Mazda's little 'British' charmer

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 June, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 June, 1993, 12:00am


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LONGER ago than I care to admit, I was smitten with British sports cars. I still am, I suppose. In those states of melancholy which are prone to those of us rapidly closing on middle age, I fondly recall times spent behind the wheel of a succession of MGs and Triumphs during my ''formative'' years.

One in particular stands out as a classic. It was British Racing Green, of course, and had brown leather seats that smelled like they'd just come from the tannery. Its exhaust note was pure symphony to my ears and whenever I settled in behind its well-worn, laminated walnut steering wheel, I felt for all the world like Stirling Moss himself.

It was thus inevitable my opportunity to drive Mazda's MX-5 V-Special would result in a comparison of the delightful little Japanese two-seater with the somewhat faded memories of my British classic in the so-called ''good old days''.

The V-Special is, in fact, a tribute to the time when, as Mazda's advertising brochure puts it, ''the roads were ruled by British sports cars''. British Racing Green paint, tan leather seats and a lovely laminated walnut steering wheel with matching shift knob and hand-brake grip leave little doubt to the inspiration for this special edition MX-5.

Mazda Motors Hongkong says 95 per cent or better of the V-Special buyers are young to middle-aged professional men, although about 30 per cent of the drivers appear to be women.

''It reminds many men of cars they used to drive,'' said one salesman. ''But because it's not that practical as a business car, they give it to their wives.'' The simple styling of the MX-5 is pleasantly reminiscent of the Lotus Elan of the '60s. The BRG paint and leather interior suit the car well and it's not difficult, if you squint your eyes a bit, to imagine you are looking at a true British classic of a few decades ago.

Like my classic, the MX-5 is powered by an in-line four-cylinder engine which drives the rear wheels in the traditional fashion still preferred by many purists.

A glance under the bonnet, however, reveals a good deal about how far engines have come in the last 20 years. The double overhead cam, 16-valve powerplant is a compact, efficient-looking unit, and virtually faultless electronic fuel injection has replaced the cantankerous, oil-filled carburettors that gave the old engine bays ''character'' but seldom stayed in tune and leaked constantly.

Considering the fact the engine heat transmitted through the fire wall of my British classic was sufficient to fry a pan of kippers, a highly efficient air-conditioning unit similar to the one in the V-Special would have been nice. The stereo system would have also been a marked improvement over the squawking AM radio I suspended under the dash, although, as I recall, the engine was too loud to have ever been able to hear it.

The ill-fitting bits of canvas that passed as convertible tops in those days were in reality little more than token attempts to protect the car's occupants. So inefficient and difficult were they to erect, that it was often easier to show true grit and endure the ele ments. In the MX-5, I drove through violent thundershowers without a drop of water entering the cabin and then, when the sun miraculously appeared, I lowered the top with one hand without even moving from my seat.

Instead of wrestling with flimsy, collapsible side curtains, I merely toggled the electric window switches.

With a delightfully precise five-speed gearbox and an abundance of low-end torque, the little Mazda is pure fun to drive. With a modest power output of 115 bhp it is not considered a performance car in this day and age, but the power-to-weight ratio and throttle response would clearly leave my heavy, underpowered classic in the dust.

Stiffly, but not uncomfortably sprung, the chassis remains upright in aggressive cornering, and the only old-fashioned aspect of the MX-5's handling is the thrill of hanging the tail out with its easily controlled tendency to oversteer.

One thing remained unchanged to me in all of this, and that was the smile on my face. Mazda advertises the V-Special as the perfect way to revive old memories and to create new ones for $269,000. I agree, I'd like to buy one.

And I wouldn't give it to my wife.