Mazda MX-5 Mk1 vs Mazda MX-5 Mk4

  • In April this year, the millionth MX-5 was born at Mazda’s Hiroshima plant; much fanfare and bowing ensued. And who would deny Mazda a bow, because to sell 1,000,000 cars over 26 years and four generations might sound pitiful compared to a similarly seasoned family hatch, but for a two-seater convertible, it’s a miraculous level of success. The MX-5 doesn’t just take the lion’s share of the rather bijou roadster market, it is the roadster market.

    Photography: Rowan Horncastle

  • As with so many things in life, the key is simplicity. It is a handsome, lightweight thing that’s simple to operate and easy to love. Mazda has never given in to pressure from us journalist-types to build an MPS drift special, because it knew power would corrupt the recipe. It has always focused its energies and resources on the bits that matter – the way it rides and corners, and keeping the price down. Get those right, and an entirely normal engine will suffice.

  • Reacquainting myself with a MkI, it’s staggering how Mazda took an idea and nailed it straight out of the box. Pop-up headlights – dropped for the MkII due to crash regulations – were genius (I can confirm that raising and retracting them several times for no reason hasn’t lost its novelty), but it’s the touchpoints – the stubby gearlever with its snappy shifts, the interactive steering and the smart throttle response – that still have a wonderful clarity. And at 950kg you can really throw it around without pesky inertia spoiling the fun. Admittedly, the 140bhp 1.8-litre engine in this 1996 model – enough for 0–62mph in 8.1 and a top speed of 126mph – is hardly muscular, but with its hunger for revs and your head surrounded by fresh air, it feels quick enough to blow your hair back. 

  • Step from that into the MkIV, and never before has a manufacturer managed to thread DNA through the best part of three decades and four distinct models with such aplomb. The engine, even the brawnier 158bhp 2.0-litre model here, is authentically underpowered and unturboed. Personally I’d go for the 129bhp 1.5 – it’s the one Mazda’s engineers claim the car was set up for in the first place, and there’s an even greater sense of satisfaction from building the revs, and then trying to maintain your speed.

  • That the new one, at around 1,000kg, is about 100kg heavier than the MkI (and 100kg less than the MkIII) is remarkable, especially considering the list of standard equipment that today’s customers demand compared to their early Nineties counterparts.  Cleverer still is that it has a 15mm shorter wheelbase, and is 45mm shorter overall than the MkIII, yet there’s more legroom, headroom and a bigger boot. Now that’s just voodoo, surely?

  • Yet for every person that eulogises about the MX-5’s delicacy, there are those that bemoan its lack of power. TG’s own Chris Harris famously dislikes the MX-5, presumably because you can’t power oversteer it all day long without slipping trays under the rear tyres. There is, however, a Colorado-based company, Flyin’ Miata, that has solved Mr Harris’s small quibble quite emphatically – by fitting the MkIV MX-5 with a 525bhp GM LS3 V8. Mazda’s engineers won’t be happy, but it’s progress of a sort.

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