It's got Bilstein suspension, a balanced engine and a six speed box. But is it any good? We started the test with extreme doubts....
You know, I had it worked out. Mazda MX5 owners could be pigeonholed as boring farts. Why? I'd previously driven an old 1.6 MX5 for three days around the city, and thought that it was about as much a performance car as a bloody Suzuki 850 hatch. Manual steering that fell over if you got too far away from centre; soggy, squirming understeer in and corkscrewing oversteer out; power that made any ol' V6 Commodore feel like a road burner. A soft top rear wheel drive Laser; a hark back to the days when sports cars had no power and often handled little better than normal sedans. MX5s were obviously for pretenders; people who liked the idea of saying to their business acquaintances over a Chardonnay, "Yes, old chap, I have an MX5....."
And to back up my classification, I started looking at the people driving MX5s. Mid-forties; wears a suit and a paunch kept in check by gym work. Expensive gym, too. Mid twenties and female; likes winding the top back and the ease of parking. Where were the performance nuts, the people wringing the neck of the car through the gears or making the four-wheel discs all hot and bothered? There weren't any on the road; only on the track where club meets with Porsche would see the MX5s getting wiped off the map....
I still don't know about the other MX5s, but I can now say in the loudest voice possible - the 1999 Anniversary Mazda MX5 is simply the best handling car I have ever driven. It's a stunning mix of brilliant chassis, superb brakes, steering that almost works out corners for itself, and a ride/handling compromise that is breathtaking. It's so good that you get out of the car and look in vain for the 275/35 tyres, four wheel drive or Electronic Stability Control! If you reckon that you have a car that handles, this is one car that you simply must steer...
And let's start with the steering. Connected to the driver by the best-looking airbag wheel in the business, the Nardi tiller is not adjustable for reach or height but is in the right place anyway. (Not so good are the column stalks that are a l-o-n-g finger reach away from the rim.) With 2.6 turns lock to lock, the steering is direct - but so are lots of steering systems. Not conveyed by the tech specs is the superb feedback that lets you detect every nuance of understeer, lets you adjust the cornering line inch by inch, and never kicks back in your hands as the front wheels bite off chunks of broken bitumen. Unlike many cars - even some with sporting pretences - the wheel has no vagueness at the centre point. You can swing through S bends without having to pass through a no-feel, no-reaction, dead zone. The power steering is consistent from lock to lock - light and direct in all situations from parking manoeuvres to picking a cornering line at 160 km/h.
Then there's the suspension. Running double wishbones all-round (as all MX5s have), the Anniversary model is damped by Bilsteins that control the movement of 195/50 Michelin Pilot tyres. The ride is firmly damped but never excessively so; the suspension absorbing small amplitude, sharp bumps with some body movement but soaking up larger undulations with ease. The open body can be felt contorting a little, although less than in any other soft-top that I have driven. That relatively stiff body must help the suspension control substantially...
With that wonderful steering you're ahead of the eight-ball even on turn-in, precisely feeding in millimetre by millimetre of lock and having the nose of the car respond to each tiny wheel movement. If you swing on the amount of lock that is the norm in some cars, you'll find yourself unwinding it in a hurry. Entrance speeds can be high, past turn-in the nose just starting to drift towards the outside of the corner. The understeer movement is subtle, telegraphed long in advance so that even someone like me can get off the throttle the smidgin required to nail the nose to the apex.
Then, with the exit visible, it's time to get all of those fifty kilowatts down to the ground. (Well maybe it's more than 50 - but it doesn't feel it; some things don't change!). The front wheels are talking to you through the steering wheel, the rears through the seat. The tail starts to drift out of shape; keeping the nose aimed down the road requires the quick application of just a touch of opposite lock and then you're screaming down the blacktop that follows the corner, a grin splitting your face. You glance at the speedo to check exit speed and can't believe it - the whole corner felt 10 or 15 km/h slower. It's that bloody good, and no, you don't need to be a motorsport driver to do it.
Within an hour of picking up the car I'd done 50 kilometres - and just 15 of those were getting to my favourite stretch of tight, windy road... One of the extraordinarily impressive aspects of the car is how light it is on its tyres. After the first half hour of fanging, I got out to inspect the tyres, fully expecting that the incredibly hard time I was giving the car would show itself in scrubbed shoulders, wrinkled and cooked tread. But there was nary a sign of it - well, maybe there was a bit of tread wrinkle, but not much.... One FWD car I drove like this shed large strips of front tyre rubber, and even my own Skyline GT-R would be showing wear marks well around the tyre shoulders after 30 minutes of this type of work....
In high speed corners the story's the same - just without the understeer and oversteer. The car remains balanced, predictable and forgiving, tracking so truly that 'tramlining' is a word not in the Mazda's vocabulary. You find yourself using every millimetre of road, running the passenger side wheels right up to the very edge of the bitumen; using the driver's side wheels to clean the outline of the central white line. Occasionally you forget which car you're in, aiming the nose at a corner and then realising that you are one, two - or even an incredible three - gears too low for attack speed.
And count those gears - one, two, three, four, five and six. The six speed's ratios are stacked tight, so close that city driving needs only first, fourth and sixth. Sixth gear gives 35 km/h per 1000 rpm - at 110 km/h in sixth, the spinning just under 3000 rpm. First gear is never used for anything but moving away from a standstill, while even second gear can be too low for vigorously-attacked corners marked at 45 km/h. When cruising on the open road, a drop from sixth to fifth doesn't give the acceleration needed to making a passing manoeuvre; instead you're back to third or fourth. And then you're likely to need to do a flick change mid-way through the overtaking. Thankfully the change itself is sweet and quick, the clutch needing to be dipped only momentarily as the knob slides through. But at times all the gear changing becomes farcical; it's like listening to a prime mover go up through a dozen gears without ever appearing to get anywhere.
One of the reasons for this is that the engine's a..... well, basically a bit of an old nail. It has a very flat torque curve but it simply hasn't got the power needed. In the tight and twisties you don't notice the lack of urge - when you can enter a corner so bloody fast, the exit speed has gotta be impressive. But when the corners are open - the sort where a Impreza WRX or other turbo hotty would be just spitting out of the corners, turbo whistling and road reeling in - inside the cabin of the Mazda you're winding out through the last four ratios, watching the speedo needle make like a tortoise around the gauge. If the 1800 DOHC mill was as happy at 7000 rpm as, say, an Alfa Spider's, things would be sweet. But (at least in the low kay test car) it wasn't. It was harsh, noisy and felt stressed at high revs. Those 106kW just aren't enough - especially when other manufacturers' naturally aspirated fours are pumping out really big kilowatts.
The brake pedal is firm and consistent, a match for the steering in feel and feedback. The relatively narrow tyres can let you venture into ABS territory sooner than you first think, but then you're also probably braking harder than you realise. When you take into account the 195 section width, you can work the brakes hard. The superb suspension control lets you brake very late; when the tail starts to edge sideways because you're turning in while still braking, a jab of steering correction prevents the whole shooting match coming unstuck. Perhaps it's praise by absence of criticism; despite the hard driving, the brakes never showed any signs of stress.
But a lack of stress cannot be said to be the pervading atmosphere on the passenger side of the cabin; not only are there likely to be gasps, groans and occasional screams of terror as corner advisory speed limit signs blur past, but she is also likely to be flailing arms around in a vain attempt to find a handhold. The seats have simply terrible lateral support; they look and feel like they're escapees from a commercial van of the Eighties. While the driver has a left footrest and the wheel to hold onto, both occupants would be better located with deeply sculptured seats.
So what about when you've finished setting point-to-point records, finished carving-up the Falcodores through the roundabouts? What's the Mazda like to live with as a day-to-day proposition? Inside, the car is small - the boot is shallow, there's no storage room behind the seats if the hood is down, and tall people will be looking straight at the windscreen header rail. The roof - containing a heated, glass rear window - is manually operated, requiring the unclicking of two fasteners and then being pushed and pulled into its retracted position. This process is no great hardship, but installing the tonneau cover is a five or ten minute job - a helluva long time for something that if better designed, would take 30 seconds. The cover uses a moulding at its rear edge that slides and clips into a plastic strip on the car's body. When this is done, press-studs hold the leading edge of the tonneau in place. But the moulding keeps falling out of its plastic strip - when you do one end, the other end pulls out. On the (very new) test car, stretching the cover to press the studs home was a two person job, it was so stiff. The stitching on the cover was also poor, resulting in lumps across the rear section.
The HVAC controls are clear and the system effective, although the heat is not distributed evenly through the cabin. The AM/FM cassette is mounted high on the console for good access, and uses large, simple and easy to operate controls. It works with two mid-bass drivers in the doors matched with tweeters mounted higher on the door panels. The sound is competent.
Instrumentation is sparse, although it does include an oil pressure gauge, unhelpfully labelled at its extremities 'H' and 'L'. The increments on the speedo (every 2 km/h) makes for a cluttered gauge; better to have less markings and a quicker read. The handbrake is on the left side of the console - the wrong side for RHD car. Even with the hood up, the amount of noise that penetrates the cabin is moderately high; the old banger up front groans and grunts, while the single-layer roof lets quite a lot of generalised wind noise penetrate.
But if my pigeonholed MX5 buyers decide to upgrade to the Anniversary model, I hope that they are disappointed that the engine isn't stronger, that the NVH isn't more reduced. In fact, I hope that they regret their purchase so much that they sell the car at a huge discount, so that people who just love to drive hard around corners can get behind the wheel for less dosh.....