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Car reviews - Mazda - MX-5 - convertible range

Our Opinion

We like
Overall design, stylish, upmarket cabin, roadholding, steering, brakes, short-throw gearshift
Room for improvement
Front-end styling not as distinctive as previous generations, no spare, small boot, low-down torque could be better

Mazda logo9 Sep 2005

By NEIL MCDONALD

WE’RE in a bit of a quandary over the Mazda MX-5.

Purists would have us believe the slick, six-speed manual is the preferred way to travel and that no self-respecting sportscar driver would ever own an MX-5 auto – until now.

The arrival of Mazda’s "Activematic" six-speed automatic with paddleshifts is swaying our judgment that the wee sportscar can still be fun when the shifting’s taken out of your hands.

After driving both the manual and auto we’re leaning towards the six-speed auto, purely on the grounds that most owners will spend a large part of their time caught in city traffic.

However, when out on the open road you can flick to manual-mode for some rapid fire paddle changes to overtake or attack those windy mountain passes. In the right hands, the auto will punt as quickly as the manual.

That said, the manual’s no slouch either.

The hot-knife through butter changes are quick and can be delivered via a tidy short-throw gearshift that allows you to almost flick your wrist to change gears.

The shift-quality reminds us of the Honda S2000 but unlike the S2000, the MX-5 never needs to be revved as hard to get the best out of it. It will doddle around in top gear or punch through to the red-line with equal alacrity.

Importantly too, the 2.0-litre variable valve timing four is a sweet-sounding engine, delivering 118kW at 6700rpm and 188Nm at 5000rpm.

Mazda claims 90 per cent of the torque is available between 2500rpm and 6700rpm but we’d actually like a little bit more low-down grunt.

The MX-5 will happily rev to the 7000rpm cut-out and the dual exhausts offer a throaty roar when in full song.

Matching the driveline and gearshift is a chassis that delivers true sportscar handling – right up to the limit.

On the open road, the handling remains tidy and neutral with a degree of built-in understeer. However, this can easily be switched to a power oversteer, allowing the car’s full handling traits to be exploited if you so desire.

However, at no time does the chassis feel dangerously inadequate. The car can, and probably will at some point in its lifecycle, handle far more power than the current 118kW 2.0-litre.

Mazda’s engineers say the 2.0-litre four is a perfect complement to the car’s character and handling. We cannot argue with that. It’s all about "jinba ittai", again.

The tight chassis and solid dynamics do have a modest downside though.

The ride is a tad firmer than expected, partly due to the 17-inch wheels but at no time does it become uncomfortable.

Although the new car is bigger, stronger and more powerful, Mazda’s engineers have managed to keep weight gains down to just 4kg for the six-speed manual with air-conditioning. The MX-5 base weight is a svelte 1105kg.

Standard equipment runs to air-conditioning, dual front and side airbags, which offer head protection as well, limited slip differential on manual models, 17-inch alloys, strut tower bar, cruise control, six-stacker CD stereo, steering wheel mounted audio controls, cloth soft-top with heated glass rear window, electric boot opener, dual exhausts and height-adjustable steering wheel.

The leather pack versions offer a seven-speaker Bose sound system as well as the leather seat trim.

In the cabin, everything falls readily to hand and the ergonomics are spot on.

Visually the MX-5 continues the previous two generations’ theme of visual simplicity.

The muscular wheel arch flares enhance the new car’s overall look and the rounded rear end carries over some of the styling signatures of the previous generation.

Harmonious it is. Perhaps the only element that does not really gel are the slit-headlights. They lack the prominence and strength of the original’s pop-up headlights or even the second-generation’s fixed "eyebrow" glass headlights.

Inside though the cabin has come in for a class-makeover.

The dashboard is distinctly up-marketed, aided by the piano-black trimming and large full-length console and snug-fitting seats.

The soft-top can also now be released via one centrally located latch, which makes putting the roof down far easier. Once down, a pop up air diffuser between the seats dampens any wind through the cabin. Twin rollover hoops are located behind the headrests and there are handy storage bins in the console, between the seatbacks and in the doors.

The stylish three-spoke steering wheel is thick and offers precise feedback and good turn-in.

The boot is diminutive and a reasonable place for soft luggage but as there is no spare, buyers will have to make do with a pump-up repair kit. It’s hardly ideal for Australian conditions but Mazda is quick to point out that a 24 hour roadside assistance package is part of the deal.

It’s not really good enough. Even a space-saver would be better than a pump-pack but buyers do not have a choice.

If we’re smarting about the reassurance of a spare tyre it’s only because the MX-5 is one car you’ll want to drive long – and hard – again and again.

It will bring a smile to your face every time you get behind the wheel.

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