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MX-5/Miata Magnificence - Part One

Part One of our look at one of the most successful sportscars in modern motoring...

By Michael Knowling

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This article was first published in 2003.

During the late '70s, Mazda established itself in the affordable performance market with the first generation RX-7. Lightweight, nimble and with plenty of rotary grunt, the RX-7 crushed many of the established European sportscars. With the RX-7 becoming larger and more expensive in subsequent models, though, Mazda launched yet another affordable sportscar in the late '80s - the ground-breaking MX-5/Miata...

The First Generation MX-5/Miata

A project headed by Mazda Japan's Toshihiko Hirai, the concept behind the original MX-5 was simple. It had to be a fun to drive two-seater, affordable, relatively simple from a technical perspective and, as a result, it had to be kept lightweight.

Intended for a number of counties - not least the US - the MX-5 was styled distinctively, but not to offend anyone. Interestingly, much of the styling and proportioning was modelled on Colin Chapman's 1962 Lotus Elan. Pop-up headlights were used to maintain a very smooth appearance (when the headlights weren't on, at least) and the front-end was supposed to have a characteristic 'face'. All panels were steel except for the bonnet, which was made from aluminium.

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In a time where front-wheel-drive was the norm for smaller cars - owing to interior space and production cost advantages - Mazda stayed faithful to the 'true' sportscar layout and adopted a front engine, rear-wheel-drive configuration. This would give better weight distribution, better traction and handling flexibility.

The front-end was poised on unequal length double wishbones with coil springs and a swaybar, while the rear - again - used unequal length double wishbones, coil springs and a swaybar. Fourteen-inch alloy wheels with 185/60 tyres came as standard, providing adequate grip and steering response.

Brakes, meanwhile, were nothing special - 236mm ventilated discs at the front and 231mm solid discs at the rear with no ABS. Still, they seemed up to the ask of the MX-5 (on the street, anyway).

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Inside, the MX-5 had only two seats and the cabin was very intimately arranged. The fabric roof - with just a plastic rear window - was very easy to fold up and down but did consume a relatively large amount of space behind the seats. Certainly, the boot could be classified as next to useless, with its small volume cluttered by an above-floor space-saver spare wheel and battery.

The cabin was also fairly light-on for features with just a two-speaker radio/cassette and power windows as standard. There was no electric mirror adjustment and air-conditioning was an extra-cost option. Note that a hardtop roof was also available as an extra dollar option.

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With overall weight kept down to just 955 kilograms, Mazda opted to run with the B-series 1.6-litre, DOHC, 16-valve four as had been used in its more mundane hatchback models. In MX-5 guise, however, the 1.6 was longitudinally mounted and revised slightly to produce 85kW at 6500 rpm and 130Nm at 5500 rpm. Its compression ratio was set at 9.4:1 (allowing the use of normal unleaded fuel) and a vane airflow meter was used as the engine load input into the electronic management system.

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Driving through a standard 5-speed manual gearbox (based on Mazda 929 components) and an open-centre 4.3:1 diff, the original MX-5 was hardly a ball of fire in straight-line acceleration; in fact, it was mincemeat for many hot hatches. 0 - 100 km/h sprints typically took between 10.0 and 11.5 seconds and the quarter mile took 17-seconds flat - note, though, there was a massive range in much of the contemporary road test performance data. With an (un)aerodynamic 0.38Cd (with the roof up), it's no surprise that top speed was just 186 km/h.

But the MX-5 was never intended as a standing start stunner. Its forte was a winding road...

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With a near 50:50 weight distribution, the MX-5 displayed excellent balance. Depending on driving style, it was typical to have traces of understeer during turn-in but from thereon the chassis was finely adjustable. Mid-corner oversteer - absolutely beautifully progressive and predictable - could be effectively used to tighten the cornering line and you could squeeze the accelerator quite early to get a quick exit. Certainly, the 1.6 didn't have enough grunt to unsettle the chassis with power-on, but its excellent throttle response and torque linearity were coordinated by somebody who really loved to drive. The 'snick-snick' gear selection and considerably weighted, precise steering only added to the driving enjoyment.

As owners will tell you, it's not uncommon to step out of a MX-5 with a broad mile across your face.

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In Australia, the MX-5 was just beaten to the marketplace by Ford's soft-top Capri that, even in turbocharged form, was cheaper than the sub-$30,000 Mazda. And despite offering better practicality (including a small rear seat), more features and superior straight-line go, the Capri was consistently out-sold by the more purposeful MX-5. The sales margin continued to grow once the build quality issues plaguing early Capris became public knowledge. The MX-5 stood out as such a brilliant machine, it won a string of Car of the Year, Best Sportscar and Top 10 awards.

Without question, the original MX-5 gave rebirth to the long-dead open-top sportscar market. Still, its disappointing lack of acceleration performance was a major stumbling block, until...

The 1.8-litre Upgrade

In late 1993, the screams for more power went answered - sort of. A 1.8-litre, DOHC, 16-valve engine (based on that used in the front-wheel-drive Astina SP) stepped in to replace the struggling 1.6. The 'big block' MX-5 now offered 98kW of power at 6500 rpm and 155Nm of torque at 5000 rpm - up 15 and 19 percent over the 1.6. Interestingly, the engine's compression ratio went down slightly to 9.0:1 (from 9.4:1).

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With significantly more torque on tap, the MX's final drive ratio was stepped up to 4.1:1 (instead of 4.3:1) and the newly introduced Clubman version - ideal for dabbling in a bit of track work - came with a Torsen LSD, which provided excellent traction. A larger clutch was also fitted.

In a straight line, performance figures varied hugely but it seems the 1.8-litre wasn't that much faster - just more flexible and enjoyable to drive. Low 10-second 0 - 100 km/h and flat 17-second quarter miles - similar to the best times recorded with the 1.6 - appear about on the money. It seems that the 1.8's taller final drive didn't allow the extra output to shine through. Note, though, some performance figures state the 1.8 update was as quick as 8.4-seconds 0 - 100 km/h...

Also, a newly introduced 4-speed automatic transmission option lengthened 0 - 100 performance by about a second.

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There were other changes that came with the 1.8-litre update. The brakes were enlarged to 255mm (ventilated) front and 251mm rear, rims were upgraded to 14 x 6-inch and braces were added to the front and rear sub-frames and a rear tower brace was used. Note that the Clubman version also rode firmer and was more responsive to driver inputs thanks to its Bilstein dampers.

Interestingly, power steering was now fitted to standard 1.8 MX-5s, but Clubman versions came without - they did, however, have more turns lock-to-lock.

Visually, the 1.8-litre update is difficult to distinguish. The rear trim panel was carried over from previous 1.6 'special editions', colours were altered, the rear mudflaps were made one-piece (instead of two) and, as mentioned, the wheels were revised.

Inside, electric mirrors finally became standard fitment, as did a Nardi wheel and knob and a few other extras. The bigger engine, added chassis bracing and trim revisions added around 30 kilograms to the base weight of the 1.6 - the MX-5 was now around 985kg, just shy of the 1000kg barrier.

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In Australia, though, the retail price of 1.8 MX-5 shot up considerably. At $38,260 for just the standard model, it had jumped nearly $10,000 - almost a third - of the original value of the 1.6. Still, that wasn't enough to keep hoards of buyers away - despite the introduction of the new 2.0-litre Toyota MR-2.

Very little changed on the MX-5 through the next few years - trim changes and that's about it.

Stay tuned for Part Two of this series - we'll look at the second generation MX-5 and the scorching Australian-market MX-5 SP Turbo...

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