“You must be mad!” wasn’t the reaction I’d expected when I announced to cycling enthusiast friends that I was going to take advantage of some fine weekend weather and head off into the country on two wheels. I thought they’d be surprised but also that they’d welcome my apparent volte-face on the issue of personal transportation.
Certainly they seemed pleased, but what concerned them was that I hadn’t invested in one of those plastic helmet skidlid things. I was going bareheaded – as I had done for years in my childhood and survived the experience, including on one occasion somersaulting over the handlebars and skiting along the road on my face, resulting in what was casually referred to as a “jelly nose”. There was no other lasting damage, as far as I know, although had I not bounced my skull along that Dundee street, I might have been able to make more of my life.
Anyway, these days apparently you are dicing with death if you go out on a bike without strapping on the helmet. Frankly, after several years of competing in motor sport, I think if I was that worried about sustaining head and body injuries every time I put on my cycle clips (it seems they’re a thing of the past too), I would wear a full-face crash visor and a carbon fibre suit, filled with cotton wool padding.
As you can see, I survived the cycling experience unscathed. I was more in danger of passing out from the exercise than reaching any speed capable of causing injury if I did take a tumble. But I went fast enough to get the wind through my hair and, as long as you’ve still got enough of it to catch the wind, that’s a great experience. It’s also a rare one – on a horse or motorbike, head protection is essential – so apart from risking all on a bicycle, the only other chance is at the wheel of an open-top sportscar.
One of the best – and most affordable – is the great little traditionally-set-up Mazda MX-5. I’ve always liked this car from when it first appeared almost 25 years ago, and the latest version has simply improved on the original, while holding onto its distinctive character.
It’ll be the last in this style, as a completely new car is expected next year in a joint venture between Mazda and Alfa Romeo. The pop-up headlights were replaced a long time ago which is just as well. They were delightful but notoriously unreliable, and many original versions became one-eyed monsters in the dark. The current slanted headlights fit in well with the redesigned nose ahead of the bonnet which now has an active feature to rise at the windscreen end in order to protect and cushion a pedestrian in the event of a collision.
A lot of previously optional kit such as heated seats and cruise control is now standard on the Sport Tech version while the price is pretty much the same. What’s best about this car, though, is the on-road experience. It gives the driver great feedback and is very forgiving, with the security of ESP if you forget yourself and overcook it on the corners.
It’s beautifully balanced and, with power through the rear wheels, offers the same feel you used to get in the “real” sportscars of the past, such as the Austin Healey Sprite or MGB – without all the hard work. The car may have been around for a while but it has lost none of its appeal and still sells about 3,500 in the UK every year on top of the 100,000-plus already on Britain’s roads.
The test car was the larger-engined 2.0 litre Sport Tech, with a great folding hardtop. In terms of value for money, the 1.8 litre plus fabric roof edges it. It may not have the same performance but is still good fun. The hardtop is more sensible for our climate but you pay the price through loss of space in the boot, and, unlike many modern convertibles, you can’t put it up on the move. So if you’re caught in a sudden downpour you have to stop – or drive faster to send the spray over the top.
You may want the wind through your hair, but rain-soaked isn’t such a good look.
CAR Mazda MX-5 Roadster Coupe 2.0i Sport Tech
PERFORMANCE Max speed 136 mph; 0-62 mph 7.9 secs
MPG (combined) 37mpg
CO2 EMISSIONS 181g/km