The new MX-5 is bigger and faster than before, but is it better? Andrew Noakes finds out.
Revising, restyling and re-engineering is supposed to make a good car better, but all too often the process loses that essential something that made the car a star in the first place. So while itís good news that the new MX-5 is quicker, roomier and safer, that it is more economical and better on emissions than its predecessor, the question remains Ė is it as good as the iconic car it replaces?
Much had been made of the new MX-5ís larger size and, while increasing dimensions promise a less cramped cabin than before, they also suggest the onset of the middle-aged spread which affected two Japanese sporting stars of the past, the 240Z and the MR2. Happily thatís not the case: in truth the new car is not that much bigger than before, a negligible 20mm longer and a barely noticeable 40mm wider. More significant are the wider tracks (75mm front, 55mm rear) and the 65mm longer wheelbase.
Bigger not heavier
Painstaking weight paring means the new car is only about 10Kg heavier than before, despite larger-capacity engines and a big increase in standard equipment, plus significant increases in torsional and beam stiffness.
Mazda concedes that previous generations of MX-5 were cramped for anyone over average height but, despite the minimal increase in overall size (and engines which are mounted 135mm further back to improve weight distribution), the cabin of the new car is much roomier. Changes to the seat position have helped, and tall drivers will appreciate the greater seat movement available and the new height-adjustable steering wheel. Mazda claim the new MX-5 comfortably fits drivers up to 1.86m (about 6ft 1in).
The biggest difference comes from the new body, which abandons the Ďcola bottleí shape of the outgoing car in the search for extra interior width. Mazdaís three design studios in Japan, Germany and California submitted proposals: the Californian design was pretty but too big, and the eventual production car was based on the Japanese exterior and the German interior. Itís proved to be a good blend. The chunky new styling is cute but not as feminine as before, and somehow still exudes ĎMX-5-nessí. The interior is classy and effective.
Equally classy, and equally effective, is the new ĎZ-foldí soft top, which proves that you donít need a SLK-style folding panel bristling with heavy electro-hydraulics for your roadster to look cool. A single handle on the header rail releases the top, which can be folded back with one hand from inside the car. It clicks into place when folded, and the front part of the roof forms a flat cover so thereís no need for a fiddly separate tonneau. Top down, the heating systemís Ďopen modeí directs warm air where you need it most, and kept your reporterís hands and feet warm even in crisp British winter weather.
Up front the old carís 109bhp 1.6-litre and 144bhp 1.8-litre engines are replaced by two new all-alloy fours from Mazdaís MZR family, both with twin overhead camshafts operating 16 valves, and variable-length intake systems. For Europe only thereís a 124bhp 1.8-litre with a 123lb-ft torque peak, while all markets get a big-bore 2.0-litre with variable intake valve timing, helping to boost its maximum power to 158bhp at 6,700rpm. The 2.0-litreís 139lb-ft maximum torque arrives at a high 5,000rpm, but Mazda is quick to point out that at least 90 per cent of that is available from 2,500rpm upwards.
And itís this flexibility, as much as the extra power, which gives the 2.0-litre engine its superiority over the 1.8. Pushed to the red line Ė and typical of modern Mazdas, both engines love being revved Ė the bigger motor is inevitably quicker, but the difference is not as marked as the 35bhp difference between the two units might lead you to expect. But the 2.0-litre pulls with authority practically from tick-over, so even if youíre not in the mood for extracting every ounce of performance itís swift and easy to drive. The 1.8 canít quite match that, struggling to make progress unless you choose your gear ratio intelligently.
The 1.8, though, is cheaper, starting at about £15,600 Ė not a lot more than the outgoing car and, remarkably, almost exactly the same as Mazda was charging for an MX-5 a decade ago. Most buyers will spend an extra £800 on the option pack, which adds alloys, a leather gear knob and steering wheel and a cloth (instead of vinyl) soft-top. A grand more gets you an optioned-up 2.0-litre, which has DSC, traction control and side airbags as standard. Mazda apparently expects most sales to be the 2.0i Sport, which costs a further £1,500 Ė taking the total to just under £19,000. Sport buyers get Bilsteins, 17in wheels and a six-speed gearbox, and they should think twice.
Yes, the Bilstein suspension has stability and poise, but then so does the standard set-up. Yes, the wheels are larger on the Sport and wear lower-profile tyres, but the rubber width is the same as the standard 2.0i so the difference in grip is marginal. Yes, a six-speed box is fun but Mazda quotes the same performance figures for the five-speeder and the six, so the extra gear gives you no real advantage. And even though the six-speeder has a taller top gear, it suffers from poorer fuel consumption and higher CO2 emissions.
The five-speed 2.0i, then, is the best of the new MX-5s Ė but is it as good as the icon it replaces? It still isnít perfect.
As a driverís car it would be better if the steering was a touch more talkative, even if that meant losing some of its lightness of touch. It would be better if the brake pedal offered a more stable fulcrum for heel-and-toe downchanges, even if that meant it needed a firmer shove.
But put the new MX-5 in its element Ė a winding country road, with the top down and the smooth engine singing in the top half of its rev range, and the new MX-5 is as much of a delight as its predecessor. That it also provides more performance, more space and greater safety simply underlines the conclusion: itís not as good as the car it replaces Ė in almost every department, itís better.
Copyright © Andrew Noakes 2005