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Car reviews - Mazda - MX-5 - convertible

Our Opinion

We like
Motoring fun distilled into affordable form, clean styling, improved space, handling and performance, fuel economy
Room for improvement
No spare wheel, seats not suited to long-distance driving, sticky manual shifter on test car

Mazda logo18 Nov 2005

By TIM BRITTEN

HOW many people believed in 1989 that the Mazda MX-5 would still be with us 16 years later?

Universally admired after its launch as a likeable, usable sports car bringing back some elements of the 1960s greats – in particular British genius Colin Chapman’s Lotus Elan – the two-seat Mazda soft-top, for some, still raised some questions about longevity.

But with something like 700,000 examples sold worldwide since then (it became the best-selling two-seat sports convertible in history in 2000), and a worldwide gathering of some 200 MX-5 clubs, the basic little Mazda has certainly proved its staying power.

For a car originally seen as clearly retro, it’s interesting to watch how the MX-5 has evolved without losing the character instilled into the first model.

Despite drawing jibes dismissing it as just a copy of the principles laid down by the plastic-clad 1960s Lotus, the MX-5 has grown into its own skin.

It has been able to evolve, from the original pop-up headlight model through the late-1990s second-generation version, to the all-new 2005 car while remaining clearly recognisable, yet entirely modern at the same time.

In fact, in terms of styling, the third-generation MX-5 is probably the purest yet.

Avoiding the nips and tucks so prevalent at Mazda today, its clean, basic shape reveals a satisfying balance of dimensions little disturbed by swooping, compound curves or ornate lumps and creases.

The body is little more than a rounded tub with wheelarch flares and a discreet, sunken power bulge in the aluminium bonnet. Yet, because it’s all so balanced, it works beautifully. There’s little doubt it will be an enduring design.

As you would expect with an entirely new model (apart from the side indicator repeaters apparently), almost all the things considered less than perfect in the second-generation MX-5 have been dealt with.

The car is bigger in every dimension than the series two MX-5, yet Mazda says the weight is up by just 4kg (our MX-5 test in 2001 quoted the previous car as being 79kg lighter, but of course it didn't have standard air-conditioning).

And the alloy-lidded boot, bigger than the previous MX-5 by four per cent, mainly achieves this by ditching altogether the spare wheel and replacing it with a repair kit. Record one black mark for Mazda’s latest sports car.

The new MX-5’s alloy engine is more compact and weighs less than the previous 1.8-litre but now displaces 2.0 litres, with resultant increases in power and torque – though not by as much as you’d expect or hope.

With 118kW at 6700rpm it’s only up by 5kW, while the torque increase is equally conservative, going from 181Nm at 5000rpm to 188Nm at 5000rpm.

Enough to balance the extra weight though – or more than enough, with Mazda claiming zero to 100km/h improves from 8.4 seconds to 7.8 seconds in the manual-transmission version.

And fuel economy has improved, from 8.9L/100km to 8.5L/100km in the manual, while the new six-speed auto claims an impressive 8.8L/100km – on premium unleaded. The 50-litre tank is easily adequate.

Like the previous engine, it uses twin overhead camshafts with four valves per cylinder, along with variable timing on the inlet valves, which combines with the variable inlet manifold to maximise torque spread.

The transmission choices include a six-speed manual and a new six-speed sequential auto, complete with steering wheel paddle shifters, that is sure to be a hit in the new car.

The all-independent suspension system retains double wishbones at the front, but gains a new, multi-link layout at the rear, which helps build on the still lightweight car’s impeccable handling.

The new body enshrouds a bigger cockpit that is definitely more luxe than in any MX-5 so far, although in base form it still sports velour seats and a simple instrument layout that doesn’t even include a trip computer.

The new-design folding roof is still manually operated, but the process is simplified by a single, centre-mounted fastener above the windscreen rail and, with a bit of acclimatisation, can be performed without the driver leaving the seat. Up or down.

The dash is enhanced by a broad swathe of piano-black moulding that runs the full width of the car, while the instruments (speedo, tacho, fuel, oil and water temperature) are contained within a tight cluster directly in the driver’s line of vision, behind a new three-spoke wheel incorporating the cruise control switches. It’s adjustable for height only.

Mazda has given driver and passenger more room to stretch and breathe (10mm more legroom and 17mm more headroom), and the A-pillars have been moved back and re-angled to improve vision, while the gearshift and brake continue to sit where they are eminently grabbable. Yep, the handbrake turn isn’t as yet ruled out by everybody.

Improving on the MX-5’s safety hasn’t done anything to diminish the car either.

The wider body means less for shoulder room than it does for safety, for it has allowed the standard fitment of side airbags, as well as improved side-impact protection by the body itself.

And, by he way, the new aluminium bonnet doesn’t just save weight and help the handling balance – it’s also been designed to minimise pedestrian injury.

But most importantly, the driving experience has not been muted in any way.

In fact, the third-generation MX-5 remains a basically simple car, certainly not refined out of existence by ever-diminishing noise levels and a constant smoothing-out of the drivetrain and suspension.

The optional Bose sound system is probably a nice thing to have, but in the end is somewhat wasted in an MX-5 proceeding at speed because the noise from the road, the engine and the soft-top do a pretty good job of overwhelming its subtle delivery of hi-fi bass and treble notes.

The 2.0-litre four-cylinder, consistent with previous MX-5s, is far from being a rorty, punch-in-the-back powerplant, but it does enjoy a bit of a wind-out and develops a distinctly throaty note as it winds towards its 6700rpm red line.

The 5000rpm torque maximum indicates it might be a high-strung engine, but the torque curve is such that 90 per cent of the maximum is available from 2500rpm.

This means that once past 2500rpm – and even a little bit before - the engine feels nicely throttle-responsive and well matched to the six-speed transmission.

The MX-5 delivers a satisfying accelerative surge, helped along by the short and tight shifter mounted high on the transmission tunnel. The only problem experienced with our test car was a decided baulkiness shifting from first to second when cold.

Even more significant, and maintaining a well-earned tradition, the third-generation MX-5 remains a beautifully-balanced driver’s car.

Its centre of gravity is lower than before, and its polar moment of inertia (the tendency to neither under nor oversteer) has improved to the point that the MX-5 is best in its class - which, admittedly, in Australia, doesn’t include a lot of opposition.

Without the face-saving luxuries of electronic stability control, or automatically adjusting shock absorbers, the MX-5 simply points ands steers like a sport car should.

The engine speed-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is close to perfectly weighted and is crisply responsive, swinging from lock to lock in a tight 2.7 turns.

And the brakes, always nicely capable in the MX-5, are always assured and comforting with standard ABS along with electronic brake-force distribution to maintain a solid grip even on tricky surfaces.

It’s not easy to convey in words the pleasure of spending time behind the wheel of an MX-5 on a winding, dipping road with the roof lowered. But this is a car that really imprints itself on you and engenders a fondness that borders, with time, on obsession.

Just ask the many multi-MX-5 owners of first and second-generation cars who are growing misty-eyed at the arrival of generation three.

The only real disappointment with the new MX-5 in our experience was that the seats, though generally fine, weren’t up to long-distance driving and induced back pains after more than two hours at the wheel.

But do we like the new MX-5?

Silly question really, particularly when you consider its affordability, and its continuing ability to deliver memorable driving experiences.

Unlike many cars, the MX-5 is always a pleasure to be around, as eager and faithful as a friendly puppy.

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