SINCE THE NEW MAZDA MX-5 HIT SHOWROOMS LAST YEAR, WE'VE SPENT MORE OF OUR TIME WITH MANUAL-EQUIPPED VARIANTS.
There’s good reason for that. Mazda Australia’s product planners forecast that the manual would account for 60 percent of sales across the full model range, 1.5 and 2.0 litre engines inclusive. Motorists generally may favour autos, but MX-5 buyers are a different breed.
But that still leaves 40 percent of MX-5 sales with a two-pedal transmission; and, as all stuffy car nerds know, automatics can be dull.
Then what about an auto MX-5? Are buyers shortchanging themselves by opting for the auto trans? We hopped behind the wheel of an auto-equipped MX-5 GT 2.0L to investigate.
Vehicle Style: Two door sports convertible
Engine/trans: 118kW/200Nm 2.0 petrol 4cyl | 6sp automatic
Fuel Economy claimed: 7.1 l/100km | tested: 9.1 l/100km
Introduced towards the end of 2015, the 2.0-litre MX-5 range addressed the primary concern of many MX-5 fans - the lack of power in the 1.5 litre variant that launched earlier the same year.
The model line-up for the 2.0 litre is the same as the 1.5 litre. That is, two grades - base Roadster and up-spec Roadster GT - and a choice of manual or automatic.
Priced from $34,490 to $41,550 for the 2.0 auto tested here, the ND MX-5 2.0 still manages to undercut the previous-gen NC MX-5 by a significant margin.
- Standard equipment: Keyless entry and ignition, dusk-sensing LED headlamps, leather upholstery, climate control, cruise control, heated seats, rain-sensing wipers, heated wing mirrors, auto-dimming rear view mirror.
- Infotainment: 7-inch MZD Connect touchscreen display, rotary controller,ith internet radio integration, multi-function rotary controller, 9-speaker AM/FM/USB Bose audio with internet audio streaming app integration, Bluetooth phone and audio integration
- Cargo volume: 130 litres
We’ve been over this ground before, but here’s a refresher - the MX-5’s cabin is well-kitted in GT trim, the leather upholstery can feel a bit pleathery in places, the steering wheel and pedal placement is spot-on, the seats sit suitably low in the chassis and the boot is puny.
It’s a compact cabin, but we’d avoid calling it claustrophobic and instead use the more complimentary adjective, “cosy”. Everything falls neatly to hand, the dials are clear and easily read and everything feels pretty smart.
But… the removable cupholders are flimsy (and the front passenger loses a big chunk of knee room when one is moved to the more accessible position on the side of the transmission tunnel) and the body colour door caps are too hard on the elbows and easily streaked with finger grease.
Furthermore the MZD Connect infotainment system - though well presented and intuitive to use - occasionally freaks out and resets itself. This isn’t the first time we’ve encountered sporadic issues MZD Connect, so it’s something worth mentioning. We trust Mazda is working on a software update.
So far, so familiar - but oh, what’s this? There’s 33 percent fewer pedals in this one, and the gear lever refuses to move in a H-pattern.
We love the cabin of manual-equipped ND MX-5s, purely because every pedal is perfectly spaced, heel-toe shifts are a doddle and the gear lever is so tight, so precise and so perfectly distanced from your left hand when your thumbs are hooked into that small-diameter steering wheel.
But on the auto, you’re robbed of that pleasure. Then again, it’s a more comfortable environment for day-to-day peak hour schlepping. If you’re not a rabid purist and your MX-5 is to be your daily drive, that’s probably a fair trade.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 118kW/200Nm 2.0 litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol
- Transmission: Six-speed manual or six-speed automatic, rear wheel drive
- Suspension: front - double wishbone; rear - multi-link
- Brakes: front - 258mm ventilated discs; rear - 255mm solid discs
- Steering: electric power steering, turning circle: 9.4m
So: is the MX-5 2.0’s automatic a fun sponge? Interestingly, it ain’t.
While the lower-powered MX-5 1.5 litre struggles in auto form, the 118kW/200Nm 2.0 litre has just enough power and just enough torque to make an automatic a viable option.
Generally speaking, power losses through an automatic gearbox are higher than they are for a manual. They also tend to weigh more. Both of those things are bad for performance.
But Mazda has found a way to make the MX-5’s six-speed automatic a sharp-shifting thing. It’s calibrated to make the most of the engine’s modest output, and doesn’t hunt around for gears at all.
Pull the satisfyingly solid gear selector to the right and manual gear selection is unlocked, either via a plus-minus plane on the shifter itself (with a proper “pull to upshift” layout), or through the shift paddles mounted behind the steering wheel.
Manual shifts are fast, and downshifts are met with a pleasing throttle blip too. Activate Sport mode, and it will also throttle blip when the gear selector is in D as well.
The gearbox has a torque converter lock-up mechanism that’s active from second gear to sixth, meaning there’s none of the dullness to throttle response while in gear that you might encounter in other conventional automatics.
Automatic MX-5s do miss out on the mechanical limited-slip differential that’s enjoyed by manual models, but unless the road is saturated with water or you’re on a skidpan, it’s unlikely you’ll notice its absence.
The delectable chassis dynamics are still there to be enjoyed, as is the superb steering response, excellent braking and throaty engine note.
None of that has been diluted by the addition of an automatic. We couldn’t have said the same about the previous-gen MX-5 auto, but the new car is an entirely different machine.
And yes, away from twisty mountain roads and racetracks, we’ll begrudgingly admit that the auto is a better option than the standard manual. Three-pedal transmissions are always a pain in heavy traffic, and the MX-5 is no exception to that rule.
ANCAP rating: The ND Mazda MX-5 has yet to be tested by ANCAP
Safety features: Dual front and dual side airbags, ABS, EBD, brake assist, stability and traction control (switchable), front seatbelt pretensioners with load limiters and tyre pressure monitoring.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
Similarly-performing rivals are quite thin on the ground at this price point, and ones that can match the MX-5’s two-seat convertible configuration are non-existent. Fiat’s MX-5-based 124 Spider is coming here soon, but pricing is still an unknown for that one.
If you don’t need that wind-in-your-hair feeling and are just after similar performance, then auto-equipped versions of Toyota’s 86 GTS and Subaru’s BRZ are worth a look.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
As a self-professed “driving enthusiast”, it pains me to say this: the automatic MX-5 2.0 is pretty much just as good as the manual-equipped model.
While there’s a modest performance sacrifice (taller gearing and slightly more weight dulls performance a touch), it’s still a sweet-handling little roadster that’s huge fun to drive.
It ultimately may not be quite as engaging to drive as the manual, but it trades that for increased driveability around town - where the majority of motoring is done.
So, are you robbing yourself of fun by ticking the box for an automatic? No, not at all.