INDSIGHT is a wonderful thing. When we drove the Mazda MX-5 away from Wheels Car of the Year, we had no idea it was going to carry off the big gong. The votes were yet to be tallied and a stack of formidable rivals made the little Mazda look as if it had brought a knife to a thermonuclear stand-off.
Not envying the COTY judging panelís task of figuring out how the MX-5 squared up against a Volvo XC90, we decided on a more instant barometer of its worth. The Mazda would need to do a number on our 2012 COTY champion, the Toyota 86.
The intervening years have done little to dull the Toyotaís appeal and, despite the obvious differences in form, the two cars have much in common. Rear-wheel drive, a peppy 2.0-litre engine and an affordable price tag are a set of criteria that donít seem particularly difficult to replicate, yet it has taken Mazda nearly four years to deliver a product that can compete on equal terms with the 86, a car that rendered the old MX-5 dead in the water. A less ambitious asking price, a more focused driving experience and an identical 109kW per tonne power-to-weight ratio now put the fourth-generation MX-5 directly in the 86ís gunsights.
Paring back unnecessary complication is a formula that clearly works for us, and in order to gauge which of these Japanese lightweights emerges victorious, we cleared the diary for three days and pointed them at the twistiest roads on the map. Convertible or coupe, red or white?
This could be like picking your favourite child. Gulp.
THE rhythm and flow is almost hypnotic. Night is falling as we hurtle headlong into the Victorian Alps.
Ahead of me are twin pinpricks of red, the MX-5ís rear lights dancing and jinking through a tunnel of arching stringybarks. The Toyota 86 seems connected by some sort of elastic umbilical to the Mazda up front, contracting on the way into corners and stretching on exits. A soft constellation of bug splats peppers the screen as the two cars arrow through the night towards supper, schooners and sleep in Omeo. The high country seems abandoned as 100km fall beneath the wheels without seeing an oncoming vehicle.
Fellow journo Jez Spinks crests a rise and sends the MX-5 downhill, the car flowing from apex to apex like a drop of falling water, taking the line of least resistance.
Iím working harder in the Toyota, but the earlier track session at Haunted Hills already indicated the Mazda might have the 86 in its pocket on roads like these.
We had expected the Toyota to put down a marker on the racetrack, but despite being 29kW down on power and 5Nm on torque, the MX-5 makes its 200Nm at 4600rpm whereas you need to wring the Toyotaís boxer four out to 6400rpm to plug into peak twist action. On a circuit as steep and tight as Haunted Hills, this counts.
Time is lost with extra gearchanges in the Toyota while the Mazda lugs its way out of trouble and, despite initially feeling softer in roll and less precise in its steering, thereís little doubt that around the track itís round one to the MX-5.
Neither of these cars is about clocking lap times, but we do it anyway, the Mazda generally shading the Toyota by around half a second over the 1.4km circuit.
The MX-5ís stability control is much better than the 86ís, despite having to be either on or off. The Toyotaís electronics grumble and intrude, even in compromise VSC Sport setting, which gets upset when the car runs over kerbs or threatens to fall into mild understeer. Nix all the software and the 86 is easier to steer from the rear. Itís a consummate entertainer and itís hard to see this particular party trick losing its appeal.
Play the hooligan in the MX-5 and you soon draw the conclusion that the rear end is even looser than the 86ís, but the steering doesnít offer the same precision and linearity of response. Bodyroll, pitch and squat arenít anything like as well contained. Drive the car as you would an 86 and the rear end feels livelier yet harder to rein back accurately.
Yet itís exactly this body movement that makes piloting the MX-5 at speed so involving. Work its weight transfer to your advantage and you can progressively load up the front on the way into corners, feeling the sideways forces build to the point where the 205/45R17 Bridgestones benignly relinquish their purchase. Itís here perhaps more than anywhere that the Mazda is superior; the 86ís Michelin Primacy HP rubber isnít anything like as tenacious or malleable in its response.
But the circuit can only tell us so much. Time to head for the hills.
Part of the joy of running cars like these is the lack of guilt in driving them hard. Brakes and tyres had no issues whatsoever after a morning of hard labour at Haunted Hills, and the MX-5 had only sipped through a quarter of a tank.
Being given a good workout cross-country and through some serpentine hill routes, the Toyotaís 9.5L/100km was by no means a disgrace, but the MX-5 is the go if you have a servo aversion. It recorded a scarcely believable 7.8L/100km.
Mazdaís gramstrategy of trimming weight even extends to the seats, with regular steel springs ditched in favour of string netting. As comfortable as they are at a standstill, the seats lack lateral support at speed.
Bracing your leg against the hard plastic corners of the dash resulted in every member of the road test team emerging sore and bruised.
No such issues in the big-boned 86.
CHASING the sun is the first order of the day, so itís a pitch-black start with just moths for company and last nightís mattress-sized parma threatening to put a deepfried dent in the MX-5ís performance.
An hour or so at the wheel allows me to watch the Toyotaís rear lights scribe arcs up the hill from Omeo to Hotham. Hooking a tyre deep into cambers catapults the Mazda through the tighter bends. Try that in the 86 and it skips and understeers as its dampers rapidly run out of answers. The damping has been improved for the 2015 model year, but the 86 still canít compete with the Mazdaís composure with its smoothly ramped limited-slip diff.
Hotham Alpine Resort comes and goes in the half light. Thereís not much thatís sadder-looking than a ski resort at the start of summer, the odd scruffylooking snow patch clinging to the south-facing slopes.
Photographer Duff works his magic at the wonderfully named Mount Blowhard as we kick our heels waiting for Earth to rotate to the requisite angle for optimum lighting. While fiddling with the MX-5ís infotainment system, I discover that it advises the Australian drink-driving limit is 0.5 percent, 10 times the actual limitÖ After considerable time on the mountain top, a coffee-related mutiny sees us back in Omeo. Breakfast dispensed with and Spinks having almost charmed his way out the door without making payment, we donít really have a destination to aim at. That old staple of car journalism, the map on the bonnet shot, doesnít really work with smartphones, but we locate a route that looks like binned spaghetti and set off.
The Bogong High Plains Road up from the Big River starts off tight and technical, with hit-and-miss surfaces thatíll make you regret ordering those extra pancakes.
It then climbs through vast stands of gnarled snow gums, the road punching through a forest of skeletal white fingers before you burst out, blinking in the sun, sightlines stretching for kilometres as the road lazily drapes across the high country. Clouds roll in from the west while we take a break and, by the time we get to Falls Creek, a dry electrical storm grumbles and grinds over the sawtoothed summits.
The road from Falls down to Mount Beauty comprises 237 bends and drops 1234 metres in the course of 30 kilometres, and the gloves are off from turn one.
The MX-5 feels like itís made for this. It has the damping to cope with the lumps and bumps and weighs a gnatís bum over a tonne, so despite being given an unholy leathering, the middle pedal doesnít even hint at going soft. The steering comes good too, feeling better when manhandling the front end through hairpins than it does trying to finesse a longer radius. The headlights of the 86 gradually recede in my mirrors as it becomes clear that Mazda genuinely has done more with less. Itís a defining moment, the passing of a torch.
At the base of the hill, calls are made and accommodation is booked in Corryong, near the New South Wales border. The road to Corryong sees radio banter pass between the cars, the lead car okaying overtakes for the following vehicle. One truckie clearly disapproves of these unconventional overtaking manoeuvres and attempts to give chase. For a few kilometres itís like Steven Spielbergís Duel but instead of a finale of fiery destruction it merely ends with him flipping us the bird as we rectify a navigational blunder somewhere outside Tangambalanga.
The sun has long since set as we roll into Corryong.
The Courthouse Hotel wins a recommendation for its food quality, friendliness of staff and interesting decor.
Black mark for the hole someoneís charmingly punched through the bathroom door, giving access to a swarm of mosquitoes that leaves my arse looking like Nigella Lawsonís white chocolate and raspberry cheesecake.
ďTHAT was a police car, right?Ē crackles Spinks over the radio. An unmarked green HSV had just eyeballed us as we make progress out of Corryong. A couple of nervous glances in the mirror suggest heís probably got a date with a doughnut and isnít interested in booking us for a handful of kays over.
Weíve decided to hotfoot it up to Cabramurra, the highest town in Australia, as a nominal turnaround point. Breakfast at Khancoban, brief introduction to the all-encompassing influence of Snowy Hydro in the area, and then itís time to start up the road to Cabramurra, a company town built in 1954 for workers on the Tumut hydro-electric station and local dams.
The road up is steep and technical, with unguarded drops, abrupt surface changes and damp sections.
Again, the Mazdaís torque tells, the Toyota having to be persistently harried between the second-gear rev limiter and third, always just dropping out of the power band on anything with a bit of gradient. On flatter terrain, thereís no doubt the 86 would have given a better account of itself. While many enthusiasts cite a manual gearbox as key to involvement, as sacrilegious as it sounds the Toyotaís transmission is not an enabling factor in this instance. Repeatedly banging between two gears on roads like these doesnít add to the enjoyment; itís simply a chore.
The Mazda demonstrates there is a better way, its superior flexibility excusing the fact it only revs to 6800rpm. You wonít care. Not once did I hit the rev limiter in the MX-5 Ė thereís no need. On the downside, the Mazdaís engine doesnít sound particularly enticing, lacking the gargling baritone of the Toyotaís flat-four.
Thereís a bit of intake burble but otherwise the SkyActiv-G 2.0-litreís vanilla latte soundtrack would benefit from an extra shot of exhaust.
Cabramurra has, like many company towns, a slightly spooky uniformity, a Stepford settlement, if you like.
The identically clad locals are friendly and happy to chat with trippers keen to tick off the 1488m-high town on their Aussie bucket lists. Jeannie from Alabama has rented a motorbike and ridden here from Melbourne.
ďItís beautiful here. I couldnít wait to get out of Melbourne. Rudest locals Iíve ever met.Ē Probably ordered an ďexpressoĒ.
From the roof of Oz, itís downhill all the way, pointing the nose of the Toyota north to Tumut and then southeast on the long haul back to Melbourne, the tripmeter tipping over 1800km on the West Gate bridge.
IT HAS been an epic trip on some brilliant roads and both cars have proven their mettle, but time and again the MX-5 has done enough to eke out an advantage.
Thereís a greater subtlety to its character, time spent with it revealing layers to its personality that reward the keen driver.
The Toyota 86 leaves slightly bruised but far from bowed. It may be a little narrower in its bandwidth than the slick Mazda, but it runs the MX-5 mighty close, testament to the fact that doing the simple things right is a formula that doesnít age. If youíve ever driven a modern sports car with a myriad of settings for engine, transmission and suspension, and just wanted one mode that works, youíll like the 86. Its solitary mode is guaranteed to entertain.
The Mazda MX-5 is a triumph, though. That said, itís a bit of a slow burner. Take a 20-minute test drive and the bodyroll, the inconsistent-feeling steering and the cramped cabin could deter some buyers, but itís worth persevering with. Mazda has found a way of getting things to gel when the MX-5 is driven to its extremes.
The harder you go, the better it gets, and that is the mark of a genuinely talented sports car. On the narrow, twisting roads we drove, there arenít many cars Iíd swap it for.
Rejoining the Melbourne sprawl and crawl is a reminder that driving purely for the fun of it, solely for the pleasure of skilfully operating a piece of machinery, has become a deeply unfashionable pastime.
Set a few hours aside, decide on no particular destination, switch off your phone and just go pedalling. Granted, Iím preaching to the converted here, but if youíve quietly fallen out of love with driving or merely become shackled by the insidious creep of utility, either of these two cars can rekindle the flame.
If I had to choose one, Iíd make it the Mazda, a standout Car of the Year that does enough to score a narrow points victory over a previous favourite. If only I could fit in the damned thing.