In March of 1990 we put the original Mazda MX-5 to the test; how much has changed?
Kris Culmer
22 September 2016

Autocar’s very own Jim Holder recently drove the fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 Icon all the way around Iceland. He returned with nothing but praise for the famed roadster, and it got us thinking. 

Throughout the MX-5’s lifetime, the automotive world has had a tough time finding enough unhackneyed ways to praise its supreme balance, handling, and accommodating driving experience.

How did we react, then, when we first got behind the wheel of the original model, back in 1990?

“The world’s most written-about and, arguably, most desirable affordable car is here at last,” Autocar proclaimed.

‘That an ocean of ink should be expended on a car with a top speed of just 114mph and a 0-60mph time of 9.1sec comes as no surprise when you see it – and drive it,” we said. “This is the two-seat roadster that car enthusiasts have been screaming for since the demise of the old Lotus Elan.”

Rivals were scarce, consisting of small-batch English sports cars – the TVR S2, Caterham 7, Reliant Scimitar, Lotus Elan and Morgan +4. 

Despite it not being shockingly quick, we were full of praise right off the bat.

“As with everything the MX-5 does, it’s not the result but the participation that puts a smile on your face.”

The MX-5’s front-mounted 114bhp engine had “the two ingredients essential in any sports car powerplant: instant throttle response and an invigorating exhaust note,” making for an “aural as well as tactile pleasure.”

We continued: “However, the real ace up the MX-5’s sleeve is its gearbox. Rising no more than a couple of inches from the transmission tunnel, the well weighted gear lever snaps through its tiny throws with millimetric precision.

“The whole driveline encourages you to drive as precisely as it operates. Coordinate the light, quick clutch with that rifle bolt of a gearchange and combine the two with the split second reactions of the engine and you will be rewarded with a rare degree of driver satisfaction: more than enough to make you forget the lack of outright performance.”

Next up was the now-legendary handling and ride.

“The MX-5 proves that the days when Japanese sports cars had advanced engines powering retarded chassis are over,” we blurted. Yes, really.

“It takes just one blast down a favourite country road to make you realise the MX-5 has a chassis that performs beyond all reasonable expectation.

“Through flat-out sweeping bends the MX-5’s balance is breathtaking. Once you have settled in the corner it will fly round, glued unerringly to your chosen line.”

However, there was a slight downside: “One sacrifice that sports car enthusiasts have almost always had to make is comfort. And the MX-5 is no different. The price to be paid for its superb handling is stiff suspension and a correspondingly firm ride.”

Then again, what is one letdown amongst a sea of pleasant surprises?

Of the interior, we were again impressed: “Sit in the driver’s seat and apart from the non-adjustable steering wheel being a shade too low, every control is just where you need it. The pedals offset to the right, are perfectly aligned for the heel and toe downchanges the MX-5 demands on a quick run.”

Meanwhile, the gearlever was positioned just so, and the instruments were “delightfully simple and legible.”

Some things don’t change, and the original MX-5 had just an accommodating interior as its modern equivalent.

“Even with the hood up there is no shortage of room,” we said.

“Deep footwells and a decent clutch rest keeps cramp out of your feet and even drivers well over six foot should have no problems with headroom.

“The build quality of the test car was beyond reproach, combining gleaming red paintwork with tight fitting panels and a leak-free hood.”

It’s fair to say that Autocar was totally delighted with the plucky Hiroshima firm’s revelatory roadster.

“The MX-5 is a total success,” we concluded.

“Mazda’s single-minded determination to provide fun has produced a car of the rarest quality. Above all else it is its ability to involve the driver intimately in its every reaction and response that makes it a joy to drive. Few others, at any price, can offer so much.”

A full nine out of ten star review.

Our Verdict

Here is the fourth-gen Mazda MX-5 - the definitive small sports car

Fourth-generation MX-5 heads back to the roadster's roots

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