Take every generation of Mazda MX-5 and you have the perfect way to appreciate the stunning roads and landscapes of the United Kingdom. Zoom-Zoom embarks on an epic road trip across Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland

Story by Dan Trent, Photography by John Wycherley

Mazda MX-5 1st generation [1989]

1. Black Mountain Pass, Wales / map

It seems appropriate to start this story at the wheel of the first Mazda MX-5, the car that single-handedly revived the spirit of open-top motoring. It is also appropriate this car should be painted in such a timeless racing green colour scheme, forever associated with the British sports cars of the 1960s, which first exported the dream of driving on roads like these. It’s this same sensation the multi-national team of car enthusiasts developing the original MX-5 back in the 80’s wanted to recreate for a new age, and that Mazda realised in spectacular style with this car, with its front-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout and near-perfect 50/50 front/rear weight balance.

The designers and engineers who created the MX-5 may have been based on the other side of the world. However, driving the car in South Wales it’s clear this is exactly the vibe they wanted to capture. The Black Mountains are wild and rugged, the roads tracing the curves and contours of the land.

On twisting roads like this, horsepower is less important than agility, the instinctive connection between the driver, the car and the road and the sensory thrill of driving in the open air creating an experience about more than just speed. And this is what you get from the first-generation MX-5, the purity of its balanced handling working in perfect harmony with the smooth-shifting gearbox and zesty twin-cam engine. This car may be simple, but proves that the blueprint originally set down 30 years ago is as relevant as it ever was.

Mazda MX-5 2nd generation [1998]

2. Honister Pass, England / map

From the Black Mountains, we drive north through Wales and into England, skirting between the cities of Liverpool and Manchester with their proud traditions of industry, music and football. Beyond them is the Lake District, its beauty making it popular for those seeking a change of pace from the hustle and bustle. In the heart of it, Honister Pass reaches more than 305 metres in elevation, via hairpin bends and steep gradients.

The roads here are even narrower than in Wales – at times little wider than a single car – and more demanding to drive. The switch to the second-generation MX-5 reveals much about how the car evolved in an effort to attract an even broader cross- section of drivers. The power steering on this car is welcome, given the speeds are lower and the corners tighter. This example also has a six-speed manual gearbox, increasing the opportunity to enjoy the uprated power of the 1.8-litre engine. Plus it feels more luxurious, thanks to soft-touch surfaces and a convertible roof with a heated glass rear screen.

The purity embodied by that original MX-5 is carried through, though, with this car also feeling compact and huge fun to drive, even on tight roads like these. In a bigger vehicle you would be tiptoeing along, scared of the rock walls and lack of space for oncoming traffic. In the MX-5 you can enjoy the drive – and spectacular surroundings – to the full, the car shrinking around you even as the views expand to fill your vision. Given the scale of the scenery it’s all the more enjoyable with the roof down as a constantly changing, 360-degree panorama unfolds around you.

“In a bigger vehicle you would be tiptoeing along, scared of the rock walls and lack of space for oncoming traffic. In the MX-5 you can enjoy the drive to the full”

Mazda MX-5 3rd generation [2005]

3. St. Mary’s Loch, Scotland / map

A short distance north of the Lake District is the border with Scotland and yet another change in landscape. And another MX-5, in this instance the third-generation model with the folding hardtop, a feature that quickly proves its worth. From the busy market town of Moffat the road to St. Mary’s Loch takes you north-east into the heart of the Borders region, famous for salmon fishing in the nearby River Tweed. We may be some way south of the Highlands but the landscape is wilder than anything we’ve seen so far in Wales or England.

They say if you don’t like the weather in Scotland just wait a few minutes and it will likely have changed completely. And so it proves, driving rain alternating with bursts of sunshine. As such, the ability to switch between snug hardtop and open-air roadster in a matter of seconds is extremely welcome.

This third-generation MX-5 feels more substantial and spacious without diluting the purity of the driving experience, Mazda’s ‘gram strategy’ keeping weight to a minimum. The extra power of the car’s 2.0-litre engine is appreciated too, the open roads providing opportunity to enjoy the additional performance. Which is just as well when a golden eagle swoops over the top of us, talons dangling. The sight of this majestic bird flying over a Scottish loch is a magical moment, more so for the thrill of experiencing it with the roof down amid such awe-inspiring scenery.

Mazda MX-5 4th generation [2015]

4. Causeway Coastal Route, Northern Ireland / map

The opportunity to discover how far the MX-5 has come over three decades comes on the stunning coastline north of Larne in Northern Ireland, little more than a two-hour ferry hop from Scotland. The area packs a lot in, dockside industry quickly giving way to farmland, seaside towns and then the epic coast road clinging perilously to the land between cliffs and sea. This route will take you all the way round the north-east coast but, even within a few miles of Larne, it’s already offering incredible views and a thrilling drive as you follow the shoreline.

“As the bark of the exhaust echoes off the rock walls, the MX-5 demonstrates how perfectly its sense of freedom is inextricably linked with the joy of driving”

A 1.5 Sport Nav+ Soft Top is the best way to enjoy this stunning road and despite the MX-5’s evolution in connectivity tech and safety features, it’s hugely satisfying to discover how close it remains to the original formula in both spirit and driving style. The latest MX-5 is just as compact as the one that launched 30 years ago, only marginally heavier albeit with more power. And it delivers exactly the same sense of fun. The engine and gearbox are a particular joy, the Skyactiv-G motor revving enthusiastically like a traditional sports car engine and working in perfect harmony with the precise, short-shift manual gearbox.

As the bark of the exhaust echoes off the rock walls, the MX-5 demonstrates how perfectly its sense of freedom is inextricably linked with the joy of driving through such inspiring scenery. Thirty years on, it still makes perfect sense.