Mazda's MX-5 has been a class- leader in delivering soft-top fun and driver satisfaction since 1989. Now in its fourth iteration, no other rear-wheel- drive lightweight sports car
under £25,000 has ever been able to match it.
In April this year, Mazda celebrated the fact that the millionth MX-5 had rolled off the production line. 27 years after the Japanese carmaker started manufacturing the iconic roadster, we headed into the depths of the Welsh countryside with an example from each generation. We reminisced, hitting the winding roads in convoy to remind ourselves why we adore this little car.
The models can clearly be distinguished by their exterior styling upgrades, but beneath the metal, the four roadsters are very much the same. Does the Mk4 live up to its original predecessor, and has the Mk1 stood the test of time?
Find out below as Andrew Evans and Sophie Williamson-Stothert talk a walk – or a drive, rather – down memory lane.
Mazda MX-5 Mk1, 1989 – 1998
Originally a project mooted by American motoring journalist Bob Hall, it was a classic British sports car designed by Mazda's Californian studio and prototyped in the UK.
Built around the Japanese principle of 'jinba ittai' – the horse and the rider acting as one – the MX-5 was designed to be more than a car that you just drive, rather an extension of the driver.
One thing it wasn't originally was a performance car, despite the low kerb weights – early cars weighed around 980kg and took more than eight seconds to bring up the 60mph mark – with later cars only mustering 90hp from a similar unit.
For 1994 and onwards, the regular MX-5 came with an improved 1.8-litre 4-cylinder unit, producing 130hp.
Mazda MX-5 Mk2, 1998 – 2005
The second iteration preserved the MX-5's status as an affordable and powerful two-seater legend.
Possibly with a more sanitised look than the original model – and lacking the pop-up headlights, which didn't meet newer pedestrian safety standards – the Mk2 'NB' model lacked something of the charm and joie de vivre of the original car, but it certainly didn't lack its predecessor's ability to thrill.
To our delight, the pokey line-up of 1.6- and 1.8-litre engines and its faultless rear-wheel-drive capabilities remained, with a mild power upgrade. Despite gaining a little weight you could still properly wring the car out between corners and trust it would stick there.
Ultimately, the Mk2 protected Mazda's winning mix of creating an affordable and powerful two-seater legend, only providing more reasons to drive it all year round.
Mazda MX-5 Mk3, 2005 – 2015
While the step from the Mk1 and Mk2 models was very small, 2005's Mk3 represented an all-new model for the MX-5 and it would be fair to say that among enthusiasts it wasn't an entirely well-received one.
For a start, the Mk3 lost the four- wheel double-wishbone suspension of the first two generations, with a rear multilink instead. Moreover, the car had grown in all departments.
Wider, taller and longer, the 'NC' MX-5 wasn't quite the same proposition – to say nothing of the gain in weight.
Engine options shifted to 126hp 1.8-litre and 158hp 2.0-litre MZR four-cylinder petrol units, both of which you could find badged as Duratec engines in the Ford Focus – Ford owning a third of the Mazda company at the time.
Despite the extra power, the MX-5 was no faster than before thanks to the weight gain. However, Mazda had kept the successful recipe in place, so the MX-5 was still a car for those who liked the bends rather than the boring bits between them.
Mazda MX-5 Mk4, 2015 to present
We all asked that question... Could the fourth-generation MX-5 possibly continue the legacy of its predecessors? The answer was yes.
Although some traditional MX-5 design cues are carried over, this is a completely new car with a wider stance and exaggerated curves.
Under the bonnet, you can choose between either a 1.5-litre or a 2.0-litre petrol engine, both made as light as possible to keep the weight of the car to a minimum. The 1.5 offers 129bhp – a higher output than the Mk2 1.8-litre – while the 2.0-litre ups this to a livelier 159bhp.
Mazda has kept the MX-5 as simple as possible, ensuring that it remains a driver's car before a show car. As well as the car being much more practical, safe and economical than before, Mazda has managed to do all this while decreasing the weight, too.