Mazda MX-5 Mk1: retro road test

Tyler Heatley

24 Sep 2021

Why is the original MX-5 so celebrated? We find out via this immaculate 17,000-mile car.

Once upon a time, it was the British sports car that ruled the roost. From the Americas to Asia, the likes of Austin-Healey and MG were the hot ticket to have – all proud exports of Blighty. Beautiful, great to drive, and perfectly capturing the romance of motoring, they ticked every box. Well, that was while they worked. Reliability and ergonomics were never their strong suit, and it was maybe inevitable that another nation would go on to perfect the recipe. You could argue that the Mazda MX-5 was ultimately responsible for the death of the British sports car.

Why? Well, the Mazda eXperiment 5 took all the open-top lightweight virtues of the popular models known and loved but packaged it in a way that didn’t leave you at the side of the road. While a good deal of national resentment towards foreign cars existed in the 1980s, the MX-5 was welcomed with open arms in 1989 and is still celebrated as one of the world’s most universally loved machines today.

This immaculate MK1 Mazda MX-5 is a beautiful example of an early UK car – not an Eunos import. Its simplistic and clean shape is detailed with period ‘daisy’ wheels, tiny chromed door handles, and those characterful pop-up headlights. At over 30 years old now, it’s starting to look like a real classic, and increasing values suggests the rest of the world is beginning to think along the same lines.

Slip inside the snug cabin with its simple but cushy seats that place you low in the chassis. It’s not the most inspiring interior versus the wooden-clad affairs of British classics, but the durable feel and functional nature are most welcome in a car you might use for more than just a weekend jaunt. The headline here is that this car simply gets the basics right, the seating position plumbs you right into the action, the gearstick perfectly falls to hand, and you get that wonderful classic sports car view of a long bonnet sloping off to the horizon.

The original Mazda MX-5 could be had with a pair of naturally aspirated engines. While some people favour the larger 1.8-litre unit, it’s actually a 1.6 found in this car that revs a little sweeter. It might only feature 115bhp, but its delivery is linear and it loves to rev out to the redline. Its relative low power is also vastly boosted by this car’s lack of mass. Stretching the engine’s legs also brings with it the delight of making use of its rifle-bolt manual gearshift that remains one of the most satisfying of any car of any era.

Going for a brisk drive in the sunshine with the roof down is an utter joy. Driving at a pace involves preserving momentum through the bends, something that’s done with ease. The feelsome steering is positively vibrating with feedback as you tip into the corner, the pronounced body roll actually acting to help inform the driver of weight transfer, and with enough gusto, you can tailor the car’s trim via the throttle. The MX-5 flows and ebbs from bend to bend, never feeling like it's fighting the natural course of the road and always displaying excellent chassis balance. Like many old cars, its brakes are the weaker link of this package, but they are easy to modulate and there isn’t that much weight to stop in the first place.

Driven more sedately, you and your passenger are treated to a surprisingly cosseting ride. There is plenty of road and wind noise that penetrates the cabin, but it all serves to remind you that you’re suspended just a few inches from the road. It's no supercar, but there’s certainly a sense of occasion to driving the little MX-5, maybe even more so now than that modern cars often leave you feeling isolated from the action.

These cars have stood the test of time as, while this 17,000-mile example is as box-fresh as you’d imagine, they are mechanically hardy. High-mileage cars can still be beaten like a drum with a service being its only request for loyal service. Parts are relatively cheap, and aside from their tendency to rust around the sills, you’re unlikely to face any major issues. Could this be the most dependable classic on the market right now?

There is a blissful honesty about the MK1 Mazda MX-5 with its total lack of technological distraction and a pure driving feel. Its charming means of tootling along on a summer’s day will please the casual driver, while its almost Lotus-like competence when driven spiritedly reminds you why this car has such an enthusiastic following.


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Tyler Heatley

24 Sep 2021