An MX-5 review, or as I like to think about it, my Ferris Bueller fantasy.
The story of this car begins with the death of my father, who was a mechanic and used car salesman. I grew up watching him buy, repair and sell hundreds of different cars over the years. He was a bit of a boozer and a rat bag, but he was my dad, so naturally I became a car nut as well. When he died a few years ago and left me a small amount money, I thought the best thing to do would be to buy an automotive toy in his memory.
Nothing too ridiculous, as it wasn’t a fortune, but I had enough spare cash to buy one of the first-series (NA) MX-5s I had always hankered for. I have fond memories of driving a borrowed MX-5 through the Victorian Alps when I was younger and was seduced by its sweet handling and carefree wind in the hair joy.
But try as I might, I could not find a decent, reasonably priced first-series MX-5 anywhere. There were a few on the market, but most were tired and the ones that weren’t had prices well into the teens. For that sort of money, I started to look at early third-generation NC models.
The NC MX-5 is much maligned in some circles. The original NA MX-5 is the lightest and simplest model, and considered by many to be the ideal MX-5. The latest MX-5 ND model has tried to emulate this by becoming smaller, losing weight and going back to its roots. When I looked at the NC model, I had read a lot about how it had grown fat and bloated and moved away from what an MX-5 ‘should’ be.
Wow, was I surprised. The NC still has all the attributes that MX-5s are so admired for. There is a nice balance of power and light weight, which combined with rear-wheel drive and a lithe, well-sorted chassis adds up to a lot of fun. And that is what the MX-5 is all about – fun! The joy of a small, light, moderately powerful car is that it can used it to its full potential on the road. You can enjoy working your way through the gears and give it a little squirt around a corner to feel the back-end dance, all while traveling at sensible speeds without risking immediate cancellation of your licence.
Being a little bigger makes the MX-5 NC much more comfortable for my 183cm frame, to the point where I enjoy driving it more, not less. Even my 193cm tall son managed to squeeze in for his first driving lessons in a manual car. Compared to the smaller current-series ND, the little bit of extra room in the NC makes it so much easier to live with.
I can appreciate what Mazda is trying to do with the new car in making it smaller and lighter, but for me they have gone too far. The passenger seat especially is near on unusable. There is no point having a fun car if I cannot share the experience with the people I love.
Another advantage of the newer NC over earlier models is the vastly improved modern safety features such as front and side airbags, anti-lock brakes and stability control giving a much improved four-star safety rating.
Build quality is amazing with an aluminium bonnet and boot lid, complex multi-link rear suspension and full chassis bracing underneath.
The car I finally settled on was a beautiful bright-red early NC with tan leather seats. I reckon if I squint my eyes really hard and look at it at just the right angle, I can almost see a resemblance to the 1961 250GT California Spyder Ferrari used in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Maybe. Sort of. Anyway, that’s my delusional fantasy and I’m sticking with it.
Originally only intended as a weekend toy, I found this car such a joy that I started to use it more and more often, and soon it became my daily driver. In all weather and throughout the seasons, I found I could live with this car in comfort. Being just that little bit larger, I would sit nice and low in the car, and with the roof down I was surprisingly well cocooned from the elements. When the roof is down and with the windows up, the excellent heater or air-conditioning is able to create a microclimate in the cabin that remains beautifully calm and temperate.
There is very little of the swirl and buffeting that is the norm with most convertibles. For a small car, there is a fair amount of cabin space and lots of room to store odds and ends. This is much better than the latest MX-5, which does not even have a glovebox! The ride is supple and well damped. The leather seats and driving position are comfortable. And when it rains, the cloth roof could be erected in three seconds and never lets in a drop of water.
It’s a real hoot to drive in the traffic on a freezing cold Melbourne morning with the top down and receive lots of strange looks from other drivers while you sit perfectly snug and warm. And then at the end of a long day at work, to put the roof down and enjoy an exhilarating drive home and feel all of the cares of the world float away on the breeze. This experience may be true of all topless cars, but as the MX-5 was designed from scratch to be a convertible, it does it better than most.
Another thing an MX-5 has over other convertibles is how good it is to drive. With most convertibles, when you remove the roof you lose a lot of structural rigidity, which means the handling goes all wobbly and the car rattles and shakes like a geriatric 50s rocker. The MX-5 is built to be rigid with no roof and always feels rock solid.
The turn-in and steering responsive remain uncorrupted, and the feedback is a feast to the senses. Driving an MX-5 is like being at a boisterous dinner party – the steering wheel is chatting away while the seat of your pants is having its say, the gear lever buts in with a comment and the throttle pedal clears its throat to be heard.
And while that rowdy bunch are at it, with the roof down all your other senses are being stimulated as well. There is a panoramic view of everything around, but you still hear that motorcycle coming up on your shoulder long before you see it. The rich smell of unburnt fuel alerts you to a classic car long before it comes into view. You suddenly become much more aware of the weather and the world around you.
Finally, any review of an MX-5 has to touch on the effect this car has on others around you. I tend to feel uncomfortable when driving a loud, aggressive, ‘in your face’ car on public roads, especially when going a little fast. But the MX-5 is the polar opposite of this. It makes people smile. Other drivers don’t feel threatened and are much more likely to let you into the traffic or wave you through in a way you will never experience in a flashy German prestige car or an SS Commodore.
My work involves dealing with the public, and it was amazing how many people noticed the ‘cute little red sports car’ and commented favourably. I have owned more expensive and prestigious cars, but none of them have garnered anywhere near as much goodwill as the MX-5.
An old cliché is that your favourite car is always ‘the next one’, and I have tried to live with that attitude. I’ve owned lots of different cars that have offered lots of different things. I’ve had cars that may have handled better and certainly cars that are faster. But of all the cars I’ve owned, I think I have missed the MX-5 the most.