The skinny: It’s now safe to call the MX-5 an icon. Mazda’s little roadster is in its fourth generation - something few sports cars from mainstream manufacturers can claim in the modern age.
And, in a brilliant feat of engineering this newest MX-5 loses weight, gains equipment, maintains driving enjoyment, and, most impressive of all, has had a price trim.
While it may not convince hoards of young Aussie’s to ditch their small hatchbacks and opt for a drop-top instead, this latest Mazda roadster has all the right elements to spark a minor sports car revival.
Vehicle Style: Two door roadster
Price: $37,990 (plus on-roads)
Engine/trans: 96kW/150Nm 1.5 litre 4cyl petrol | 6sp manual
Fuel Economy claimed: 6.1 l/100km | tested: 7.9 l/100km
How do you measure a sports car, is it kilowatts, 0-100km/h sprint times, by the number of lap records and race wins it holds? It would be nice if were that easy, but a sports car can be any number of those things, or even none at all.
On paper you may not rate the Mazda MX-5 as groundbreaking. Certainly a peak power output of 96kW isn’t the stuff of legends (for the time being, the skin atop your rice pudding seems safe).
But you don’t drive an MX-5 ‘on paper’, you drive it on roads.
Real roads paved and neglected in the Aussie sun, beachside roads kissed by sand and salt, mountain roads threaded around trees and over hills.
You measure a sports car by its dedication, its involvement, and the way it pulls your mouth up at the edges into a widening grin. There’s a greater joy in being able to use every kilowatt you’re given, rather than being handed more than you’ll ever need.
And Mazda’s engineers get this. That’s why the MX-5 doesn’t have more power than the model it replaces, it actually has less. It also has less weight to pull around, and the end result is more satisfying than you might think.
- Standard equipment: Leather trimmed seats, steering wheel and gear knob, proximity key with push-button start, LED headlights and tail-lights, single-zone climate control, cruise control, automatic headlights, heated exterior mirrors, manual cloth roof, 16-inch alloy wheels
- Infotainment: 7.0-inch touchscreen display, MZD Connect rotary controller, nine-speaker Bose audio, USB input, satellite navigation, AM/FM tuner, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, internet radio integration for Pandora, Stitcher and Aha
- Cargo volume: 130 litres
Mazda is making great advances in interior presentation, with the excellent Mazda2 and Mazda6 offering standout examples of how good a ‘non-premium’ car can be.
Sadly that excellent Mazda2 presentation doesn’t quite make it into the MX-5.
There’s still plenty of high-grade materials in use, but the black-on-black colour scheme is a bit sombre for a car so in love with the sun. The use of soft-touch surfaces is also at a minimum, and those present feel a little rubbery - another defence against the sun's rays.
The fit is glove-like - you don’t sit in an MX-5, you’re grasped by it.
That said, there’s now more seat adjustment than ever before. My compact 5’6” frame slots in pretty easily, but even a couple of chaps over the six-foot mark could make it behind the wheel, as long as they kept a wide-kneed stance to clear the low-set steering wheel.
The gap between steering wheel and gear knob is barely a handspan away, making it simple to flick your left wrist from one to the other as the course demands. The impossibly compact steering wheel and its slender rim evoke classic sports cars, without missing out on any mod-cons.
In the cabin the glovebox is located between the seats, and holds a decent amount of paraphernalia, however the slim door pockets and nearly non-existent centre console storage aren’t built for pack rats.
Cheers to Mazda for their clever relocatable cup holder solution, though.
If the weather is ugly enough that you must sit beneath the fabric roof, there’s enough headroom for most and the lined front section keeps the whole show neat. Turn your head and the frame is visible, but neat and snug.
The roof can be raised or lowered manually without leaving the driver’s seat, and is quick and easy to click into place in either direction with a single latch.
If boot space is a priority, there’s 130 litres to play with, more than enough to cram a few soft bags into. There is no spare tyre in there though, so a can of puncture goo is your only only defence against a flat.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 96kW/150Nm 1.5-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol
- Transmission: Six-speed manual, rear wheel drive with limited slip differential
- Suspension: front - double wishbone; rear - multi-link
- Brakes: front - 258mm ventilated discs; rear - 255mm solid discs
- Steering: electric power steering, turning circle: 9.4m
If weight is the enemy, then the MX-5’s scant 1009kg kerb weight should win it plenty of friends. This key figure makes the ND MX-5 a substantial 91kg lighter than the NC generation car it replaces.
That lack of weight can be felt at the wheel. It also means the MX-5 can be more softly sprung (since it's not fighting heft), and as a result provides a surprisingly forgiving ride.
There’s a little more roll as you tuck into bends, which adds to the sensation of speed, but doesn’t diminish cornering ability at all. Unleashed on a series of tight corners, the MX-5 is sweetly composed.
It’s also easy to set up to your driving style.
Gently into a corner then fast out can be easily managed; maintaining your momentum without the front-end washing out isn’t a problem, and if you’re inclined, getting the tail to drift is no more challenging.
In fact, for something with such a compact wheelbase and low engine output, the MX-5 shouldn’t offer near the thrill it does. But with your bum placed firmly over the rear wheels, and just a few centimetres above the pavement below, everything becomes a thrill.
The engine itself is derived from the Mazda2, but tuned up to a more authoritative 96kW of power at 7000rpm and 150Nm of torque at 4800rpm.
While it is just as easy to pluck a higher gear at 3000rpm around town, the elastic engine offers a warbling range of power that stretches all the way to the redline. There are no flat spots, no dull points, just a delightfully linear swell of effort from start to finish.
The gear change is about as slick as you’ll encounter in any modern car. It feels a little more notchy than the Toyota 86, but still maintains a short throw and a tightly stacked pack of ratios.
A light, but communicative clutch pedal seals the deal.
The final piece of the puzzle is an almost telepathic front-end that changes direction as quickly as you can jolt the steering wheel. Tip it into a corner and the MX-5 responds with amazing 'alertness', but is free of twitchy nervousness in a straight-line.
Inside the cabin you’ll be treated to more of the engine note than anyone outside, thanks to it being piped in - but the noise is genuine, not synthesised, and carries the cheery disposition of British sportscars of days gone by.
It’s impossible not to be engaged by this car. It feels, through the arms and feet, perfectly connected.
Certainly it is obedient and challenges you to get more out of the power it offers, instead of handing it to you on a plate. Even the stability control system isn’t there to flatter you like so many systems can.
It will still save your bacon if you really need it - but there’s a margin of error where you’re in control, not the car. You can teach yourself the quickest way in and out of a corner, the MX-5 isn’t there to make gods out of men.
About the only sore point we could find is road noise - and in something with a cloth roof that’s hardly a criticism to get worked up about.
A stiff chassis, zero scuttle shake, and 'engineered-in' lightness make the MX-5 a standout everywhere - from the roundabout near your office, to the Great Ocean Road.
ANCAP rating: This model has yet to be tested by ANCAP.
Safety features: Standard safety includes dual front airbags, dual side airbags, Antilock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution, brake assist and emergency stop signal, hill launch assist, stability and traction control, front seatbelt pretensioners with load limiters and tyre pressure monitoring.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
Little low-cost roadsters simply aren’t the done thing, so instead the MX-5 squares off against price-competitive sporty coupes, like the equally balanced, naturally aspirated, rear-wheel-drive, Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ twins.
There’s also the turbocharged (but front-wheel driven) Hyundai Veloster, and mechanically similar Kia Cerato Koup, which both offer big power, but less purity.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
I know what you’re thinking: ‘hot hatches are quicker and more practical, why wouldn’t I just buy one of those instead?’
Because as good as the best of the hot-hatch crop is, they not half as grin-inducing as this compact little rag-top. The mix of wind in the hair and a driven rear axle is far more alluring from behind the wheel than you might realise.
A fantastically balanced chassis is a gift from above, and the fluid way the MX-5 engages you on a winding road is simply unmatched.
And even I can’t believe this, but 96 kilowatts and 150 Newtons is enough. Certainly not enough to win every traffic light grand prix, but that isn’t what an MX-5 is for.
Instead, it's enough to propel the tiny roadster with vigour, and ignite a passionate response from any driver who values involvement over tyre smoke.
If you’ve ever thought you might like to park a sporty little number in the driveway, now’s the time to take the plunge.
MORE: Mazda News and Reviews