Big is good? For successive generations, Mazda’s magnificent MX-5 has been disproving that concept … until now. With the 2.0-litre version, we think a little bigger is, in fact, substantially better than something that was great to start with.
For: Driving purity, brilliant fun, more punch.
Against: Enclosed cabin, subdued exhaust note.
ANY decent chef will relate that, ultimately, the secret to any great dish always comes down to not only the chosen ingredients, but also the exactitude of their blending.
A touch too much of one thing, a dash too little of another … sometimes that’s all it takes to make the fabulous a little bit less so.
Conceivably, that’s how it could have gone with the 2.0-litre MX-5 Limited on test; a lookalike for the 1.5 GSX model that opened the latest ND model drive, it’s nonetheless not the same from behind the wheel.
So many little things account for a considerable sense of difference: The extra 500cc in engine capacity most obviously, but also in the change to brake, wheel and tyre size. It’s generally just a few millimetres (and litres) here and there, but all this small stuff that adds up to a heap of difference in the end.
For better, or for worse? That’s the question here.
Nothing to see here, right? Well, not at all. There’s a lot to look at and like. This is one sweetly-shaped car whose winning appeal is that it does everything so simply: A naturally aspirated engine up front, driven wheels at the other end and a basic cabin covered by manually folding roof in the middle.
But, agreed, the visual styling differences between the GSX and this Limited don’t come to much, because Mazda admits the process to create the latter model was pretty much limited to an engine swap and bunging on some beefier brakes and bigger wheels and tyres, 205/45 R15 Yokohamas.
The stuff you don’t see, but remains important, like suspension rates, gear ratios – in respect to the manual (Limited also comes with an automatic that GSX doesn’t take) -and so on, were left unchanged.
This fourth-generation MX-5 is all about recapturing the essence of the 1989 original; no just in feel but also scale. Whereas the previous generation car enlarged in all directions – for the betterment of people of my height and (ahem) ‘size’ – the new cars has gone back to be being fully miniaturized.
But cleverly so. While it is a tight fit for tubby tall types, you can’t help but be impressed how much legroom Mazda has devised. It really is a remarkable feat … and though the pedal compartment is a touch cosy for big feet, my size 12s weren’t getting wrong-footed, even when heel and toeing, a highly-recommended practice for MX-5’ers.
As well as being precisely proportioned, the MX-5 cabin is also minimalist; there are extraneous features to blight it: That remains as true with the Limited as the GSX, regardless than the $6000 premium that the $46,995 manual edition on test carries has paid for a whole lot more than just those mechanical changes. You also get more stuff in the cockpit.
The MX-5 doesn’t claim to be a luxury car – those hard, necessarily weather-resistant plastics alone speak to that - but the Limited nonetheless does feel less spartan than the entry offer.
It starts, as you knew it would, with leather. I’m not sure that bovine-sourced upholstery is a must-have in this environment; the hide looks to be of great quality but I know from owner experience how difficult it can be to keep this surface in good order when it is exposed to our high UV sunlight. And while it does offer a better appearance than the base car’s cloth, I figure the seats are just a touch more comfortable in their more utilitarian format.
On the other hand, everything else in the Limited kitbag seems well-valued. It has automatic headlights (including high-beam control) and wipers, both of which work extremely well, heated mirrors, keyless entry, climate air conditioning, auto-dimming rearview mirror, lane departure warning and, not least, a nine-speaker Bose sound system with speakers in the head restraints. Perfect when you’re blasting out driving music … and, with MX-5, we’re talking about stuff like ELO’s ‘Mr Blue Sky.’
You could argue that this level of enhancement takes the MX-5 away from its roots and, fair enough, before trying the Limited I’d have agreed that it does seem a bit over-egged. However, having used the car for a week, I cannot think of anything – particularly within the driver assistance portfolio – that didn’t prove its value. In addition to being a snug car, this is a really small one, that when buttoned up feels more like a capsule than a car: Something of which you are particularly aware on dark, wet nights. That’s when those aids really prove beneficial. It’s like having a co-driver who is continually looking out for the stuff you cannot see (and basically, with the roof up, that’s almost everything behind your shoulder).
Basically, then, you’re not doing any dis-service to the car’s purity by treating yourself to the extras. They’re all worth having.
On paper, the advantage of taking this 118kW/200Nm SkyActiv 2.0-litre is clear: No-one will sniff at having a significant 22kW and 50Nm extra output. The car can clearly handle it, so why shouldn’t you?
Of course, beyond the pure figures, it’s all a matter of engagement: We all know how cars can be ruined by being taken too far. Well, good news, that’s not the case here.
If anything, the 2.0-litre is generally a better choice for this car than the mill that preceded it. No argument, that 1.5 is a terrific engine – it revs higher and, some would argue, that alone makes it a more involving accomplice for a car that demands absolute interaction. I don’t disagree for a moment.
Yet the 2.0-litre's acceleration is more consistent and, more importantly, it has much stronger mid-range torque; another 50Nm at the same engine speed as the GSX makes it easier to sit behind in general driving and, more importantly, allows for the sense of greater thrust when pressing on.
Don’t worry; though not as fizzy as the smaller unit, it’s a not a lazy mill: There’s still enough effervescence here to satisfy. However, as a colleague pointed out, you don't have to think about momentum all the time as much as you do in the smaller-engined car and peak power is also more accessible, being available at 6000rpm - still high 1000rpm lower than with the entry engine.
Does that make it less engaging? Not by any means. You’re still kept busy keeping the engine on the boil, and in the right gear to keep up with more explosive fare – with roadsters being such rare fare these days, hot hatches are always going to present as the best barometer.
The beauty of the MX-5 has always been that it lends impression that traction is on the ragged edge no matter what speed a corner is negotiated at. In some ways that sense is simply amplified here. Although the traction aids need to be switched off first before the rubber really immolates, it is surprisingly how much more often you can make them chirp. Which is impressive because the tyres are fatter and grippier.
In regard to absolute acceleration, it’s also faster of course but not a lot, with a 0-100kmh time of 7.3 seconds. But it feels more meaningful and sounds it too; though not enough. I wouldn’t expect Mazda to tune these pipes to window-rattling level, but even though the 2.0-litre has something of a deep-noted timbre lacking from the alternate car, it’s not soul-stirring enough.
Economy-wise, it’s still a sipper: If driven quietly. Which wasn’t the case, often, during test. Hence the claimed 6.9 litres per 100km was never achieved. Actually, with us, the average started with a ‘nine’. Oops.
So the engine’s good. And we already knew the chassis was. But what about the issue of weight; could that be a spoiler?
Well it could. But it isn’t. Kilo count is clearly a sensitive issue with MX-5; it’s a car in which every gram has to be justified. The Limited is heavier than the GSX, but not by much. In tipping the scales at 1033kg, it’s just 24kg above the entry car’s impressive body weight. That’s acceptable, especially given that this derivative is a whole 77kg lighter than the previous version. Basically, then, you can be assured the power-to-weight benefit (114kW per tonne versus 105kW for the GSX) more than compensates for the extra bulk.
Otherwise it’s just the same fun on a stick as the GSX; only the stick’s just a little bit bigger. You notice the extra grip and the stronger braking, but dynamically-speaking it’s just the same thing. You revel especially in the ‘snickety-snick’ close-ratio, short throw, six-speed manual transmission, the sharp turn-in, the avalanche of feedback and the car’s darty yet generally predictable nature. And the engine upsize doesn’t change one thing: A sense that the MX-5 is created to provide most of its thrills at up to 100kmh.
Push much harder and it isn’t about to break down into a crying fit, but you do notice that it does get a bit jiggly and the degree of body roll increases markedly; a reminder that the double wishbone/multi-link suspension is tuned to provide a beautifully compliant and comfy ride at touring pace. Mid-corner bumps also trigger a tendency for progressive oversteer before the stability control kicks in. It’s a drama that only adds to the enjoyment once you realise that the car is just being playful.
I cannot think of another car driven this year with better steering. The MX-5 has always had great wheel feel, but this model’s set up is communicative and precise to the point of being almost clairvoyant.
Driving with the top down is practical for more than simply making it much easier to access and egress the cabin. It’s also the fast track to the car’s soul. Also, it isn’t so uncomfortable; hunker down and the air flow pretty much zips over the top of your head and it has a really good heater to keep the footwell and lower half of the cabin relatively toasty. What if it rains? Well, if you are going quick enough and it’s not too heavy, most of that doesn’t seem to infiltrate. If the rain does defeat, then roof mechanism, though fully manually operated (to save weight and reduce complexity), is fast and simple.
Driving roof up does, however, turn the cabin into something of a cosy cave. The thick B-pillar creates a big blind spot that isn’t covered by the rear view mirror’s narrow field of view. The sensation that you’re sitting closer to the road surface than in most cars also accentuates the sense that you’re a bit too isolated from what’s going on outside.
The only quibble I have, though, is that the steering wheel unfortunately only adjusts in a vertical plane. A telescopic function would have perfected the driving position.
Perhaps the marginally lighter 1.5-litre offers a more purist MX-5 experience, but I’d suggest the advantage gap would be miniscule; frankly, the MX-5's character is so pronounced that the larger engine simply doesn’t detract from the complete package.
Both versions have 50:50 weight distribution and the drivetrain’s weight penalty is negligible. As a friend who rode in this car commented: “The MX-5 is so trim that an extra person on board will make a far greater dent in performance than the difference in kerb weight.”
The 1.5-litre is a fantastic package. So is the 2.0-litre. A slight increase in price simply buys more.