Three Glasses Half-Full or Half-Empty

Automotive sightings that leave your author perplexed.

Dirty. Image: the author

The striking of a recently repaired nearby church clock signalled the end of another tedious morning in the office, and a fine spring day invited me outdoors to take the air. There followed a pleasant stroll, enlivened by some interesting, if conflicting, automotive observations.

Within seconds of leaving my place of work, the first of three wildly different vehicles caused my automotive radar to blip. It was a current (fourth) generation Mazda MX-5. Not a rare sighting by any means, but the unusually scruffy condition of this particular example gave it an aged, neglected and rather morose demeanour. I inferred from its condition that its driver may have travelled great distances with neither the opportunity nor inclination to apply some much needed care and attention to his faithful steed. One tends to assume that the MX-5 is primarily a car for fun and not the serious business of transportation, but Mazda’s famed engineering integrity clearly allows it to step up to more onerous tasks.

One applauds Mazda’s tenacity in continuing to produce a type of car that other automakers have long abandoned, its prize bring profitable sole ownership of the small roadster market. However, viewing this particular example from whichever angle, it left me feeling somewhat uncomfortable and unsatisfied.

Maybe it was its overall unkempt appearance, not helped by the choice of colour, an indeterminate dusty grey-blue accompanied by a now filthy beige soft top? Soul Red Crystal would much better exemplify the spirit of the MX-5 and shrug off the grime, at least visually if not physically. Steel wheels and an indeterminate brand of winter rubber reinforced the impression that the driver was more concerned about journeys than aesthetics. Speaking of aesthetics, the front end drops off the proverbial cliff, almost as if shaped by a recumbent elephant. The flanks flare out nicely, even when grimy, but the large rear-planted radio aerial lends the car the look of a radio-controlled model.

I really don’t wish to be disparaging to the MX-5. Maybe the morning’s drudgery had coloured my judgement, leaving my glass half-empty and precipitating this downbeat evaluation? I was once offered the chance to purchase a second-generation model from a friend of a friend. Sadly, I neglected the chance even to sample this award-winning Japanese icon, for reasons that now escape me. The car still appeals, albeit from an ever lengthening distance. It’s too low for a semi-centennial with a troublesome back, and too small for the weekly shop. The MX-5 is probably perfect for most journeys and a delight to drive, being carefully evolved around Mazda’s Jinba-Ittai philosophy of oneness between car and driver. Sadly, the MX-5 will never be at one with this particular driver.

My next quandary was but steps away. A vehicle the polar opposite of the first, it was a portly US expatriate of German extraction. Hailing from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the Mercedes-Benz W163 first-generation ML-Class SUV had barely troubled my radar before today.

How it would have looked in better days. Image:

This eighteen-year-old bore its 178,000 miles stoically. The no longer black paint still retained some quality and an air of its once-rarefied class, if now heavily patinated and dealing with the onset of tin worm. Millennial Mercedes-Benz models were, of course, infamous for their inadequate protection against corrosion. Still, I think this added some character to its appearance. As would a Land Rover Series or original Defender, this ML carried off its scars, scabs and moderately battered countenance with aplomb.

Never inordinately caring for the Sacco, Pfeiffer and Arcadipane drawn lines, I had to admit that, sitting on a quiet and leafy suburban lane, much of its two-tonne bulk fair ebbed away. This facelifted model (from 2001 onwards) was smooth and uncomplicated looking, with a stance that was pleasingly free from fuss or aggression, a far cry from its present day successor, the GLE.

The tow-hitch suggested to me the occasional trailered run to the refuse centre rather than shifting Shergar every Sunday. The mileage and condition hinted at a relatively pampered life in temperate conditions. Doubtless, its off-road excursions will have involved nothing more demanding than the odd clattered kerb or gravel driveway. Sadly, there was no opportunity to inspect the interior properly. Maybe the leather on the driver’s seat had worn thin and cracked, but maybe not. It simply wouldn’t have suited this example to be pristine. One wanted to see a little straw and a steering wheel worn smooth, and breathe the homely aroma of families and their dogs. This car could have brought baby home and carried the same offspring, now a teenager, off to university, a faithful  and affectionately named family retainer.

Scabby but unbowed. Image: the author

At that point, I would have preferred my hands to caress the steering wheel of the Mercedes over that of the Mazda. Although neither is really my cup of tea, the ML carries more character, and would likely carry me more comfortably too. For me, the days of the point-and-squirt car are over but I have little need or use for an SUV, either now or in the foreseeable future.

The final car to attract my attention, again black in hue, was equally perplexing. Having been left frustrated by the MX-5’s reminder of my age and mild infirmity, then strangely comforted by the ML, a 17-plate Vauxhall Viva had me flummoxed.

Known in Europe as the Opel Karl (his eldest son) and as the wildly optimistic Vinfast Fadil in Vietnam (the factory name, apparently), the Viva had its UK relaunch in 2015. Underneath the Mark Adams and Quentin Huber drawn skin lies a fourth-generation Chevrolet Spark.


Whereas the other two protagonists were road-stained, this humdrum corporate flash in the pan was pristine. No hint of rain marks, no spattering of mud, and even the alloy wheels appeared free from brake dust as the reborn Viva gently manoeuvred past me at a notch above walking pace. If these eyes had seen a Viva before, my memory had erased it.

Hastily employing a search engine to quench my modest Viva thirst, I learnt that they were produced at GM’s Changwon, Korea plant. They were powered by a one-litre, three-cylinder engine, were offered in three simple trim levels (not including the Rocks faux off-road blend) and achieved a middling three-star NCAP rating. One had but four years to purchase a new Viva, from 2015 to 2019. Nowadays available second-hand from four to twelve thousand pounds, the example I spotted could easily have just left the line. 

Yet the car contained no, ahem, spark for me. Curtailed once GM Europe entered the orbit of the giant Stellantis, the Viva was always predestined to become a generic device within the city car domain. It was a car unassuming, efficient and wholly devoid of character or verve, something which I found the other two possessed, albeit in vastly different flavours and quantities.

Even the Viva would be better than the six-mile mainly uphill walk home, granted, but at least my afternoon passed more swiftly, cogitating on my findings.

A new MX-5 costs from £25k… No, stop it!

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

23 thoughts on “Three Glasses Half-Full or Half-Empty”

  1. Good morning, Andrew. I like the MX5. Strangely I’ve never driven one, but it would fit me well I reckon. It could easily be my only car at the moment. This particular example looks rough, I particularly don’t like the convertible top. I don’t mind the color of the bodywork too much, bright colors are overrated in my opinion. The steel wheels should look out of place, but I rather like them. Cheap tires on a car are never a good idea and usually the choice of tire is an indication for the state of the rest of the car. The aerial is indeed hideous. Is this a typical Japanese thing? It bothers me on an S2000 too. On the MX5 I don’t like how the shut line between the hood and bumper, but other than that it’s fine. I might book a testdrive.

    I came of age and I found a girl In a Tuscaloosa bar, but that was before there were ML’s. It looks in a decent state from a distance, but like most Benzes from this era it’s still a rust bucket. No, thanks.

    The Vauxhall seems well cared for. These vehicles are meant to be used and most of them look like the owner did just that. Kudos to the owner for keeping it in mint condition.

    An MX5 starts at € 37,490 over here. That money should get me an Elise too. I’m tempted.

    1. Good morning, Adrian. I was wondering if someone would notice. There are some musical references here every now and then and when I read Tuscaloosa in the article I just couldn’t resist. I had Townes van Zandt in mind, but I like the Be Good Tanyas version too.

  2. I might be a minority here but I think the steelies fit the mx5 quite well. Also I don’t consider a car being dirty as a sign of ‘neglect’, it doesn’t seem to have any sort of damage. Surely a car must serve its owner and not the other way around.

    1. I am with you. Steelies give the car a ‘low key’ look. Add in the road grime and I just see a csar that is used, not pampered.

  3. Good morning Andrew and thanks for sharing your automotive sightings with us. The MX-5 does look a bit sad, but nothing a good valet couldn’t sort out. I’m not sure that a soft-top in such a pale colour is a wise choice, at least in the UK.

    The temptation to use a jet-washer to clean it must be strong, but that would not be good for its waterproofing or longevity. I never use anything other than a vacuum cleaner on my Boxster’s (black) soft-top. In fairness, mine is very much a dry-weather car and is otherwise garaged. Patience and a damp sponge removes the very occasional bird-dropping.

    As to the ML, my recollection is that many of them began to look ‘tired’ rather quickly and the example you spotted is typical of how they look these days, although I suspect most have already been scrapped.

    The Viva is transport…😴

    1. Having owned more than one car with a soft top in my life I never understood the reasoning behind roofs in a different colour than black. A soft top in any other colour turns irreversibly dirty relatively quickly and there’s no way to restore it to its original colour. On a PVC roof it sits in the grain and on a cloth roof it sits in the strands of the fabric where it won’t get out eve with a steam cleaner.
      The tailor-made cloth roof on my barchetta (made from the best stuff on offer at Sonnenland, the same as used by Rolls Royce and astonishingly cheap for a roof as small and simple as on the little Fiat) is steam-clean proof even at the seams. The fabric it is made from soaks up some water, swells and gets even more water tight by this. Impregnating it is explicitly forbidden as it would ruin this characteristic of the material. The only thing this roof doesn’t like is a car wash with wax treatment as this temporarily leaves white stains on the fabric.
      I fully agree with Freerk with regards of the tyres. If I see a car with tyres that cost 20 Euros (we call them Chinese crackers) I’d walk away and look for another car.

      About twenty years ago I was on a business trip to Maynard, Massachusetts. My host, a true WASP, had a Mercedes ML and proudly told me about the German quality product he had. He was very disappointed when I told him where it was made…

  4. I think I’ve been a bit hasty in assuming that the original ML had largely disappeared. There’s a fair selection of them on AutoTrader UK from around £1.5k. Here’s a typical example, which looks ok:

    Of course, it’s not that difficult to make a rusty old nail look presentable, for a short while anyway.

  5. Erm, even in that condition I’d take the MX-5 over that grotesque lump of a Mercedes all day long, every day of the week/ month/ year. It’s a brilliant piece of original design, even with slightly squinty ‘lamps. So there!

    1. Doesn’t this ML look like amn inflated and grossly distorted first generation A Class? That’s certainly anything but a compliment…

  6. I’m not neccessarily repulsed by a car being dirty; after all, it could have just made a long trip. Cheap tires, however, are a sign of neglect. The Merc is an SUV. That it looks unagressive now is a reflection of the current state of car design, not on the ML. Incidentally, the radio-controlled-car impression the antenna of the MX-5 gives might also be a reflection of current car design: most current cars are simply huge.

    The Karl/Viva is not much more than transport and a late example of GM’s geoshuffling of cheap car components. Since they’re so ubiquitous around here, I keep coming back to the Citroën Aygo triplet (the original one) when thinking about cheap cars. Mass producing something cheaply takes much effort and investment but it shows in the enduring quality of the best examples of the category (and, as Eóin’s Fiat trilogy proves, the longevity of a basic design, which for the 126 dated back to the nuova 500). Cars like the Fiat 500 or the Mini continue to appeal to this day because of their clever design. To me, the Toyota 107 fits in the same category, being cleverly designed. The Karl/Viva does not. Sadly, producing such a car profitably seems to be impossible right now for a variety of reasons, as evidenced by their discontinuation (or morphing into micro-SUVs).

  7. I think the MX-5 is cool, it would suit my taste exactly if I were a potential customer.
    We ended up with a similar combination of body colour and top on our Spider.

    The Spider started life in typical 90s fashion: black paint and black top. Fortunately, I was able to persuade the-best-wife-of-all to have a beige interior. In the late 90s, the top was damaged in winter storage and the black top was replaced with a colour that matched the interior. When a major rust treatment was done in 2010, a full paint job was necessary and we chose a lighter colour for the paint.
    Steel rims on the Spider were also always a dream of mine – I never liked the standard alloy rims, I found them very bland – but as we had changed the brakes on the front axle for bigger one, there was nothing suitable in steel. That’s why I chose alloy wheels in the “steel look” that used to be used on the GTAs.

    And yes, the MX-5 looks like the driver is going for longer trips than just to the nearest ice cream parlour.

  8. Hello, I like authentic rat looks as illustrated by the MX5. Love steel wheels. Fake rat is ludicrous. Not at all keen on the Mazda red you mentioned. Way too disco. I had a mk1, a lot of fun but so primitive. No desire to revisit the model. As for the other two cars I’d not give them a second glance. Enjoyed your piece though.

    1. Hi simon2424. A mk1 MX-5 primitive? We’ll have to agree to disagree: I had one (a 1995 1.8-litre) for a couple of years when it was already ten years old and it was lovely, with a strong, lusty engine, great handling, decent brakes and a firm but by no means crude ride. I’ve just taken a look at its MOT history and it’s still going strong after 27 years and 115k miles.

  9. Regarding the steel wheels on the Mazda, it did occur to me that perhaps the original alloy wheels had been nicked. A set of new alloys is probably around £2000 so perhaps he bought a set with dodgy tyres from the scrappy as an interim fix. Don’t ask.

  10. Ah, the Viva…

    This beauty has been sitting on the forecourt of my neighbourhood VW dealer for at least three months, its price a reminder of what happens when used car demand exceeds supply. I still hope there are better ways to spend £9498 on a car.

    It’s a 1.0SL manual, registered in December 2018, so nearly 3½ years old, but with only 11,146 miles recorded. A bit of research tells me that in July 2017 a Viva in that specification had a list price of £10,215. By April 2019, when the Viva/Carl’s discontinuation at the end of the year had been announced, the range had been reduced to the base-spec SE at £10,485 and the £12,245 SUV-manqué Rocks.

    The Viva / Carl’s main reason for being was that with the withdrawal of Chevrolet from Europe in 2015, there was a gap left where the sub-B Spark had achieved worthwhile sales. Everything else in the Chevrolet range was covered by equivalent Opel/Vauxhalls.

    The starting price in 2015 was £7995, for not a lot in the way of gadgetry. Looking at the sales numbers from 2015 to 2019, the venture may well have been worthwhile, unless the cars were heavily discounted, or the Won to €uro exchange rate was unfavourable. 231,419 were sold, an average of 46,283 per year. The White Hen, at 60-70,000 / year in Italy alone beats it hollow, but the investment to make the M400 Spark into a Viva wouldn’t have been massive.

    That said, I’d be surprised if a low-end Corsa E wasn’t cheaper to make.

  11. Interesting, thanks Andrew. Re the Mazda’s wheels, they could be a sign of a diligent owner – putting winter tyres on steel wheels to get better grip and save the alloys.

    A car like this would suggest it’s an enthusiast’s choice, but you never know people’s attitudes and circumstances; that said, if one doesn’t like cleaning cars, it doesn’t cost much to get someone else to do it.

    I don’t like dirty cars and one of main reasons, apart from them looking sad and the potential damage to the finish, is that the dirt wipes off on one’s clothes, as it has in this case – there’s a clean bit on the door sill. Then there are safety issues with reduced visibility out of the vehicle, other road users not seeing seeing lights and number plates properly, etc.

  12. I daily a P3 Volvo XC70 and just to spite the fact that it’s cladded in hideous black plastic and raised several inches I keep it as dirty as possible to ensure that its “off-roady” additions are justified. Truth is, I never have time to wash it, I want to avoid the automatic carwashes as they’re renowned for ruining paint, and I don’t have the money to get it detailed very often. Still, I generally think ‘utility vehicles’ look better grimy anyway as it indicates they’re being used as intended and not serving as a prissy status object. I think the idea of any CUV/SUV as a ‘status symbol’ is comedic and they’re generally all hideous anyway (Bentayga, Urus, etc.) I did grow up in a family that only owned old estates and MPVs, though, so perhaps we just have a more utilitarian relationship with our cars. Maintenance, tires, and safety are not to be overlooked, but hey, dirt’s just dirt!

  13. Great article Andrew, a reminder to keep looking at and thinking about everything around us. There is interest in the most mundane landscape if we take the trouble to seek it out.

    The Mazda wheels and tyres do not put me off, the owner has taken the trouble and cost to fit season appropriate rubber which is more than most of us in the UK bother to do. Andrew says the tyres are indeterminate which may not be the same as cheap and nasty. And steelies can be cool.

    So it’s the Mazda all day for me, but full disclosure, we already have one and since you ask it is in (disco style!) Soul Red.

  14. Steel wheels of this type are lighter (much lighter) than most of the aluminium wheels fitted to modern cars. Lighter wheels mean lower unspring weight. This means better roadholding. Hence they are an improvement over the now ubiquitous “alloys”. They are also easier to repair and they are much cheaper. What’s not to like?

    1. Nobody seems to care about unsprung weight any more. It was a big deal in the ’60s and possibly earlier – Issigonis denounced it as irrelevant when designing the Alvis TA350 in the mid-’50s. Not long after, inboard brakes were commonplace, and magnesium was the favoured wheel material for non-steel wheels, albeit a rarity on production cars. These wheels were designed primarily for structural function, rather than an impressive appearance. In my workshop I have some Rover SD1 OEM magnesium alloys which are about half the weight of an identically-sized Polo 6N 16V alloy wheel.

      Nowadays wheels are needlessly huge. Check the size of brake discs where they are visible; even on large, fast, heavy cars the rotors are far smaller than the space available. The universality of alloy wheels has led to vicious cost-cutting – casting wheels from whatever low-grade metal is lying around. It’s disturbing to see actual rust on purportedly aluminium alloy wheels. Japanese manufacturers seem to be the worst culprits in this matter.

      As for unsprung weight, I’m reluctant to disregard the opinion of the clever engineers who championed the virtuous circle of lightness in all things. Nowadays it’s all down to brute force and electronics.

  15. I, too, am firmly in the low unsprung weight camp – which also includes factoring in tyres as a part of the suspension, which is why I don’t understand the point of low profiles on cars not intended for the race track.

    But to return to the Mazda and its unwashed state…. (I know you’ve heard this already Andrew) It reminds me of a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow Mk 1 purchased new by a scrap metal dealer in Derbyshire who made a point of never washing it. Ever. Len (his name was proudly carried on the registration plate) was always dressed in filthy overalls, including when at the wheel of his Roller. According to local legend, the Rolls Royce management were so deeply offended by his car that they repeatedly tried to but it back off him, without success. What eventually became of it nobody seems to know. There’s no accounting for human perversity.

  16. The Mazda mx 5 or miata as it is called, is a car I like very much in all its generations. The mk1 is the one I like most of all. When it appeared, it was at a class of its own kind, nothing like that existed then. So low and clean, so simple and clear interior. The rear lights fascinated me, and the door locks, and other details. All these are locked in dark garages, they are very expensive to walk around. Rarely are they being spotted. The Mk2 is much easier to find, they had been sold in greater numbers, and have not yet achieved classic status.

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