Car reviews - Mazda - MX-5 - Roadster 1.5L
Fun factor, overall design, performance, handling, cabin, comfort, accessibility, affordability, low running costs
Room for improvement
Pinched nose, no reach adjustment for steering wheel
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7 Aug 2015
NEARLY one million Mazda MX-5s on from the seminal NA’s launch in 1989, the newest, smallest, safest, sharpest and cheapest (inflation adjusted, of course) is finally upon us.
But it hasn’t been an easy journey for one of our all-time favourites.
In gestation on and off since 2007, under extremely difficult economic circumstances that almost saw the company go bust in its post-Ford break-up and GFC-ravaged period of 2009-10, the two-seater fabric-roofed convertible that has emerged from Hiroshima actually mirrors the original by surfacing in a world with no direct competitors.
Just as it was a quarter of a century ago, the sportscar market today is all about hot hatches and expensive high-performance coupes, with only the Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ being the sole, telling exceptions.
Substitute the latter for the Toyota MR2 and Honda CRX of 25 years ago, and you’d think it was groundhog day for Japan’s much-loved roadster icon.
So can the latest MX-5 have the same sort of impact?In order to give it the best possible chance, Mazda’s engineers say they went back to the original’s stripped-down basics, scraping nearly 100kg out, putting a small and revvy atmo four-pot petrol engine up front (but between the axles, crucially), and then tucking a wheel in each corner, to ensure focused and flat cornering capabilities.
And that, in a nutshell, is what the 1.5L Roadster versions are all about, offering the sort of ‘less is more’ philosophy that permeates much more specialised vehicles like the Lotus Elise.
Indeed, on more than one occasion, the latter certainly sprung to mind during our one-day blast around the curvy mountain roads inland from Noosa in Queensland.
Armed with the more richly equipped $37,990 1.5 Roadster GT (the 2.0L versions are still some months away from an Aussie launch), the first thing that struck us about the ND is how much smaller and lower it is compared to the previous NC. No waste, no extraneous overhangs. Just to prove it, a passerby in a 2007-ish NC pulled up beside us to check the newcomer out. Jennifer was mightily impressed.
We have to admit to being a bit sceptical about the styling, but in-the-flesh exposure sure does improve things a lot, particularly when you realise that it is the basic, roof-down proportions that grab your eye, rather than the pinched nose and BMW Z4-esque rear.
Stepping inside, two things become immediately obvious. Firstly, there is more space in this newly elongated cabin than the diminutive dimensions suggest, with ample space for your 178cm-tall tester to spread out in.
And secondly, the lack of telescopic wheel adjustment is not a problem – though one fellow colleague complained about not having enough arm reach. Perhaps try before you buy.
In terms of quality and presentation, the dash is arguably the best of the modern Mazda efforts, with the CX-5 SUV-based instruments’ tacho-prioritising layout really adding a touch of class.
An excellent driving position, supportive seats and sufficient storage alternatives to the AWOL glovebox all show that the company has put a lot of thought into the new roadster’s interior. And be sure to check out the ingenious cupholder arrangement.
If you’re an owner of any previous MX-5, you will marvel at how easily the roof erects with just a single over-the-shoulder tug, aided by a new spring-loaded mechanism that takes the strain out. And conversation is not strenuous at speed with the top down, thanks to careful attention paid to the car’s airflow qualities.
Perhaps most reminiscent of the MX-5’s glorious predecessors is the feeling you get from the moment you push-button start that SkyActiv-G 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine.
With only 96kW of power and 150Nm of torque, this is obviously no powerhouse.
But the eager, revvy and silky-smooth nature of the ex-Mazda2 unit, combined with a superbly slick six-speed manual shifter, soon makes it very clear that a favourable power-to-weight ratio and smart gearing is all you need for some frisky and frenetic fun.
Mazda has really worked hard to orchestrate all the controls harmoniously, and nowhere is that more evident than in the relationship between the gearlever, clutch action and brake pedal motions. They just meld naturally.
Then there is the steering – a concern prior to driving because of its shift from hydraulic to electric – but in reality it is a beautifully measured lesson in response and feedback. Light off the mark, but then perfectly weighted as you turn the wheel, it retains that fantastic old MX-5 characteristic of blending man with machine.
And the harder you drive it, the better the helm gets. Bliss.
Up the speed, and the Mazda’s chassis remains planted and playful, with just a hint of rear-end lift as you carve through corner after corner. The chassis’ acrobatic attitude is laser-guided sharp, with equally strong and effective braking and body control to help keep things in check, yet with a suppleness and pliability in the suspension so as to not pummel the occupants over rougher roads.
There isn’t stacks of wheel travel available, but the MX-5’s chunky solidity means it is unfazed by what the surfaces underneath might be or throw at you.
Out on the open road, there is inevitable road noise coming through – especially with the roof back up – but it is still quiet enough for everyday commuting requirements, especially when you consider just how interactive the car is with the driver once the roads get interesting again.
And this is the whole point of an MX-5 – roof-down roadster capabilities combined with monumental steering and handling fun for not much money at all.
The newcomer has lost absolutely none of its predecessors’ athleticism, yet gains just enough maturity and modernity to make it seem fresh all over again.
Frankly, even after a few hundred kilometres of rural-road driving, it was difficult to hand back the keys.
Even with so many wonderful hot-hatch alternatives like the Fiesta ST, Renault Megane Sport and Volkswagen Golf R, there is absolutely nothing like the experience and joy of bonding with an MX-5.
Even the most diehard 86/BRZ driver will enjoy a new and different buzz behind the wheel of one of these. That the car we so connected with was the smaller engined of the two models available is even more astounding.
MX-5 fans, let us reassure you: Mazda has done it again.
We should be grateful that the Japanese company has not only decided not to abandon the ethos of the seminal 1989 original, but wholeheartedly embrace it 21st Century-style.
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