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Road tests

Mazda MX-5 (Mk1, 1989-1997) icon review: a modern take on the classic sports car

We hit the road in the first-generation Mazda MX-5 to find out what made it such a hit with buyers

Look along a typical UK road, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the SUV is the only type of car that exists today. Buyers are drawn to the increased space and apparent security that a large body and high driving position promise.

But expanding dimensions make it harder for chassis engineers to keep an ever-increasing mass in check, while a wider body makes a car more difficult to enjoy on the B-roads that thread their way through the UK’s countryside. The simple delights of driving are now tough to find.

One car that has rallied more strongly against the passage of time and piling on the pounds than any other is the Mazda MX-5. The formula was straightforward enough: back in 1981, Mazda’s North American division set out to create a ‘modern British sports car’ fit for the contemporary age. With refinement, precision and, crucially, the sort of reliability that means, rain or shine, it’ll fire up every time.

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The fruit of eight years’ work was revealed at the 1989 Chicago Auto Show, and the MX-5 hit it off instantly with the press and buying public alike. The Tom Matano-designed lines took significant inspiration from the original Lotus Elan, and the Japanese roadster wowed the crowds with its compact dimensions and delicate simplicity.

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It’s a formula that Mazda has had 34 years to perfect across four generations, and it’s proved to be a huge success, with more than 1.1 million MX-5s built globally as of 2020. The changes haven’t stopped there, either. A facelift for the current car has just been announced, introducing more subtle adjustments, including the latest tech required to comply with stringent safety assessments.

But the true icon is the generation that started it all. Driving one today proves to be a wonderful antidote to many of the overweight modern vehicles that now flood the market. Lightness, simplicity, feel and interaction were present right from this very first ‘NA’ generation. Sit in the driver’s seat, and you’re greeted with a basic cabin, but the most important thing is that all of the main points for a driver’s car are spot on. The Mazda’s ergonomics are flawless, the driver’s seat is supportive and perfectly aligned with the pedals – even if they are a touch too high – and all the major controls fall easily to hand.

Then you turn the key and hear the rorty little 1.6-litre engine chatter into life. The first few yards reveal one of the best things about the MX-5: that it’s huge fun to drive even when you’re just gently cruising about. The pedals are perfectly weighted, the short, clicky gearshift is lovely to use, and the ride is surprisingly forgiving.

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Many modern performance cars need to be pushed to their limits before you can appreciate their brilliance, but with the first-generation MX-5, you can get some kicks just by popping to the shops.

Push a little harder, and the Mazda gives you even more to smile about. The light steering has no vagueness whatsoever. It’s very direct, too, encouraging you to point the car into an apex with so much enthusiasm that the chassis can barely keep up.

That’s due to a suspension set-up that allows for an appreciable amount of body roll. Rather than cling onto a radius with vast reserves of grip, you instead wait for the outer tyres to load up through a turn, and then play with the beautiful balance of the chassis from one corner to the next.

On paper, the engine specs don’t seem very remarkable by modern standards. Set well back under that bonnet is a 114bhp 1.6-litre petrol unit (a more potent 1.8-litre unit was added to the range towards the end of 1993). But then you don’t need much power when you only have 955 kilos to shift.

The numbers are fairly irrelevant, though; all you need to know is that every venture to the red line is accompanied by an addictive induction note. Slot that fantastic gearbox into the next close ratio and you can do it all over again. And again; because the performance is relatively modest, you can really make the most of that engine without the need to venture to the naughty side of the speed limit. In fact, you always feel like you’re going quickly; sitting close to the ground and being exposed on all sides will do that to you.

Which brings us to another MX-5 plus point: the pure joy of driving an open-top car. The pleasure of driving a cabriolet, roof down, on a balmy summer’s evening or a mild, dry day is something that every motoring fan should try to experience at some point in their life.

This car

The MX-5 in these images is part of Mazda UK’s own heritage fleet. It’s an early car from 1990, with a full Mazda service history and just 39,000 miles on the clock, and its specification is totally original.

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This MX-5, as with the rest of Mazda’s UK heritage fleet, is running on Coryton sustainable fuels. The ‘80’ in its Super 80 name refers to the percentage of agricultural waste used to make it. This includes straw plus by-products and waste crops not fit for human or animal consumption. Coryton says the 98-octane- rated fuel reduces greenhouse gases by 65 per cent compared with petrol. A one per cent bio-ethanol content makes Super 80 safe to use in classic cars, too.

On the road, it feels identical to a car running on regular pump petrol. In fact, as we found out, using the fuel in a current MX-5, its high energy-density actually improves the mpg figure slightly.

Interested in buying one

With plentiful cheap parts, a vast world of mechanical and cosmetic upgrades available, and so many on the market to choose from – although good examples are getting harder to find – now is the best time to hunt down an early MX-5.

Prices for slightly rough examples kick off from around £3,000, but we’d aim to spend a little more than that to find a version that’s got a solid history.

Ironically for a car designed to right the wrongs of old British sports cars, the main thing to watch out for with early MX-5s is rust. Make sure you check the car’s sills, floor and inside the wheelarches for signs of corrosion.

Model:Mazda MX-5 (NA)
Production dates:1989-1997
Price then:From £14,000
Price now:From £3,000
Engine:1.6-litre 4cyl petrol
Power/torque:114bhp/129Nm
Transmission:Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
0-62mph:8.5 seconds
Top speed:121mph
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Chief reviewer

Alex joined Auto Express as staff writer in early 2018, helping out with news, drives, features, and the occasional sports report. His current role of Chief reviewer sees him head up our road test team, which gives readers the full lowdown on our comparison tests.

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