Coming back to Life

“A part of the success of the MX5 was that it truthful and not trendy”

Tom Matano

5 years ago, during an interview with Jay Leno for the 25 years of the Miata, Tom Matano, one of the fathers of the Mazda MX5 explained with incredible simplicity the soul of this remarkable sports car. In 2019 and 5 years later, the words by Matano-San are even truer than you would imagine. The MX5 is the most successful sports car ever produced: over 1 million have been sold in 30 years and it seems that it will go on in the years to come. In the world of today, where marketing and branding own everything and cars seem to be made for either clueless drivers and famous instagrammers, it’s a miracle that a car such as this still exists. 2019 marks 30 years since the introduction of this car on the market: it seemed appropriate for us, connoisseurs of fine motorcars, to celebrate this anniversary the proper way. We gathered a first generation NA series example and put it against the newest ND series RF MX5 to celebrate 30 years of this little gem from the Rising Sun.

It all started at the end of the 1978, when the then Motor Trend Journalist Bob Hall had a conversation with Mazda’s R&D director Kenichi Yamamoto about what kind of cars the Company should build in the future. Hall, a long time lover of British sports cars, proposed the idea of a light two-seat roadster based on the underpinnings of the rwd 323. Surely this idea sparked some interest into Yamamoto: 3 years later, when Hall joined the Mazda R&D department in California he was adamant to resume their talk about that “lightweight sportscar” they discussed about. The final inspiration for Yamamoto came when he drove a Triumph Spitfire on a windy road: the idea was planted and life was put into what then became the MX5. In early 1982, Hall submitted a first proposal for the cary and at the end of 1983, the project codenamed P729 begun. Mazda delegated the design work to the Offline 55 Project, i.e. pitting the Mazda North America’s (known also as Mana) design team against the Japanese design team to have multiple proposals to evaluate. While the first focused on designing a traditional front-engine/rear-drive configuration, the second worked on more advanced solutions such as front engine/front drive and mid-engine/rear drive layouts. In 1984, the decision was taken to develop the ideas proposed by Mana and in the next 3 years, development work followed with the British consulting firm IAD built the first running prototype.

Tom Matano, chief designer of the American team, worked closely with Bob Hall to develop the design of the MX5. Heavily influenced by the lines of the Lotus Elan, their work resulted in a pleasant but not retro-inspired roadster which was cute but at the same time able to gain the interest of many sports-car enthusiasts. The engine was derived from the 323’s B6 unit and was fitted with Alfa Romeo-style heads with hemispherical combustion chambers: renamed the B6 ZE was capable of 115 hp. Interesting to note that the MX5 was indeed the first car to have the exhaust note sound-tuned: after all, a sports car should sound like one, always. Another peculiarity was the gearbox design which was developed from the M-Type unit fitted to the RX7 and re-worked to have a very short leverage: if you take your ruler out, there are less than 4,5 cm between the neutral and in-gear positions. Last but not least, the MX5 was fitted with the unique Power Plant Frame assembly, a lightweight strut connecting the gearbox and the differential which allowed to enhance the overall rigidity of the frame and granted super-reactive chassis dynamics. Finally, in 1989 the final car was unveiled to the public at the Chicago Auto Show, becoming an instant success: light, nimble and fun to drive it was dubbed by Car and Driver as “delightful”. 

Production begun and since then it never stopped: now, in the 30th anniversary the Miata has evolved into a car that it’s a staple for many enthusiasts who still enjoy the experience of a proper sports-car. For us, this is one of the cars that can do everything and allow you to see the world with a “happier” perspective. Why is the MX5 so popular? Simple, it’s competent in every area, it’s usable by everyone, reliable, easy to maintain and it’s suitable from hair-dressers to track-day racer-boys. The sun’s always shining when you’re in a Miata! What we did with this Escape was very simple: we brought together a first generation 1990 NA-series example with less than 10.000km on the clock and our brand new ND series RF in 30th anniversary configuration for a trip in the hills outside Piacenza to defeat winter. Top down and not caring of the near-zero temperatures, we drove the two Miatas in their own environment: nice curvy and “momentum” roads, where you truly learn how to drive properly. Is there a better way to celebrate 30 years on the road of this motorcar? In our view…no.

Yet, before anything we wanted to make a quick meet-and-greet between our cars and the original Triumph Spitfire, the inspiration behind it all. We do not think that this has been ever done: incredible to think how that a little and “girlish” British sports car has inspired what later became the best selling roadster ever: it’s a must to host a salute to the inspiration car behind the MX5. Driving the new RF 30th Anniversary side to side with the original NA is a refreshing experience. Not only the two cars feel very alike and part of the same family, but first and foremost they’re fun to drive in a way that in 2019 is unique. The small cockpit is ideal for you to watch the world from a different perspective: you sit there, with everything at hand and looking at the surroundings and just enjoying yourself. Since Mazda Italia graciously lent us for almost a month the new RF in racing orange for this Escape, we started it with the red NA.

What you see in the pictures is what you would consider a “mint” example: perfectly preserved, never re-painted and with less than 10.000 km on the clock. It’s a true 90ies throwback: a time capsule of a specific sort of finishing and feel that it’s nowadays hard to find. It’s surprising how much it’s similar to “our” RF: it’s slower yes but it has the same eagerness and friendly attitude. The ride is softer on the bump setting of the suspension and there’s more roll and yaw when accelerating and cornering. It’s more spacious (do not forget that the new ND is also shorter than the NA), has some storage space behind your seats and with the top down it feels more like a cabriolet whereas the RF hugs you and cocoons you in ints cockpit. The seats are soft and do not offer much lateral support while the car grips very nicely, even in wet conditions. Compared with the new RF it’s softer but no less fun: it’s neutral, forgiving and just… mechanical. From the gearbox to the set-up of the suspension and the engine, it truly is a car for everyone, with a little more fiery attitude. The 115 hp engine pulls nicely and politely and loves to rev: while it might not be extreme and super-exciting, it’s still the state of the art for driving involvement. The gearbox is a sheer delight to use, and it’s a true “wrist-action” unit, with a short leverage which allows you to shift accurately and with precision. To drive at any speed, the MX5 NA excels with a neutral behavior and rewards drivers of any skill. Needless to say, it’s a momentum car, where the lack of horsepower will force you to use your brain to drive more effectively, with economy of inputs and always on the lookout for the ideal line. It might not rip the tarmac or neither scare or over-excite you but it’s a great driver and a blank canvass for many who would love to tune it and make excellent track day monsters.

It’s refreshing that in these 3 decades the MX5 never changed its attitude. Many of the qualities you appreciate in the NA are to be found in the new ND. In particular, the RF is the most evolved and perhaps the less minimalistic of all Miatas: the automatic folding roof which replaces the classic fabric one doesn’t spoil the experience, even if it means that the car is 50kg heavier. While some hailed the arrival of the RF as the kind of model that sort of spoiled the model, it’s indeed a very welcome addiction. Not only it looks elegant and resembles a lovely coupe, it’s a genuine sports car that you can drive every day. Even in winter and on summer tires, you’re never short of grip and the metal roof hels cocoon you in the cockpit when it’s closed. What it’s surprising is the reactiveness and proper set up of the whole car. Mazda gave it Bilstein suspension, stiffer anti-roll bars and a locking-differential for a proper set-up. The car is precise and rewarding: it’s like the Miata you’ve always known, but with more grip and peppiness. What’s remarkable here is the calibration between gear-ratios and engine power: changing gears at speed it’s a sheer satisfaction. You hardly feel any jinks and rattles and you can change rapidly and smoothly. Brakes are well calibrated, progressive and powerful at the same time and the pedals are perfectly laid out for heel-and-toe. During cornering, the RF rolls but stabilizes immediately and turns perfectly, rolling very nicely mid corner and placing the nose exactly where you want. You know, Mazda is not kidding when they label their philosophy as Jinba Ittai, horse and horsemen working in perfect harmony. Everything is perfectly placed and well balanced, giving you confidence in any driving condition: even after 5 minutes, you’ll always drive the MX5 as if you knew it forever. 

The MX5 is lost in time and helps you ponder on our irresistible past-time, aka driving on mountain roads. It’s a momentum car, it’s the car that symbolizes your time and effort to achieve a fine driving experience every time you need it. While shooting for this article, we were under heavy stress for the load of work that comes before Christmas holidays and the days before the arrival of our beloved Japanese pumpkin seemed a bit dark and gloomy. However, either when stuck in traffic or on the nice roads that we drove or even before a stressful meeting, the MX5 made our lives happier. While not being a little Ferrari, this car is a metaphor for ourselves: driving one is like a joyride through our passion, reminding us how much we care about proper driving. Inside the cockpit and with the top down you’re part of the environment and it’s in that moment where you do not care anymore for numbers, performance figures and just shut up and just enjoy the moment. Things that stay truthful to themselves can live forever. Trends are temporary and volatile, while those who have the honesty of being what they are can live forever.

The MX5 puts things in a fun perspective, where nothing is too serious and everything is well balanced. After all… smiles are what brings you back to life.

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