Humanity is predictable, with our species’ endless drive for more. No sooner do we invent the wheel before it’s used to create trade networks and weapons of war, stonework, and feats of engineering and architecture. Within just a few short years of the creation of the first modern automobile in 1885, humanity made such vehicles faster and formed the first motor sports. And ever since Karl Benz showed us a world without the horse and carriage, it’s safe to say humanity became obsessed with the automobile.
The term sports car has been applied in many ways. To some, it simply means a car that’s fun, while others have a more rigid definition. I fall into the latter category, in large part because of my upbringing around British sports cars of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. No one will argue with a declaration of the low-slung and nimble Austin Healey 3000 and MGA two-seaters as being “proper” sports cars, with their thin canvas tops applied only as an afterthought. And for good reason: Those cars serve the simple purpose of painting the faces of their riders with ear-to-ear grins. For me, those cars created the blueprint of a sports car, to give what’s needed for true enjoyment and little more. Majestic as they were, however, they weren’t without flaw. Ideas like reliability, comfort and safety simply hadn’t become priorities yet – enjoyment came first.
And it is the undeniable enjoyment cars of that mold provide that spawned a few generations of fanatics. It could easily be argued that the success of small, British-style sports cars led to the development of the first Corvette. At a time when America was making cars defined in terms of water displacement, the release of the small and nimble Corvette was a shock. And let’s not forget that Carol Shelby’s AC Cobra began life as a British creation, the AC Ace. Whether cars that fit more like jackets is your style or not, it cannot be argued that the British mold left a lasting impression that still exists today.
Just when the sports car era was hitting its stride, the fuel crisis of the ’70s also hit. Shortly afterward, fears of looming federally mandated rollover protections struck, and just like that, we saw the long, dry decade known as the ’80s that deprived us of fun topless cars. These cars didn’t disappear, however; manufacturers knew customers would never stop wanting fun behind the wheel, and so, likewise, development didn’t stop in the ’80s. Once normalcy returned toward the end of the decade, the savior of the British sports car mold came from an unlikely source.
Japanese underdog Mazda released the first Miata at the Chicago Auto Show in February 1989 and, in doing so, changed the automotive landscape. Mazda didn’t create a new blueprint with the Miata; it instead reminded us all of the classic British sports cars we had come to know and love. But what the Japanese did, which the Europeans never could, is produce a four-wheeled smile-inducer that was also drivable daily. The automotive press was positively ecstatic about the new Mazda: About the only 10-best list the Miata didn’t find itself on was the FBI’s “most wanted.” Demand far outstripped supply; if Mazda could have built 100,000 of that vehicle in the first year, the company would have sold every one.
What made the Miata hugely successful was in-your-face obvious. Because of humanity’s timeless desire for pleasure, the idea had already been well established as popular that what we want most is a car that gives exactly what’s needed for smiles per hour and little else. Mazda was the perfect dark horse to release such a car, as it had received similar acclaim for similar reasons with the introduction of the RX-7 in 1978. The small Hiroshima-based company knew how to build cars that connected driver and road intimately. In fact, with the development of the first Miata, Mazda used a philosophy called Jinba ittai, which translates to “rider and horse as one.”
That was nearly three decades ago, and the Miata, now known as the MX-5, has become far and away the best-selling two-seater of all time. It’s easy for mission creep to come into play, as humanity’s desire to build bigger and better often leads to spoiling simplicity. Mazda, however, has stayed rigidly pure to that concept and, in doing so, has essentially cornered the market on the classic British style. I reviewed the 2016 MX-5 some months ago and was smitten, nay, infatuated with the car. The Miata and MX-5s of years past had always been so very close to what I wanted, but they just missed the mark in some small way. Early ones were a bit too small, later ones were just too cute, and the stereos installed had always been laughable. Yes, they all delivered the driving experience, but living with one was something I’d never considered.
That all changed with the newest iteration. The new MX-5 is complete in every way. Cuteness has been replaced with real edge and honest sex appeal. At 6 feet 2 inches and 190 pounds, I don’t feel at all constrained by the interior. And the stereo in the new car is legit rather than laughable. My infatuation for this new car was something I just couldn’t shake, so much so that I recently purchased one. In fact, the exact car I tested was still available on the Bommarito lot, and as I walked up to my old friend after months of absence, it still recognized and connected to my phone. I couldn’t fill out the paperwork fast enough.
Post-honeymoon, I can honestly say the 2016 MX-5 doesn’t belong on 10-best lists just for the year – but for all time. As with the Miata of 1989, it didn’t create a new idea, but after all this time and urge to stray from those ideals of purity, it’s that purity that has remained and been refined, to the point of a head-shaking “How can it get any better?” More than the well-known driving experience, it was the livability that sold me. A car that can do all that, start at $24,915, deliver in the neighborhood of 40 miles per gallon and have no problem holding $200 worth of Wal-Mart haul in the trunk is pretty hard to talk yourself out of.
Clearly there’s a demographic that will never show interest in such a car: those who demand more space or those in the market for a Hellcat, for example. But if you’re shopping for the closest thing in today’s world to a teleportation device, something that carries you to a place of stress-free liberation, the new MX-5 should be No. 1 on that list. The MX-5 is truly a car that must be experienced firsthand to be understood, which has always been the case with the classic British sports car.