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Car reviews - Mazda - MX-5 - coupe

Our Opinion

We like
Superb balance, communicative and quick hydraulic steering, slick manual gearbox, body rigidity over corrugations, comfortable seats, surprisingly compliant ride
Room for improvement
Ageing cabin design with no touch-screen, USB or Bluetooth, wind noise with the metal roof up, price rises over the old model, engine still lacks low-end torque, no more soft-top

31 Oct 2012

TWENTY-three years after the launch of the beloved original MX-5, Mazda wants us to know it is still in the affordable sportscar game.

Following the launch of the brilliant, sub-$30k Toyota 86 and its Subaru BRZ coupe twin earlier this year, many enthusiasts proclaimed we had witnessed the re-ignition of the classic affordable rear-drive sportscar formula – such was the excitement that surrounded the new kids on the block.

Mazda has responded to this by staging a media launch for its mild MX-5 facelift – a decision that can only be seen as an attempt to gently remind the public that its (admittedly more expensive) entrant in this market never actually left us.

Of course, it would be unfair to directly compare the Toyota/Subaru with the MX-5, because only the Mazda offers open-topped convertible motoring. But in most other ways – rear-drive, front-mounted naturally-aspirated engine, light kerb weight – they seem comparable.

On top of this, the removal of the slow-selling soft-top from the range leaves only the folding hardtop, the design of which is intended to evoke a coupe shape.

We feel that the lack of a fabric roof option - it was quietly discontinued a few months ago due to negligible sales - takes away from some of the simplicity and purity that has defined the car up to now.

Despite dating back to 2005, we were delighted to discover that age has not made the MX-5 any less fun behind the wheel – even with its little engine still so prone to running out of puff.

The classic recipes are frequently the best, otherwise they wouldn't endure as they do. The case applies to the MX-5, which as ever combines a rigid but lightweight body with a perfectly balanced rear-drive/front-engine configuration and a quick-shifting, short-throw manual gearbox.

But with pricing close to – or even over – $50k, we have a few reservations about the value proposition, especially in regards to the cabin.

Being taller than most, your correspondent had to contort and squeeze into the tight two-seater cabin, but found things relatively comfortable once ensconced – that is, despite the disappointing lack of steering wheel reach adjustment.

Everything on the fascia is easy to reach, but looks dated and lacks basics like a touch-screen, USB or even Bluetooth. Mazda Australia was not offered these features from the Japanese factory, but they're are all absolutely essential at this price level.

Storage is almost non-existent, with a small cubby between the seats and a tiny boot, but handy touches like the decent centre console and door-mounted cup-holders add some relief.

In these terms, it would be easy to conclude that the seven-year old current design is at the end of its tether – seven years is generally the life-cycle of a vehicle design, after all.

But the news gets better once up and rolling, because our long drive day through the twisty roads south of the Gold Coast – dipping our wheels across the New South Wales border – reminded us of just how beautifully balanced, communicative and downright fun the little Mazda can be.

Hydraulic steering systems are rare these days, as manufacturers ditch them in favour of more fuel-efficient electric versions. But the upside of the old-school version still used in the MX-5 is the communication between the wheels at the front and the one in your hand.

Always a highlight of the Mazda, the steering remains razor sharp off-centre and full of feel, while remaining averse to kickback over mid-corner bumps and ruts. It almost feels alive in your hands.

Turn in and body control through the twisty roads is abetted no end by the rigid body, which remained free of scuttle shake and felt composed over some truly ragged surfaces.

Approaching a corner too hot provokes understeer, and lifting off half-way around makes the tail kick out – but drive with an iota of nous and the little Mazda rewards the driver by following bends as though it is on rails.

For such a slight and dynamically oriented car, the ride is surprisingly supple and the road noise more subdued than usual for this sort of vehicle.

Bumps make their presence known, but they don't send the car skipping off-course and they won't rattle your fillings loose.

Mazda has always maintained that the MX-5 is not about outright speed, and with only 118kW and 188Nm on tap, it's just as well – this roadster is no rocket ship.

Now, we aren't speed demons here, and we're all for maintaining balance, but we still reckon turning up the power a few notches would work wonders.

The lack of huff is particularly noticeable on sharp hills and powering out of sharp bends, both of which require some serious rowing with the super-sweet and short-throw six-speed gear shifter, changing down from fifth-to-fourth-to-third as you chase that elusive sweet spot.

We also found the pedal box a bit crowded, with the clutch pedal too close to the brake pedal, something we imagine could cause accidental left-foot braking when preparing to reach for another ratio.

Naturally, the small non-turbo unit loves to be revved, and above 5000rpm things fare better. The whole car feels more alive at this point, although it neither sounds as good or offers quite the punch of the newer 86/BRZ.

The lack of engine acoustics may also have something to do with the sheer level of wind noise pervading through the folding hard-top. A comfortable cruiser this is not, but at least the seats are supportive.

Conclusions, then. Some cabin deficiencies may show-up the MX-5's age, the value equation is certainly not what it was in 1989 and the engine lacks huff.

But hang all that, because around a twisty and challenging road – top up or top down – there aren't many cars that offer as much fun.

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