The MX-5: Differences and Similarities to Spiritual Ancestors

The 2013 MX-5 Clubsport Edition. Beautiful. Reliable. Weathertight. Comfortable. Economical. Quick. Responsive. Everything the British cars that inspired it never were. Or were they? I bring this up because I am in the fortunate (in my opinion) position of having access to not only the exact MX-5 pictured here, but also to a 1962 Triumph TR4, 1978 Triumph Spitfire 1500, and a 1971 MGB. First, let's look at the similarities.

All are two seat convertibles with engines up front and manual transmissions of 4 or 6 speeds. Displacement ranges from 1500cc (Spitfire) to 2138cc (TR4). To be honest, the physical similarities end there. The rest of the MX-5 specs are well known. As for the others, they all have front disc rear drum brake setups. No power anything, even brakes. The Spitfire has independent rear suspension, though it's with a transverse leaf spring across the top. Not entirely a swing spring, and it's actually quite effective. This leads us to the handling. The MGB has a Salisbury rear end, the TR4 a simpler live rear axle.

The MX-5 handles great. It has great feel, great grip and jeez does it stop. With the handling comes a pleasant ride. This isn't to say it's idiot proof. I spun out in a very wet autocross with the traction and stability control on, though in my defense it was the first time I ever drove the car. The only complaint I have is it feels, well, a bit numb and lethargic. There is a lack of communication as well as a delay in reacting to driver inputs. Let me explain this, because I'm in no way bashing the MX-5. It's a brilliantly set up car for the masses.

My MGB, TR4 and especially the Spitfire have instant, almost subconscious response to driver inputs. At idle if you touch the throttle they will rise 500 RPM. Turn the wheel for a corner and you're there. Feel a twitch and you flick the wheel to a bit of opposite lock and back. These cars need that twitchy, nervous direction from the driver, and if you watch a video of even F1 cars from the 60s and 70s, you'll see that the drivers all drive like that. It's very telepathic and almost too late feeling. Step into the MX-5 and it rewards a smoother driver, with what I call "modern" style. I was lucky enough to get some instruction from the owner of this MX-5 (she's REALLY talented but doesn't want to admit it) and have ridden along on a few autocross runs with her. Our styles are so opposite it's hard to believe, and her times show that she has the better approach.

Mt best guess for the delay and numbness are probably power steering, power brakes (I STILL have yet to get used to the ABS) and also more tire footprint and overall weight. The progressive drive by wire throttle still feels a bit weird, but it works well. The problem I have when driving hard is I THINK I feel something happening and make a correction with the wheel. This is wasted effort, as the MX-5 just steadies itself most times, even with the stability and traction control turned off. I have yet to build that faith, that connection with the suspension needed for autocross or spirited driving. This is a fault of me driving old Euro iron more than anything, and I get that. Yet performance driving is only part of the equation, as these cars need to live in the real world of traffic, weather, and use. Here is where the MX-5 shines.

Over July 4th weekend we took the MX-5 (named Betty, by the way, after Betty Page) from Austin, TX out to Fort Davis, Marfa, and Alpine, TX. Think about this for a moment: 2 people, our luggage, water bottles, 100+ degrees the entire way, and altitude change from 900 feet to 6791 feet at the top of Mt. Locke. In my cars, the space would have been ok for our gear, but the lack of AC would have been brutal. Also, cruise control was a godsend on I-10, as well as a nice sealing hardtop which made conversation easy, even at 90 mph. Actually, with the top down at 90 mph it was still pretty quiet. Mileage was amazing also, averaging in the high 20s, as our average kept creeping up over 26 and change. Though my cars all get comparable mileage (mid to upper 20's on the highway) they never approach it so effortlessly. Something else to consider: modern fuel injection. I would have had to adjust my carbs at some point on any of my cars. Yes, the lost art of altitude tuning does still exist with someone under 70.

The MX-5: Differences and Similarities to Spiritual Ancestors

All wasn't perfect, though. I'm barely over 6 feet tall, and legroom in the passenger seat is a little bit short. In fact, I found removing my running shoes made the legroom perfect. I can't recall if I drove barefoot either, I think I did if it was for extended periods of time. So this is where all my cars win. There is much more legroom in them. Of course the seats aren't as comfortable, which is why many people put early Miata seats in their British cars. This carries over to ergonomics.

The TR4 has a tachometer and speedometer directly in front of you while the oil pressure, amps, (yes, and it still has a generator and is positive ground), fuel and engine temp gauges are grouped in the center of the dash. See below.

The MX-5: Differences and Similarities to Spiritual Ancestors

All the other controls for heater, lights, etc are under the center gauges, and headlight dimming is by foot peg. The Spitfire is a bit of a disaster, with the tach and speedo directly in front of you with just a fuel and temp gauge in the center of the dash. Your hand on the wheel always obscures one of the center gauges, and the headlight dimming is on the directional stalk, but so is the horn. You have to push in the end of the headlight dimmer/turn signal stalk to use it. This owner fitted a clock and a dual oil pressure/voltmeter to their dash.

The MX-5: Differences and Similarities to Spiritual Ancestors

The MGB and the MX-5 have somewhat similar concepts in dash layout. Every gauge is in front of you, though the MX-5 desn't have heater, fan, and all the other controls spread all over like the MGB. At least the MGB has individual lights for turn signal indicators, as opposed to just one green light that blinks like the Triumphs. I mean, it's not really a bad design to be honest. Granted you still have to be an octopus to adjust the choke, fan, heater...

The MX-5: Differences and Similarities to Spiritual Ancestors

Shifting these cars are all kind of similar, except the Triumphs feel like you're rowing a regatta with how long the throws are. Clutches all have similar pressure, and both the MGB and MX-5 have that awesome rifle bolt snick snick feel to them. The Triumphs are standard 4 speeds, while the MX-5 is a 6 speed. However, so is the MGB. How? It has electric overdrive which works on 3rd and 4th gears, giving you 3.5 and essentially a 6th gear, too. It's engaged by flipping the windshield washer stalk forward (remember the octopus comment?), and it will let you shift out of gear but anytime you use 3rd or 4th it will be in overdrive. So, basically you shift up to 3rd normally, flip the stalk, flip it back to go to normal 4th, then when ready flip the stalk, then flip it off as you slow down. The MX-5 6 speed eliminates all that extra work. So same number of forward ratios, but the MGB is much more challenging to get right.

So what does all this mean? Well, what Mazda has done so well is to take the best essence of each of these classic British cars and combine them. That, coupled with better build quality and creature comforts, is truly a winning combo. But it comes at a price. Part of the appeal of the British sportscar was the very simplicity of them. All of them essentially were parts bin creations, barely a step above the home built specials of the time. Even today, when something goes wrong with one of my cars, I can usually get home and not need a flatbed, unlike modern cars. Fixing them, though frustrating sometimes, is usually cheap, simple, and somewhat quick, with stellar access to the engine. At least they win in one category outright.

Here are pics of each of my cars, and if you really want a 2013 Clubsport MX-5, the very car featured here is up for sale. Own a piece of Oppositelock history!

The MX-5: Differences and Similarities to Spiritual Ancestors

My Spitfire before it was backed into (the hood is now white) and my MGB.

The MX-5: Differences and Similarities to Spiritual Ancestors

The TR4, technically my dad's but I'm working on it and am it's caretaker.