Monday, November 24, 2008

My cars: Mazda Eunos Roadster RS-LTD

I started off this blog looking at some of my previous cars, now we pick up the story at number five - no hairdresser jokes please.

Do you have a defining mental image of any car? I do, at least in the case of the Mazda Eunos Roadster, and it’s the one you see above. It was taken one Sunday evening as I was driving back to Chelmsford from London. I’d already decided to take the fun route across country, but rapidly forgot about my destination altogether and just began driving around the rural north of Essex. It was around 9pm by the time that photo was taken; the countryside was bathed in the last of the warm summer sunshine and I’d been driving for around two hours, completely lost in the experience. Somehow I’d only seen a handful of cars and a few enthusiastically ridden bikes in that time and I’d had a real chance to enjoy the Eunos Roadster.

And it wasn’t any old Eunos either. The car in question was one of just 500 hardcore ‘RS-Limited’ special editions – the most focused factory iteration of the Mk1 Eunos (or indeed MX5 or Miata depending on the market). It came with a raft of genuinely useful performance modifications including extra chassis bracing, a lowered final drive ratio, a lightened flywheel, a Torsen limited slip differential, Bilstein dampers and carbon fibre Recaro seats.

More fundamentally, the Eunos was Japanese giant Mazda’s attempt to recapture the fun factor of a classic British roadster. Legend has it that the design team were given a fleet of MG Midgets, Triumph Spitfires and TRs to drive, inspect and analyse. They are said to have spent hours just listening to recordings of the MG’s characteristic exhaust note in an attempt to recreate it on the new roadster. And, on the whole, you’d have to say they did a pretty good job. The rasp it emitted sounded perfect when bouncing off a passing wall, even if it arguably lacked that final degree of attitude. The engine, meanwhile, felt eager and snappy with a very linear torque curve and excellent responses. What’s more it was mated to one of the nicest mass produced gearboxes around complete with a very positive short-throw action and beautifully stacked ratios.

In the cold and frequently damp climes of the UK, the original Japanese-market tyres on my imported Eunos tended to dominate the handling somewhat. In the dry it frankly felt a little over-tyred on occasions, when the modest 140hp struggled to alter the balance of its impressive grip reserves. However, at the slightest hint of moisture, it became a very different story. The Teflon-smooth Bridgestones would conspire with the car’s trick differential to produce hilarious levels of oversteer at minimal speeds and throttle openings. This leads to my second defining memory of the Eunos – applying opposite lock with one hand, half asleep, coming out of the T-junction near my house on wet mornings.

While it was great fun and eminently controllable, the Mazda’s wayward manner could also be a pain in day-to-day driving. The wet-weather grip reserves were so low that you had very little safety margin at normal traffic speeds. Much of this would probably have been remedied by some more suitable tyres, but I was never entirely convinced that there weren’t a few more fundamental problems – at least with this particular example. In addition to the grip levels, and very much contrary to their reputation, the steering was curiously lacking in feedback, there was noticeable scuttle shake and the brakes offered little in the way of feel or stopping power.

Yet, given the right setup modifications, the Eunos would doubtlessly have proved an ideal every day sports car. To bolster its case it came with bulletproof reliability, a surprisingly ample boot and one of the few genuinely watertight convertible hoods I’ve ever come across. And recently I’ve found myself contemplating getting a decent example for daily transport (and possibly a supercharger to go with it).

Back then, however, there was always a nagging thought in my mind. Mazda truly had created a modern Japanese take on the 1960s British sports car and, in most quantifiable respects, they’d improved on it. But had they gone a step too far? The plastic-laden dashboard sometimes felt a little soulless; and the (admittedly competent) engine a tiny bit clinical. I couldn’t help thinking that some of the character of those cars which inspired it had gone at the same time as their oil leaks, their cold start problems and their dubious hoods. Perhaps it was with this in mind that the car I eventually replaced it with was an old school kit car powered by a 1960s Fiat powerplant… Needless to say, I rapidly came to appreciate the value of Japanese efficiency.

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