The MX-5 Star; after 320 Design Sketches, Seven Scale Models and Three Prototypes, Mazda Unveils the Successor to Its Legendary Roadster ...and It's a Corker
Byline: RUSSELL BRAY
Sixteen years ago it looked as if safety regulations, Government attitudes, a lack of new models and buyer apathy would kill off the traditional, compact wind-in-your-hair sports car.
But, inspired by the passion of an engineer who drove a classic Lotus Elan, Mazda decided to risk entering this dying market with a brand new lightweight affordable roadster, the MX-5.
It was a brilliant decision. In April they sold their 720,000th MX-5, giving it a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the best-selling twoseater convertible sports car ever.
The original car was so spot-on with its back-to-basics approach that a second generation model wasn't introduced for eight years.
A small revamp followed in 2000 but now an entirely new car is about to hit these shores.
From Friday, members of the MX-5 Owners' Club will be given access to a special website enabling them to be first in the queue to order the new model, which arrives in November. The rest of us will have to wait until August 1.
Some sports cars are as easy to live with as a gorilla, but the little Mazda has always been an easygoing companion and the company was determined not to lose its everyday driveability for generation three.
The new MX-5 is virtually guaranteed to be a sales success if only because its main UK rival, the MGTF, has temporarily disappeared with the collapse of MG Rover.
Another rival, Toyota's MR2, is also on the way out - sadly, it will fall victim next year to tougher European engine pollution regulations.
To update the MX-5's classic frontengine, rear-wheel-drive formula Mazda went back to the first MX-5 and tracked down the man with the Elan, former engineer and car nut Toshihiko Hirai, now retired from teaching at a Japanese university. He returned to the company to explain to its young staff about the car's essential qualities and even loaned his original car to the development team.
Car engineering can be a coldhearted business but, with the MX-5, values such as fun and good looks are given a higher priority than strict engineering parameters.
How the car feels and sounds to the driver is considered as important as bald statistics such as acceleration times.
Continuing a legend was always going to be difficult and Mazda worked through 320 design sketches, seven scale models and three full-size models from its design studios in California, Frankfurt and Hiroshima. The Hiroshima design won, though there are some touches from the other two.
While instantly recognisable as an MX-5, the only part carried over from the current model is the side indicator repeater light on the front wings.
The new model looks more muscular and masculine than its curvier, more feminine predecessor, though it is only when you park next to a first-generation MX-5 that you appreciate how dainty and meeklooking it was.
But even today's meatier incarnation is more likely to generate smiles than have people recoiling in fear.
Knowing that weight has a dramatically negative influence on cornering, braking and acceleration, Mazda has decided to make every gram count and, though the car is bigger, much more rigid and better equipped, it is only 22lb heavier.
British drivers will get the choice of a 125bhp 1.8-litre petrol engine with a five-speed manual gearbox or a 158bhp 2-litre petrol, with either five or six speeds. …