MX-5 – upbeat tempo for a familiar tune

The entry edition of Mazda’s evergreen MX-5 provide tremendous fun, but is the impending 2.0-litre going to provide even more thrills?


For: An utter joy to drive; all the better for weight-saving.

Against: No steering column reach adjust, how much better will the 2.0-litre be?

Score: 4.3/5

THINK of a favourite band and ask yourself this: Was your devotion evolving or immediate – meaning, does everything you like about the group rest on that very first album, the one out of nowhere stacked with all those catchy hits, or has it come from ongoing cash-down dedication?

If it's the first, then welcome to the MX-5 fan club. It's stacked with original sound devotees, and that's become an emergent a challenge for this maker.

Mazda is hardly unhappy that people who found the love 25 years ago remain committed to that original choice. They, after all, ensured this homage to great British ragtops like the Lotus Elan has sold far more units than the MGB, Elan and Spitfire combined.

Yet fact is, for a lot of fans, that’s as far as the commitment has needed to go. While every version of this wee sportscar has won praise, sales have slid since the second gen, which was really a quick reprise of the original, a situation for which Mazda has only itself to blame. Simply, they made the original shape car so good that, for a lot of people, there’s been no need to go to anything better.

That's perhaps one of the driver's for Hiroshima having decided to go back to the start; the gen four model is very much a good times roll reprise of the first recipe's once more about utter simplicity in design. There's still just seating for two, a boot barely big enough for a picnic hamper, a folding ragtop and, under the bonnet, an energetic but small engine with not a turbocharger (or sport button)

It’s also gone back a step weight and size-wise. Being 100kg lighter and 100mm shorter than the last one is quite something, but all the more impressive is that it is 30mm shorter than the very first MX-5 from 1989, and barely any heavier, with a kerb weight of only 1000kg, despite packing all manner of modern crash technology under its skin. That’s a stunning achievement.

Also lightened is the spending load; the GSX on test is basically $10,000 cheaper than its equivalent in the old range.

All good news for self-involved kerb crawlers, right? Well, there’s another thing. This MX-5 absolutely reinforces that this car is all about purity, not preening. Prejudice that paints MX-5 as a hairdresser and housewife car is a massive injustice: This car is about providing truckloads of driver appeal at any time in any circumstance at any speed. Making the most mundane road feel like a racing track is the remit that past MX-5s have met: What about the new one?

Styling, image:

YOU know how a colour can sometimes skew your impressions? It definitely happened with the test car. Red has always suited the MX-5 and, from memory, every previous test car has come in that shade. But the hero hue this time is a sort of off-white porcelain with a metal fleck Mazda calls ‘ceramic metallic’. It looks good in soft light, but otherwise wasn’t great for showing off the test car’s lines.

These also created comment. Though it’s hardly sharp-edged enough to be considered an origami effort, there’s surprisingly angularity to the latest shape. Close scrutiny of the tail light design fuelled conjecture that perhaps BMW-mangler Chris Bangle has found some moonlighting work at Mazda; there’s definitely some Z3-ishness going on in that region.

The front end provides a friendlier, less complicated welcome, but is also quite complex in its design elements; obviously it has to achieve the current family-wide look but the pinched nose also provides a reminder of how challenged stylists are now to meet styling ambitions while also satisfying increasingly stringent international safety regs (Mazda failed a little here, with MX-5 being pegged back on its crash test result due to an imperfect pedestrian strike score).

It’s hardly an ugly sight, though, and when viewing the car in its purest state – that is, roof down, preferably in late afternoon or early morning light – it really does fix your attention. Also, styling change is sensitively handled; it would be pointless for Mazda just to keep baking the same-shaped biscuit and the beauty of this MX-5 is that looks quite different to what has come previously yet is clearly still the same as ever, which takes some doing.

It’s quite a trick to achieve this.

Proportionally it’s an epitome of perfection, some of the shaping is a little quirky, but there’s not one angle or panel that looks wrong or out of whack with any other. With toylike character comes toylike size; you’d almost expect to flip it over and find Bburago printed on the underside. They say it has a shorter wheelbase and is nearly 2cm lower, but frankly it seems so much smaller now. Still, it’s gratifying to know that the MX-5 stays true to the original, which itself stayed true to the Lotus Elan.

The pertness plays tricks, though, because it is not hassle sliding in, not even with the roof up – I’m lanky and a colleague who is a good 4cm shorter reckoned I have to do as he did, and open the roof to get into the driver’s seat. Nonsense!

Also, while obviously the cabin is cosy, it feels bigger inside, which again reinforces the skills of the design team. I kept reminding myself that it’s no bigger, overall, than the first and second gen cars – which were a touch too small for me – and yet has better useable cabin space than the third, which was the largest of the family ever. By contrast, with 130 litres’ capacity, the boot is plain small. But that’s good. Luggage is extra weight. Who needs that?

To keep off the fat, Mazda uses aluminium more extensively than before in the chassis. The previous car had an aluminium bonnet, bootlid, centre frame brace, and suspension arms. In addition to those lightweight pieces, the new model also uses aluminium for the front wheelarches, front knuckles, convertible-top supports, rear bulkhead and roll hoops, and front and rear bumper supports. The centre of gravity drops by nearly a 6.3mm, which doesn’t sound like much, but is because this car already felt as though it was painted on the road surface.

Powertrain, performance:

BIG boofy engines have never been the MX-5’s style; even the factory turbocharged specials feel short of being tyre-smoking tarmac melters. No, the modus has always been to get the best from small, big-hearted engines and that’s how it goes in this generation.

Still, there are two kinds of ‘small’ this time around: A 2.0-litre coming next year and our test model’s SkyActiv 1.5-litre four-cylinder direct-injection mill. Is 96 kilowatts of power and 150 Newton metres of torque enough, or would it better to await the 118kW and 200Nm unit down the line?

A week with the car suggested the chassis is up to coping with more grunt yet, at the same token, what’s here now – an engine based on a unit from the latest Mazda2 – is hardly insipid.

In sound and shove, it’s hard to reconcile that this is intrinsically the same engine that goes in an OAP-favoured hatch; it has so much more charisma with the lighter roadster. Yet, though very fizzy, this mill is no Mr Muscle, not with 0-100kmh in 8.3 seconds and a top speed of 205kmh. Razzing up hot hatches is perilous unless you’re heading directly into a masse of esses; straight line pace is nippy but hardly headrest-smacking.

There’s only way to make it properly sing and that’s to be utterly merciless. Plenty of revs at every opportunity might seem a punishment, but past experience says MX-5 engines can take that kind of treatment forever (I’ve a mate who’s racing a car with 200,000 kays on the clock). Pussy-footing is potentially a greater crime; the engine bogs if you aren’t deft with the short-movement clutch and throttle.

That peak power arrives at 7000rpm, just 500rpm before the redline says everything. Likewise that the torque seems to schmooze evenly rather than arrive in a big dollop. Even when working to keep it on the boil, there’s one curious trait with this engine. At just over 3000rpm it seems lose a little bit of oomph, as though it is taking a wee breather before going back into max attack. Otherwise it’s a silky smooth, super-elastic whizzer with tons of zeal.

Overall, there’s a lot of character here that will be celebrated by enthusiasts, but surely they’ll be petitioning for a more interesting and involving exhaust note. In present tune, it’s hard to get much of rasp from it.

An automatic is optional with the 2.0-litre, but with the entry engine it’s a six-speed manual or walk. Don’t worry. Great shifters are a MX-5 tradition that continues here. Suppled by Aisin (and presumably therefore related to that in the sublime Toyota 86), this box offers delightfully short, snicky throws and always achieves exact connection, whether shifting up or down. Which is good, because with an MX-5 you’ll be shifting often to keep the engine on full song.

Driving appeal:

What do you think? It’s coming from great stock, so Mazda could hardly get it wrong. MX-5s are famously nimble and intuitive so if you’re tired about hearing about that side of things, best abandon this story now. This new chapter makes even better reading.

The intrinsics aren’t altered, and that’s a good thing; that special direct and darty, life-is-great playfulness and huge sense of light- and fleet-footed involvement is what ultimately sells this car.

Probably the biggest change is that occupants now sit 15mm closer to the car's centre, literally at the vehicle's mid-point, and 20mm closer to the ground. It makes for a shoulder-brushing, bum on the stones sensation, and emerging decorously will challenge, but also provides a better feeling of connection. It also enhances another MX-5 trait, an ability to feel fast even when driven relatively slowly – or, at least, within the confines of the legal open road limit – maintains in spades, too and also serves to remind why this is a car designed for weekend fun above weekday drudge, where the car’s petite size, and firm, noisy ride could become turn-offs.

The most rigid bodyshell yet, the lower weight and a new electric power-assisted steering which replaces the outgoing model's hydraulic power assist become key when having a play. A friend who owns a gen one car was simply astonished how much more speed this new one could carry through his favourite bends. Expect this car to shine on any route that favours nippiness, quick reactions and steely resolve.

It still squirms a little in the initial cornering phase, but that’s an engineering intention. The engineers purposely built a bit of initial compliance into the suspension to give the driver an awareness of load transfer during cornering.

Grip is excellent – almost too good; the tail-out attitude achieved in the accompanying video was down to the surface being well coated in small stones. In general open road bogan use, the tyres rarely squeal. As we discovered during the showdown with Toyota’s 86, when the grip goes, the MX-5 slides steadily and is easy to catch thanks in part to its low mass. The highly boosted steering is quick and rewards a light touch, all of which adds to an impression of extreme smallness and one-ness.

The lack of telescopic wheel adjustment is not a problem when seeking to achieve an optimum driving position, but it is a slight annoyance – along with the slightly narrow seats (memo to self: lose weight) - in being a spoiler in a car in which otherwise everything effort is made to meet that ‘car and driver as one, man with machine’ spruik. The mantra does hold true when considering how harmonious the relationship between the stubby gearlever, clutch, brake and throttle pedal interactions. There’s little room in the footwell but that enhances opportunity for practicing heel and toe interactions.

In terms of quality and presentation, the dash is arguably the best of the modern Mazda efforts, the tachometer-prioritising layout really adding a touch of class. The attention to detail is pretty good. There’s sufficient storage alternatives to the AWOL glovebox, the cupholder arrangement is clever – the receptacles can be resited or simply removed – but the boot lid triHow it cogger is too well hidden for its own good (so, too, is the handbook, or has that also been dropped to save a few grams?)

If you’re an owner of any previous MX-5, you will marvel at how easily the roof erects with just a single over-the-shoulder tug, aided by a new spring-loaded mechanism that removes any strain.

Driving and conversing roof-down is pleasant – just so long as you have the side glass up – even on a chilly day (with the heater ramped up to aim hot air into the footwell of course) thanks to careful attention paid to the car’s airflow qualities. When dropping the roof, don’t forget to turn the a/c off to effect a teensy but positive gain in engine output: Every bit counts, after all. As before, Mazda has used seating materials and cabin fittings that appear to be weather-sorted; accepting there’s every chance that one day an owner will leave the top down in a rain shower.

Running roof-up won’t appeal to claustrophobics because the canvas is just centimetres above and the cabin becomes a cave, and it also causes wind and road roar to elevate. But it is snugly and rain resistant.

How it compares:

Budget roadsters are a rare breed – and it’s tempting to say that’s because of this car. The impression is that other brands that could easily build a rival for this car don’t bother because it sets the bar so high.

This 1.5-litre car is good value, but there’s every likelihood the 2.0-litre will be even better. It promises significantly more urgency – which wouldn’t harm the car – if not much higher top speed, and also delivers a limited slip differential, fatter rubber and Bilstein suspension.

That’s if you want to buy new. An afternoon of the test period was spent in company of a well-worn but cared-for NA; now a 20-year-old car but you’d never guess. It didn’t drive as fast, wasn’t as tidy through the corners and the braking performance was nowhere near as impressive. Yet it still delivered oodles as fun. The owner, a mate, bought it for $7000 two years ago and has hardly spent anything on its since. As he reflected: “I’d love the new one, but it’s not in my budget. For what I spent, I think I’m getting a lot more than one fifth the thrill factor.”