Mazda MX-5 Retro Road Test

The legend 20 years on

Models Tested:

  • 1989 Mazda NA MX-5; 1.6-litre, four-cylinder; five-speed manual; roadster - $29,550 (price when new)
  • 2009 Mazda NC MX-5; 2.0-litre, four-cylinder; six-speed automatic; roadster - $53,655 (price as tested)

The original Mazda MX-5 was launched in Australia in October 1989, and was immediately an unprecedented success for the Japanese brand.

So with the iconic nameplate's 20th anniversary just around the corner we thought it time to re-live some of the good times spent at the wheel of this remarkable little roadster with a back-to-back drive of the original Roadster against today's latest and greatest MX-5 Sports Coupe.

When the original MX-5 hit our shores two decades ago it managed to win the hearts and heads of motoring journalists from shore-to-shore for its nimble handling, simplistic design and sheer ability - even when stacked against rivals twice the price.

Available initially in just two colours, white and red, the 1.6-litre managed to hold its own despite only offering 88kW/136Nm. The main reason for this competence was not so much what the car did include, but what it went without.

The original MX-5 had no power steering, was not available in automatic, had no airbags, ABS or ESC and because of that diet managed a kerb weight of only 940kg.

Add this light weight philosophy to a suspension set-up aimed at maximising the car's intent, then it's obvious to see how the MX-5 came to represent a side of motoring long since forgotten - a pure enjoyment in the relationship between man and machine.

600,000 examples down the track the notion remains basically unchanged, though thanks to Mazda's spin doctors we now refer to it as Jinba Ittai - or "horse and rider as one", and although it sounds a little trite, what this humble little car stands for couldn't be better put.

By the mid-1990s the MX-5 had an engine capacity increase to 1.8-litres in a bow to customer demand, but as David James, the owner of the original 1989 MX-5 used in our test reminds us, to think of the car as being underpowered means you're missing the point.

"I’m biased, but I do enjoy the original MX-5 for its simplicity. It is a true sportscar, built light with a great chassis, good looks and enough character to please, and sufficient performance to leave you wanting just a bit more," says Mr James."It feels like its doing 100mph when it’s doing 60! The driver gets plenty of feedback through the wheel and the bum, although the manual steering might be too heavy for some."

It also seems that despite its age relative to our 2009 model, Mr James is still very pleased as to the drive, durability and timeless character of his first generation roadster.

"One thing I do find remarkable about the original car is how well its built. Mine is 20 years old, has been a daily driver for 18 of those years, yet (still) feels tight and solid with relatively few rattles," confirmed Mr James.

In 1998 the MX-5 underwent a serious revision. Gone were the amiable pop-up headlights but gained were a larger boot and a boost in power, mainly to cope with the additional weight of the larger car.

A turbocharged model, coded "SP" went on sale in late 2001 developing 157kW/289Nm and for the first time brought a seriously competitive power play to the name taking on such big name rivals of the day including the Honda S2000 and cult classic Subaru Impreza WRX.

By 2004 it was time yet again to re-invent the wheel with the latest NC MX-5 launched to a similar, yet more modern, recipe to that of its predecessors.

"The new car looks like an MX-5. Alongside its older brother, you can see the family line," explains Mr James of the Mazda MX-5 Club of Victoria."By comparison, the newest MX-5 is a creature of the 21st century. Cup holders, automatic transmission, power roof – all things alien to the original, but about right for 2009. The seats were excellent, although I wonder if ‘wider’ people might struggle with the bolstering."

After a stint behind the wheel of the 2009 model, Mr James was also a little surprised and just how far the car had come in two decades.

"The new car drives nicely, although I found the steering to lack any real feel. Whether that’s power steering weighting or tyre/wheel combo I’m not sure. Other than that it goes and stops well – as you’d expect," explains Mr James."The auto was not to my liking. I wouldn’t buy a sports car with an automatic transmission. I found it pleasant enough to use, but it’s still an auto, driving through a torque converter, and as such feels soft to me."

While cars may have come along way in the last twenty years it seems the MX-5 has remained true to its roots and is still one of the most popular selling soft-tops any where in the world, and despite its modest output, is one car that truly captures the essence of open top motoring in its purist form, as our own Karl Peskett remarked in a recent review:

"There’s something about this little car that is enamouring. It’s not any one specific reason, and it’s more subjective than you’ll find written on a stats sheet."

And I guess its those simple sentences that sum up what most of us struggle to comprehend, that the MX-5 really is more than numbers and speed, it's about enjoyment, lifestyle, fun and the thrill of the drive, a set of values so many modern cars seem to have lost, but those I am very happy to say the MX-5 still proudly retains.

CarAdvice wishes to thanks the Mazda MX-5 Club of Victoria for their most generous assistance.To read a full road test on the current Mazda MX-5, click here.

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