NOT since Bob Dylan switched his instruments in the mid-Sixties has anything going electric generated as much fevered chatter – albeit in angry Facebook comments rather than column inches – but the Mazda MX-5 is going zero emissions.
Not today, not tomorrow, but when the fifth generation rocks up it’ll almost certainly omit a fizzing twin cam engine for the first time. Of course it is. Not because Mazda itself dropped some fairly hefty hints just a few weeks ago, committing to making at least a quarter of its offerings completely electric and everything else in some sort of hybrid form, but because it’s the logical way forward for the world’s best-selling sports car. I know, because the man who designed the original told me.
A couple of years ago I got the chance to interview Tsutomo ‘Tom’ Matano, who sculpted the shape of the very first MX-5, which almost overnight repopularised small two-seater roadsters when it was launched in 1989. He grew up idolising small, brilliantly packaged British cars – not just the Lotus Elan, whose influence on Mazda’s own two-seater is well documented, but cars like the Austin-Healey Sprite and the original Mini, and as a result one of his obsessions is making things as light and perfectly packaged as possible.
I always thought the pop-up headlights on the first MX-5 was one of its best features, but he didn’t want them because the motors added weight.
Mr Matano is a proper, driving-focused petrolhead in every sense of the word, but even he reckoned that the MX-5’s future is electric, and not just because it’ll fit in with Boris’ pledge to end sales of internal combustion cars here by the end of the decade.
For Tom, it’s all about better weight distribution, because you can spread all those electric batteries around at the bottom of the car for a lower centre of gravity.
It’s about being quicker off the line, because in an electric vehicle you have all the torque available in an instant, which is why there are so many clips on YouTube of Teslas embarrassing 911 Turbos in quarter-mile drag races.
Best of all, it’s about mechanical simplicity, because an electric motor has only one moving part and no clutches or gearboxes to worry about.
The tradeoff could actually make the MX-5 more practical, too; if it retains the same basic proportions as its predecessors and Mazda’s clever with the packaging, the next MX-5’s lack of an engine could actually give you a Porsche Boxster-esque proposition of having two boots to chuck your golf clubs in.
In fact, I think the only real challenge is replicating the fun of the current MX-5’s flick-of-the-wrist gearchange, which is probably the most entertaining way of flicking between cogs on any mass-market car, as electric cars don’t need manual gearboxes. Then again (and whisper it quietly) my own MX-5’s an automatic and I think it’s 99 per cent as entertaining as the manual that went before, but far, far nicer to live with when you aren’t on a B-road somewhere in North Wales.
I don’t know when the next MX-5 is going to arrive, but I reckon it’ll have no trouble attracting keen drivers. The big question is whether a zero emissions sports car is going to be more entertaining than the new Lotus Emira, which it’s believed will be Norfolk’s final internal combustion model when it’s unveiled later this summer.
We don’t know the answer yet, but it’s going to be a blast finding out.
David Simister is the editor of Classic Car Weekly