Mazda South Africa Killed The MX-5

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Not just discontinued it but killed its legacy in the country completely.

A little while back, a Mazda MX-5 landed in my garage at work. No, it wasn’t my own MX-5, Sakura, but rather a white MX-5 RF on loan from Mazda SA as a press test unit. Those who have followed me might know that I’ve been acquainted with this car a few times – not just the RF, but this actual car, which has found its way to me on 3 occasions. To give the car appropriate coverage, I was going to write this story as a list of likes and dislikes about the only MX-5 Mazda South Africa sells. But then I stumbled across a problem – Mazda South Africa no longer sells the MX-5.

I’m not just talking about the MX-5 Roadster, or the manual, both options which were discontinued locally at the end of 2017. No, it would appear that even the 2% Low Fat RF with the automatic ‘box has been buried deep on Mazda SA’s site, and has been removed entirely from its price list. Mazda South Africa has killed off the MX-5, and South Africans’ last taste of it was a pre-facelift model with less power than it deserved, the weight in the wrong place, and the entirely wrong gearbox with which to enjoy it. Mazda hasn’t just killed the MX-5, it’s ruined its legacy and burnt the bridges on which the brand could perhaps go back on.

Of course, as any self-respecting journo would do, I reached out to Mazda SA for comment. The official line is that “our current stock has sold out.” But while that wouldn’t ordinarily be an issue, the likelihood of a replacement coming is unfortunately not very good. “Right now, we are awaiting direction from Japan when the right window period is to go ahead with the enhanced current model, or alternatively, wait for the new model.” The enhanced model to which they refer has more power, revs higher, and makes more noise, and has been around in other markets for more than three years now and, given Mazda SA’s struggle to sell the very small allotment of pre-facelift models, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see the improved version.

So how did Mazda South Africa kill off the world’s most popular, best-selling two-seater sports car? An icon that has sold more than a million units across four generations spanning from 1989 until now? Well, to start with, it seems Mazda South Africa never understood what the car was about. From day dot, the automaker brought in a fully-loaded ND variant replete with Bose audio, heated seats, blind-spot monitoring, and navigation. While to the layman, that might sound great, that same layman wouldn’t buy the MX-5 for those features – they’d still go and buy a Mercedes-Benz SLC or an Audi TT Roadster, and happily spend more money doing so. But despite this faux pas, and the fact that it put the ND MX-5 beyond the financial reach of the enthusiasts who actually wanted one, it had one thing going for it. It still had a manual gearbox.

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But then, Mazda did the unthinkable. It launched the MX-5 RF, the model with a convertible hardtop that mimicked a Porsche 911 Targa. That was fine. No, that was great. It may have been less practical than the soft-top Roadster, but hell, it looked good. However, a dubious decision was taken to equip it solely with the six-speed automatic gearbox, while simultaneously discontinuing the manual-equipped soft-top. Now I’m not going to turn this into a beat-up-on-the-auto rant. Some automatic gearboxes are good, even great. And some cars are better off for having an auto. But the MX-5 isn’t one of them. Mazda’s auto is slow, easily confused, doesn’t respond well to paddle inputs, and doesn’t like holding high revs. I’ve heard stories that at sea level it’s fine, but up in Gauteng where I’ve experienced it several times, it’s a shocker.

That wasn’t the MX-5 RF’s only flaw. In addition to having the wrong gearbox, less practicality, and more weight higher up, it was still the same fully-loaded spec with leather seats, navigation, an auto-dimming mirror, blind-spot monitoring, and heated seats, all of which pushed the asking price up. Way up. The last available price I can find for the RF lists it starting at R551,700 – the same sort of money as a Mini Cooper Convertible or, if you were willing to look on the second-hand market, a BMW 2 Series Convertible. The type of people spending that money on a convertible want those sorts of cars, they don’t want an MX-5. And the type of people who want to buy an MX-5 aren’t spending that sort of money and sure as hell aren’t going to buy an automatic. Because the MX-5 is not supposed to be expensive, and it isn’t supposed to do all the work for you. And Mazda South Africa doesn’t get that.

The MX-5 was, and in other markets still is, an affordable driver’s toy that connects man and machine through a lightweight chassis, manual gearbox, and a rev-happy engine. MX-5 buyers don’t care for blind-spot monitoring and heated seats – they care about driving.

As an MX-5 owner myself, and one that didn’t have the money to buy an ND, I’m in regular contact with a number of owners who all say the same thing – they’d love an ND if they could afford it and it came with a manual. Mazda never sold the ND here for those buyers, Mazda never catered for them at all. Had Mazda SA brought in the soft-top in its most basic form, with cloth seats and smaller wheels, a basic radio system sans navigation, a manual day/night mirror, a standard 4-speaker sound system, and a good old fashioned do-it-yourself six-speed manual gearbox, the ND might have stood a chance. It would’ve been what every old MX-5 owner yearns for – the same old driving dynamics and purity wrapped up in a modern body with modern comfort and refinement, with a little added power for good measure.

But Mazda didn’t sell the ND MX-5 for MX-5 owners, and now it doesn’t sell them at all. And that makes me sad, and a little pissed off, too. Because now what do I have to aspire to buy one day when it comes time to replace my NB? The next-generation Mazda MX-5 will likely be going hybrid, meaning more weight, and likely, a higher price, which I won’t be able to afford. Me and so many other fans.

An entire legion of fans has now been left out in the cold with nowhere to go, and the last taste we’ll have of the ND MX-5 was an automatic lifestyle coupe that none of us could afford. And I don’t know about you, but to me, that tastes very bitter indeed.

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