There is something special about a sports car. Not a sporty car, but a true sports car with two doors, two seats and a removable top.
It has to be light, and lithe with a drivetrain designed to encourage and reward.
There are very few of these currently on the affordable end of the new car market. Only two come to mind — the Mazda MX-5, and the Fiat Spyder, a lightly re-skinned version with a different engine.
The MX-5 — nee Miata — is the best selling sports car of all time, for a good reason. It brought reliability, and quality to a segment previously the exclusive domain of British and Italian car companies.
Sluggish sales resulting from miserable quality and reliability, combined with tougher crash, and emission standards spelled the end of the affordable European sports car. Mazda saw this as an opportunity. The tiny Japanese company, with a focus on engineering, and driver enjoyment knew there were consumers around the world who wanted a small sports car.
The market was not big, in fact tiny. But it was there, and an opportunity to become a showcase for a brand, and its desire to produce cars for people who like to drive. The first Miata appeared in the spring of 1989.
I confess that I have a personal connection with that occasion. Prior to shipping the first batch of Miatas to North America, Mazda sent a few pre-production models, and a group of engineers half way across the Pacific — to Hawaii.
They invited journalists from all the big American newspapers and enthusiast magazines, as well as a few Canadian scribes, to drive their new sports car and provide feedback.
In addition to driving on public roads they set up a high-speed autocross or gymkhana on the vast parking lots surrounding Aloha stadium. This allowed a true feel for the sports car at — and beyond — its considerable limits.
The plaque on the small trophy in my office reads “1989, Mazda MX-5 Miata, Press Preview in Hawaii, First Place, Gymkhana event.”
Obviously I am biased — and have been for almost 30 years. The MX-5 was and is the personification of the sports car.
In the interim is has grown slightly, most of the extra size and weight necessary to meet safety standards. That first Miata had a 1.6-litre, four-cylinder engine producing 115 horsepower.
As weight and size increased to meet regulations the MX-5 has gained power gradually, retaining almost the same power-to-weight ratio as that original.
Until the fourth-generation model was introduced in 2016. At that time both power and weight were reduced. Power was down to 155 horses, but thanks to its lighter weight and amazing suspension, enjoyment suffered little.
Turbocharging has become common practice in finding more power. But it brings a delay in throttle response as the turbo spools up.
That is contrary to the Mazda way of thinking. So the 2019 MX-5 gets the company’s Skyactiv-G 2.0-litre engine, putting 26 more horses under the hood (11 more than 2015), and hiking the redline from 6,800 rpm to 7,500. Since weight is up only marginally, this results in a major hike in performance, and the immediate throttle response of a naturally aspirated engine.
Other updates for the 2019 model include smart city brake support, lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring and a rear-view camera.
A tilt and telescope steering column allows a wider range of drivers to find a comfortable relationship with the controls.
Ensconced behind that wheel, with those controls at your fingertips, you get to enjoy all that makes the MX-5 one of the most enjoyable experiences on four tires.
The lightweight little car responds to every input with uncanny immediacy and accuracy. It’s as if all you have to do is think about a change in direction or speed and it is done.
The six-speed manual transmission remains a delight allowing you to change gears with a flick of the wrist. The brakes are linear and powerful. The steering is nothing short of telepathic.
MX-5 aficionados — and there are hundreds of thousands of them around the globe — will enjoy the added performance.
And they will be heartened by the fact it remains a pure, lightweight sports car.
- Model: 2019 Mazda MX-5 GT
- Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, 181 horsepower, 151 lb.-ft. of torque, premium fuel recommended
- Transmission: six-speed manual
- NRCan rating (litres/100km city/highway): 9.0 / 7.0
- Length: 3,914 mm
- Wheelbase: 2,309 mm
- Weight: 1,065 kg
- Price: $39,900 base, $42,095 as tested, including freight
- Standard equipment: 17-inch alloy wheels, sport suspension with Bilstein shock absorbers, limited slip differential, strut tower bar, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, automatic high beams, lane departure warning, smart city brake support, traffic sign recognition, rear view camera, automatic levelling LED headlights, 17-cm colour touchscreen with Mazda Connect, HMI Commander, navigation, nine-speaker Bose audio system (including driver and passenger headrest speakers and subwoofer), tilt and telescopic steering wheel, push button start, keyless entry, automatic climate control and rain sensing wipers.
- Options on test vehicle: chroma brown Nappa leather, $400