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Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Mazda MX-5 Reaches a Million Sales


What's the best-selling roadster of all time? What's the best-selling two-seater sports car since 2000? What's won over 250 automotive industry awards? What's the first image in your mind when you think of a small convertible? What bucks the trend for fat turbocharged paddle-matic powerhouses achieving performance figures mere mortals cannot legally reach? What taught the world the Japanese phrase "Jinba Ittai" meaning "horse and rider as one?"

The Mazda MX-5 is the answer to everything.

This month, twenty-seven years to the month since the original "NA" Mazda MX-5 (or Eunos Roadster if you're JDM, bro), the iconic affordable sports car has reached a milestone hitherto unseen by anything with a folding roof and "sports car" classification: a million sales.

One million. That's a 1 and then six 0s.

By far and away the best selling car of its type of all time, the MX-5 was one of the cars (along with the R32 Nissan Skyline GT-R which appeared a few months later) that ushered in Japan's golden age of performance cars, which stretched right through the 1990s before new emissions regulations killed off almost all the cult hero names - RX-7, Supra, Integra Type-R, Skyline GT-R, Silvia - in 2002. Not long after that it was pretty much only the MX-5 you could still buy. Having ridden out that storm, its evolutionary approach to styling and engineering has seen the purist roadster continue to be popular right through to today, thanks in part to a dedicated fanbase.

Mazda CEO Masamichi Kogai said as much:
"From the first generation through to today's fourth-generation model, the reason we have been able to continue selling the MX-5 all these years is due to the strong support of fans around the world."

clockwise from back left - NA, NB, NC and ND generations of the Mazda Roadster
Launched officially in April 1989 after debuting at the Chicago Motor Show two months prior, the MX-5 (Miata in the US, Eunos/Roadster in Japan) was conceived by people who mourned the near-extinction of the small roadster. All the great British roadsters - MGB, Triumphs, Austin Healeys, Lotus Elan - had disappeared, as well as domestic rival the Datsun Fairlady Roadster. Only the Alfa Romeo Spider remained in production at the end of the '80s, defiant against a new landscape of hot hatches that could go just as fast while carrying a tree. Or a third or fourth human. Mazda threw their new hat into the ring with a car meant not to be the fastest, or the most dramatic, or the most hardcore or the most advanced. It aimed to be the simplest sensible road car it could. If you couldn't stomach a windy and spartan Caterham Seven, this would be the next best thing, offering air conditioning and a stereo (sometimes with speakers in the headrests!) as well as open air thrills and rear-wheel-drive purity. Lotus responded later that year with the first Elan since 1972, but that was an almost square-shaped front-wheel-drive car with an Isuzu Gemini powertrain and a higher price tag than the Mazda (plus - gasp - it was later produced in South Korea as the Kia Elan). Compared to that the MX-5 very much took after the 1960s Elan instead, using the same proportions inflated into a shape that conformed with contemporary safety regulations.

It wasn't just the shape that, one could argue, took inspiration from the first Lotus Elan. All MX-5s have a rigid steel "backbone" to join the engine/gearbox at the front to the differential at the back to create a convertible that doesn't flex so much. In the image on the left you'll notice that Colin Chapman quite liked that idea too. In fairness, it's an effective idea, and the Mazda's backbone is much more elegant, joining the front and rear subframe underneath the monocoque body/main chassis. The differences start to end with material choice, as the Mazda's conventional steel body is simpler to mass produce than Lotus's favoured fibreglass. The fastidious approach to simplicity throughout the MX-5's design - fully independent suspension aside - meant that despite conforming to the world's crash safety rules, it only weighed 980kg (2160lbs). To give that some perspective, the newly revived Nissan Skyline GT-R that came out in the same year weighed 1430kg (3153lbs), the also-new BMW Z1 with all its expensive clever lightweight engineering was 1250kg (2760lbs), and the Mazda's most direct rival, the Alfa Spider, was a shade heavier at 1040kg (2293lbs), but then bloated to 1110kg (2447lbs) a year later when updated. Lightness is rightness. A lighter car makes better use of the same power, stops quicker, changes direction quicker, uses less fuel, heals the sick... oh wait not that last one. The point is that something weighing under a tonne can make even a modest 114bhp and 100lb/ft from a 1.6-litre engine potent enough to have some fun. After five years they even added a 1.8 to the range with 130 horsepower and an LSD! Goodness gracious. The 5-speed manual gearbox (you could have an auto but few wanted one) sent power to the rear wheels.

It wasn't exactly quick, with 0-60 in 9.4 seconds and 119mph flat out (8.2 and 126mph for the 1.8-litre engine), but that didn't stop it being a big hit. The first generation (NA) sold over 420,000 units in an eight-year lifespan. Replaced in 1997/98 with the NB, which updated the styling inside and out (no more pop-up headlights...) while cutting drag, adding a shade more performance (0-60 in 7.8s) and weighing only 85kg more despite being wider, sold over 300,000 cars in the next seven years. In 2005 the NC came out, with a noticeably bigger body and styling to reference the NA. With greater demand for safety and comfort, it was also noticeably heavier at 1110kg (2447lbs) for the basic model... but it was also the first MX-5 with a 2.0-litre engine available, making 167bhp and 140lb/ft. Alas, in a straight line all the extra power did was cancel out the weight penalty, so it wasn't much quicker. As the '00s was the age of the metal folding roof, Mazda also brought out the MX-5 'RC' (or PRHT in USA) with a two-piece motorised metal roof that folded into exactly the same hole as the normal manual fabric roof and only added another 40kg. The NC generation lasted for nearly a decade, perhaps due to difficult economic times delaying the development of the all-new model we have now. It sold around 227,000 units.


So we end up at the current 'ND' generation. After the NC we get a car that very much bucks a lot of fashionable trends. There remains no turbocharged engine. There's no all-wheel-drive version or dual-clutch gearbox (although they still offer a conventional automatic for retired people), there are no huge wheels with painted-on tyres and there's sure as hell no hybrid version. Nope, this new car is old school. It's even approximately the same size and weight as the original NA, at less than 4m long and weighing 1058kg. The 1.5-litre engine makes a mere 130 horsepower, while the 2.0 manages 160bhp (0-62 in 8.3s and 7.3s respectively). That said, they did succumb to the trend of having a pretend-iPad sticking conspicuously out of the dashboard, which is a shame. Still, the styling is much more dynamic looking than the previous cars while still being instantly recognisable, while underneath it offers the same kind of fun for drivers that it always has, with its skinny tyres making the limits of grip easy to reach at legal speeds if you want to. Even the price is minimalist - while TopGear tried claiming that the Toyota GT86/Subaru BRZ was the only cheap rear-wheel-drive sports car at £25,000 the MX-5 is actually notably cheaper, with the new ND starting in the UK at £18,500. There aren't even a huge number of hot hatches for less than that, and the only way a Caterham costs less is if you build a completely bare 160 for yourself (by "completely bare" I mean it doesn't have carpets or a windscreen).

In fact, so good is the new MX-5 that it's served as the base for the new FIAT 124 Spider... and there's more!

2016/17 Mazda MX-5 RF
The NC 'Roadster-Coupé' version has a successor in this Retractable Fastback (RF) version. The RF uses a system similar in concept to the current Porsche 911 Targa, where a panel holding the rear window lifts up out of the way to let the section of roof above your head hide away underneath it. From the side you might think it has a sloping coupé roofline, but actually the rear window is vertical, giving it XJS-style buttresses over the rear wheels. The system - which can be folded on the move at speeds up to 6mph (10km/h) - adds roughly 50kg to the weight of the car, but just as before it retains its 50:50 front-to-rear weight distribution and the roof doesn't take away any more luggage space.

So the MX-5 looks to continue going strong as the great minimalist sports car of our time. The millionth car itself was built on 22nd April, has had stickers put on the doors and will be displayed around the world including at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. The next time you see one, remember that it's a working class hero and scream "JINBA ITTAI" at the driver. That totally won't be weird at all.

Oh, and thank you Mazda for keeping it real for over 27 years. Here's to many more.



Written for SmallBlogV8

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