With a lovable smile and cheeky wink, the Mazda MX-5 arrived on Australian shores in 1989. Arising from the ashes of the Lotus Elan and its contemporaries, the MX-5 combined the British roadster charm with Japanese reliability – a formula that reminded Mazda what ROI meant.
Fast-forward to 1994, and the updated MX-5 was released with a new 1.8-litre engine (up 200cc), Bilstein shocks, Torsen limited-slip differential, stiffening braces, and no Apple CarPlay. The NA8 Clubman was out to prove its potential as a thoroughbred sports car, and not GenericHaircuts assistant-to-the-regional-manager’s daily driver.
After being a one-car family for three years, it was time to add to the fleet. The new car's only functional purpose was to carry me to work, however something smile-inducing and enthusiast-nodding was a bonus. As I prefer four wheels to two, the MX-5 was the perfect option for my quarter-life crisis.
Coming under my $5K budget, I bought it slightly unloved from Melbourne, shipped it to Brisbane and proceeded to restore it (Budget? What budget?). The result after the engine rebuild, new soft-top, new paint, and missing parts replaced is almost how I would expect the car to look and feel from the showroom.
Approaching the MX-5, you can quickly tick the overall sports car aesthetic. It features a 'long' bonnet and short rear overhang, two-door coupe shape and a Classic Red single-stage paint.
The door latches (Pininfarina designed and used on Ferraris, Alfas and Lotuses of the era) are incredibly beautiful, and my favourite detail of the car. Opening these handles reveals an economical interior with a few electronic niceties – power windows, power side-mirrors and a cassette player (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 is burned into my brain). Unfortunately, at this stage my biggest gripe is revealed – the seats. Although they look the part, they just don’t cut it with any considerable lateral force.
Slotting into first gear feels more like loading a shotgun than sliding through butter – it’s mechanical and precise. Those words are fitting to describe the rest of the roadster, where everything feels endearingly mechanical, from its non-power steering, soft-top latches, clutch, radio antenna and, of course, pop-up headlights.
Once the engine is safely purring, planting the throttle yields a 7000rpm redline that wants you to be there, and gives the engine a lively but linear response that is absent in cars with twice the kilowatts. Clearly, numbers are not what this car is about.
Rowing through the gears exhibits all kinds of pleasant exhaust noises from an MG-like rasp complete with back-pressure pops. It’s not trying to pretend to be something it’s not, instead it is authentic and matches the charming character of its spiritual predecessors. Each gear feels strong above 2500rpm, but will be bogged down if it drops under 2000rpm thanks to its almost non-existent torque.
Daily driving in traffic, this same gearing ratio allows for smooth first and second crawls, with no need to incessantly shift (like that’s a bad thing). On public roads and well within the speed limit, this thing is really fun, especially with the top down and cabin open to the elements. That point is vital to understanding the charm of the MX-5.
However, among technical, twisty roads is where this car’s raison d’etre lies. Its taut chassis and punchy engine make you want to grab it by the scruff of the neck. It’s light, agile and incredibly tossable. Chirping off the line, sliding around corners, all while feeling stable, predictable and inspiring confidence. I’m sure it has something to do with Mazda's 'Jinba Ittai' philosophy or a high ‘yaw’ value, but I don’t know. All I know is that this is Porsche fun on a 'poor-sche' budget.
For a 24-year-old car that is regularly exercised, it is also exceedingly reliable. Although I'm wrenching most weekends, it is more maintenance and upkeep than open-heart surgery.
The humble Mazda MX-5 has shown me that driving isn't about objective figures or numbers. For me, it's about the subjective feeling or experience, and this lightweight, RWD roadster delivers pure and simple motoring joy on a budget.