Thirty years – that’s how long it’s been since the launch of the first Mazda MX-5 back in 1989. And oh, how far the iconic little sports car has come in that time…
Originally designed as a then-modern-day equivalent of classic British sports cars like the MG B and Lotus Elan, the MX-5 – or, alternatively, the Mazda Miata in North America or Eunos Roadster for first-gen JDM models – has been one of the few convertibles and/or sports cars to continue to thrive well into the 21st century.
With a basic, foolproof design that made it easy to make, cheap to buy, and easy to customise and modify, the MX-5 was bound to be a success, offering the perfect driver’s car setup – a front-mounted naturally aspirated engine pushed up against the firewall, a manual gearbox in the middle, and rear-wheel drive at the back.
While the basic recipe has remained the same over the years, plenty of innovation has been shown along the way, including the trialling of a turbocharged Mazdaspeed variant on late-model NBs, a power-folding hardtop on the NC model, and a targa-style retractable fastback variant of the current ND.
We’ve seen it lose its oh-so-eighties pop-up headlights, grow out and then trim back down, and get more powerful and better equipped with every generation, but the MX-5 of today is still every bit an MX-5. Or is it?
To see just how closely related the present-day MX-5 feels to its late-eighties elder, and to celebrate the now-iconic sports car’s thirtieth birthday and official rise to the ranks of being a classic, we managed to get what’s expected to be the most popular variant of the recently-revised ND MX-5 – a range-topping manual RF GT – against one of the originals.
Although we could only get our hands on a 1990 model from the MX-5’s strongest ever global sales year, there is next-to-no difference between it and those built in 1989. Finished in the most-common Classic Red and with a cloth interior – albeit protected by some plush lambswool seat covers – this example, while taken good care of, is one that’s really been driven with the odometer reading over 306,000km.
That’s not a rare figure to see on NA MX-5s either, as the simple fuel-injected four-cylinder engines fitted to them are notoriously reliable, with plenty to be found on the internet classifieds with such high mileage figures for a sports car.
In stark contrast, the lovely white 2019 RF sat next to it is a real spring chicken, with just 1,500km on the clock when we picked it up, although a little over 1,000 clicks more were added over the course of the week with it.
Despite the thirty years between them – okay, twenty-nine in this case – the two are remarkably similar proportionally as the specs table at the bottom shows. The ND measures in at 60mm shorter than the NA, although it sits on a 45mm longer wheelbase, and while a fair bit wider than the original, it’s just 5mm taller. Sat side-by-side, it becomes clear that these two are cut from the same cloth.
It’s hard to ignore the elephant in the room that is the RF’s flying buttresses in the rear. While a soft-top MX-5 is still very much in existence, around 70 per cent of buyers opt for the hard-top due to its added practicality, making it more usable year-round.
Take a seat behind the wheel, however, and the same DNA is there in the driving position. Sat low and right in front of the rear axle, it’s a truly involved driving position with both sporting small, thin steering wheels and snappy shifters that fall perfectly to hand.
Both also present their own ergonomic challenges for those long in the leg much like myself too, with the original’s door-pull compromising room for my right knee, while the new model’s handbrake was slightly in the way of my left. However, those facing such a predicament will find that it’s easy to get used to.
When going from the new MX-5 to the old, it is a bit of a step back in time, although the ND certainly offers a similarly simple and minimalist interior layout.
As far as gadgetry goes, however, the original certainly shows its age. Mercifully, this example had the optional – yes, optional! – air conditioning, which was working perfectly, but that’s about it. Although an aftermarket single-din CD player sat in the place of the original tape-deck, you won’t be seeing any screens or digital displays anywhere. Instead, just some lovely, clear, easy-to-read dials with a rolling odometer and a simple centre stack with manual controls for everything make for a simple and attractive, if basic, interior.
Still, it does have pop-up headlights which always have been and always will be incredibly cool, and at least it had power windows, although there’s absolutely nothing in the way of safety equipment – not even airbags. Oh how far we’ve come.
The ND, by comparison, was space-aged when Sally – my friend and owner of the red NA – took to the driver’s seat of the RF. With a central touchscreen with sat nav and digital radio also controlled by a rotary dial on the centre console, a comprehensive digital trip computer in the gauge cluster, heated leather seats, automatic climate control, a Bose audio system, and a fairly comprehensive suite of safety systems, it does show just how many developments have been made in the auto industry over the last three decades.
But these are proper rear-wheel drive sports cars and as nice as heated seats may be, what really matters is how they drive. While the prowess of the MX-5 has been well-documented over the years, it’s uncanny just how similarly the NA and ND MX-5s drive, showing that the similarities stretch far beyond their proportions.
Behind the wheel of the original, it’s clear why so many people love the car that kick-started the sports car revival of the 1990s, as the original MX-5 is truly a shining example of what a driver’s car should feel like, even by today’s standards.
While it could have done with the ability for some steering wheel adjustment, everything falls so perfectly to hand from the driver’s seat, with the five-speed shifter’s perfect placement and feel – think long, deliberate throws and neatly spaced gates – making it a real joy to row through the gears, and it reminds you what driving is really all about in the modern world of automatics.
The pedal feel and spacing is very similar between both new and old, with the clutch having just the right weight to it and feeling incredibly predictable. The cable throttle does feel more communicative than the floor-mounted fly-by-wire accelerator pedal in the ND, although it is still placed just that bit too far back to make heel-and-toe downshifting easy.
The only real mark of the NA’s age is a total and utter lack of power steering, which, depending on who you are, will be a blessing or a curse, and for me it’s absolutely the former. While I’ll concede that it’s a pain to deal with in carparks, you get used to driving without it so quickly that it doesn’t become a massive bother, and the feedback it awards when you’re really driving the thing is truly unbeatable.
Every movement of those skinny front tyres can be felt through the tiller to a level beyond what even old-school (by today’s standards) hydraulically-assisted power steering ever could. The electric power steering of the modern Mazda may be quick and precise, and about as informative as such a system could ever be, it’s got nothing on true manual steering.
While there’s still that enjoyable little dash of body roll through the bends, it actually corners ever-so-slightly flatter than the RF due to its much lower weight of a mere 938kg. It rides just as comfortably too, with shockingly good bump absorption for a sports car – especially one that, according to its owner, “Probably needs a little bit of a suspension work.”
The trusty little 1.6-litre twin-cam runs as smooth as a top, with a linear power band and a lovely note to it, although while its 85kW is fine for a car so light, its mere 130Nm does admittedly leave more to be desired. Good thing the shifter feels so good then, because you’ll be using it a lot to extract the best out of the little engine.
By comparison, the modern direct injection 2.0-litre variants including all RFs (the Roadster can still be had with a smaller 1.5-litre four-pot) feel like muscle cars, with 2019 models gaining an extra 17kW and 5Nm over last year’s model courtesy of an extensively re-worked engine with a lighter reciprocating mass, helping it rev higher and harder.
With an extra gear to play with, the RF’s shorter ratios help it spin up to its 7,500rpm redline quickly, while that beefier torque figure means there’s no need for as much shifting when pushing it, allowing for you to keep it in third on most twisty roads.
But slam it down into second in anticipation of a tight bend and it’s incredibly quick steering allows you to turn in sharply, before pegging the floor-mounted throttle induces a perfectly controllable amount of oversteer as you take advantage of every rev on offer.
The whole operation feels tight as a drum in the RF, with the light clutch and short throws of its shifter allowing for fast, snappy changes, while the electric power steering is one of the sharpest and most responsive racks in any car.
While there is, as mentioned, a little bit more body-roll in the 149kg heavier RF, it is remarkably comfortable for such a low, small car. You could truly drive one of these every day without it ever feeling like a chore.
And the thing is that plenty of people do drive these day-to-day, both new and old, despite their seemingly impractical nature on the surface. It might not be a perfect all-rounder, but they’re far easier to live with than you might think.
2019 Mazda MX-5 RF GT
1990 Mazda MX-5
|Design and Comfort||9.0||8.5|
|Performance and Handling||9.5||9.0|
|Equipment and Features||8.5||4.0|
This comparison isn’t about winners and losers, as the new car is obviously going to be nearly 30 years better than the original with regards to technology and safety.
What this one’s really about is highlighting the evolution of the iconic little sports car, as the DNA is all clearly still there in the new one, despite its trick folding hardtop, modern accoutrements, and larger and far more powerful engine.
If we really learned anything from driving these two back-to-back, however, it is the original – despite its period characteristics and lack of modern features – offers a driving experience that still holds up firmly thirty years on.
Looking at a higher-mileage example also proves just how solid the original was, as with over 300,000km of regular driving on the clock, it still feels surprisingly fresh – a true testament to the quality of Mazda’s engineering.
If you were to push me as to which I’d put my money down on, it would really come down to budget. If I had the dough, I’d absolutely go for the new one as there really isn’t much else out there like it – including the far more rough-and-ready Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ twins – and it’s hard to resist the allure of modern creature comforts, and the many advancements in regards to safety.
But even though my budget is clearly more aligned with the NA – which still commands a decent amount of change for a car of its age as values currently seem to hover around the $7,000-8,000 mark despite a median used value of around $4,450 according to RedBook – I wouldn’t feel like I was missing out on anything as far as the driving experience is concerned, as the original truly is fun by modern standards.
Plus, NA MX-5 values have plateaued in recent times, and there is the chance they may go up in the future, and that does make for a good selling point. Plus, would you just look at the thing? It’s far too adorable not to love.
Now, please, someone drag me away from the internet classifieds before I end up doing some damage to my bank account by buying one…
2019 vs 1990 Mazda MX-5 pricing and specifications
2019 Mazda MX-5 RF GT
1990 Mazda MX-5
|Price (Excluding on-road costs):||From: $45,990|
As tested: $45,990
|Price when new: $32,215|
Median used value (RedBook): $4,450
|Warranty:||5 years/unlimited km||N/a|
|Warranty Customer Service:||Optional yearly plans||N/a|
|Country of Origin:||Japan||Japan|
|Service Intervals:||12 months/10,000km||12 months/10,000km|
|Engine:||2.0-litre naturally aspirated direct injection four-cylinder petrol:|
135kW @ 7,000rpm, 205Nm @ 4,000rpm
|1.6-litre naturally aspirated multi-point injection four-cylinder petrol:|
85kW @ 6,500rpm, 130Nm @ 5,500rpm
|Transmission:||6-speed manual||5-speed manual|
|Drivetrain:||Rear-wheel drive||Rear-wheel drive|
|Power to Weight Ratio (W/kg):||124.2||90.6|
|0-100km/h (seconds):||Claimed: 6.8||Claimed: 8.8|
|Combined Fuel Consumption (L/100km):||Claimed: 6.9/Tested: 7.8||Claimed: 7.8|
|Fuel Capacity (L):||45||45|
|Body:||2-door convertible, 2 seats||2-door convertible, 2 seats|
|Safety:||5-star ANCAP, 4 airbags, ABS, BA, EBD, ESC, Blind Spot Monitoring, Driver Attention Alert, Lane Departure Warning, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Smart City Brake Support, Traffic Sign Recognition, Tyre Pressure Monitoring System, Emergency Stop Signal, Hill Launch Assist, limited-slip differential, rear-view camera|
|Turning Circle Between Kerbs:||9.4||9.2|
|Kerb Weight (kg):||1,087||938|
|Boot Space (min/max) (L):||127||135|
|Towing Capacity (kg):||N/a||N/a|
|Entertainment:||7-inch MZD Connect colour touchscreen with multi-function commander control, satellite navigation, AM/FM/DAB+, Bluetooth, USB, AUX, iPod|
203W Bose Premium 9-speaker stereo
|Stock: Single-din head unit, AM/FM, cassette, 6-speaker stereo|