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The Long Way Around - The Story of the Miata

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The Long Way Around - The Story of the Miata

It is 6:20 in the morning, the first light of dawn hasn’t even emerged from the inky dark skies overhead, and the air is still crisp and fresh. Understandably it is the middle of a working week and much of Kuala Lumpur is still in deep slumber. Only lone trucks and the odd car pass me by, lights blazing into the dark unlit distance of the Karak Highway. As the minutes tick by, doubts about this undertaking began cropping up in my mind. 

Wind back the clock to a few weeks prior, I had received an invitation from a group of enthusiasts from the MX-5 owners club. The email detailed a rather adventurous, if not ambitious drive around the Peninsula in lieu of the 57th Merdeka celebrations and in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the MX-5 itself this year. The drive would kick-off from the entrance of the Karak Highway where we would head east towards Kuantan for a brief lunch stop before heading to our first overnight stop in Cherating. From there it would be a relatively short hop over to Kuala Terengganu for another overnight stay after which we would head to the cool haven of Cameron Highlands via Gua Musang. There the initial group of 13 cars would meet with two more groups of MX-5 owners driving up from Kuala Lumpur and down from Penang before heading down to Sepang to join in the Summernats festivities on Merdeka Day.

As of now, our agreed rendezvous point is rather devoid of any drop top Mazdas, aside from my red 1990 first-generation model. This gave me time to ponder upon the four-day undertaking ahead of me. You see, in the two years of ownership of my MX-5 I’ve never taken it out on a long distance drive, no less one that involves hard driving for consecutive days on end. There is a certain sense of trepidation, that this sort of drive might take a high toll on my 24-year old car, and it would be a shame to accidentally kill it on the eve of it becoming an official “Modern Classic”. Even though I had it sent for a thorough check-up at Tiger Shoji the day before, I’m not certain if their eye for detail and comprehensive maintenance works would be enough to prepare what essentially is a nearly two-and-half-decade-old Mazda from surviving some of the toughest and most remote roads in the Peninsula.  But there is no turning back now as a number of MX-5s started streaming into our agreed meeting point.

Surprisingly there are a number of MX-5s sporting Singapore plates who turned up as well. Most notably amongst the entourage was a lone blue second-generation model whose owner, Keson Lim, made the 300km journey from our island neighbour the day before, drawn by the prospect of escaping the nannying law enforcement of his home country to take his roadster for a proper spin on Malaysian roads. There isn’t any better show of true determination than the Singaporean entourage. I have to admit that the presence of his grime covered MX-5 did put me at ease, knowing that these cars are made of tougher stuff than their sports car connotations would suggest.    

Convoy after convoy of MX-5s both from the first- and the third-generation models started streaming into meeting point until all 13 cars were accounted for. Following a short briefing session we were divided into two groups, with me relegated to the “faster” collection of drivers. With all cars brimmed with fuel and the morning sun beginning to peer over the Titiwangsa mountain ranges, we departed and headed into the hills. Roofs down, flat-out, and the cool mountain air blowing over, there aren’t any better ways to start your morning than this.

With barely a car in sight, the wide and empty expanse of the Karak Highway does highlight the MX-5’s power deficit. Even with some flat-out driving we aren’t going any faster than the average car of the 21st century. Well not that it feels slow, with the roof off and the wind blowing through the cabin with a gale force of 10 on the scale, 100km/h feels more like you are doing 200km/h. And not to mention the combination of chilly air in the wind knocking the temperature down a few fair degrees. After days of commuting with the top up, it is refreshing, liberating even, to once again experience alfresco driving.

Staying our course and continuing on the East Coast Expressway would have been the quick and easy route to Kuantan, but it wouldn’t be much in the way of enjoying a roadster. Instead we turned off to the town of Karak for breakfast and set our sights on 180km worth of smooth winding roads that snake through Pahang’s smaller towns and Felda settlements. Though I was expecting the road to be in a derelict state, considering that the bulk of traffic would be using the East Coast Expressway, I was presently surprised by the road condition. Surprisingly for a road that is still being used by heavy vehicles, its surface is still in good shape and well-engineered with fast and cambered corners allowing us to keep a rather quick pace as we made our way to Kuantan.

Though boasting a humble power output of 122hp and 136Nm of torque from a simple and hardy 1.6-litre 4-cylinder engine lifted from a Mazda 323 hatchback, the MX-5 was by no means a paradigm of performance, even by the standards of the early 90s. Mazda ensured that drivers wouldn’t complain about its humble power figures by keeping things simple and lightweight. At 940kg the Miata was considered quite light, not quite as lightweight as some modern day equivalents with carbon-fibre or aluminium construction, or the classic roadsters from which the MX-5 took its inspiration from. Mazda couldn’t afford to make the car out of lighter fibreglass or aluminium, and they had to keep the MX-5 affordable. As such Mazda’s engineers took nearly twice the average stress measurements on its body during development to ensure that the car’s steel structure remained rigid. Further weight-saving measures came in the form of an aluminium bonnet, a boot lid made from thinner gauge steel, and tubular side impact beams. All in all, Mazda says that the weight watching was so thorough that in the end, all its steel parts only accounted 16 per cent of its weight. 

Even 25 years on, the MX-5 is still a barrel of fun. Its low mass allows me to toss it as fast as I dare around corners while caning the engine, knowing that its humble power outputs aren’t really enough to put me in serious trouble with the passing scenery. Of course the use of modern tyres with generous amounts of grip does expand the safety margin quite substantially, probably to a level well beyond that of the MX-5’s own power output. It has to be said that using budget energy-saving tyres would have improved the first-generation MX-5’s driving experience by several increments, considering the difficulty it is for a lightweight humbly powered and balanced roadster to shrug off the reserves of grip offered by a fresh set of Goodyear Eagle F1 Directional 5s. Nevertheless, while it is fun to pull big tail-out slides on the track or in empty parking lots, tempting fate on a public road isn’t advisable, not when there is a schedule to keep to and a pace to follow.

According to the schedule our stop in Kuantan will be at Rapha’s Children’s Home, an orphanage in a small neighbourhood in Kuantan. It was chosen as one of three locations where Bermaz’s Customer Relationship Management team would be stopping at as part of the company’s annual CSR activities on the East Coast. The plan was to join in their lunch programme and spend time with the children. Besides the lunch and activities at each home, the Bermaz team gave each child a gift and RM3000 to each of the three homes on their east coast trail. Though we aren’t driving exotic high-end machinery, the sight of a fleet of convertible sports cars turning up at their front door didn’t fail to light up the eyes of the children with joy and wonder.

It puzzles me how the MX-5 is often derided for its looks, slapped with an underserved reputation as being a car for softies and poseurs, a toothless car for people who want to show-off rather than drive. Strangely if anything, the MX-5 wasn’t a car that was designed to be showy. Its soft and curvy lines do cut a rather effeminate profile, but only because it drew its inspiration from classic British roadsters such as the Triumph Spitfire, the MGB, and most notably, the original Lotus Elan. During its conception, Mazda’s designers went through numerous design proposals, some of which sported angular and wedge-shaped bodystyles that were all the rage then. But in the end, Mazda’s designers stuck to an understated and timeless design reminiscent of classic roadsters, and one that has since gone onto becoming the MX-5’s iconic shape for the past 25 years.

Its looks have certainly attracted its fair share of fans. Martin Chella, an owner of a silver third-generation MX-5, and voluntary videographer of the drive, recalls first learning about the car from the Grand Turismo 2 simulator on the Playstation console. Since then, Martin has been captivated by the Japanese roadster, and when he finally got the means to afford one, he took the plunge to purchase a silver example from a wealthy owner. He hasn’t looked back since. Practical considerations were also one of the main reasons behind Alvin Tan’s decision to buy a white second-facelift version of the third-generation MX-5.  Aside from its looks, the MX-5’s main appeal to Tan wasn’t so much its history or reputation, but its practicality as the only convertible with a folding metal top that doesn’t eat into its luggage space.

Our overnight stop wasn’t in Kuantan, but 40km up north in the holiday destination of Cherating. So following a brief stopover at the now heavily commercialised beach of Teluk Cempedak, our convoy headed to the Legend Hotel, our first overnight stop. No time however to explore the hotel’s facilities and its lovely beach. At the crack of dawn we had to saddle up our cars, brim the tanks again, and head 160km north towards Kuala Terengganu where we would once again meet the Bermaz CSR team at their second stop, Rumah Tunas Harapan.  

Unlike the roads that led us from Karak to Kuantan, Kuala Terengganu’s coastal roads are still very much in use today. With this part of the East Coast bristling with petrochemical industries, the roads here are understandably straight and flawless, flat and straight enough for us to stretch our car’s legs.  

Visit any online discussion on the MX-5 and there will be some quarters who keep insisting that Mazda should have crammed in a rotary engine into the MX-5 from the beginning. In fact, a proposal to fit in a smooth spinning lightweight rotary engine into the original MX-5 was on the cards, but it was swiftly rejected on the grounds that it would have been too powerful for the chassis to handle. Reinforcing the chassis would have added more weight and developing a smaller rotary engine would have blown its budget. Furthermore at the time, Mazda saw the rotary engine as something for their prestige models and not, as they were aiming the MX-5 to be, a small roadster for the masses. In the end, the decision was made to pick an existing engine from Mazda’s stable, hence lifting the B6 engine out of a Mazda hatchback. The engine’s transverse mounted origin is well known to any first-generation MX-5 owner who had to change its oil filter, which is located right behind the front suspension arm, a literal arm-twisting job.  

Personally, while the proposition of a rotary engine in a lightweight MX-5 does sound tempting, I believe Mazda’s decision to opt for a humble four-cylinder mill is what made the MX-5 all the more endearing and usable. The engine was relatively fuel efficient, cheap to maintain and run, and best of all, hardy. Imagine if Mazda had stuck to the idea of a rotary engine, the oil crisis and emission standards would have ended its popularity prematurely. What’s more is that I doubt a rotary engine could deliver an engine as well-rounded as this, with enough torque to do a steady and relaxed cruise, and a zingy top-end when you want it to be a little more exciting with an immediate throttle response only a naturally-aspirated engine can deliver.

That said, a relaxed cruise wasn’t the kind of pace we were setting as we left Cherating behind, and we made good time as we pulled into Kuala Terengganu in good time to meet the Bermaz team at Rumah Tunas Harapan to join the children for lunch. This stop however would be our last meeting with the Bermaz team as our journey would take us west, while they would continue up to their final stop in Kota Bharu. However our route to the west towards Cameron Highlands would have to wait for the next day as it would involve a 220km drive to Gua Musang via Kenyir Lake and another 110km up to Cameron Highlands, a route which no one on this trip had actually tried, except for the lead driver, David Liaw who hails from these parts anyway. Effectively most of us were heading into uncharted waters, and understandably many of the drivers were prepping themselves for a long and arduous day ahead. Rest was in order that night, even though our overnight stay was right next to the popular Batu Buruk beach, there certainly wasn’t any time for walks by the beach after dinner.

As it has been over the past few days, there wasn’t time to wait for dawn on the third day of our odyssey.  Even while the skies were still as black as night, I checked out of the hotel with the rest of the group, packed my car’s trunk to the brim, and headed to Kuala Terengganu’s colourful Chinatown for breakfast. The small strip of shop houses was already bustling with activity as tour bus after tour bus unloaded their bleary-eyed travellers for an early breakfast. Not quite the relaxing early morning we were expecting, but we had to make do with it.

Just as morning light filled the overcast sky, our convoy was already making a beeline for the city limits, slipping out before the rest of the capital is awoken. Soon we were in the countryside again, zipping past the light traffic and sleepy villages. I was expecting the smooth roads of Terengganu to end at any time as we left civilisation behind. Much to my amazement, the roads just got better and better. Empty wide dual carriageway roads with fast sweeping corners that wrap itself around some of the most stunning and majestic scenery I’ve ever come across in Malaysia. It is a breathtaking sight, an experience only made more vivid with the roof stowed away, removing with it any border that separates man, machine, and nature. But no time to stop and enjoy the scenery when there are such delectable roads to sample over this landscape, this is roadster country.

As the roads snake along the ridges of the hillside, the lush greenery beside us suddenly dives beneath the road, revealing the vast blue expanse of water that is the Kenyir Lake. Covering 260 sq km, Kenyir Lake is the largest man-made lake in South East Asia, and it is the result of the damming of the Kenyir River by the Sultan Mahmud Hydro Electric Power Station which produces an average of 1600GWh annually. From where we are driving, Kenyir looks more like a miniature ocean with tiny bubbles of greenery sticking from the water’s surface. It is said that more than 340 such “islands” exist around the lake, where once hilltops that overlooked large swaths of jungle before man’s demand for electricity turned them into stubbles of land.

A good 80km away from Lake Kenyir and the smooth ribbon of tarmac and jungle came to an abrupt end. The road became a narrow 25km river of potholes and gravel that wound through a palm oil estate. Our surrounds were now that of a desolate palm oil estate, a harrowing shift of tone indeed, but there was no turning back. Progress slowed to a relative crawl and 25 years worth of chassis flexing did show its toll with creaks emanating from the dashboard and a flimsy glovebox lid rattling incessantly. Steadily we nursed our cars until the estate road ended and the main trunk road leading to Gua Musang began. Relieved that the worst was over, we regrouped in Gua Musang town and set forth for Cameron Highlands. 

If there was ever a masterpiece of civil engineering, the Gua Musang road to Cameron Highlands is deserving of veneration. Similar to the Simpang Pulai-Cameron Highlands road, it is for the most part a dual carriageway, and a collection of wide bends and steep inclines. But just how they managed to layout a road that slithers atop mountains, soaring above farms, and bridging hilltops is a feat in itself. Admittedly the road on its own was more of a marvel rather than the drive itself. It wasn’t quite the tight and winding, colonial era roads that I often relate highland drives with, neither were it the kind the MX-5 was built for either, if I’m honest. An engine with a power figure of something north of 200hp would have felt right at home here.

As we entered Kampung Raja though, the peace and tranquillity associated Camerons with is no more. The quiet mountain roads that connect the small communities are now jammed packed with tourists, the sights and sounds of nature now replaced with ugly concrete high-density housing and the thrum of congestion that was so bad it made Jakarta rush hour look like a breeze. There is even a new mall for those who can’t get enough of city life. Indeed it seems that this hillside haven has become a holiday hell.

We muscled our way to the last stop on this leg of the journey; the Jim Thompson Cottage, the last known location of the famous “Thai Silk King”, before he mysteriously vanished into the pages of history on an afternoon walk one Sunday in 1967. The cottage today still retains much of its rustic charms and colonial architecture, despite renovation and upgrade works, and you can book a stay in it. Sitting high above the bustle of Cameron’s newly found commerce, the Cottage offers an unhindered view of the mountain ranges. Sadly, the view reveals large swathes of jungle being cleared and levelled to make way for more developments. If anything, Cameron Highlands is a lost paradise, a sad fate to a place I once held dear for its seclusion and pristine natural beauty.

Here at least, we could get away from the crowds and the traffic, but unfortunately for the other group of MX-5 owners, their journey was hampered by the congestion down below. Some even mentioned that the second group of Singaporean drivers took as long as 12 hours to get from Singapore to the cottage, madness. Nevertheless, the mood around the night barbeque was jovial as old friends and fellow MX-5 drivers from all parts of Malaysia and Singapore did some catching up.   

Come dawn the next day, the traffic situation in Tanah Rata wasn’t any better, the single lane roads that runs through Tanah Rata and all the way through Brinchang still remains congested with day trippers and tour buses. Our exit from Cameron Highlands wasn’t as smooth as expected, and a tip from the local caretaker recommended that the old Cameron Highlands to Tapah road was by far a safer option than the newer Simpang Pulai route. No complaints from me. Even though the old colonial-era route to Tapah is narrow and rutted, its collection of tight corners and short straights are the type of roads the MX-5 was made for.

And shine it did. Built to the best the British could muster, the old road is tight with little room to stretch the engine’s power band or commit any errors for that matter. Straights are rare here as corners come up fast and continuous with some blind and tight hairpin bends thrown into the mix. Never mind power figures and outright speed, here the MX-5’s 50-50 front/rear weight balance comes into play. Though the old and weary springs does give a fair bit of lean under duress, the grip from those tyres and the balance, allowed for quick and eager direction changes. Mazda’s engineers summarised the intended feel of the MX-5 with that iconic adage Jinba-Ittai, a four character Japanese phrase used to describe the riders’ technique when performing Yabusame, a Japanese ritual which involves shooting an arrow from the back of a galloping horse.  The phrase roughly translates into “horse and rider becoming one”, and has being used as the guiding principle behind the MX-5. In fact there is no better way to explain just how nice it is to drive the MX-5; fluid, immediate, responsive, and ever in tune with your senses. So yes, let’s stick with Jinba-Ittai.

If there is something that I would like to change on the MX-5, it is definitely its brakes as they take a fair bit of forward planning and a heavy right foot on the middle pedal to get some decent stopping power out on these downhill roads. Engine braking is highly advised and encouraged here instead, but not that I’m complaining because it gave me all the more reason to work its lovely gearbox. When developing the MX-5, Mazda’s engineers modified the five-speed gearbox to have a very short stroke. The gearlever is said to only move just 50mm from any gear into the neutral position lending a sensation that one tester describes as ‘operating a rifle bolt’, a satisfying tight and slick mechanical feel, that is almost irresistible. Flicking through the gears is anything but a chore, and the pedal spacing is spot on for the job of pulling off flawless heel-toe shifts.   

Upon reflection of our road trip, as the roads started to unwind its tight coil as we descended the mountainside, the MX-5’s title as the world’s best selling roadster is well deserved. Yes there are faster and more exciting cars out there, but none quite as satisfying and endearing as the MX-5. Despite its simple formula and humble origins, the MX-5’s gestation was no less miraculous and meticulous. The conception of the MX-5 by automotive journalist Bob Hall is the stuff of automotive lore, but envisioning the perfect car is one thing, getting a huge corporation to jump into untested waters and throw its resources at a car that nobody is quite sure would sell in such numbers is something else. Along its journey from concept to production car, Mazda could have turned the MX-5 into something else, a poor relation to the Toyota MR2 perhaps? Or a boring front-wheel drive coupe even? But that wasn’t so, the MX-5 emerged from the other end of the drawing board, as ideal in almost every regard.

Everything from the all round double-wishbone suspension, to its low mass and perfect weight distribution, its slick manual transmission and the engine note which is reminiscent of classic roadsters, is proof that Mazda wasn’t making just another car, but a monument, a time capsule, to everything we love about driving. Mine has brought me along fast country roads, majestic mountain passes, and now, from the jungles to the final leg on the North-South Expressway to Sepang, it is relaxed and cruising along calmly. It has gone through every sort of road and scenario, and it has never failed to put a smile on my face. No wonder a motoring pundit once put it very eloquently that the MX-5 was one of the most thoroughly developed and tested cars. Its ingredients are incredibly simple and yet incredibly hard to get right, I mean you could probably end up with the Lexus SC Convertible. Because Mazda stuck with it and got it right on so many accounts it is of little wonder that the MX-5 has changed so little of its formula over 25 years, and yet won so many hearts. 

#This article was published on the October 2014 issue of The Malaysian Evo.

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