Best-selling roadster in history… Most raced car in the world… Hairdresser’s car…? Whatever label you use to describe the Mazda MX-5, its impact on the motoring world can’t be denied.
For a vehicle to inspire such passion amongst its loyal, diverse and often obsessive fanbase across the globe, there clearly must be something pretty special about the two-seat roadster. So, why is it so loved? Is it so loved because it’s quantifiably a great car mechanically and dynamically speaking, or does it simply have a certain je ne sais quoi about it that transcends its tangible self to inspire such passion?
Over the past three years I’ve lived with a 2001 Mazda MX-5 NB Series 2 as a weekend car (purchased with 120,000kms on the clock), and I think the answer to the above question is… both.
So, with that in mind let’s talk about the “tangible” great things about the car (and the less great ones), but then also try to get to the bottom of that less easy to define magic that makes it so special.
Firstly, the looks. As a car-obsessed boy I was never that captivated by MX-5’s from a visual standpoint. However, maybe as my taste has matured (hopefully?) I’ve grown to appreciate, and love them, with age. While some may call MX-5’s “cutesy”, the NB has dated well in my opinion. It has an elegant, flowing simplicity about it, which depending on the angle, can evoke flashes of the early first generation Jaguar XK.
Having never been a fan of silver cars, I like the silver on the NB. The chrome fuel cap and roof latches are another nice touch, and the alloys look great too. Perhaps a carbon fibre hard-top roof would be a good accessory eventually, and a nice contrast to the silver. If it were a daily, I’d definitely look into that (given it’s not particularly pleasant driving a soft top in torrential rain with a lightning storm above you, which any fellow astrophobic person would sympathise with I’m sure).
Inside, it’s a similar story. It’s a simple, bare cabin, with all the basic necessities, but probably lots of features at the time of production. It’s dated well – sporty dials, elegant air vents, a clean layout and rock solid build quality. For a 17 year old car with over 130,000 km’s, there isn’t a single creak or rattle. Although, if we are to nit-pick, I will say that the placement of the cupholder behind the gearshift is annoying. Any drink taller than a piccolo will result in you having to shift gears at an awkward angle or make you unable to rest your arm without nudging the cup or bottle. It seems MX-5’s and cup-holders have always had a tense relationship, but at least the NB’s cup-holder isn’t as flimsy as the current ND.
The driving position is also good, mostly. You sit nice and low, with the steering wheel, pedals and gearshift positioned perfectly around you, or should I say, around me. I have had some taller friends who haven’t been able to get comfortable in the car, the top of the windscreen always cutting into their field of forward-vision, which probably isn’t helped by the lack of adjustment in the steering wheel. I will say, when the roof’s up, it’s less easy for me to get comfortable given how low the roof is. I can understand how some MX-5 enthusiasts love the larger NC from a spatial perspective, despite the fact the more bloated NC is arguably furthest from the “true” MX-5 formula. Either way, the car’s all about driving with the roof down, right?
Cup-holders and interiors aside, what’s the NB like to drive? The answer to that is simple: it’s fun.
Let’s start with the gearshift. Mazda’s have always made slick manuals and this 6-speed is no exception. With short, notchy throws, the gearbox delivers excellent mechanical feel, complete with a noticeably mechanical soundtrack to every gearshift. Let’s call it a 6-speed symphony! The sound and feel of it amplifies your connection and satisfaction with every gear change. It’s an absolute pleasure to shift through.
Then, the steering – smooth and direct, the car goes exactly where you want it to go, delivering solid road feel and feedback. Coupled with the excellent handling, the car feels like a bit of a go-kart on spirited drives, almost like it’s pivoting around you as you go around corners.
There is some body roll – not a surprise for an MX-5 - however, that’s the car communicating with you, as it does so well. It’s a beautifully balanced vehicle - you always know how far you can push it and can have lots of fun at speeds that aren’t going to kill you. Like the saying goes – there’s more pleasure in driving a slow car fast, than a fast car slow.
Is it a slow car, though? Well, some might have a drive and instantly crave a turbo. That said, the MX-5 is a light car and I find the 1.8L on the whole pretty sufficient. It’s a raspy, rev-loving engine that encourages and entices you to extract the maximum amount of power you can from it. It just wants to go. There’s also an appeal to the engine’s natural aspiration – power delivery is beautifully linear, it has no lag and feels wonderfully immediate. Either way, MX-5’s aren’t about straight line performance. They’re about the corners, and this car soaks them up.
The engine is also pretty bulletproof from what I've generally heard, and from my experience so far. While I haven’t done any modification to this NB, I can understand why my more mechanically-minded friends get excited at the vision of the engine when you open the MX-5's bonnet: everything is laid out so simply, and all parts are so accessible – it’s easy to fix and easy to tinker with, a mechanic’s dream, and definitely less of a financial black hole as far as other sports cars with less proven reliability and durability track records go.
In terms of my experience, the only two issues that I’ve experienced with this MX-5 in the 36 months of ownership have been two ignition coils going, and also a weird glitch where the hazard lights would switch on for no reason, which after happening intermittently for a few weeks has since passed before I got a chance to look into it properly. After replacing the first ignition coil at Mazda, the second ignition coil was an easy fix, involving only a quick trip to Repco, a $150 bill, and the help of a friend to show me how to replace it myself. Again, testament to how great the car is from an ownership perspective – it’s easy to get parts, and easy to fix. Servicing hasn’t set me back more than $175 at my local mechanic (which has never gone beyond the elements of a standard service), and with more time and more know-how one could easily take on the job themselves.
Then, there’s the fact that there’s a massive community around the MX-5 which amplifies the great ownership experience even further. The fact that there are so many clubs with instantly welcoming members means that you always have a platform where you can ask questions, get contacts or advice, or find parts for cheap.
That community around the MX-5 is actually probably one of the best aspects of ownership. The amount of clubs and MX-5 meets there are means that you’re destined to make friends through your car, and there’s also that warm feeling you get whenever you see another MX-5 approaching on the other side of the road as part of your daily drives, and you give each other a smile and a wave without even knowing each other. This review’s about to get naff, but I have to say it - it’s an MX-5 family.
There are, however, some downsides. With the roof up, the rear visibility is poor to non-existent, and makes changing lanes – without the modern benefits of blind-spot monitoring – a more stressful, and less safe experience. Practicality isn’t great either (duh, it’s a two seat sports car!), with the boot being pretty small and shallow. That said, it’s bigger than an ND’s.
You might also turn into that person that drives with the roof down in winter, and the heating on full blast, so my advice is – dress warm, and always slip, slop, slap!
As well as that, you’ll also need to be conscious of your music taste when the roof is down. Yep, no more One Direction at the traffic lights.
And then, there are the stereotypes. Just this weekend, as I was driving from an MX-5 meet at Pie In The Sky on Sydney’s north, I overheard a man saying as I drove past: “bloody hairdresser’s car”. That would have irked my younger self, but I say embrace the stereotype. My hairdresser Anthony is one of the coolest people I know.
But, the best thing about the MX-5 - and this is where this review may take on the clichés that most Alfa Romeo reviews seem to have when they excuse any foibles of the Italian cars because of their “passion”, “character” and “beauty” – is that it makes the drive about the journey. You sit inside with the roof down, the sun on your face, the wind in your hair, the birds singing - you’re out in the elements, and you’re doing all that while driving a mechanically satisfying road-legal go-kart that handles, steers and shifts brilliantly. Just like how Mazda’s marketing spruiks that the MX-5 is all about the car and driver being "as one", it also makes the driver at one with the world around them, appreciating so many things about the driving experience (whether it be about the car, about the road, about the nature around you or the company beside you) that one otherwise wouldn’t.
And that je ne sais quoi is most evident in this: I once went on a five minute trip to buy my mum some dill from the veggie shop around the corner from our house for a salad she was making before guests arrived. I ended up taking the scenic route for half an hour. Time ceased to exist. The salad came onto the table a bit later than planned.
And that’s because the MX-5 is not about Point B. It’s about what’s between Point A and B.