Mazda MX-5

Don’t kill off the city car – they’re too much fun

NOT LONG ago I was lucky enough to be granted an audience with the chap who designed the original Mazda MX-5 – you know, the one with the pop-up headlights. Only, as it turns out, he never actually wanted it to have them because they added weight.

You’d like Tom Matano. He’s a proper petrolhead who hates cars, in his own words, “designed by committees and market researchers”, and has a soft spot for the Mini. He also reckons that ditching rev-happy, twin cam petrol engines for on-trend electric motors won’t do the world’s biggest-selling sports car a jot of harm – but only if the delicate handling isn’t ruined in the process.

Yet the one slightly depressing nugget of motoring wisdom that he shared with me is why all the other carmakers have stopped copying the MX-5’s formula for small, simple, open-top sports cars – it’s because the numbers no longer add up. There is no modern day MGF because it wouldn’t be worth someone making it.

This exactly what we’ve already seen with a couple of other endangered automotive species. The Vauxhall Insignia and Ford Mondeo are just about keeping the family saloon on life support, the Renault Espace-sized MPV has been all but obliterated by its smaller rivals and crossovers, and the small, two-door coupe is dead. The MINI Coupe and the Honda CR-Z offered a glimmer of hope for the latter, but both neither sold brilliantly here, and have long since disappeared from the showrooms.

But now there could be an even more serious casualty – the small city car, and it’s emissions regulations that are to blame. Because they’re worked out on the average CO2 a carmaker’s entire range puts out, it’s much easier and cheaper to lower the amount of nasty gases coming out of a gas-guzzling larger model, and more palatable to convert them into plug-in hybrid of electric-only models. As a result, it’s less profitable to make the smallest models – which is why the Vauxhall Viva, Ford Ka and Peugeot 108 are probably looking a tad worried by now.

Which is a real shame, I reckon, because it’s usually a carmaker’s titchiest offerings that are the most involving and least pretentious. Given the choice between a Ferrari 488 Pista and a Citroen C1 and told to go out and spend a wet October morning on any of West Lancashire’s narrow, bumpy roads, I’d pick the tiny French hatchback every time because you can use all of its power and grip, all of the time. It’s the same with the Volkswagen Up, Ford Ka and all of the other small cars in this sort of price bracket – the emphasis is on simple, lightweight tech and small petrol engines, and they’re always somehow more satisfying than their heavy, hybrid hatchback bigger brothers.

As I see it there are only two solutions. Either the EU thinks up a different way of laying out its emissions regulations, or the only carmaker that can be relied upon to come up with brilliant small cars, time and time again, comes up with a tiny hatchback so stunning that everyone feels compelled to copy it. The sort of ground-breaking car that sticks its fingers up at the management committees and market researchers, and gets a thumbs up from Tom Matano instead.

I sincerely hope someone at Fiat reads The Champion

How my MX-5 helped to break two world recordS

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LAST weekend I broke a Guinness World Record. Well, me and 1,543 other people, from all walks of life and every corner of the country.

What did we all have in common, other than all happening to be on the same windswept airfield in North Yorkshire last Sunday? The Mazda MX-5. You won’t have seen it because all the news cameras were down in London focusing on some running event that took place the same day but the result was spectacular; a convoy of sports cars stretching as far as the eye could see, all moving in unison. It was spread across four lanes of cars taking up the entire length of Elvington’s three-kilometre runway and back again, plus the taxiways linking it all together. So there you have it – the world record for the biggest ever parade of convertibles now belongs to a load of us who own Mazda MX-5s (and the record for the biggest ever parade of Mazdas too, for that matter).

There were MX-5s everywhere, but if you’d have been in for a bit of a shock if you think that once you’ve seen one MX-5, that you’ve seen them all. Sure, there were shedloads of bog-standard cars, but there were also super-rare BBR Turbo models and RS models shipped in specially from Japan. There were lads who tricked theirs up with big alloys and bodykits, and a lady who’d given hers some TVR Tuscan-esque flip paintwork. And, of course, mine; a Eunos V-Spec with lots of little luxuries that were never offered here on the UK MX-5s. Say what you like about the world’s best-selling sports car being fitted with an auto box, but I’ll have the wood, leather and air con any day.

But the really big shock was getting out of Yorkshire and back to reality. Head out in an MG or an Alfa Spider and you’re virtually guaranteed a cheery wave if you pass a fellow owner coming the other way, but in an MX-5 it’s a rare occurrence, and even now, three decades after the MkI was originally launched, you’ll still get occasional sneering comment if you take one to a classic car show.

Which is all Mazda’s fault, of course. Had it made the MX-5 a bad car that breaks down all the time, fewer people would’ve bought them and wouldn’t have been inclined to use them as daily drivers. I know plenty of people who still use MX-5s fast approaching their 30th birthday as everyday cars – which means you see them more often, and that sort of takes away the novelty. Which is why, I figure, most of them don’t wave.

I reckon it’s time they started giving those cheery waves in the same way other owners of old cars do – and that they get their names down next time there’s another attempt at the record. At the last count there were 26,438 MX-5s on the UK’s roads – a​nd I’m sure a few of the 95% who didn’t take part last weekend would be another go.

They’re going to need a longer runway next time.