The arrival of a new Mazda MX-5 is like a celestial event; very occasional and worth paying attention to. This is just the fourth new version to have been introduced since the original arrived way back in 1989.
With more than 950,000 sold since then, the MX-5 is the best selling sports car of all time. In terms of overall reach, that probably makes this the most significant new car launch of the year. The millionth MX-5 will be a Mk4 version – it’ll roll off the production line in the first half of 2017.
Engine, transmission and 0-100km/h time
There are two engine options, both four-cylinder petrols. The entry-level motor is a 1.5-litre with 96kW and 150Nm, and will be available in Australia from August with either a six-speed manual or optional automatic transmission.
The 2-litre four-pot, tested here and due later this year, returns 116kW at 6000rpm, with a similarly modest 200Nm from 4600rpm.
What power it does have is put to good use, then – 100km/h comes up in 7.3 seconds, with the top speed pegged at 214km/h. The only transmission option for this more powerful model is a six-speed manual.
The new MX-5 is light, though – in fact, the engineers have trimmed out a massive 100kg compared to the previous version, which is no mean feat. With a 75kg driver on board it’ll tip the scales at 1090kg.
In order to keep that kerb weight as low as possible the engineers implemented a ‘gram strategy’ – trimming unnecessary flab out of every single component, even if the weight reduction amounts to a single gram. To that end the levers that adjust the seats are very slim and short, the suspension cross members are drilled and even more panels and components are aluminium rather than steel.
This new model is wider than the version it replaces, but it’s also shorter and lower. The net result is that it’s the lightest MX-5 since the 1989 original. The engine has been lowered by 20mm compared to the Mk3, too, which has helped to lower the overall centre of gravity.
The basic chassis layout remains unchanged – double wishbones at the front with a multi-link setup at the rear. As part of this test car’s Sport specification, a limited slip differential, front strut brace and Bilstein dampers are standard fit.
There mightn’t be any ground breaking new technology to discuss, but there is a great deal of simple, solid, proven sports car engineering on display. As a result the new MX-5 feels like one of the purest new cars on sale, unencumbered by needless frills and trinkets.
What’s it like to drive?
The engineering team went to great lengths to get the seating position right, but there is no reach adjustment for the steering wheel. That’s a little disappointing at first, but once on the move you soon forget. Much the same is true of the seat itself, which on first impression seems just an inch or so too high.
At low speed there is an edge to the ride quality over lumps and bumps, as you’d expect of a sports car. The MX-5 is actually quite softly suspended – even in this more sporting trim and on the bigger 17-inch wheels – so at higher speeds its gait becomes very relaxed and pliant.
In cornering there seems to be little or no roll resistance. Turn into a bend and the body leans quite markedly onto the outer wheels, as though the anti-roll bars have been disconnected. Initially that makes the car feel very loosely tied down and, in a way, wallowy. Press on, however, and you realise that despite the relatively soft setup and exaggerated roll there is solid body control – a virtue of the car’s minimal weight.
Interrogate the chassis engineers on the matter and they’ll explain their logic with real enthusiasm. They’ve set the car up to roll in a sort of diagonal way in cornering – quite heavily across the front axle, to give the impression of the car leaning very hard on its leading outer tyre. This manner of roll, they explain, replicates the forces that the human body experiences under cornering. The result is that the driver should feel as though he/she and the car are moving around in harmony, making him/her feel totally in tune with the machine. Lofty stuff. That innate sense of connection is the MX-5’s leading design principle.
Out on the road that translates into what very like very natural and predictable body movement as one corner pours into another. There is more body movement than you would expect at first, but never to the point of feeling as though the car might get away from you. The way the chassis is set up sort of demands an eight-tenths driving style. That is the space in which the MX-5 works best – flowing at a good speed through the corners, driver enjoying the motion of the body.
But what about those who would rather drive closer to ten-tenths? Really grab the car by the scruff of the neck and it hardly falls to pieces – you’ll just find yourself wishing for tauter roll control, more precision on the way into the apex and flatter responses in direction changes. As it has ever been, the MX-5 remains a car that can be enjoyed by everybody, but might not be loved by the most enthusiastic drivers.
The electric power steering system is plenty accurate enough, but it never weights up in a natural way in cornering and nor does it drip with feedback. The 2-litre engine doesn’t deliver enough power to provoke the rear end on its own – the driver must instead over-commit to a corner and apply full throttle very early on if he is to provoke the rear end into sliding at corner exit. It’ll only ever do so to a modest degree – in the dry at least – but the breakaway is always progressive and fun.
The engine itself is no screamer but it’s at least potent enough to return good point-to-point pace. The gearbox is a joy, however, which is just as well as you’ll be working it hard – making the most of second gear – to keep the car rolling along.
This being a very affordable sports car it is quite clear where Mazda has saved expense within the cabin, but that’s to be expected. The BMW iDrive-style infotainment interface works well, but tall passengers will want for legroom and the transmission tunnel does throw out a great deal of heat when the car is worked hard – that’ll be the catalytic converter.
The MX-5 undercuts Japan’s other entry-level sports car, the Toyota 86 GT which start at $29,990. It might be quicker, sharper to drive and more practical with its two small rear seats, but there’s no drop-top version as yet.
The entry-level MX-5 will cost from $31,990, with pricing for the more powerful version to be revealed closer to the Australian launch.
– By Dan Prosser