Updated: Jan 17, 2020
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...