Since its introduction in 1989, more than 720,000 MX-5s have been snapped up, making it the best-selling sports car the world has ever known.
This feature was originally published in MOTOR’s December 2006 issue
The bare-bones open-topper was the spiritual successor to British roadsters like the Triumph Spitfire, Austin-Healey Sprite, MG Midget, and Lotus Elan – only it was better than all of them. Mazda took the best aspects of each of these iconic cars (even the Elan’s sweet exhaust note), and put them into one neat, reliable package.
Lightweight, well-balanced and inexpensive, MX-5 immediately won a legion of fans who've stuck by it through three generations – NA (’89-’97), NB (’98-’04) and now NC (’05- ).
In that time, the car has gained kilowatts and kilograms, and undergone body and chassis tweaks, all in the name of progress. But some reckon Mazda got it right first time and that the NA is yet to be outdone.
Well, we thought we'd put theory to the test and rustled up an example from each generation to belt around Adelaide International Raceway. To keep it all nice and professional, we roped in GTP competitor and Mitsubishi test-driver Steve Knight to hot-lap our fleet.
Representing the original MX-5 is a 1994 NA Clubman – the model that purists claim is the finest of the breed. Along with Clubman-specific gear like an LSD, Bilstein shocks and manual steering, the 990kg ragtop runs the 98kW/155Nm 1839cc four-pot introduced in late-'93 as a replacement for the 85kW/130Nm 1597cc version, plus stronger bracing of the rear suspension and cabin centre structure.
Next is the middle child, the NB MX-5. It looks more mature with fixed, ovoid-style headlights, while power comes from a tweaked 1.8 with 106kW and 165Nm – handy as the car’s weight increases to 1026kg.
Last but not least is the current NC MX-5. With its new 1998cc four-cylinder engine punching out 118kW and 188Nm, it’s the heavy hitter of the family. Weight jumps to 1106kg and it sits on bigger 17-inch alloys – the NA and NB wear 14- and 15-inch alloys, respectively.
Mazda MX-5 NA Clubman
With the Drift Box unconventionally fitted to the Clubman, thanks to a dodgy cigarette lighter, Knight hops in and bangs out a couple of hot laps. On the standard Bilsteins and 14-inch road tyres, the lightweight Clubman is predictable and communicative under brakes and through the turns. So well-balanced is the car that halfway through the first corner it’s actually carrying the same speed as the more powerful NC MX-5.
MX-5 Comparison: NA v ND
The NA Clubman’s biggest problem is its shabby acceleration. The 1.8-litre engine is huffing out just 98kW, so the NA is really struggling to pick up its skirts and get going out of the corners. It has all the right gear with its Bilstein shocks and Torsen diff (Mazda also turfed out the power steering), but the 1.8-litre engine just lacks the sophistication of the NB’s upgraded version.
The NA Clubman manages a top speed of 157km/h down the straight, and through all the corners it sits neatly between its siblings, only losing out in acceleration. It might not be the quickest, but it's a competent little car and possibly the most consistent of the three. Its lap time of 1:16.59sec is the time for the others to beat.
Fastest Lap: 1:16.59 | Top Speed: 159km/h
"You can really feel the lack of power steering in the NA, but it still steers really well, and while it’s a bit slow in a straight line, it feels just as quick through the corners as the others. On occasion it felt a bit bouncy, like it was oversprung and underdamped. It was a nice car to drive – reminiscent of driving an MGB."
Mazda MX-5 NB
Released in 1998, the NB runs the same 1.8-litre four-potter as the NA Clubman, but its engine copped several tweaks over the earlier car. It benefitted from a lighter flywheel, a twin-tract intake manifold, and a compression ratio upped from 9.0:1 to 9.5:1. Power jumps to 106kW; it isn’t a huge leap, but it’s enough to make it feel more nimble and spritely.
This shows on the track where the NB is able to exit corners much harder and build speed quicker than the NA. It lapped faster than the NA, too, thanks mostly to an extra 10km/h down the main straight. In fact, it’s fastest lap of 1:13.40 was the best on the day, making the NB the track champion.
In a number of instances, the second-generation MX-5 is actually carrying a much higher corner speed than either the NA or the NC, and only really loses out to the NC in peak speed. Thanks to its better-breathing engine, grippier 195/50R15 tyres, and its still-trim 1026kg weight, the NB MX-5 is clearly the best balanced and quicker in the tight stuff.
Sweet Dream: MX-5 SP
Indeed, coming into the kink, in the back half of the track, it is carrying 11km/h more speed than the NA and a massive 14km/h more than the NC MX-5.
Fastest Lap: 1:13.40 | Top Speed: 169km/h
"I felt a lot more in touch with this car than with either the NC or the NA; it was just excellent to drive. It offered plenty of feel and was really comfortable to drive on the edge. The suspension feels much better than the NC and it’s a lot more playful. It’s a much more down-to-earth, multi-use car than the other two."
Mazda MX-5 NC
The NC MX-5 has won plenty of awards, and it’s easily the most powerful of the breed. Its 2.0-litre four-cylinder S-VT engine produces 118kW (at 6700rpm) and 188Nm (at 5000rpm), but that extra oomph is soaked up by the extra weight – a good 80kg heavier than the NB.
But it doesn’t work out that way on the track, with the NC posting a peak speed down the straight of 173km/h. It also manages to accelerate harder than the other two, but its ability to carry speed through the corners doesn’t seem proportionate. This is because the extra weight forces you to brake much earlier than either the NA or NB.
There’s not as much feel as those two either, with Mazda going for a softer set-up to appeal more to road users. Ultimately, this is where the majority of use is, but the compromise is a doughy, less accurate package. While that reduces its effectiveness on the track compared to the earlier generations, with a bit more time, we reckon it could have improved by a couple of 10ths.
MOTOR comparison: MX-5 RF Limited Edition v BRZ tS v 86 Performance Pack
Fastest Lap: 1:14.20 | Top Speed: 173km/h
"It’s a nice car to drive, though it doesn’t feel overly powerful. And the suspension is way too soft for serious track use. It just doesn’t seem to have enough damping either. It turns in nicely, though, and it would be great around town, but it’s not a serious weekend track car in this trim. It just feels sterile and compromised."
It isn’t that simple to pick a winner in this one. Sure the lap times suggest the NB MX-5 is the pick of the bunch, but if you have a squiz at the speed trace you’ll notice each generation has its moment
of strength and weakness.
But it’s plain to see that with each generation, mechanical enhancements mean there has been noticeable improvements to acceleration and mid-corner balance. We weren’t able to lay down
0-100km/h times, but the result would have seen the NA storm home leading the NB which, in turn, would have finished ahead of the NC.
Around the track the NC impressed with its acceleration, but that’s not surprising. What was surprising, though, was its inability to lead the others through the corners. On more than one occasion it lost out to the NB and NA in speed into and through a corner. The NA was impressive, but for different reasons, and while it wasn’t as quick as the others, it was consistent.
But we want a winner. So for its almost-invisible nature, its awesome balance and its perfect blend of luxury and performance and for the fact it’s quicker around the track, and that it’s a steal on the used car market, the win goes to the NB MX-5. It’s not the original and it’s not the newest, but it’s definitely the best.
|NA MX-5 Clubman||NB MX-5||NC MX-5|
|Engine||1839cc DOHC 16-valve in-line four-cylinder||1839cc DOHC 16-valve in-line four-cylinder||1998cc DOHC 16-valve in-line four-cylinder|
|Wheels/Tyres||14x6in, 185/60R14||15x6in, 195/50R15||17x7in, 205/45R17|
|Price in 2006||$8,900-$11,900 (Red Book)||$10,800-$13,300 (Red Book)||$16,200-$19,100 (Red Book)|