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Car reviews - Mazda - MX-5 - SE convertible

Our Opinion

We like
Performance and grip/handling improvement, refinement, overall package, price
Room for improvement
Overly firm ride, torque delivery, steering kickback, higher fuel consumption, more exspensive insurance cost

23 Mar 2004

HOW about a rousing cheer for Mazda as it announces the building of the 700,000th MX-5? Followed by an encore, because during the 15 years it has now been built, the MX-5 has resisted the temptation to stray from the purity of its original intent.

Late 1980s sceptics may have sneered at the MX-5 as a rip-off of the 1960s Lotus Elan, but that was then.

This is now, and the Mazda has so much history behind it that the Lotus accusations are all-but forgotten. The MX-5 has become something of an icon in itself.

Fears that the new-look version in 1998 would spoil the charm of the original have also dissipated. The little two-door continues to be among the simplest, purest designs recently built by a volume manufacturer.

It’s still stripped-down fun – close to minimalist, yet yielding enough ground to present-day hedonistic demands that it conceals no uncomfortable surprises.

If you’re a baby boomer and your recollections of sports cars contain images of basic, blustery cockpits, flapping roofs and a certain immediacy about both the engine performance and handling qualities, then some vestiges of those qualities still remain.

By today’s standards the Mazda is indeed very basic – manual roof, tight cockpit, manual seat adjustment – although in a quite refreshing sort of way.

Although niceties like air-conditioning, demisting (glass) rear window and power steering are part of the deal, an MX-5 is still motoring stripped close to its bare essentials.

And it’s fun. Fun enough that after a week at the wheel it’s something of a disappointment to hand it back – even if you happen to be stepping into a 5 Series BMW or something similar. The MX-5 is an endearing car, which is no doubt why it has become such a staple in Mazda’s product lineup.

But if we were concerned that the 1998 restyle might spoil the MX-5, it’s possibly time to get anxious again because the next version is due to appear some time this year and reports of what it might actually be are varied.

The Ibuki concept that has recently done the car show rounds is apparently no real indicator, but then again...

We do have reason to rejoice in the intervening period though, because Mazda has just delivered the best factory version yet of the MX-5 – the turbocharged SE.

Even though the non-turbo MX-5 continues to be sold (Mazda expects it to account for about 30 per cent of sales), most of the focus from now on will be on the low-pressure turbo variety because it’s a better car that doesn’t suffer any compromises.

If there’s any problem, it’s that the MX-5 is edging away from the original sub-$30,000 price tag, with a recommend retail of $45,490. The non-turbo is almost five grand cheaper, at $40,530.

All relative, of course, with competitors such as the MG TF and Toyota MR2 tagged quite a bit higher, but not offering as many kiloWatts – not to mention comparable power/weight ratios.

Mind you, 121kW is not a lot for a 1.8-litre turbocharged engine – Toyota’s normally aspirated Corolla Sportivo makes 140kW from the same capacity – and it certainly is nowhere near the 150kW MX-5 SP that was built in limited numbers between 2002 and 2003.

What it does do though, is add a lot of useful punch without any noticeable turbo lag. Mid-range response is outstanding, and there’s plenty on tap at bottom and top ends too.

Part of the reason for this is that the turbo engine has only a slightly lower compression ratio than the regular model. It drops from 10.0:1 to 9.5:1, which is hardly dramatic, and means the loss of low-speed response found in most turbos is minimised.

Unlike the devastatingly fast SP, the SE version is basically an MX-5 enhanced.

Mazda says the zero to 100km/h time is improved from 8.4 to 7.8 seconds in the manual-only SE (standard MX-5s are still available with six-speed manual, or four-speed automatic transmission).

Fitting a low-boost (7.25psi) turbocharger to the MX-5 hardly required any rocket science and was reputedly done by the factory after observing the success of the Australian SP.

The turbo breathes in through an air-to-air intercooler and out through a slightly modified exhaust system with a new main muffler.

The SE’s 206Nm torque peak comes in slightly lower, at 4500rpm, than the normally aspirated engine’s 168Nm at 5000rpm. Likewise, the maximum 121 kilowatts are produced at lower rpm, dropping from the 7000rpm required by the non-turbo to produce its 107kW.

Other modifications were kept to a bare minimum – clearly the car is able to cope with more than the standard power, as the SP proved.

Changes were made to things like the radiator, clutch, propeller shaft and differential (now a torque-sensing limited-slip) and harder rubber was used for the engine and differential mounts.

The double-wishbone all-independent suspension that has done an excellent job in the MX-5 has been given a decent workover – more than the SP – with 20 per cent stiffer springs, heavier front and rear anti-roll bars, a 7mm lower ride height and Bilstein shock absorbers.

The steering ratio has been changed too, reducing the number of turns required to go from lock to lock from 2.7 to an almost go-kart like 2.3. Larger, 17-inch wheels shod with 205/40 unidirectional tyres are also part of the SE pack.

What it all means is a sharper, crisper-accelerating MX-5.

The cockpit still feels slightly cramped although it proves quite comfortable even for those more than 185cm tall, once they’ve fiddled with the difficult-to-reach seat adjustment and discovered there’s no such thing here as an adjustable steering column.

The tiny boot – exactly what you expect in a very personal sports car – is only able to contain a space-saver spare tyre.

The MX-5 SE’s gearshift snicks beautifully through its six ratios and the steering, as you’d imagine, almost redefines the term sharpness.

The MX-5 threads its way along winding roads with a degree of steering precision and engine responsiveness that makes you realize that motoring can actually be quite good fun at times. And it demonstrates the fine balance that comes from a front-engine, rear-drive configuration.

If you wish to identify an SE MX-5 from the normally aspirated version, you’ll pick it by the lovely 17-inch alloy wheels, a subtle bodykit incorporating front spoiler, a boot spoiler and a rework of the rear bumper to include an "under spoiler".

The MX-5 has now been in production for a lot longer than its alleged role model - the Lotus Elan - but it’s as fresh and rewarding to drive as the first version was when launched here in April 1989.

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