My father was tuning a Group One Datsun 1200 GX for a young racer, Bill Schipper.

But I was usually to be found some way from where Bill’s little sedan pitted – I just followed my ears and honed in on the noise from the rotary-engined Mazdas. They were easy to find. Of course, it wasn’t only the bark-to-howl-to scream I loved – they were giant-killers on the track too, thanks to the ease with which extra power could be extracted from these “showroom stock” race cars.

Handling and braking were relatively rudimentary, although coil springs all round and trailing arms with a Panhard rod was certainly superior to the leaf-sprung axles of most Fords, Datsuns and Toyotas of the era. Discs (non-ventilated) and rear drums were pretty much de rigueur. If there was a handling advantage, it came down to the fact that the light and low-slung engine aided both weight distribution and centre of gravity.

Their nemesis was ultimately the likes of the Golf GTI and by the mid-1980s the rotary was a spent force in production car racing though far more entertaining to watch than the Golfs. Imagine if they had built a rear-drive 323 with a rotary powerplant! In Star Modifieds and then Wesbank Modifieds they soldiered on until well into the 1990s, Ben Morgenrood building incredible three and then four-rotor race cars in various Mazda-based shells – he must’ve had some useful contacts in Japan and the USA.

No surprises then that my first road car was a Mazda RX2 and my first race car a Capella Rotary. Actually, the latter started life as a Capella 1600 but even in the late 1980s (when my father and I built the car for Castrol Super Saloons) coupe shells were in short supply and we picked up the donor for the princely sum of R40 at a municipal auction. It was a bit of a wreck, truth be told, but it had two doors.

Fast forward two-and-a-half decades and I’m driving the latest Mazda CX-5 – a crossover or an SUV, depending on the engine/drivertrain details.

It would be pointless to say something like: “it’s amazing how far they’ve come”, because if they hadn’t, it would be really worrying. But what is apparent – and there are plenty of landmark cars from the intervening years which give truth to the statement – is that Mazda remains a fundamentally innovative and engineering-driven brand.

No one has quite matched the authenticity of the original MX-5. Successive generations have been faithful to the recipe of a lightweight, modestly powered sports car with the emphasis on driver involvement. Also remember, Mazda won Le Mans with the quad rotor 787B in 1991. More than a quarter-century would pass before another Japanese brand repeated the feat.

When it comes to styling, my eyes say Mazda leads – you only have to compare the likes of successive generations of Corolla, Almera and Mazda3 to see who has the most daring styling. This is still evident in the CX-5 and its smaller stablemate the CX-3 when you compare them to rival brands. It arguably also applies when it comes to driving enjoyment – a quality which Mazda sums up with Jinba Ittau.

Mazda refers to their design language as KODO, and it can be summed up in three keywords: speed, tense, and alluring. I get it, and there are elements of those qualities in the CX-5, which is pressed into service for a Cape town involving moving belongings out of a university rez and storing them in anticipation of the 2020 academic year.

There’s so much that impresses me about the medium-sized family holdall. It is good to drive. The transmission and Skyactiv a 2.2-litre turbodiesel are perfectly matched in all but one respect: when the start/stop kicks the engine back into life there’s a notable jolt as the oilburner fires up. It is at odds with the impressive refinement of the rest of the package. A solution would be to opt for the 2.5-litre petrol version, which will also save you nearly 30K.

After a weekend with a CX-5, would it be my choice if buying in the segment? My days of requiring a five-seater with this much luggage volume have long gone but in this four-wheel-drive guise (it is an on-demand system, driving the rears only when the fronts slip, but to my mind it deserves to be considered an SUV rather than a large crossover) it straddles a lot of turf. Natural rivals are the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV but I think if buyers think carefully enough also makes more sense than a Fortuner for many – and it has much more class.

I think if families took the time to consider their needs, then this will make as much sense 98 percent of the time. The other two percent being when you need seven seats and/or low range...


Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like A Bee

Our favourite new car of the moment has to be the Suzuki Swift Sport. It’s a triple S…and yes, that’ll probably make older readers think of the Datsun SSS.

Suzuki Swift Sport Interior with pretty girl
Three weeks at Red Star Raceway, and hot laps by a horde of media and dealer personnel, didn't reveal any chinks in the Sport's armour

There are, at face value, some similarities: the Dust Bins of the SSS era did have a reputation as solid, simple and authentic performance cars for the masses. The Swift Sport is much the same in spirit.

A performance version was part of the previous Swift range so a Sport-badged version isn’t new but there has been an about-face as far as the drivetrain is concerned. As is pretty much standard operating procedure nowadays, a revvy, normally-aspirated petrol engine has been replaced by a grunty and low-revving turbo, 1.6-litres of displacement giving way to 1.4.

Both a six-speed manual and a (conventional) six-speed auto are available and guess what? The two-pedal version is quicker. Which suits me just fine and if I never tramped on a clutch pedal again it wouldn’t be too soon.

I reckon the auto, convincingly faster from 0 – 100 km/h and also over the quarter-mile, is going to be better around a track. If, like I have done for the last 30 years or so, you drive an auto with both feet, it can also be more fun. With the transition from brake to throttle smoothed out and minimised (un-squeezing the one while the other is added progressively) the car can be kept better balanced. And as I always tell my Stigworx students, those transition zones are where the speed is to be found.

Back to the car: at R315 000 or thereabouts it represents great performance value. Sure, it doesn’t have the vault-like solidity and refinement (which makes it feel more like a C-segment hatchback) of a Polo GTI but there’s a 60K price difference. The interiors are some way apart – the Suzie feeling businesslike and functional in comparison to the lush and plush slush-mouldings of the German. But when it comes to conveniece and comfort, you'll want for very little.

The Boosterjet turbo makes 103kW and 230Nm and trust me, it's more than sufficicient 99 percent of the time...

An important consideration is that the Swift was deliberately engineered to be a sub-1 000 kg car – with all the benefits that entails. It is light on its feet, light on fuel, and quick away from the lights. On the launch I also saw it stand up happily to a fair amount of abuse, without any signs of complaining.

I’m probably a quarter-century outside their age profile but I can’t think of a better “city” car for an empty-nester who still likes a bit of fizz now and then. Heck, I might even opt for the extrovert Champion Yellow paintwork.


Toyota Corolla Hatch with sea and sky background
Does Toyota's new Corolla Hatch signal a return to affordable sportiness from the brand? Picture by AJMeraki Photography

Remember the Corolla RSI – not the sedan from the 1990s but the hatchback (Conquest) from the end of the previous decade? The one that was so successful, as was its boxier predecessor, in Stannic Group N racing in the hands of such talented drivers as Mike White, Serge Damseaux, Leon Mare and Steve Wyndham? Well, it’s back – sort of.

The Corolla, best known in previous-generation Quest guise as the wheels of choice for Uber drivers, has been joined by a Corolla Hatch, which replaces the unexciting Auris. The latest Corolla sedan is vanilla-flavoured but it seems the times they are a changin’ as far as Toyota's five-door offering goes and the new Hatch is a case in point.

Things are changing on two levels. The first is the actual products from Toyota. The Supra is a reality (launch is mid-year, with its roadster step-brother – the BMW Z4 – just having been introduced) and with the continuation of the 86 nameplate assured, Toyota’s performance credentials are looking – well - credible.

The second sign is a statement by Toyota earlier this year that there will be ‘tiered’ levels of sportiness for certain road cars and one of the first signs of this was the racy Yaris GRMN . The nomenclature denotes the top tier and will comprise serious performance credentials as well as uprated braking and handling, coupled to styling cues which makes no secret of its leanings. Apparently GRMN means Gazoo Racing Masters Nurburgring…

Gazoo Racing Products will be one of three distinct pillars of Toyota’s 2019 metalwork campaign; the other GR “tiers” below the all-out GRMN being GR (denotes a substantial amount of power), GR Sport (focusing on suspension) and GR Parts – a cosmetic-only package. The Supra is described in some Toyota literature as a GR-Supra, while a special Hilux (with trick Fox suspension) will wear a GR-Sport badge.

Which brings us back to the Corolla and the fact that it is now available sans bootlid. A hatchback configuration immediately conjures up a sportier approach and Toyota has done a great design job with the five-door Corolla to convey that message. Styling is sassy with a bunch of sharp edges, creases and folds which give the longish nose a degree of menace. Then Toyota has kept the overall height nice and low and the track widths wide so that proportionally it’s easy on the eye.

I drove one down to KZN recently, delivering it to the team which looks after the brand’s press fleet in the province. Not only did I take it down but kept it for a week before handing it over. Short answer? It is an extremely impressive car with crisp steering, very tidy road manners and a six-speed manual ‘box which clicks precisely from one cog to the next.

The overall impression is of a car which provides more sensory feedback than I expected with none of the controls feeling over-assisted – not even the brakes, which rewarded a firm, progressive action. The gearbox has a rev-matching function so throttle ‘blips’ on downchanges are part of the fun. The 1.2-litre turbo is zesty.

So, it isn’t a wild stretch of the imagination to see a Corolla Hatch massaged by Gazoo Racing in a local Toyota showroom soon, with uprated suspension, bigger wheels, form-hugging seats with contrasting stitching and a suitable selection of carbon fibre exterior pieces on the menu.

If the GR-Sport Corolla hatch displayed at the Geneva Show (below) is anything to go by, life is going to become a whole lot more exciting for Toyota fans soon.