Friday, 17 June 2016

Challenges of an Automotive Icon - Mazda MX-5

Could it be that Fiat has released a better MX-5?
Four Generations of MX-5s

Let me be clear, I'm a huge fan of the MX-5.  In fact I own two of them - 1994 NA8 Clubman2002 NB8B SP.  And to put things in perspective, here's a summary of the models I have…

My MX-5s

1994 MX-5 Clubman [NA8]
The NA8 Clubman has a standard 1.8 litre DOHC engine but fitted with larger diameter anti-roll bars, Bilstein suspension, and a Mazda limited slip differential.  It can be differentiated on the outside from regular NA8 MX-5s by the Bilstein decals on both rear flanks of the front wheel arch, and the Clubman badge at the boot lid rear deck. 

The Clubman name was only used in Australia.  The same spec model was named differently in various overseas markets.  The production of this model was not limited.  It was part of the regular MX-5 line-up in Australia [between 1993-1995, then an order only model until the end of the NA8 production, in 1997]

Mazda MX-5 Clubman
Mazda released this in Australia for racers who wanted an excellent base car on which to build on for club level motorsport.  That's why the Clubman didn't come with power-steering, and air conditioning was a factory fitted [extra cost] option.

My MX-5 Clubman in race mode
I bought mine second hand in 2008 with the purpose of participating in the MX-5 Club track days, competing in Class A [1.6lt - 1.8lt factory standard road legal cars - NO modifications allowed].  My car had only travelled a little under 60,000 kms when I got her.  It spent most of its days parked in the garage, so I'm told.

According to the original owner (a doctor), bought this car for his wife as a present in 1994.  But the wife found the unassisted steering difficult to manage and the stiff / harsh ride [from the stiffer Bilstein suspension] too uncomfortable.  Thus it was hardly driven in its previous 14 years of its life.  It was in really great condition.  And I'm glad to say it still is.
Hats off to the salesperson for a sterling effort selling this model to the original owner.  As no one in their right mind would get the Clubman - a track focus version - as a daily driven convertible for the wife.  Unless you hate her. :)

Good 'ol #7 in another MX-5 Club track day

2002 MX-5 SP [NB8B]
The NB8B SP was a different story.  The SP was a Mazda Australia only [developed and produced] limited edition model of which only 100 were built.  The development of the car was led by Allan Horsley - whom at the time managed Mazda's defacto racing team - SP Motorsport - in Australia.  Hence the SP name.
My [NB8B] MX-5 SP
What is so special about the MX-5 SP?  The heart of the SP is a 1.8 litre turbocharged engine with a full 2 inch stainless steel exhaust.  This boosted the power by 44kw (113 vs 157) and torque by 108 Nm (181 vs 289), while only increasing weight by 29kg (1090 vs 1119).

MX-5 SP engine bay
This improved the power to weight ratio (W/kg) from 103.7 to 140.3.  Resulting in an impressive 0-100km/h times of 6 seconds (vs 8.5 secs).  And in 2002 put it squarely in the performance territory of the legendary tarmac scorchers, AWD turbocharged duo: Subaru WRX Impreza and Mitsubishi Evolution VII.  And it was faster than the turbocharged RWD Nissan 240SX [or Silvia as it's known in Japan] available at the time.

2" stainless steel exhaust
Apart from a turbocharger (Garrett T25) and stainless steel exhaust, other addition/changes were:
•  SP front mounted intercooler
•  SP custom made carbon fibre air filter box
•  Mazda front suspension strut brace
•  Mazda brushed aluminium interior trims (air vents, and gear lever surround)

•  Mazda aluminium gear shift lever
•  Mazda chrome fuel cover
•  SP badge decal (located at the rear)
Front mounted intercooler

But no other mechanical changes were made.  The brakes, gearbox, engine internals, suspension and wheel/tyre combo. were all stock MX-5 affair.  It didn't even come with a limited slip differential or body kit [basically from the outside (other than the SP Badge) it looked like any other MX-5, a real sleeper].  Proving what many already knew...that the standard MX-5 chassis can easily handle more power.

The SP Badge

I got my SP brand new in 2002.  But prior to deciding on the SP, I was also looking at the Honda S2000.  But with better "seat off the pants" feel, faster acceleration, model reputation and the camaraderie of MX-5 Club community [along with many motoring journalist praising the SP above the S2000], I bought the SP. 

And I've loved it ever since.  And it continues to brings an ear to ear smile each time I drive it.

2004 MX-5 SE
Unfortunately since the SP, Mazda haven't released an MX-5 model that remotely comes close to it, in terms of performance.  They did a half-bake effort between 2004-2005 with [this time] a global release of a turbocharged model called MX-5 SE (MX-5 Mazdaspeed everywhere else in the world), but its performance [121kw, 206Nm, 7.8 sec for 0-100km/h] was no match to the SP. There's no substitute for higher power-to-weight ratio [SE=110.7 vs SP=140.3].

New MX-5 [ND]
When the new 4th generation MX-5 was released, I liked what I saw.  The improvements made, particularly in the interior was impressive - it elevated the quality of the MX-5 to the next level.  And when I took a test drive on the 2.0 litre GT model, I liked what I heard.  Such a sweet exhaust note.

Fourth Generation [ND] Mazda MX-5

BUT.  There is always a "but".
The exterior design, while not ugly, didn't make me instantly fall in love with it.  It's more a pretty "girl next door" than a supermodel.

Cockpit of the fourth generation MX-5

And the power?... Well, having stepped out of my SP and into the ND 2.0 litre, I found the performance a little underwhelming. No doubt, regular MX-5 drivers and/or new to the brand looking for a great handling roadster will love it.  But for me, it needed more oomph.
But could the winds be changing?
Japanese Roadster with European Style
With the collaboration of Mazda and Fiat [with the next generation Fiat 124 Spider based on the underpinnings of the MX-5 but with Fiat engines], could the MX-5 truly have a genuine competitor on its hands?
On paper this collaboration seems like a match made in heaven - Japanese [Mazda] engineering, reliability and built quality, with Italian design and flair.  It sounded terrific.  Maybe this is the MX-5 to get?

Spy shot of the Fiat 124 Spider
Then camouflaged spy photos of the Fiat 124 Spider started coming out.  From the first photos I thought it looked hideous.  With what seemed like bulging headlights and a more squarer look.  I thought, maybe Mazda got the design of the MX-5 right after all.

When official photos of the production Fiat 124 were released, while it proved to be aesthetically better than the spy photos, there was not much in it as far as which was a better looking car between the two.  MX-5 or 124? 
It really boiled down to your personal preference in style.  And from people I've spoken to, it was a 60/40 split in favour of the Mazda.

2016 Fiat 124 Spider
As for me, if I had to choose from the two, I would have gone with the MX-5, the original, over the standard Fiat 124 Spider.

Mazda MX-5 vs Fiat 124 Spider

Noticed I wrote "Standard"?  That's because a few months after the 124 Spider launch, Fiat showed official photos of the Abarth 124 Spider.  And that changed the dynamics.  Oh, and in-case you didn't know, the "Abarth" name is synonymous with sportier Fiat models. 

2107 Abarth 124 Spider
Abarth 124 Spider
With the Abarth 124 Spider's more aggressive front and rear bumper treatments, and paint scheme [playing homage to the 70's model], it improved what I didn't particularly like about the Fiat 124 Spider.  The Abarth model even made white paint look good.  I thought it balanced the contemporary aggressive and elegant look very well.
Loving the rear bumper treatment and side skirts

I haven't sat-in or driven the Abarth 124 Spider yet as it hasn't been released in this country.  But from what I've read and watched from overseas reviews, the performance isn't that much better than the standard 124 Spider (119kw vs 126kw) or the MX-5 (118kw), but the sound of the exhaust… it's music to car enthusiasts everywhere.

Abarth 124 Spider Heritage

I see the Abarth 124 Spider as an MX-5 with a very stylish Italian suit.  An MX-5 with an Italian Flair.

Mini John Cooper Works [JCW]
I can understand Mazda's dilemma about the MX-5.   After all the MX-5 is an automotive icon.  And you don't want to be known as the person who screwed up an icon.  Nor do anyone want to change a winning formula. 
But icons that do not innovate, or move with the times, or provide what their fans/buyers are asking, can become irrelevant in the marketplace.  Look at the original Mini or VW Beetle. 
BMW had to re-invent the Mini to suit the modern world and appeal to today's buyers' tastes.  And it worked.  The Mini had a resurgent in popularity.  Like a phoenix rising from the ashes.  And it's global sales success is proof.

In addition, MX-5 enthusiasts from every corner of the globe have been asking, even begging, for Mazda to release a performance version of the car.  What we enthusiast are asking for is not to redesign the entire car, but simply to release a version with higher levels of performance.  A sportier version in addition to the standard models. 

Keep the standard model for the purist or to have an affordable entry price point, but release a super sports version to those wanting more performance.  Mini has the Cooper S / JCW editions.  Why can't the MX-5 have an MPS or Mazdaspeed version?

2015 Porsche GT3 RS
Speaking of automotive icons, nothing is more iconic than the Porsche 911.  The undisputed most iconic sports car ever. PERIOD!
Yet, even Porsche regularly releases hyper-sports versions of their 911 [eg. GT3 & GT3 RS].  And you'd hardly call a base 911 lacking in performance would you now?  But there is a market for higher performing Porsches.

The same goes for Ferraris with their "Speciale" and Lamborghinis with their "SV or SuperVeloce" editions.  As for a super MX-5...I feel there is a ready market waiting to paunch if made available.  As Kevin Costner found out in the movie "Field of Dreams", "Build it and they will come".  In the MX-5's case, "Build it and they will sell".  If only Mazda has the nerve to build it.

Ferrari 458 Speciale & Lamborghini Aventador SuperVeloce

So this brings me to the question of... Would the impending release of the Abarth 124 Spider finally motivate Mazda to up the ante and endow the MX-5 with a more powerful engine and aggressive sportier styling?  I really hope so.

Abarth 124 Spider or Mazda MX-5?

'Coz if you ask me now, on which model I would buy today, [and my decision was a surprise even to me] I will be heading towards the Fiat dealership and placing a deposit on the Abarth 124 Spider.  And sadly I'm not the only one.

Sorry Mazda.

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