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Write what you drive

A showcase of independent motoring journalism and automotive travails

Mazda MX5 at Donington Park

In what I hoped would serve as a handy (almost professional) back-to-back comparison with the similarly Japanese and RWD Toyota GT86 I tested a couple of weeks ago, I was given the opportunity to drive what I described as "the evergreen" Mazda MX5 around Donington Park.

As it turns out, hoping to draw any meaningful conclusions about the car you're driving on your first real race track experience is somewhat futile. I've driven on development proving grounds and handling circuits before but this didn't really prepare me for the assault on the senses that is driving a car hard (or at least attempting to) on a fully-fledged race track.

Quite quickly, I was concentrating on racing lines and shaving apexes - I can see how this can become addictive for those who pour thousands into track day cars and amateur race series. I had a racing driver instructor, who served as a handy audible alert every time I cocked up a line or got lazy with turn in. I found it fairly easy to nail one corner at a time but Donington is a challenging track and it was much more difficult to string together a full lap of corners and transitions I was happy with.

The greatest praise I can give the MX5 is that it allowed me to focus almost immediately on learning how to drive on a track. It was very easy to get to grips with the car and felt like it was working with me rather than against me. I would express concern about the amount of head room when wearing a helmet - I'm 5'10" and had to rake the seat back to avoid banging my head, which resulted in a less than optimum driving position. This could easily be remedied by putting the roof down though.

Whilst the MX5 I drove had the same size engine (2.0L) as the GT86, it was about 40 bhp and 20Nm down on the Toyobaru's 200 bhp and 205Nm headline figures. However, the MX5's maximum torque figure is delivered 1500rpm further down the rev range than the GT86's 6500rpm. This seems as good a reason as any for the fact it didn't really feel any slower on the track; always seeming to have some useful acceleration ready to go. The only place the need for more grunt was apparent was lugging out of the final chicane and my line/cornering technique could be just as much to blame for that.

The beauty of having only 160bhp is that even a novice track driver (a part I ably played in this case) can feel like they are wringing the neck of the car well below their skill threshold and at relatively safe speeds (my maximum was 113mph down the back straight). In a high powered, super grippy track weapon, a more expert driver is required to get the most from the car and the amateur's sense of satisfaction is reduced.

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As the legend would have you believe, the MX5 breaks away progressively and predictably at modest cornering speeds and gives you a generous amount of time to work out you're pushing your luck and then adjust your driving accordingly before anything nasty happens.

The overriding conclusion of the day was that I need to put some bigger brakes on my Puma and take that on some track days - with going back to Donington to perfect the lines and braking points high on the agenda. I also appreciated the happy, friendly nature of the MX5 and it's probably high enough praise to say that it lived up to everything I have heard and read about it.

My particular car looked good in "Sport Graphite" trim - even managing to look quite mean in gunmetal grey with black wheels. It's not a fast car, but that seems far less of a concern when pitched as a cheap, fun convertible with very few pretentions.

Would I buy one over the GT86? In a stupid way - no. Although it's £3k cheaper in the guise I drove (more like £5k if you spec your GT86 with any toys) and I came away from the test drive thinking far more of the car than when I arrived (in contrast to my GT86 experience), I'd still take the Toyota out of the two. Rightly or wrongly, I know what I like and although the MX5 put a (huge) smile on my face at Donington - I've never considered buying one before, in any guise, and whilst it earned my respect it didn't win my desire so I'm sticking to my guns. I feel more of an affinity for the Toyota brand and machine-wise the GT86 is a cooler, more exciting proposition.

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