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First drive: Great MX-pectations realised

Roadster that refreshes: Oval themes replace ‘Coke bottle’ hip styling.

Relax, MX-5 lovers. Mazda hasn’t messed up the third generation roadster at all!

24 Jun 2005

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS in HAWAII

MAZDA has completely redesigned the MX-5 for its third incarnation.

Yet fans of the existing cars can rest assured that the rear-wheel drive two-seater convertible doesn’t deviate from the 1989 original’s lightweight sports car philosophy.

Like Porsche’s recent 987 Boxster update, Mazda has managed to raise space, power, handling, refinement and features levels significantly with only a very modest weight penalty.

In base model guise the new NC-series MX-5 is just 10kg heavier than its NB equivalent.

Prices are to be clarified closer to the October 1 release, but should inch up only slightly from today’s $40,370 opener, with a three models (base, Leather Pack and LE) spanning the $42,500 to $46,500 range.

The latter is a first production-run, fully equipped ‘limited edition’ designed to appeal to dedicated MX-5 collectors. The 250 units allocated for Australia feature unique trim and paint combinations.

Styled in Hiroshima using an in-house design and featuring elements from Mazda’s Frankfurt and California studios, the NC retains its predecessor’s curves and proportions so it can still be clearly identifiable as an MX-5.

The low flowing shoulder line with curved side surfaces and oval door mirror and tail-light shapes are also signature styling traits.

Yet it is the most changed MX-5 ever, featuring more aggressively flared wheel arches and rounder corners than before.

The ’05 model also eschews the ‘coke-bottle’ shaped centre section of the earlier generations for an oval shape in which the widest area is the seating compartment while the front and rear taper in.

Other new visual cues include wraparound headlights, a shorter bonnet opening and the implementation of seat backrest hoops for added rollover safety.

The main dimensional increases over the outgoing car are: length and width: 40mm height: 15mm and wheelbase: 65mm.

More cabin space is the upshot, with elbows, legs and heads benefiting most. Greater seat travel means a wider range of statures being accommodated.

Yet Mazda was keen to continue the "intimate" sports car feel as well as typical MX-5 elements like a hooded instrumentation binnacle, four circular vents and the tombstone seat design.

Still, fresh interior textures, surfacing and styling idioms have been introduced to impart a more upmarket feel, with horizontal and vertical theme lines forming part of the T-shaped dashboard that’s common in most modern Mazdas.

A three-spoke wheel with remote audio and cruise control switches, four cupholders and more storage compartments (including a bigger glovebox and Toyota MR2-inspired rear firewall cubby holes) are also new.

At 150 litres the boot is four per cent bigger than before.

On the safety front those rollover hoops and side airbags are MX-5 debutantes.

There’s also a redesigned soft-top with a new Z-fold mechanism as well as an optional hard-top. Both are lighter and sleeker with a larger glass area.

Underneath nothing has been carried over from before for locally-bound MX-5s.

An Aisan six-speed automatic with Activematic sequential shift is new as Mazda drives to extend the self-shifter model’s lagging appeal.

Along with a new six-speed manual gearbox as standard (other markets make do with the old five-speeder in the base cars), the auto is mated to a new 2.0-litre twin cam 16-valve four-cylinder unit derived from the MZR engine family also serving the ‘3’ and ‘6’.

This all-aluminium engine comprises iron cylinder liners, chain-driven overhead camshafts, variable intake-valve timing, electrically controlled sequential-delivery port fuel-injection and coil-on-plug ignition.

Generating 118kW of power at 6700rpm and 188Nm of torque at 5000rpm (with 90 per cent of that from 2500rpm), it meets Euro Stage III emissions requirements in Australian tune and, with some changes, is also Euro IV compatible.

Mazda says that a lighter flywheel, an electronically controlled throttle and rigid drive shafts improve response, as do a 57 per cent lower intake restriction and exhaust back-pressure that’s cut by 40 per cent.

The front midship-mounted engine now sits 135mm closer to the driver to help achieve a 50:50 weight distribution balance with two occupants on board.

This is also why the heater/air-con unit is smaller, a now-standard sized battery has migrated from boot to ahead of the engine and the fuel tank is lower and closer to the cabin’s centre.

In turn these help lower the centre of gravity by 18mm for higher dynamic rewards.

It's all part of what Mazda refers to as "Jinba Ittai", the Japanese concept of a horse and its rider operating as one entity. For the NC MX-5 a "communicative relationship" between machine and driver was deemed paramount.

Mazda adopted this philosophy as it sought to update and improve the MX-5 (since the late ‘80s safety and responsible environmental actions are now priorities) while adhering to its original strengths.

Vitally, a gram-by-gram weight loss strategy was central to this, with Mazda using an example of how 84 grams were saved from the interior mirror to illustrate how this was also achieved throughout the car.

Thus big items like the bonnet, bootlid, powerplant frame, front suspension control arms, and rear hub carriers are now aluminium.

Further weight victories were achieved by trimming metal flanges, eliminating excess fluid, reducing sheetmetal overhangs and employing thinnest gauge ultra-high-strength steel were possible, for just a few examples.

The outcome is that the NC body-in-white is 1.6kg lighter at 247.5kg in spite of big reinforcements for increased safety requirements.

Compared to the NB model, the unibody is now 22 per cent stiffer in bending and 47 per cent stiffer in torsion.

Aiding this is a world-first spot friction welding of steel and aluminium process that has seen Mazda apply for 20 patents to cover.

It also helps improve the MX-5’s handling, roadholding and braking properties as Mazda sought to achieve a "brisk, nimble feel" while maintaining an "unshakable grip with the road for maximum stability".

22 center image So more linear control of the toe and camber angles as well as the vertical forces applied to each tyre were selected the diameter of the lighter steering rack was increased along with other steering refinements and the rear subframe supporting the suspension and differential is now attached to the unibody for increased rigidity.

The front suspension is a new double-wishbone design while an RX-8-derived multi-link rear suspension replaces the old unequal-length control-arm wishbone set-up.

Meanwhile the now-bigger brakes are a four-wheel anti-lock disc system with ventilated front rotors and a solid rear disc. And, for Australia, the standard wheel will be a 17-inch ten-spoke alloy (with 205/45 R17 tyres), instead of the 16-inch alloys sold elsewhere.

However, the dynamic stability control program available elsewhere is unavailable locally. A Mazda Australia spokesman says the miniscule uptake in the last model is the reason.

Dual front airbags, air-conditioning, power steering, windows and mirrors, remote central locking and a CD player will be standard in all local models, while a specially tuned Bose sound system, leather trim, four airbags and cruise control will make up the Leather Pack.

Mazda will build 40,000 MX-5s this year, the most it’s built since 2002.

The best year was 1990 with 95,640 while the second-generation’s biggest output year was 1998, when 58,682 were sold.

Sales in Australia have been slow over the last few years, with just 146 units registered until May. Last year 483 were sold, down from 2001’s 924.

In the last decade it was 1999 that recorded the highest numbers of MX-5s moved, with 1354. This was the first full year of the second-generation model.

The 1446 units sold in 1990 makes it Mazda’s best year.

2005 MAZDA NC MX-5 specifications:

Engine: 1.998-litre DOHC 16-valve inline four with VVT
Power: 118kW @ 6700rpm
Torque: 188Nm @ 5000rpm
Gearbox: Six-speed manual or auto
Steering: Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
Front suspension: Double-wishbone
Rear suspension: Multi-link
Brakes: Ventilated disc front, solid disc rear, ABS
Tyres/wheels: 205/45 R17, 10-spoke alloy rims
Length: 3990mm
Width: 1720mm
Height: 1245mm
Wheelbase: 2330mm
Track: 1490mm front, 1495mm rear
Kerb weight: 1122kg (base US 2.0L 5MT model)
Price: From $42,500 (estimated)
On sale: From October 1, 2005

Drive impressions:

AND then there was one.

Sixteen years ago the original MX-5 turned the motoring world on its ear with its beautiful styling, focussed engineering and spirited sports car feel and finesse.

Remember that back then there had been no fresh and affordable convertibles for 20 years, since the last new MG, Triumph and Austin Healey had declined into decay and died disgracefully a decade earlier.

It’s now motoring folklore how Mazda’s success inspired a host of similar models such as the MGF, Toyota MR2 and Alfa Spyder, as well as the likes of the costlier BMW Z3, Mercedes SLK, Honda’s S2000 and the Porsche Boxster.

But with the MG dead again and the MR2 on its way to the motoring morgue, it’s up to Mazda to deliver the sole affordable rear-drive. Again.

So in 2005 we’re back to where we started in 1989. This is why the success or otherwise of the MkIII MX-5 is so dear to the hearts of enthusiasts and fun-loving drivers worldwide.

And the happy news is that Mazda, in all probability, couldn’t have made its little retro ragtop better.

In non-Federalised form where the odd front wheel arch reflectors are turfed for the round side repeaters set further back, the MX-5’s stance and proportion are nigh-on perfect.

Anybody disappointed by the visual similarity to previous editions should remember that the MkI’s appearance was criticised in some quarters for its scaled-up ‘60s Lotus Elan looks. Some (mostly UK) critics even cried out "copycats!" The company’s approach to the interior is a little bolder with the latest model thanks to new piano-black or metallic dashboard trim, a ridged plastic console divider and domed centre console design adding freshness to the '5. There is some BMW Z4 influence going on in here.

Still, the obligatory chrome rimmed instruments (the original revived this), sparse presentation, and tombstone-style seats remain.

More importantly, taller folks can now get and sit in easier thanks to the subtle but significant increases in every direction. According to Mazda a 95-percentile male should fit without fear.

None of the MX-5’s sports car essence has been lost in the third iteration translation either, because the perfectly sited instruments and controls are clearly visible to the comfortable and precisely positioned driver.

About the only cabin complaints are mostly subjective: the perfectly sized metallic trimmed three-spoke steering wheel’s design is too fussy and seems more suited to a Mustang the brown trim makes some of the lower-console plastics seem a little low-rent and the middle dash vents can’t be closed.

Sure, the door bins have disappeared (for extra thigh-protection impact padding), but the three compartments in the rear firewall (inspired by the MR2, says one Hiroshima engineer) more than make up for it. As does a bigger boot and glovebox.

Further pointers to progress include a very snug fitting hood that is easier and lighter to erect (and drop) and works more smoothly without the need to pound it down for it to click into place without creasing the canvas as per earlier models.

Aiding vision are big side mirrors and a larger glass rear window. Meanwhile, the curiously half-size quarter pane in the A-pillar was designed so it doesn’t obstruct the door mirrors while still maintaining better airflow.

Such seemingly small steps in function, comfort and refinement are the entrees to a driving experience that’s the best the MX-5 has ever offered, plus 20 per cent.

The steering is seducingly sweet in its feel, weighting, response, linearity (in tight corners as well as through faster curves) and feedback.

Still able to surprise after 16 years is this chassis’ sheer chuckability and the way this car seems to pirouette at the will of the driver. The handling and roadholding are that good.

A much more thorough drive should reveal what many suspected on the launch day: that this Mazda has all the throttle and steering adjustability for gentle and controlled tail-outs when desired.

Keeping in mind that the roads sampled were universally billiard table-smooth, it’s enough to make your fingers tingle with delight rather than tingle with any unwanted vibrations.

Meanwhile, the same is true for the terrific new 118kW (on 95 RON fuel – more with 98) 2.0-litre motor that seems to have inherited the original 85kW 1.6’s willingness to spin completely effortlessly all the way to the 7000rpm rev limiter.

The difference here though is that there’s now enough pull from low speeds, thanks to 188Nm of torque, in high gears to eliminate the need for downshifts.

And the tuned exhaust note really will be music to the ears of mad MX-5 fans, thanks to the willing and snarly noises it makes.

In most enthusiasts’ hearts all this progress was probably expected. And it is a delight to report back on it.

But could anybody have expected an automatic that’s actually worthy of an MX-5? A brief blast in the six-speed auto revealed an eager and responsive self-shifter with a Tiptronic-style sequential shift mode (located via steering wheel paddles as well as within the gear lever) that will hold on to any gear without changing up.

So even if you’re not a manual enthusiast it appears that settling for an automatic won’t be the plodding compromise it once was.

Mazda says five metres is all it takes for a current MX-5 driver to recognise the advances made in the new model.

This is so good it will probably take more than a little will power to extract a keen driver from the wheel in that distance.

Soon to be the only one, the next MX-5 also happens to be number one.

MX-5’s design evolution

Mazda says it wanted its MX-5 MkIII to be clearly connected to its 1989 and 1998-era predecessors.

"Simple, friendly and fun" was its stylist’s mantra, with Mazda eliciting submissions from its various affiliated design studios globally.

From 320 sketch ideas, seven clay models were reviewed, with three making the final cut.

A Californian proposal emphasised ‘newness’ but was thought of as too ‘heavy’ for a lightweight sports car while the Frankfurt entrant’s bold edginess (recalling BMW’s Z9 roadster) departed too radically from earlier MX-5s’ proportions.

Mazda nonetheless incorporated elements of both in the winning Hiroshima design after all three were lined up in profile alongside a current model and viewed from 90 metres away to ascertain each car’s ‘lightweight sports’ appearance.

The Japanese design’s "simple and clean yet modern" appearance won the day, particularly as it also injected a "warmth" that the others lacked.

No public styling clinic studies were conducted.

From idea sketch to mass production took 23 months, with input from designers as well as management within Mazda worldwide.

During the development phase Mazda purchased a range of two-seater rivals, including the Honda S2000, Toyota MR2 Spyder, BMW Z4, Porsche Boxster, Lotus Elise and Mercedes SLK.

The next MX-5 due around 2012 will probably have more than a little of the Ibuki concept car about it.

Displayed at the 2003 Tokyo motor show, the Ibuki’s geometric form and futuristic surfacing was deemed too futuristic for the 2005 MX-5.

The new MX-5 by numbers

721,621 – the cumulative number of MX-5s made prior to the latest model
200,000 – the number of chunks the body-in-white was divided into for weight-reduction analysis
1986 – the year Mazda commenced serious work on the MX-5
960 – the number of tyres used to hit target performance levels
473 – the number of different damper varieties tested
320 – the number of styling proposals submitted
180 – the number of engineers working on the project
100 – the distance in yards the three final clay design submissions and a current NB model were viewed from to ascertain "MX-5-ness"
84 – the number of grams lost from the interior mirror
59 – the variety of exhaust systems tested for sound tuning
42 – the number of electrograph sensors used to evaluate human muscular responses during driving test development
36 – the number of ‘feelings’ evaluated in a driving simulator
26 – the number of years Hirotaka Kanazawa, Mazda’s product planner supremo, has been a chassis developer
23 – the number of months from first draft to production design
19 – the number of years program manager Takao Kijima worked on the various MX-5 models
8 – the number of countries prototypes tested in
7 – the amount of times the NC has lapped the earth in testing
6 – the number of different driving scenarios researched – parking, turning into intersections, suburban traffic flow, highway merging, out-running other cars and winding roads
3 – the number of years spent developing the NC
2 – the number of new sub-$50,000 rear-drive two-seater roadsters left (the soon-to-die Toyota MR2 Spyder is the other)
1 – the number of parts interchangeable with the original NA MX-5 (side indicator repeater)
0.35 – the NC’s aerodynamic drag co-efficient number (NB: 0.378)

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