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First drive: Revisionist roadster from Mazda
Mazda’s MX-5 makeover improves the world’s only affordable two-seater RWD roadster
17 Mar 2009
MAZDA has released a facelifted MX-5 in Australia boasting improved performance, efficiency, refinement, driving dynamics and comfort.
On sale now from $43,850, the NC Series II version of the rear-wheel drive two-seater convertible costs $980 more than its 2005-vintage predecessor in base soft-top guise.
However, the previous base Soft-top ‘Activematic’ automatic has been dropped, so customers must pay $2875 more for the privilege of driving a new MX-5 automatic. This nets them the better-equipped soft-top Touring, priced from $47,920.
Furthermore, the cheapest Roadster Coupe – with the electrically folding hardtop roof and specification levels in line with the Touring – rises by $1095 to $48,755, or $1120 if we are talking about the $50,955 Activematic auto.
A new model – the Roadster Coupe Sports – is the new MX-5 range-topper at $51,455 and $53,655, and is distinguished by its Recaro sports seats and BBS alloy wheels.
These three models are the first MX-5s to blow through the $50,000 barrier since the limited-edition, Australian-developed, $55,540 SP turbo in 2002-2003.
No problem, says Mazda Australia, because the MX-5 makeover is more than a cosmetic nip and tuck, thanks to increased equipment levels and a comprehensive array of mechanical changes that are designed to increase the iconic convertible’s fun quotient and please purists.
In fact, more ‘fun’ is keeping with the ‘Jinba Ittai – oneness between man and machine’ mantra that is the philosophy of the current-generation MX-5, according to its program manager and chief engineer, Takao Kijima.
The outgoing NC Series 1’s 2003 IBUKI Concept-style oval-themed front fascia is history, replaced by a nose cone featuring a slantier set of headlights with white turn indicators, larger bonnet badge, and corporate five-point air-intake/grille set among a pair of rectangular-shape fog-light surrounds. They aim to visually connect the MX-5 with the latest Mazda3.
Besides the different rear guards and roof, there is increased differentiation between the Soft-top and hardtop as a result of the latter’s mesh grille insert, chrome finish inner bezel for the headlights, silver fog light surrounds, chrome door handle trim, and clear high-mounted stop lamp.
Trainspotters may also spot the new side sills and garnishes, while the rear boasts redesigned tail-lights and a reshaped bumper with detailed changes to the lower garnish area.
Mazda says the makeover improves aerodynamics – the upshot of detailed attention paid to the grille, tyre deflectors, side sills, door mirrors and tail-light shape.
Inside, the dash ditches the piano black dash trim for a dark silver item, the instrumentation graphics are further spaced for improved legibility, the trip and odometer are now a backlit LCD, while the audio system has the different header unit from the Mazda6.
The door trims have been redesigned with less protruding cupholders and a netted pocket. Soft padding now surrounds the centre console storage box and on the armrests of most models, and there are lashings of metallic-like trim on various buttons and switches.
Occupant comfort increases as a result of better-bolstered seats with new cushion surfaces, while the aforementioned Recaro seats on the Roadster Coupe Sports are finished in leather and Alcantara.
Under the carryover bonnet is a re-engineered version of the 1999cc 2.0-litre twin-cam 16-valve four-cylinder petrol engine that debuted in the NC in late 2005.
In models fitted with the six-speed manual gearbox, it still delivers 118kW of power and 188Nm of torque at an unchanged 5000rpm, but peak power is now set 300rpm higher at 7000rpm, while the rev limit is now 500rpm more at 7500rpm.
Automatic MX-5s have a 118kW power limit at 6700rpm and a rev limit of 7000rpm, while the 188Nm torque-top also remains unchanged at 5000rpm.
Mechanical changes on both versions include a forged crankshaft for greater rigidity at higher engine speeds, new fully-floating pistons with higher pin-boss reliability, ‘bounce’ resistant revised valve springs for higher revs, and more durable conrod bearing materials.
Slightly better performance feel throughout the rev range is the result, with the Soft-top manual showing a 0.2 second reduction in the 0-100km/h sprint-time of 7.6s compared to its predecessor, while the Roadster Coupe’s maximum velocity is now rated at 218km/h, versus about 215km/h in the equivalent old model.
Fuel consumption drops by 0.4lL/100km and 0.7L/100km for the manual and automatic models respectively, to 8.1L/100km. However, the auto uses 1g/km less carbon dioxide than the manual, at 191g/km, representing a drop of 8g/km for the manual and 16g/km for the automatic.
Mazda’s engineers have also improved the shift and feel of the manual gearbox by increasing its third-to-fourth gear synchromesh diameter by increasing it 6mm, revising the synchroniser cone specifications for al gears, and by using carbon on some of the meshing surfaces of the first through to fourth-gear synchroniser cones.
Manual MX-5s also score a newly developed Induction Sound Enhancer “that develops a stronger sound response and a more varied tone by amplifying the pulse sounds created when the throttle valve opens and air is aspirated” via special ducts leading to the dashboard, Mazda states, while all models gain “sportier engine sound” due to revisions to the sound-creating elements within the car – namely the surge tank, intake ducts and exhaust system.
A limited-slip differential is fitted to all manual MX-5s.
Meanwhile, the automatic model’s paddle shifts, which allow for manual-style sequential-shift changes, can now be used without the driver having to slot the lever into manual-shift mode beforehand, thus improving their intuitiveness of operation. A new control system determines when a lower gear is no longer needed, and the gearbox reverts to full automatic mode.
On the driving dynamics front, Mr Kijima says that his aim was to return the MX-5 to a feel reminiscent of the lauded NB (1997-2005) model’s steering and handling behaviour.
To this end, and aided by the aerodynamic changes that enhance stability and predictability at higher speeds, the suspension was revised to improve roll performance and impart a more natural feel through corners.
Changes include an alteration of the front suspension’s ball joints’ vertical pivot position, which ended up lowering the height of the front roll centre by 26mm, decreasing fluctuations in vertical load on the outer wheel when cornering, resulting in a more linear feel overall.
Driver inputs have a more instantaneously effect, while ride quality benefits because yaw and roll feel are less pronounced.
On its 2005 release, the NC MX-5 was commended for the gains it made over its predecessor in the areas of body stiffness and weight loss, 50/50 weight distribution and high flexural and torsional rigidity properties.
As before, the front suspension is by double wishbones while the rear uses a multi-link arrangement. The front engine’s midship placement behind the front axle helps achieve the car’s balance.
Mazda says a stiff powerplant frame results from connecting the engine and rear differential with the transmission tunnel, stiffening the chassis and suppressing deformation.
Steering remains hydraulically powered, via a rack and pinion set-up, while braking is by 290mm ventilated discs up front and 280mm solid discs in the rear, backed by Mazda’s DSC Dynamic Stability Control, traction control and anti-lock brakes.
Also on safety, the dual front airbags are matched by a set of two chamber-side SRS units that protect both the thorax and head when deployed.
Weight rises slightly across all models, from 1129 to 1145kg in the Soft-top models (previously 1105, to 1122kg), and 1167, to 1177kg in the Roadster Coupe (previously 1152, to 1169kg).
Part of the weight gain can be attributed to the increase in sound-deadening materials, such as the urethane-filled front suspension cross member. The front section of the roof gets extra damping materials.
The ‘#2’ crossmember in the Roadster Coupe models has been reinforced, while all MX-5s adopt stiffer door modules to cut vibration, as well as reduced wheel resonance properties.
The outcome is a 2.7-decibel-quieter Roadster Coupe travelling at 60km/h on a coarse road surface.
The latter’s roof mechanism, by the way, still takes 12 seconds to drop and erect, while it has been designed to withstand rear collisions, thus reducing premiums with some insurance organisations. Boot volume is still rated at 150 litres.
Mazda has also listened to customer feedback by installing a seat-height adjuster on all driver’s seats.
Mazda expects to sell about 500 MX-5s each year, with the manual taking the lion’s share of volume of about 65 per cent. Four out of five buyers prefer the Roadster Coupe, which joined the range during 2006.
A little more than 3700 NC MX-5s have found homes in Australia since September 2005.
February 9 marked the 20th anniversary of the MX-5’s 1989 Chicago motor show world debut – and event swiftly followed by the Melbourne International Motor Show unveiling a few days later.
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