The Mazda MX-5 – New versus classic, which is best?
Despite all the progress in this digital age of automotive tech, the Mazda MX-5 RF remains practically unplugged. Here you will find only a pair of digital readouts confirming essential information to the driver, and not a whole lot else.
Driving an MX-5 is as easy as walking thanks to a potent naturally aspirated raspy motor at the front, a slick precision six-speed manual box in the middle, and a well-balanced chassis and rear-wheel drive making it a considerable amount of fun to drive.
To compare how the model has evolved from its humble beginnings nearly three decades ago, I drove the current RF version all the way to Scotland to see how it stacks up to the original first generation NA model.
Size does matter, or the lack of it
When parking the RF next its great-grandfather, you realise something quite astonishing, as both cars at a glance are still similarly sized despite all of the safety features that should make the new one far heavier and vastly fatter.
But somehow, and quite extraordinarily, the MX-5 RF is slightly more compact than its original NA sibling. It may only be a few centimetres, but this is impressive when you think of how cars have suffered in size gain thanks to all the extra gubbins required to make them road legal in 2018.
There is one downside with the RF model though, and it’s all linked to that folding metal roof.
The RF suffers slightly, weighing in at 1,120kg, with the NA model tipping the scales at 1,025kg, which is relatively light. All in, Mazda has done a fantastic job of keeping the RF close to its origins in the amount of heft it has to carry around.
A naturally aspirated hold out in the age of the turbocharger
Powering the NA model is a naturally aspirated 1.8-litre four-cylinder motor producing some 140bhp, and 120lb-ft of torque reaching the rear wheels via a five-speed manual box. Back in the 1990s, this was good for 0-60mph in 7.7 seconds and 127mph of top speed. Which are pretty swift numbers for the time.
In the modern RF, it’s a similar story with a 2.0-litre four-cylinder motor producing 158bhp and 148lb-ft of torque. All of this translates into a 0-60mph time of 7.2 seconds and 134mph of top speed thanks in part to a six-speed manual gearbox sending power to the rear wheels.
In this modern age where every carmaker has gone with turbocharging for quick power, Mazda should be applauded for sticking to a naturally aspirated motor in its iconic roadster.
Driving both engines gives a similar experience. The NA is a raspy, rev happy unit that begs you to show it the redline to get the best out of it. In the RF, it’s as near as makes no difference the same, with a revvy unit that gets better the harder you push it.
Both units are perfectly matched to their five (NA) and six-speed manual boxes (ND) offering slick and swift gear changes that some carmakers can only aspire to emulate. Between the two, the six-speed in the RF would be my personal pick as it feels a little more accurate through both fast and slower shifts but both do an excellent job of swapping cogs.
One thing that really did catch my attention was the sound that both cars emit - they sound so similar that there is almost nothing to differentiate between them. Both sound raspy when revving giving a great soundtrack that encourages you to drive them harder making driving (relatively) fast a huge amount of fun.
Because driving should be both involving and immersive
Finally, we reach the most important part: how both cars actually drive.
In this modern era, there are far too many examples of iconic models that are just not as good to drive as they used to be.
Mercifully, in the case of the MX-5 from the NA to the ND generation, both offer near perfection when it comes to the driving experience with the current generation being as good to drive as the very first iteration and then some.
When driving the NA, you are quickly aware that it is a back-to-basics driving experience. The power-assisted steering is from a time when this setup still offered strong feel and feedback. There is no traction control to intervene should you get it wrong, and brakes that are slightly scary in places but they get the job done.
Show the NA some serious corners at speed, and it gives you a precise and sharp turn in, all the while you’re fully aware of what the back is doing due to sitting on the floor of the car. Plant the throttle hard on the exit of a corner to the redline and you are greeted with the raspy exhaust as you work the revs around the dial until the valves dance on the bonnet.
In the RF the story is very similar if not the same as its NA sibling. In the corners, it feels completely composed and tactile. Offering near perfectly balanced cornering while reacting to minor steering and throttle inputs with ease making driving it quickly a simple task. Again the engine urges you to rev it hard while the sharp steering takes care of the rest for what is a great drive.
While the 2.0-litre unit is not the most powerful the world has seen, in a car of this stature and weight, it is the perfect amount of power. It is all you will ever need to make short work of back roads and motorways alike.
From the complete lack of electronic nannies including the traction control system that is either on or off, the MX-5 RF has lost nothing of the driving purity of its much older sibling.
Which one would I pick?
Trying to pick between these two is possibly the most difficult decision I will ever have to make.
There is virtually nothing between them, with both being riotous to drive on a daily basis.
Boasting a near perfect balance between power, handling and driver involvement both are just brilliant to drive.
Sure, there are some very slight downsides, like lack of luggage space, the small fuel tank on offer and that if you're tall (like me), you may struggle to get into them. But these are minor points at best, and you wouldn’t buy either of these cars based on the space or driving range on offer.
You buy them because you love driving, and what both offer, despite the considerable age gap, is a pure and immersive drive that is almost unrivalled by anything else in the same price bracket.
My pick would have to be the RF purely because of the folding roof, larger fuel tank and modern convenience. I loved driving the NA model, but I would have the modern car merely as the sensible choice.
It offers a pure driving experience that is somewhat lacking in a number of cars in 2018. Unlike some of the more hardcore and expensive options available today, the MX-5 RF will work every time you turn the key, and it doesn’t require the skills of Ayrton Senna to pilot it on a slightly damp twisting back road.
After driving both cars, it is astonishing how close they both are numbers wise. Keeping the MX-5 a proper driver’s car while ensuring it didn’t suffer a mass of weight gain due to current car regulations is no small feat in 2018. If you’re in the market for a small, nimble and reliable sports car, then look no further.
Which of these Mazda MX-5’s would be your pick? The RF or the NA? Let us know in the comments.
Thanks to the MX-5 owners club
This article was only possible thanks to Iain Fleming of the MX-5 owners club who kindly bought his mint NA model to a freezing cold photo shoot in Edinburgh. You can find out more about them here: