One of the all time greats
Just when you thought you’d read everything about the legendary Mazda MX5, along comes another story.
This classic front-engined, rear-driven roadster, which reignited the sports car market in 1989, has probably had more words written about it than any other car in New Zealand, with the exception of the Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon. But just how significant is the Mazda? It was, after all, the car that commanded the attention of Toyota, Nissan and Honda, and had them scratching their heads.
No other car maker has produced anything similar, but does this make the MX5 a landmark or a frivolous toy?
With the arrival of the new third generation version in the latter stages of last year came renewed interest in the Japanese softtop. It won the New Zealand Motoring Writers’ Guild annual award for the best new car in 2005, an accolade the original also won 15 years ago. Interest in the model has been out of proportion to sales, a clear indication of the high regard for the car.
By the time Mazda stopped building the second generation MX5 in July 2005, production had topped 720,000. That’s an amazing figure for a two-seater, softtop sports car, although when averaged out since 1989 it’s less than 44,000 units a year – which makes it a minnow among best-sellers. And Mazda, fully aware of the sales limitations for such a car, is expecting to hold station, with volume of around 40,000 a year for the new version. Not surprisingly, the United States has been the largest market, accounting for half of all MX5 production. More than 200,000 have been sold in Europe, mainly to Germany and Britain. The Japanese have snapped up 150,000 and Australians around 12,000.
There’s been an early challenge to the MX5 in the USA from the GM Pontiac Solstice – a two-door sports coupe that outsold the Mazda by more than two to one in the two months ending January 2006. But many pundits predict the Solstice will never have the staying power of the MX5, and that the Pontiac won’t find buyers outside North America.
However enthusiastic you are about the design, the MX5 is very much a niche model. In 1990, the first full year of sales, 200 were sold in New Zealand – a record number for any new sports car. Soon Japanese used import examples would overtake new sales, and though this drove down second-hand prices, it deterred some new buyers who mistakenly thought the car could be an investment.
Though they took off at launch, new registrations of MX5s dropped to 54 in 1991, and from 1995 were less than 50 units a year. By 2003 they had dwindled to a mere 21 and last year increased to 50 when the model changeover distorted demand. Another specialist niche model, the BMW Mini, on the other hand, attracted 357 new buyers in New Zealand in 2005 – and its sales have held up since the 2002 introduction.
Tracked against inflation, the 2006 MX5 is no more expensive now than the first generation model in 1989, despite a marked increase in standard equipment, safety and power. Cruise control, front and side airbags, ABS anti-lock brakes, power assisted steering, central door-locking and air-conditioning were absent on the first generation MX5. Not so now. In November 1989, the first month of local sales, a 1.6-litre, five-speed MX5 retailed for $35,990 compared to $44,950 for the current 2.0-litre, six-speed equivalent. And though an automatic wasn’t even an option when the car was first introduced, today it’s an integral part of the range, and $2000 dearer than the manual.
A leather upholstery and Bose sound system Limited version with a choice of transmissions commands a $2000 premium but you still won’t find an onboard computer. The car’s true spirit lies in the manual gearbox version, even if the adorable rifle-bolt gear change of the first model is absent on the 2006 car. Our test car had a gearchange that wasn’t always smooth, and occasionally baulked when reverse was being selected.
Mazda has done a great job on the softtop: it’s easy to operate and folds fully flat. There was nary a sign of leaking when a sudden cloudburst drenched our test car. Yet there are visibility issues with the low seating position, urban ride is firm and noise around the rear of the softtop at highway speeds will annoy some. In almost every way, the new model is bolder, stronger, and more substantial. The wheel fixings, for example, that were four-stud on the original, are now five-stud.
Even though the MZR power unit is larger than the old engine, it has a lighter aluminium cylinder block instead of steel, and is mounted close to the centre of the car for ideal balance. Not that the first MX5 was lacking in balance – indeed, all three generations have been a delight to drive. Though traction control and stability control aids are offered for many markets, New Zealand MX5s do without both of them.
That doesn’t detract from the car’s appeal but, nevertheless, is a factor to be taken seriously when pressing on. Remarkably when bottomline and profits count so much these days, Mazda takes a pragmatic view of the MX5. The car is built on a unique chassis, sharing little with other models.
The MX5 not only looks right in third generation form, but also is the sort of machine you don’t need an excuse to drive. There have been many improvements along the way, like a reduction in wind buffeting with the hood down, better seats and superior ergonomics.
In numerous ways, Mazda’s little sports car has kept up with the times without losing its appeal or character. More than that, its greater specification extends the sales potential beyond dedicated enthusiasts.
Yet as the car has moved up the ladder in appointment and complexity, the possibilities for a bare bones, 1.6-litre entry-level model seem even greater. Sadly, the accountants say the economics of a budget MX5 don’t add up. The saving grace for New Zealanders is a choice of low-cost used import versions that have transformed a dream into reality for buyers with limited means. You can buy an early first generation example from as little as $4000, and do so in the knowledge that those cars are tough and reliable.
Where to now for small, affordable sports cars? The rumour mill has Nissan and Suzuki working on baby roadsters and BMW developing an equally diminutive sports car on the Mini platform. Meanwhile, the MX5 still has the market to itself, and all credit to Mazda for sticking to a specialist role that has made this car one of the all-time greats.