Car reviews - Mazda - MX-5 - 2.0L Roadster range
Legendary MX-5 handling, no-nonsense purist tech, all weather grip, sharp price
Room for improvement
Miniature seats, muted exhaust note, big blind spot
Click to see larger images
27 Nov 2015
TRANSITIONING the entry level MX-5 into a more potent 2.0-litre version was a simpler process than you might image.
With so much effort going into saving weight, reducing overall dimensions and preserving the sportscar mantra for the initial 1.5-litre version, the process was limited to just an engine swap. That's it.
And that is no bad thing because the ND MX-5's chassis is closer to perfection than in any of the three generations before it. For the larger engine, suspension rates, gear ratios and specification is largely unchanged.
Mazda has been careful to preserve all of the hard work it put into stripping away the years of middle-aged spread for the fourth-gen, and it hasn't undone all that progress by slapping in a leaden engine.
Tipping the scales at 1033kg, the 2.0-litre is a whole 77kg lighter than the previous version and just 24kg heavier than the 1.5-litre ND, but brings a significant 22kW and 50Nm extra output.
While the new addition to the range is the high-performance pick, it sets out to be exciting without complex solutions. You won’t find any turbochargers, electric seats, clever four-wheel drive systems or extensive driver assistance features. For example – even in the top spec GT, the MX-5's folding fabric roof is the keep-fit variety.
In a time of electronic cotton wool, Segways and virtual worlds, the little Mazda is a reality check. The simplest recipe of a naturally aspirated engine at the front, driven wheels at the other end and a basic but likeable cabin covered by manually folding roof in the middle, is a refreshing change in the automotive realm.
It is hard to ignore the fact that the MX-5's cabin is tiny and probably the limit for our 188cm driver, and while head and legroom are not a problem, we found the confinement was more a question of proportion rather than space.
The little seats adjust in all the right ways but we found the miniature scale made it difficult to get comfortable. Slouching offers more side support but becomes uncomfortable for extended periods and finding the right position is a trade off between legroom and recline angle.
Longer legs are poked at by the handbrake lever and a hard door trim, while cheaper quality plastics are used in much of the furnishing, but the MX-5 doesn't claim to be a luxury car. Do we have to remind you it costs less that $35,000?In every other way though, the MX-5 is ergonomically very well laid out. Pedals a not awkwardly offset, the footwell is deep and snug, while the steering wheel is nicely upright and skinny. The lovely wheel unfortunately only adjusts in one plain – vertically, and a telescopic function may have perfected the driving position.
Finding the first twisty mountain roads is a delight and the MX-5 comes alive in the most spectacularly tangible way. With the wind in our hair we click down a couple of cogs in the superb six-speed manual gearbox and open up the new 2.0-litre engine.
Its note is exactly what you would expect – satisfying and unpretentious and certainly without the dishonest piping of 'enhanced' noise through stereo speakers. While it is an improvement on the timid 1.5-litre sound, we would have still liked a little amplification.
The 1.5-litre may rev higher for a more involving and demanding drive, but the 2.0-litre's acceleration is more consistent, with good mid range torque allowing us to concentrate on getting the most of the little convertible's exquisite chassisThe beauty of the MX-5's handling is that it makes the driver feel that traction is on the ragged edge no matter what speed a corner is negotiated at.
Body movement and roll is surprisingly high for a sportscar but that drama only adds to the enjoyment.
Rather than some other sporty offerings that rely on board-still suspension, throwing the baby drop-top into a corner causes the body to pitch and then settle, with all of the grip found on the outside wheels.
Turn-in is almost clairvoyant quick and feels as though the front end will wash wide in understeer, but the rear end rapidly follows suit, spearing around bends with hilarious pace.
In all conditions the steering is lighter than we would expect for a minimalist sportscar and in some respects we would have liked the Mazda engineers to stick with mechanical PAS instead of the customary electric assistance, but the feel is always communicative and precise.
Even a bit of moisture on the alpine roads didn't upset the XM-5's predictable and confidence-inspiring nature. We kept asking more from the relatively skinny 205/45 R 17 Yokohama tyres, and they kept on giving.
As an added bonus, the ride quality is surprisingly good – another advantage to pursuing good handling through reduced weight, rather than endlessly stiffening spring rates, anti-roll bar thickness and damper rebound.
Where many sportscar manufacturers go for the principle that faster is better, Mazda has gone for all-out fun, and the MX-5's character is a masterful blend of traditional sportscar balance and laugh-out-loud hot-hatch frivolity.
Hopefully we don't have to tell you that the wonderfully clicky manual gearbox was by far the favourite, but the six-speed SkyActiv auto deserves an honourable mention. Some have criticised its performance in the 1.5-litre version, but the torque of the 2.0-litre is a far better match.
It is obvious that some of the precious power is lost to the auto and it adds a chunky 24kg but the six-speeder does a good job shifting gears especially when using the paddles with quick response time and rapid shift speed. We have experienced worse in far more prestigious sports offerings.
Even with the temperature dipping to 10 degrees and the roof open, the MX-5's cabin is cosy. Occupants sit close to the windscreen offering good protection from the wind and heated seats add even more comfort. In our relatively temperate climes, the little roadster is a topless proposition for a majority of the year.
We particularly like the fully manually operated roof mechanism, which is both fast, clever and simple, saves more weight and reduces complexity and, therefore, the chance of reliability problems in later life.
With the roof closed there was still a notable amount of road noise and a combination of thick B-pillar and very narrow mirror field of view caused a nasty blind spot. In other regions the MX-5 gets blind spot monitoring technology, which would help, but our advice is to keep the roof down.
Some may say the marginally lighter 1.5-litre offers a more purist MX-5 experience which allows the driver to focus on its sharp handling and playful nature and, while that is true to a degree, we found that more power didn't once detract from the complete package in any way.
Both versions have 50:50 weight distribution and anyone who says they can detect the small weight penalty of the 2.0-litre over its smaller-engined sibling is probably being misled by their passenger. 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.
Which is best? To decide that, let us consider the MX-5's arch-rival, the Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ siblings.
The pure rear-drive sportscar has a razor sharp chassis but many publications, including GoAuto, said it could do with a bit more fire under the bonnet, and subsequently, we are not about to say the least powerful MX-5 is the pick of the bunch.
The 1.5-litre is a fantastic package of poise and precision but the MX-5 chassis benefits hugely from 500cc more in its cylinders. We even think it could handle more.
After 25 years of growing up, heavier and more luxurious, the MX-5 has done the seemingly impossible. On the one hand, the little sportscar has returned to its past, shrinking and becoming lighter in accordance to the rules laid out in the driving enthusiast's bible, but on the other it has streaked into the future with up to the minute safety and styling no one could have predicted.
By gaining a little more grunt, the 2.0-litre fourth-generation MX-5 has become one of the best driver's cars money can buy, and at under $35,000, for not very much money at all.
The Road to Recovery podcast series
All car reviews
Click to share