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Car reviews - Mazda - MX-5 - convertible

Our Opinion

We like
Immensely rewarding driving experience, value
Room for improvement
Smallish boot

24 May 2001

MAZDA'S MX-5 may have originally been viewed by some as a cynically exploitative attempt at capturing the affections of the baby boomer market.

However, demonstrating that the product planners can sometimes get things astonishingly right, the little retro sports car has become a classic in itself. People now talk about the purity of the original MX-5 shape, its legendary handling and the sheer driving pleasure it offers.

Mazda might have hoped the two-seat soft-top modelled on traditional sports car values would one day get that sort of recognition, but it is pretty certain it did not expect the car to be the runaway success it has been.

It is still around, more than 10 years later, with one redesign happening on the way and no real sign that, as a concept, it is any less relevant today than it was in October, 1989.

The MX-5 has proved to be an enduring sports car, able to offer plenty of reasons to buy even in the face of some new generation competition such as Toyota's latest mid-engined, soft-top MR2.

The MX-5 remains a lovely driver's car, delivering sound, predictable road holding and just enough engine power to make it interesting.

Despite temptations, Mazda has stayed away from bigger engines, or anything else that might upset what has proven to be the right balance for a legion of owners. Mind you, there is a locally developed turbo version coming.

Even though Mazda has been careful never to overload the MX-5 with more than it or its drivers can handle, a steady series of power upgrades has kept the car on the boil. It began as an 85kW 1.6-litre, stepped up to 1.8 litres and 98kW in 1993, picked up an extra 8kW with the 1998 update and now gains a further 7kW with the new "S-VT" variable camshaft timing system.

The system works on the inlet valves through a computer-controlled hydraulic actuator that alters valve timing so that the engine works more effectively at both high and low rpm. Mazda says that as well as improving driveability, the S-VT system also offers better fuel consumption and lower emissions of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide.

The livelier engine is accompanied by a host of other changes, mostly hidden, that make this, according to MX-5 owners, the best car since the 1989 original.

The engine delivers its extra power and torque via a standard six-speed transmission, seen briefly on limited edition models, but no longer by an automatic option.

To ensure the MX-5 balance is retained, the new car gets a set of Bilstein dampers to further sharpen the handling, standard anti-lock brakes with 15mm larger rotors and new, larger diameter wheels with wider, lower profile tyres.

Of real significance is that the structure of the car has been reworked too, with more body strength adding up to a 22 per cent improvement in torsional rigidity and an improvement in bending rigidity by 16 per cent.

The reinforcement program included new truss members, improved body frame and cross members, and an under-bonnet brace between the suspension towers.

One thing that will be noticed by those intimate with the MX-5 is that the seats have also been significantly improved, offering much more comfort than the previous model through higher, reshaped backrests that offer better side, shoulder and lumbar support.

The instrument panel is essentially the same, apart from a recolouring of the gauges to give a white background with amber back lighting. The surrounds are now also chrome-plated.

Outside, the new wheels compliment a redesigned front end with Mazda's new, corporate "five-point" mouth appearing below bumper level and new, slimmer headlights with clear lenses and projector low-beam lamps. Fog lights are also built into the air dam.

At the back, minor changes have given a transparent look to the tail light/indicator lamp clusters.

But it is the driving experience that matters most and here the MX-5 delivers more than ever.

The S-VT engine, also reworked to deliver a more appealing note, is livelier, but not hugely so. It adds to the car's accelerative abilities by delivering more punch in the upper reaches of the rpm band.

It is no Honda VTEC, coming on with a pronounced shriek once rpm passes a certain point, but it feels a little more highly strung - shall we say more sporty - than the previous 1.8-litre. 7000rpm is a pretty high level at which to develop maximum power and 5000rpm is an equally lofty maximum torque figure.

This means the six-speed gearbox is no irrelevancy. It keeps the engine revs more closely matched as the driver moves between ratios and ensures that an extra gear is almost always available, especially at high speeds.

The S-VT engine remains flexible enough, however, and is a match for anything else in the entry level sports car genre likely to be thrown at it.

The MX-5's ride and handling benefit from the Bilstein damping and the bigger tyre footprint. The car is a touch more assured without stepping over the line into being an uncompromising, harsh sports car that massively favours one side of the ride/handling balance.

There are no lurking nasty traits to be afraid of and the all-disc anti-lock brakes do a solid job of keeping the whole sporting package in check.

Yes, the MX-5 remains a powerful force as a basic, affordable sports car that is able to stand confidently in the face of what might seem formidable opposition (particularly in the shape of the new Toyota MR2), proving that a sound basic formula is always able to stand the test of time.

Here's looking forward to the next 10 years of MX-5s.

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