Smashing the odds

by Andy Bryenton

In the mid-1980s, the small sports car was dead; only a few more shovelfuls of earth remained to be sadly placed atop a grave dug by the hot hatchback revolution, covering forever the likes of the Jensen Healey, MGB, Sunbeam Alpine and Triumph Spitfire.

England’s great small roadsters had a proud history but were seen as outmoded by the more practical Golf GTIs and Peugeot 205s of the day, which packed meaty performance into a shopping cart frame. Of course, now those drop-top small cars are seen as classics. So, too, is the thing that replaced them.

In 1989, the Mazda MX-5 was as strange a sight on the road as the Lamborghini Countach was in 1974. Critics said it was underpowered, too small, impractical and part of a tradition of small convertibles that nobody wanted anymore.

It went on to sell 400,000 units. Moreover, while TR7s gently rusted and Alfa Spiders spent time on the hoist, the little Mazda delivered smiles reliably, with its pop up headlights, simple design, lightweight handling and just enough power to have fun with, but not enough to be scary.

By the second generation, it may have become too popular. The more ignorantly minded labelled it as a ‘girl’s car’, thus insulting half the population with what turned out to be a compliment. Nevertheless, you can’t argue with quality, and naysayers were silenced decade after decade by the fact that the little Mazda is great fun to drive. Now, for 2019, the ‘retractable fastback’ shape of the latest MX-5 is the best looking ever, and while other cars suffer from safety bloat (like the now tubby, wheezing ‘hot’ hatches, which replaced those old 205s and GTIs), the Mazda is still packed with a 1.5 litre engine and sharp handling to match its more aggressive looks. You may only get 97kw, but this isn’t a dragster. You get only two seats, but this isn’t an ‘all things to all people’ family wagon. The MX-5 continues a lineage of cars designed just for the sheer unadulterated fun of taking a road trip, and while it may not come from the same heritage as a Morgan or a Lotus, it’s all about the very English, very early 1900s attitude of motoring as a sport. A real sports car. How many of those are available new for just on 40k, here in the century of the SUV? What can we ask for next, Mazda, except perhaps — the RX9?