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Car reviews - Mazda - MX-5 - SE convertible

Launch Story

Mazda logo10 Dec 2004

By MARTON PETTENDY

Overview:

FITTING swansong for the world's top-selling sports car before being replaced next year, or too little too late in the MX-5's long 15-year life cycle? That's the debate surrounding Mazda's first factory turbocharged MX-5, released in March 2004 - just over 12 months before its redesigned replacement goes on sale here. MX-5 SE, as it's known here, doesn't match the addictive turbo rush of the homegrown MX-5 SP, but its does offer a more complete package including a bodykit, a quicker new steering rack and MX-5 firsts like a limited-slip differential and 17-inch wheels. But perhaps the SE's most convincing aspect of the sharper, more refined SE is that at $45,490 it's just $5000 more expensive than the regular MX-5 - and some $10,000 less than the SP.

The Car:

IN automotive terms, 15 years is an eternity. But that’s precisely how old Mazda’s iconic MX-5 will be when its all-new successor goes on sale here in the third quarter of 2005.

Of course, there’ve been limited editions, a locally-built limited-edition turbo and an extensive facelift that brought fixed headlights and a stronger bodyshell in 1998.

But it’s the near-perfect formula of agility, performance and style that has helped ensure MX-5 – the world’s top-selling sports car - remains as popular as ever. The 700,000th MX-5 was sold recently in the US - almost 10,500 MX-5s have been bought in Australia

Now, just over 12 months before MX-5 is redesigned for the first time since being launched here in October 1989, the benchmark-setting Japanese roadster has come in for its biggest change ever.

Known in Japan as the Mazda Roadster Turbo and locally as MX-5 SE, the turbocharged convertible is both a fitting swansong for the mould-creating original and the spiritual successor for Mazda Australia’s MX-5 SP, which was sold here from January 2002 at a price of $55,540.

"It’s fair to say a bit of inspiration for the SE came out of our car," says Mazda Australia managing director Malcolm Gough. "The project manager was very impressed by it and they had a number of kits tested in Japan and the US. It helped convince them a turbo MX-5 wouldn’t have diluted the original concept."

Truth is, the factory-built 121kW/206Nm MX-5 SE is not as hot as the 150kW/280Nm Australian-made SP - but nor is it as expensive.

Mr Gough says the SE "adds a new and very exciting dimension to the world’s best selling sports car and offers enthusiasts the only affordable, high performance, turbocharged, rear-drive sports car on the market."

At $45,490, SE is more than $10,000 cheaper than SP - of which only 100 examples were produced - as well as around $5000 more than the non-SE MX-5 priced at $40,530. An automatic version of the standard MX-5 remains available for $42,030, but the manual-only SE is expected to become the new MX-5 sales leader.

Including a hard-top version for $45,490 and optional leather trim at $1000, the freshened MX-5 range is expected to increase sales from around 45 per month last year to around 70/month in 2004 – including 50 SEs and 20 non-turbo models.

On sale from late March, MX-5 SE will be available in three colours including the exclusive Velocity Red and, though Mazda describes it as "unbeatable sports car value", has nominated Holden Astra turbo convertible and Toyota MR2 as the SE’s key rivals.

While SP was essentially an engine-only upgrade, SE is the complete package.

It’s the first MX-5 to employ 17-inch alloy wheels (with 205/40 R17 tyres) and a torque-sensing limited-slip differential, while SE also gains a quicker steering rack (2.3 turns lock-to-lock instead of 2.7) and revised double wishbone suspension at both ends.

SE features modified Bilstein shocks, 20 per cent stiffer springs delivering a 7mm-lower ride height and larger-diameter anti-roll bars (up 1mm front and 2mm rear). ABS remains as standard, while standard MX-5 brake calipers are painted red.

The DOHC 1.8-litre four-cylinder SE achieves its 121kW (at 6000rpm) and 206Nm (at 4500rpm) performance peaks – giving it 14 per cent more power and 23 per cent more torque than the regular MX-5 – courtesy of a single-scroll turbocharger limited to 7.25psi and an air-to-air intercooler.

SE is claimed to reduce the standard car’s 8.4-second 0-100km/h acceleration time to about 7.8 seconds

Other mechanical upgrades include a larger radiator, upgraded clutch, propeller shaft and differential, plus beefier rubber engine and diff mounts, and a larger exhaust outlet.

Inside, SE adds new seat trim with a red insert, drilled aluminium pedals, stainless steel scuff plates and a centre dash featuring a swirl alloy finish.

Air-vents, door handles and the gearbox surround also get an alloy-look finish, while the SE bodykit comprises a new front spoiler with extra-large air intake and recessed fog lamps, a boot spoiler and lower rear spoiler.

All MX-5s now feature a larger wind deflector housing an extra two rear speakers, along with twin front airbags, six-CD audio, power windows/mirrors, glass rear window with demister, remote central locking and seatbelt pre-tensioners with load limiters.

First drive impressions:

MAZDA Australia’s blisteringly effective homegrown MX-5 SP was always going to be a hard act to follow for a large, conservative Japanese car manufacturer.

And for a while it seemed Mazda wouldn’t follow at all.

Common sense prevailed in the 12th hour of the original MX-5’s life cycle, however, following proof - in the form of MX-5 SP - that turbocharging wouldn’t dilute the well balanced roadster’s original philosophy.

But the result, some two years later, is not what many people expected.

SE raises the standard MX-5’s 107kW power output to 121kW at 6000rpm (1000rpm lower) and its 168Nm torque peak to 206Nm at 4500rpm (500rpm lower). Representing only a mild increase on the standard MX-5, the SE falls well short of the 150kW/280Nm SP.

But figures alone don't tell the full story.

In the real world, MX-5 SE delivers a flood of extra performance over the standard MX-5, particularly in the midrange, thanks to its higher outputs at fewer revs. Its 0.6-second better claimed 0-100km/h acceleration figure is also a significant improvement on the stock MX-5.

Given the wave of useable torque available, MX-5 SE feels a whole lot more flexible across the board, and we’d wager that in-gear acceleration figures are even more markedly improved.

While the extra urge evident across the entire rev range allows one to more fully explore the limits of the MX-5’s nimble chassis, the story isn’t all roses.

Useable torque doesn't present itself until a little later than expected at around 3500rpm, but even then it's only temporary with a trough emerging before real torque delivery resumes around 4500rpm.

The result is that after upshifting at redline in most gears, which produces a satisfying wastegate whoosh, the engine bogs down in this midrange deadspot before things get on the boil again.

This noticeable acceleration dip only emerges during hard acceleration through multiple gears and can prove frustrating in highly spirited driving, but during regular usage it's actually quite easy to drive around.

On the whole, the force-fed factory engine is superbly refined, delivering silky-smooth, useable performance that’s simple to tap via the MX-5’s correctly placed pedals and well sorted chassis, which now also includes a limited-slip rear diff.

Certainly, its multi-tiered torque delivery aside, MX-5 SE feels considerably quicker than the standard MX-5. Only the inevitable comparisons with SP, of which only 100 were built, make the SE seem slower than it is.

Overriding all this comparison with SP are two important facts. First, SE’s sticker price is more $10,000 cheaper than what SP sold for, and SE is a complete, ongoing package.

While SP essentially comprised a ballistic engine and little else, SE features many features never before seen on MX-5. SP was damn quick and fun, but it lacked the firmer suspension, bigger wheels, quicker steering and limited-slip diff of the SE.

Together, they make SE a more complete package, even if the jiggly ride quality may not suit all tastes. There is also a degree of extra steering kickback at the limit of adhesion, but the quick new steering rack is otherwise wonderfully meatier and well weighted between locks and unquestionably responsive.

Combined with the larger, 17-inch wheels and tyres and LSD, SE offers crisper turn-in, vastly improved grip and a harder-edged chassis - with the power to control and exploit it even further thanks to a higher level of adjustability.

While all MX-5s already run on a premium unleaded diet, SE will drink marginally more, with Mazda claiming an extra 0.2 litres per 100km.

Of course, insurance costs are also likely to be higher for the SE MX-5, but that’s a small price to pay for a significant performance and handling increase.

For many it may be a case of too little too late, but for just $5000 more than the standard car, the SE finally delivers what the MX-5 promised 15 years ago. It should also give the next-generation MX-5 a run for its money.

Now with even more of the wow factor that made its donor car so famous, there can be little argument MX-5 SE is simply unbeatable sports car value.

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