There’s something quite satisfying about seeing every generation of a particular car neatly lined up in age order. Particularly if - as is the case now - the family reunion involves one of the most well-loved and best selling sports cars of all time: the Mazda MX-5.
There’s a group of us serenely examining the scene, on a peaceful and sunny day. Except that peace has just been shattered, with the angry buzzing of a camera-equipped UAV hovering overhead, and CT editor-in-chief Alex Kersten exploding into the scene sideways in his own first-generation MX-5, aftermarket exhaust and turbocharger making a tremendous racket as he makes his unsubtle entrance.
I’ve never been a particularly huge fan of the Miata, and will happily admit to occasionally poking fun at Alex for his extreme love of ‘Phil’, his long-term Mk1 project, but even I can see that this is already shaping up to be a bloody entertaining day. We have the keys to every generation of MX-5, a big test facility at our disposal, and a variety of hair care equipment should we need it. No, really…
Unlike the big M3 generations test we did late last year, this time around I seem to be sampling all the cars in age order. So first up, it’s the Mk1. I’ve never been a huge fan of the original Miata’s cutesy looks, but this clean, bog-standard Laguna Blue example from Mazda’s UK heritage fleet really is a pretty little thing.
Slipping inside the compact cabin, and I have a simple, slightly dreary space greeting me. Still, should I wish to liven things up, I could always pop open the armrest cubby hole and retrieve the Ricky Martin cassette tape which is living there for whatever reason.
A twist of the key sees the 130bhp, 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine fire into life, settling to a quiet and reasonably refined idle. The lack of drama isn’t surprising, no standard MX-5 is particularly well-endowed in the internal combustion department after all.
The car has been pre-warmed, so I can give it the beans straight away. This fills the cabin with a not too unpleasant noise as I explore the upper reaches of the rev range, while giving something vaguely akin to forward momentum. Fast it isn’t, but it’s not sluggish either, and knocking that deliciously short-shifting gear lever back and forth is immensely satisfying. Crap gear changes are a bugbear of mine, but you won’t be getting any complaints from me today in this car.
Of course, the whole point about MX-5s isn’t straight-line speed, it’s supposed to be about cornering hard and having fun. And this is where the Mk1 gets interesting. Entering the first bend of Longcross’ Alpine handing circuit at what I think is a sensible speed, the Mk1 tilts over to a hysterically extreme degree.
A little more commitment for the next corner, and we’ve got more roll, a loss of traction at the rear, and a hilarious galloping motion as the super soft suspension hops and flops around at the back. None of this feels dangerous: the speeds are too low for any sense of peril…
Switching to the Arizona special edition Mk2, splashed in an eye-catching bright yellow finish called, erm, Arizona, and I’m given a potent dose of deja vu since I ran a Mk2 for a couple of years. Mine didn’t feature a Ricky Martin tape, however.
In the corners it’s more of the same terrific lean and floppy rear, despite the fact it’s a good six years younger than the blue Mk1.
Thanks to a standard-fit stainless steel exhaust I’m treated to a much more pleasant four-pot zing whenever I hit high revs, but this time progress is painfully slow. Why? Because this car - another Mazda UK heritage car like the Mk1 and Mk3 we have here - is fitted with the lowly 1.6-litre engine, meaning I have all of 90 lethargic ponies to play with. I know the MX-5 isn’t supposed to be about scorching performance, but this is ridiculous. Still, there’s the same crisp, satisfying gearshift to play around with.
Stepping out of the Mk2 and examining it carefully in our Miata line-up, it’s clear to me it’s the least attractive of all four generations, not to mention the least appealing overall.
Precious little changed from Mk1 to Mk2 other than the addition of that ungainly body with its bulbous front end, plus more weight to blunt performance. But the Mk3? That’s a whole different animal.
Mazda unveiled the Mk3 in 2005 as an entirely new version of the MX-5, and unlike the previous two, it wasn’t anywhere near as adorable thanks to its wheel arch bulges and overall more aggressive aesthetic. And despite being packed full of safety features and being noticeably bigger than the Mk2, weight gain was minimal thanks to Mazda’s anal ‘gram strategy’. A few smaller screws here, some plastic trim reduced in size there, and the swapping of steel parts for aluminium - it all adds up to a substantial saving in weight.
Early cars came in for a little flack for not being quite as ‘pure’ to drive as their predecessors from roadtesters at the time, but there’s no question that by the end of its life the Mk3 was properly sorted in the handling department. This particular Mk3 is one of the last: it’s the 25th Anniversary Special, and as a nice bonus, it’s number one of the production run of 1000.
The difference in equipment is stark: in the Mk1 you don’t even get electric windows. But here, you get air conditioning, satellite navigation, cruise control and an electric folding roof, albeit with a manual release. Despite all that, it doesn’t seem dripping with luxury inside. It still feels basic and pared back, as it should do.
And at last, as I pull away with a little chirrup from the rear tyres briefly losing traction, this is an MX-5 that feels brisk, if not shockingly fast. The 158bhp 2.0-litre engine sounds pretty decent, too, and of course there’s another sweet, short-shifting manual gearbox to row through, this time a six-speeder. It doesn’t quite have the mechanical feel of the previous two generations, though.
The great thing about cars like these is you can pick them up and immediately push the limits of what they can do. And as I’m doing that, all the floppiness of the first two cars is but a distant memory.
Thanks to the wonders of modern suspension and the fact this Mk3 is only a couple of years old, it’s way, way tidier when pitched into a tight corner at high speeds. And while traction at the rear is good, it is still willing to pop the back out without too much effort once you push past the initial understeer.
With the day drawing to a close, I throw the keys of the Mk3 to CT Staff Writer Neil to punt it past the camera a few times, and slide behind the wheel of the Mk4. Surprisingly, I’m not blinded by the bright paintwork before I get in. You see, this is no ordinary Mk4, it’s ‘our’ Mk4 long-term test car, and Alex decided to get a rather distinctive ’Car Throttle Orange’ liquid wrap.
I’m still in two minds about it, but what I’m much more sure about is the way I feel about the Mk4’s looks. It’s the most handsome of the four I reckon, with its sharp lines and angry face. I’m also a fan of the interior with its swooping dash and minimalist aesthetic, but ours isn’t quite specced up as nicely as the last Mk4 I drove, leaving the cabin as a relatively uninteresting sea of greys and blacks.
Ours is also the base 1.5-litre model rather than the 2.0-litre. A sizeable cluster of motoring journos insist that the 1.5 is the sweeter car and the pick of the range, but I wholeheartedly disagree. And a few minutes into the drive, nothing has happened to change my mind.
With 131bhp to its name it never feels even remotely swift, despite having only 1050kg - not far off the weight figure of the Mk1 - to cart about. It does sound good though, with its rorty induction bark making it the most pleasant to my ears of all the generations. And what’s also better here than in all the others is the gear change: like the previous three generations it’s a beautifully short and precise throw, but is just that little bit sweeter and more mechanical than the Mk3.
Muscling into one of the test course’s latter corners - the one where Ethan is stationed, expecting a decent turn of speed for the camera - I muster as much bravery as possible, and am not entirely convinced by the way the car feels as I thread through the bend. I’m treated to brilliantly quick steering (although the electric setup does lose a little feedback over the Mk3’s hydraulic system), and at the same time a surprising amount of body roll. It really is noticeable just how much softer it is than the Mk3.
You learn to cope with the softness, and behind it all there is the brilliantly balanced chassis you expect from an MX-5 - perhaps with a slightly more playful rear-end this time around - but I just can’t help but feel I’d be enjoying myself more with lower, firmer suspension.
We get the call to say the track is closing and are politely told to GTFO leaving nothing to do but watch the heritage cars being carefully loaded into the back of a gigantic lorry with ‘our’ bright orange Mk4 looking on. As they tick themselves cool - tyre tread slightly lower than at the beginning of the day - I’m having a tough time contemplating my favourite.
The Mk1 is entertaining in its own way, but I wouldn’t be happy with it in its standard state: at the very least I’d want to fit modern, stiffer suspension. But that’s what’s great about the Mk1: it’s blank canvas. An affordable, rear-drive sports car template ready to be festooned with whichever mods you see fit. As I look over to Alex’s heavily modified first-gen, I can see why it was chosen as a starting point.
It’s the same deal with the second-gen car, but it’s the weak link of the four. It didn’t do enough to move the game on, and instead just put on weight and gained some dubious new styling.
So, that just leaves the Mk3 and 4. And a difficult choice. “I feel like what I want is everything from the Mk4, but with the Mk3’s suspension,” I say to Neil and CT CEO Adnan, who both look at me quizzically. And that’s as far as I get: I jump in our Jaguar XE S longtermer and leave the test track without a decision being made.
Fast forward a couple of weeks, and I’ve realised why: my perfect MX-5 wasn’t there that day. Sounds like a cataclysmic cop-out, but stick with me here. My perfect MX-5 is the Recaro edition (left), and within the first few hundred metres of driving one I knew it was everything I wished our boggo 1.5 was.
It’s the 2.0-litre version so it has a decent amount of power. It has a limited-slip differential and - crucially - lower and stiffer suspension. It’s a much more grown-up, tidy thing to drive without taking itself too seriously.
To conclude then, while you do have to think carefully about which particular version you buy, the latest generation of the MX-5 is our pick of the bunch. In the right guise it’s the best to drive, and it’s amazing that Mazda has managed to pack it full of all the usual modern safety features and kit buyers expect while still keeping the weight figure absurdly low.
But going back to that day with all four generations, it’s important to note there was one very prominent theme: fun. Everyone who got behind the wheel of a Miata on our test spent their time grinning like an idiot, and it’s pleasing to see that over 27 years, four generations and one million cars sold, that sense of fun hasn’t been lost. Long may it continue.