The Skinny: Mazda has rocked the market with the pricing on its new MX-5. Kicking off at $31,990, the new ND Mazda MX-5 resets the benchmark for affordable, open top fun. But it’s also brilliant with thread-the-needle steering, masses of grip, and, in this model tested, an alert smooth-shifting automatic.
The new MX-5’s light weight, built to a true ‘sportscar formula’, comes with some compromises to the interior feel however, which has some cheaper-feeling surfaces in the cabin. A reversing camera is also optional, and boot-space is tight.
It’s also not especially powerful, but does it matter? There are few cars that deliver such pure unadulterated fun at the wheel as the new MX-5.
Vehicle Style: Two door Roadster
Price: $33,990 (automatic; plus on-roads)
Engine/trans: 96kW/150Nm, 1.5-litre petrol four cyl | 6spd auto
Fuel Economy claimed: 6.4 l/100km | tested: 7.8 l/100km
This is it - the cheapest roadster you can buy, Mazda’s new MX-5. And it’s a gem.
Its formula is absolute simplicity: two doors, quick-fold fabric roof, low weight, front engine and rear-wheel-drive. Based on lightweight European roadsters, the original MX-5 was a revelation, and this new one plays straight from the same handbook.
And while the manual MX-5 is a cracker, Aussie buyers prefer automatics for their cars. A no-brainer for Mazda then to launch an automatic version for a couple of grand more on top of the MX-5’s low asking price.
We pressed the start button, selected ‘Sport’, dropped the top and headed out on some sunny Queensland roads.
Quality: At this price, you can't expect the MX-5 to be loaded with luxury. It looks ok, however, and the build quality is typically tight.
The instrument binnacle is lifted straight from the CX-5 (although the tachometer takes pride of place in the centre) and the same readable, silver-ringed dials give the driver a clear idea of what's happening.
While the centre console and lower dash have plenty of hard plastic surfaces, the dashtop features a softer, nicely-grained texture, broken up by gloss-black accents around the air-vents.
A few silver highlights on the console and around the gear-lever break up the monotony of black on black.
What is obvious in the interior is the focus on weight reduction. And nowhere is Mazda's "gram strategy" more visible than when examining the sunvisors.
Every component had to be accounted for in meeting the lowest weight target, which is why the visors are simply a plastic shell with mirrors attached to the back. It may feel cheap and insubstantial, but it's very, very light.
Comfort: The seats are covered in a durable cloth that might look unremarkable but the materials have been chosen to stretch well, accommodating most frames.
Under the fabric are six different densities of urethane padding which have been fitted in successive horizontal panels down the backrest, increasing in density around the lower back and hips. You can spend hours at the wheel without fidgeting, and the support is very good.
Again, the gram strategy has meant that there is no reach adjustment for the steering wheel but, surprisingly, finding a comfortable driving position is a cinch. The wheel is just the right size, and falls naturally to hand.
If there was a complaint, it would be that the wheel-mounted shift-paddles may perhaps be a little too far in for people with smaller hands.
Equipment: While there are two grades (Roadster and Roadster GT), our time was spent in the entry level Roadster spec.
It gets LED headlamps, power mirrors, air-con, cruise control, leather handbrake and gear knob, puncture repair kit, keyless start, six speaker stereo with Bluetooth audio and telephony, iPod compatible USB, plus a 3.5mm aux jack and leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel.
Speakers are embedded in the driver headrest (and in both seats in the GT), so even with the top down, listening to music or taking a phone call via Bluetooth doesn't get drowned out by the air rushing past.
Storage: While the MX-5 is a whole lot of fun, it's not exactly practical. Storage is limited to small spaces dotted around the cabin and a boot that isn’t huge.
At 130 litres, the boot is able to house a few soft bags but don't expect to collect your friends from the airport. There are two removable cupholders that attach to small mounting points at the front and back of the console, and there's a small space between driver and passenger that can carry a couple of bottles of water.
There aren't any door bins and the glovebox is tiny, though there's a small tray ahead of the gear-lever which features a small slot where your phone can be stored.
ON THE ROAD | RATING: 4.5/5
Driveability: Hop in, and, apart from the third pedal missing, there's no difference in the cabin between the manual MX-5 and the automatic. Press the start button, slot the lever into Drive and away we go.
With a small 1.5-litre SkyActiv DOHC four-cylinder up front, the MX-5 is never going to ‘light up the rears’ away from rest. But it puts all of its 96kW and 150Nm to good use in a very linear fashion.
The throttle response is perfect, with no oversensitivity when easing away from standstill. In the stop and start of daily traffic, the auto will be the pick for most.
The shifts are definitely smoother than other SkyActiv petrol cars (CX-5 and Mazda6 come to mind) with less shunt in part-throttle changes. Kickdown is also very well calibrated in normal driving; only a slightly harder push on the throttle selects a lower ratio.
Push the Sport button, and the revs hold on slightly longer (though not uncomfortably long) and the changes happen a fraction snappier. Kickdown is also a lot more eager, and the ratio selection more precise, without going too far down the gears to get the right one for the situation.
Slot the gear lever right across to ‘manual’ and you can take control using either the lever (which is the right way - pull back to shift up a gear, push forward to go down) or using the wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
It won’t hold the gear against the limiter, and manual shifts aren't quite as rapid-fire as a dual-clutch, but going up the gears they're quick enough. Back down the gears and there's a slight delay, but it's far quicker to respond than some other autos.
Give it a run on a winding road and the responsive auto will adeptly play along with the driver's rhythm. The shift paddles at the wheel can make this a lot of fun, letting you keep both hands on the wheel at all times.
With only 23kgs being the difference between the manual and auto (1009kg plays 1032kg) and the fact there's more driver input when rowing through the gears, the manual feels quicker, but there's actually negligible difference between the two.
Unfortunately, the auto-equipped MX-5 misses out on the manual's limited-slip differential, so if you’re going to be hustling along at ten-tenths, it’ll be the manual you’ll want.
But it’s a very good transmission this automatic, and loses little to the feeling of involvement with the drive.
Refinement: With the roof up and windows closed, there's some audible road rumble that comes through the cabin, but as the tyres are only 195mm wide, it's not too intrusive.
With the roof and windows down, it gets a little blustery at the national limit. But top-down and windows up, and the cabin becomes much calmer and conversation doesn’t require raising the voice too much.
The engine is quite smooth, but Mazda has added a sound enhancing device which pipes induction noise into the cockpit to make it "more involving". It sounds pretty good when giving it some herbs, but is reasonably hushed when poking around.
Ride and Handling: Without question, the best characteristic of the MX-5 is its suspension. A few quick corners in succession and you can’t help but be wowed; the roadholding is exceptional and the ride is brilliant.
We would like to have a little more feel at the wheel (yes, it's electric steering), but turn-in is razor sharp. And, once you have committed to a corner, then the little MX-5 really shines.
There is some body roll, which initially is disconcerting, but there’s grip aplenty, the front stays flat and there's a sense of planted solidity and connection to the road, yet the springs are soft enough to allow for mid-corner bumps to not kick it off its line.
It's absolutely beguiling, so you push harder. It never skips around, it just grips and grips. You will soon feel an involuntary smile taking over - the MX-5 is just so much fun.
Braking: Braking is looked after by ventilated discs up front and solid discs at the rear. Even on extended downhill runs, the brakes coped fabulously, although they did start to smell a bit when hot.
ANCAP rating: The ND MX-5 has not yet been tested by either ANCAP or EuroNCAP. Mazda expects a 4-Star safety rating once it has been tested.
Safety features: Four airbags cover the two seater's cabin (two front, two side) and the MX-5 covers the usual bases with ABS, traction and stability control, brake-force distribution, brake assist and seatbelts with pretensioners and load limiters.
Disappointingly, the reversing camera doesn’t come as standard on either Roadster or Roadster GT.
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: All Mazda vehicles are covered by a three year, unlimited kilometre warranty.
Service costs: Services are carried out at 10,000km intervals and cost between $295 and $336.
HOW IT COMPARES | VALUE FOR MONEY
Toyota 86 ($29,990) – The 86, being a closed coupe, competes solely on price. That said, there's a bang-for-buck ratio that, along with its rear-wheel-drive set up, makes it a natural competitor to the MX-5.
Both are grippy and both can be plenty of fun. But if you want a droptop roadster, there's only one choice. (see 86 reviews)
Note: all prices are Manufacturer’s List Price and do not include dealer delivery or on-road costs.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
The new MX-5 is a fun little beast, one of the best. It's cheap, can be flung around a winding road with abandon and, more importantly, it's a car for all seasons.
Sure, those light-weight interior plastics aren’t all that great, the auto doesn’t have the limited-slip diff of the manual and we’d prefer to see a reversing camera as standard equipment. But, get it onto your favourite backroad and those niggles will quickly melt away.
The burning question, though, is it as fun with this automatic ‘box? Well, not quite; the manual version is just so damn endearing.
Fact is though, most drivers need a car that is easy to live with day-to-day, and that’s where the auto is a worthy choice.
Mazda predicts that 40 percent of MX-5 sales will be the auto. We reckon it might be higher than that.