is strictly a two-seater. And if you are over six foot, then it’ll be a squeeze even for two. Worse still, given that the seating is already fairly high, larger drivers will feel a bit like they are peering over the windscreen, rather than looking through it. Backwards seat travel is also limited. Then there’s the roof, which in an ideal world is the perfect roof; to save precious kilograms it is a manual affair – very simple. Simply pull a lever in the rear bulkhead, draw the light roof towards the front, latch it in one motion and presto, snug. Ours is not, however, an ideal world and canvas roofs can tend to be seen as unsafe. If you can get over that, the pure convenience of the manual set-up grows on you – in traffic, at sensible speed – wherever – the transition from snug to sunny takes all of four seconds. Brilliant.
Mazda has a sure-fire winner on its hands, no ifs or buts. And in a convertible market that makes up just two percent of passenger cars, it seems set to take centre stage. This is a car that is a daily reminder of what it means to be a little mad, happily non-conformist and a fully paid-up hedonist. Good times await.
In a nutshell
Old-school fun, new-age tech, go-cart handling, decent ride, responsive engine
Tight inside, some might not take a liking to the canvas roof
- Engine: 2.0ℓ, 4-cylinder
- Power: 180 kW @ 6 000 rpm, 200 Nm at 4 600 rpm
- Performance: 0–100 km/h 7.3 sec, top speed 210 km/h
- Tyres: 205/45/R17
- Economy: 5.8 ℓ/100 km
- Transmission: 6-speed manual
- CO2 emissions: 154 g/km
- Price: R390 000
There are no direct competitors to the topless MX-5, but on fun, the Toyota 86 is the most direct competitor. Sports a flat-four boxer engine, so lots of torque but not the immediacy of the MX-5. Looks great, feels like a little Ferrari gliding on a mountain pass. 0–100 km/h in 7.6 sec, top speed 226 km/h, power 147 kW / 205 Nm R393 800
Ford Fiesta ST
So much fun in the corners, so well equipped inside, so good on the open road. Fantastic value and seating for five. There really is no reason not to buy the Focus ST… 0–100 km/h in 6.9 sec, top speed 220 km/h, power 134 kW / 240 Nm R276 900