Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge

By: Scott Newman, Photography by: Mazda Australia

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Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge
Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge
Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge
Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge
Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge
Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge
Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge
Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge
Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge
Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge

Take a bunch of healthy Aussie egos, mix in a few crazed Russians and let them loose in MX-5s. What could possibly go wrong...?

Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge
Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge

 

Mazda MX-5 Media Challenge

MX-5 Madness

The Mazda MX-5 was one of the stars of our ‘Top 10 buys under $10,000’ feature (read more here), and there were two factors that made it a walk-up starter. Firstly, its ability to entertain the driver at modest speeds, an increasingly important attribute in these draconian times. Secondly, its robustness and reliability mean that a large proportion of the almost one million sold are still running and in good condition.

I almost bought a Mk I model once, only to be foolishly disheartened when one mean-spirited soul told me that it’d be left behind by a LandCruiser in a straight line. While it’s true that the MX-5 won’t win too many traffic light grands prix, when the road starts turning so too do the tables, with the little Japanese roadster capable of humbling much more exotic machinery.

What we’ve never really fully appreciated, though, is just how much punishment these cars can take. So Mazda decided to show us at the MX-5 Media Challenge, held at Canberra’s Sutton Rd driver training centre and the Kowen Forest just across the way. Yes, I said forest.

In a move that caused Mazda PR chief, Steve MacIver to visibly age throughout the event, the assembled journalists were to tackle a full-blown rally stage. In open-topped cars with no roll cage. It turns out planning for the rally component was handed to recently retired Mazda Motorsport guru, Allan Horsley, a man thankfully not well versed in fun-limiting OH&S regulations.

Almost immediately, rumours start that this is simply a creative way of radically thinning Australia’s motoring journalist population. Joining the 16 Aussies are four journalists from Russia, continuing a rivalry that began back in 2011, when Unique Cars was part of Team Australia at the inaugural Mazda Ice Race, held on a frozen lake somewhere in Sweden.

On that occasion, Australia was heading for victory when the Russians, well, cheated, punting us off and taking an ill-gotten win. The following year on the Ruskies’ home turf, the Australians’ challenge was less effective, spinning endlessly, as sad and pathetic as a turtle stuck on its shell. It was time for revenge.

Four events lay ahead of us: Motorkhana, skid pan, hillclimb and that rally stage. Each one would be timed, with the fastest aggregate taking the glory. And glory it would be. As a general rule, motor journos are slightly more competitive than rutting wildebeest, so the eventual victor would be dining out on his success for some time.

It would also be a stern test of the MX-5, as any weakness would be glaringly apparent under the microscope of motorsport.

First up, motorkhana. It takes a special kind of person to enjoy driving around flags at often no more than 30km/h and despite their protestations that it’s a simple course, the representatives of Canberra’s MG Car Club seem to derive a sadistic pleasure in our discomfort as people got lost and flags were flattened. Perhaps they are bitter that the MX-5 replaced the MGB as the world’s most popular roadster.

A useless test? No, not as it turns out. How else would we know that the power steering assistance quickly runs out when twirling the wheel from lock to lock? It’s the first chink in the MX-5’s armour.

The sodden skidpan offers a greater challenge, not of the car but of the driver’s self-control. With the clock running, neat is fast, but throwing the car around like a crazed Japanese drifter is a lot more fun. It’s telling that every driver’s fastest run comes with the traction control switched on. When the surface has all the grip of polished lino, it appears it’s best to let the computers sort it out.

At last, the sensational Fairburn Park hillclimb offers the opportunity for some speed, though calling it a hillclimb is a little misleading. As the circuit starts and finishes in the same spot, it obviously has just as much downhill as uphill which, as Russian Vladimir Melnikov rightly points out, disqualifies it from being a hillclimb; "For me, a hillclimb every time climb!"

Nonetheless, the tight, undulating track shows why the MX-5 has gained such a reputation as a modern classic. Agile, involving and with just enough power to keep things interesting, every driver completes their laps with a massive smile on his face.

Throughout the morning, between trying to sabotage each other with bogus strategy – "did you use cruise control on the skidpan? It seemed the fastest way" – all talk has been of the upcoming rally stage. Car companies are notorious for being keen to avoid vehicular carnage and understandably so (see earlier comment about journalists and competition).

The cars we’re driving are standard but for uprated brake pads and a simple roll bar that required the removal of the roof. We’re using standard road tyres and there’s no co-driver giving instructions – how hard can this gravel stage be?

Our first (and only) reconnaissance pass provides the answer. Rocks pepper the underbody and dust coats everything – windscreen, interior, helmet visor – in a thin layer of talcum. Even at ‘recce’ pace the car is sliding on the loose surface and just off the road lie a lot of Very Big Things to hit. I decide this is probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in a car.

But also the most fun. All the cars have had the fuses pulled to render the ABS and ESP systems inoperable (not recommended for daily driving!) and it’s surprising how much grip these road tyres have on the rocky gravel surface. That said, I still scare myself silly with my first run of 4min 34sec, only to be told that Top Gear hotshoe James Stanford has managed 4min 08sec!

It appears that a number of drivers have taken their brains out and are happy for the cars (or themselves) to go home in a box. Tyres and wheels are being replaced with alarming regularity (the final count would be 10 of each) though incredibly, the cars themselves are more or less unscathed.

The course is incredibly tough; there are jumps, deep ruts and huge rocks everywhere. You’d comfortably drive a four-wheel drive through there (slowly), but a low-slung two-seater sports car? I try harder on my second run, now confident in the knowledge that the car can take whatever I give it, but a combination of lack of skill and sense of self-preservation means 4min 27sec is the best I can manage.

Still, a series of good results on the other tests leaves Unique Cars lying in fourth place overall behind Stanford, Glenn Butler (Wheels) and Toby Hagon (Drive). Champagne is sprayed, but the real winner is the MX-5. Nobody present expected the little convertible, so often dubbed a ‘hairdresser’s car’, to be able to cop the abuse it has. If the MX-5 can survive the merciless thrashing dished out by 22 motoring journos, its ranks are unlikely to thin out any time soon.

 

*****

More reviews:

> Buyer's Guide MX-5 review here

> Past blast: MX-5 review here

 

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