Car reviews - Mazda - MX-5 - Roadster Coupe convertible
Balanced chassis, entertaining handling, fantastic packaging, strong engine performance, good economy, relatively low emissions, brilliant all-round affordable fun, great value
Room for improvement
Noisy with the hardtop on, fussier styling than before, steering is a tad lighter than previously, automatic – though good – still not a patch on superb manual model
31 Jul 2009
MORE Australians are learning to drive in automatic-only cars while fewer new manual vehicles are being purchased than ever before.
These sad but true facts are obviously interconnected and raise serious questions about what the future of manual-gearbox models will be.
‘Que sera, sera’, say some, but Mazda – maker of the most popular sports car in history with the MX-5 – has not been sitting idle with its enduring two-seater roadster.
The facelift of the third-generation NC-series released earlier in 2009 – visually confined to slantier headlights with white turn indicators, a larger bonnet badge, five-point air-intake/grille, rectangular-shaped fog-light surrounds, new tail-light lenses, and revised rear bumpers – has brought changes that are mostly good, along with a couple that are not.
Chief among the first group are a 16-gram carbon dioxide emissions cut and a 0.7 litre per 100 kilometres fuel consumption improvement in the automatic model.
Mazda should also be commended for the latest MX-5’s improved aerodynamics, a slicker six-speed manual shifter, less intrusive door-sited cupholders, better roof insulation (for a small cut in road noise intrusion), the implementation of an auxiliary output for MP3 players, and – last but certainly not least – a driver’s seat height adjuster.
But some people feel the new front-end styling changes make the MX-5 look a little too Mazda-generic, while the lighter off-centre steering feel compared is a step in the wrong direction – even though the firm insists it attempted to placate purists and recapture the spirit of the 1998-2005 NB series with this modification.
The extra weight of all these (up by around 15kg on some versions) also flies against the very core of the little roadster’s being.
Nevertheless, the MX-5 is essentially the same, wonderful little car as the previous version, and for that driving enthusiasts everywhere should be grateful that it exists, particularly as there are no direct rivals to be found.
Of particular interest to us is the improved MX-5 automatic – now only available in the up spec Touring and RC (Roadster Coupe) Sports models, meaning that punters have to fork out almost $3000 above the price of the previous auto base model for it.
It uses basically the same longitudinally mounted 118kW/188Nm 1999cc four-cylinder engine as before, but the manual’s version has a little more bottom-end tractability and top-end rev-ability.
Driving the rear wheels, this sweet spinning, twin-cam petrol unit punches above its weight in the diminutive roadster, simply because it has less mass to haul around than most 2.0-litre powerplants.
The engineers have also tweaked the exhaust so it sounds a little sportier, but the engine can seem a little too vocal even under moderate acceleration.
Meanwhile, the six-speed automatic features a large set of steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters that can now be operated without the driver having to slot the floor lever from Drive to ‘M’ for manual control. That’s progress.
Plus, they’re among the best we have sampled, with the larger ‘UP’ shifters placed for natural fingertip contact behind the wheel, while the smaller ‘DOWN’ thumb-activated buttons live on both of the steering wheel spokes just above the ‘9:15’ plane.
Just as good to use is the Tiptronic-style lever control, even though pushing the ‘T-bar’ forward downshifts a ratio while pulling it back shifts up a gear, mimicking a motorcycle foot lever. This is a motorcar, folks. And we change gears with our hands, not our feet!
Slot the MX-5 into Drive and a low-ratio first gear ensures a fast getaway, with second and third not far off so that even though the pace can be kept up, the changes are frequent, smooth and well judged.
But manual control does not mean that the MX-5 auto will hold the desired gear, with up-changes occurring automatically at around 5000rpm (the red line is at 6700rpm).
Automatic kickdown is fairly instantaneous, though, especially if you need to overtake quickly, and the auto feels subjectively as lively as the manual over most driving conditions.
The auto MX-5, however, is a lesser car than the manual model, simply because it denies the driver the interactivity that makes this car such a wonderful and unique proposition.
That sweet, mechanical, short-throw six-speed manual gearbox is a delight. In conjunction with the beautifully measured clutch, the ‘stick’ connects car and driver naturally.
But if you cannot or will not drive the manual, the auto is still an appealing gateway for people to enjoy the joyfully fluid steering and sharp handling attributes this roadster has to offer.
Find a corner to carve up and the self-shifting MX-5 will still sling you through with finesse (even if it lacks the limited slip differential fitted to manual cars), aided by plenty of grip and huge reserves of body control. And it does with a lightness of foot that seems to becoming increasingly rare in an era where hot hatches are becoming heftier with each generational change.
A quick glance at the specifications reveals why: the MX-5’s front suspension is by double wishbones the rear uses a multi-link arrangement and the front engine’s midship placement behind the front axle helps achieve the car’s harmonious weight balance.
As part of the facelift, Mazda’s engineers fiddled with the suspension details to deliver more fluent and controllable handling, and so the car does behave smoothly and benignly over a wide range of driving situations.
The steering is a hydraulically powered rack and pinion system, while the brakes – another strong dynamic ally – are ventilated discs up front and solid discs out back. Driver aids, including stability control, traction control and anti-lock brakes, are also standing by.
Unexpectedly, the MX-5’s ride quality is just as remarkable as its handling, because even when fitted with the RC Sports’ 205/45 R17 Bridgestone Potenza tyres, its suspension is basically supple and absorbent, yet sports-orientated enough to keep the car feeling flat and planted at all times.
But don’t go thinking that the hard-topped MX-5 RC is a quiet and refined grand tourer, because it is not.
Yes, with the roof down, it provides a level of motoring nirvana that nothing this side of a Porsche Boxster can near, since virtually none of the RC Sports’ sublime handling tactility is lost in its transition from ragtop roustabout.
Even with the roof down on a cold day, with the standard rear wind deflector, side-windows up and the heater on, the cabin is cosy-warm and adequately draught-free.
However, raise the roof (a 12-second job), and the solid dome above only serves to act as a noise chamber with the road roar you ignored when the top was down now trapped inside like a blow fly buzzing around your ears.
You get used to it, but the RC Sports with the roof in place is by no means a quiet car, as a shouty hands-free speakerphone conversation would soon enough reveal. This is despite Mazda’s claims that this car is 2.7 decibels quieter travelling at 60km/h on a coarse road surface compared to before.
We feel that the soft top – lighter, cheaper, and better looking if less secure since a knife-wielding thug could slice it right through – is a more prudent choice if you want the purer MX-5 experience anyway, since it is less complex, faster, and not much noisier when erect. Going for the soft top also liberates a tad more headroom for the tall folk among us.
Being the flagship RC Sports, our MX-5 test car was fitted with leather and Alcantara-trimmed Recaro seats that are snug even for skinnier people, and serve as a constant Fat Fighters membership reminder for portlier people in our midst.
If you can fit, you will love the Recaro seat’s support and positioning (particularly now as a height adjuster in now included), ahead of a perfectly shaped steering wheel and instrument panel that now includes clearer dials of classic design and execution.
You are unlikely to find a better driving position for the money if you require your sports cars to be atmospheric and low slung.
The dashboard has not changed much in the facelift, so it is still an innocuous if somewhat overly plastic looking item to behold.
It now includes a horizontal, matt-finished dark silver trim instead of the shiny and scratch-prone old piano-black item, more padding for the door elbow rests and on the cupholder slide situated between the seats, and a classier audio header unit that has been pinched from the latest Mazda6, apparently.
We commend Mazda for redesigning the door panels so the cupholders no longer protrude, but the new storage net is just a token gesture, since it only seems to accommodate small, flimsy and narrow things such as credit cards or Senator Steve Fielding’s accrued knowledge of climate change facts.
The RC also dispenses with the soft-top MX-5’s secret storage locker, but the glovebox is reasonably sized, the lockable rear console bin is as handy as ever, and the boot remains a reasonably useful 150 litres.
Giving the little Mazda roadster the boot is still as much of a hoot as it has always been, since the Hiroshima-based company has not messed with the basic and winning MX-5 formula.
In many way most of the changes bring small improvements to the car.
Frankly, we preferred the earlier, cleaner styling inside and out, as well as the preceding version’s weightier off-centre steering feel, although only a genuine back-to-back drive would reveal the differences for most people.
With the Toyota MR2 Spyder dead, the MG TF gone, and no competitor in sight, we’re just relieved to still be able to buy the original and best affordable post-modern two-seater roadster there is.
And that even rings true with the inferior – though still very, very good – automatic version that increasingly will be the default MX-5 choice for a growing number of Australians out there.
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