Mazda has knocked out an astonishing 850,000 MX-5s in the little car’s 20 year run. Despite being a success story worldwide, we – the Brits – particularly love the little roadster. The Elan-inspired car-that-MG-should-have-made is so popular here that there are
MX-5s in the UK now than the 93,973 that Mazda UK has sold.
Celebrating the 20th Anniversary, Mazda has facelifted its Mk3 version, which has been with us for four years now. If you squint you’ll see it has a new, smilier face and, less obvious, a host of detail and engineering changes under the skin. It seemed rude not to borrow one from Mazda before the press launch for a PH European exclusive. There are two models of note, the ‘Sport Tech’, boasting a new six-speed 'box, Bilsteins, more bracing and an LSD, and the range-topping (read – ‘most expensive’) ‘PowerShift’ car with a six speed sequential paddle shift transmission. Hang on… surely the folks at Mazda haven’t dropped a sequential 'box into a 20 grand car… hang on, no, no, they haven’t. It’s an AUTOMATIC. They just can’t bring themselves – even in an 11-page press release - to admit it.
I’ve made my mind up not to approve of this PowerShift nonsense long before delivery, and my fears are reinforced when it arrives and I actually get in the thing. Where other manufacturers label their paddleshifts with a simple + or -, Mazda has catered for the elderly with bold, large typeface statements. I don’t need varifocals yet, so I grit my teeth and get on with it. Irritatingly, I haven’t driven that far before I kind of see the point. It’s all rather grown up. The inside of the new car is a nice place to be, and if you just potter about, an auto is admittedly quite pleasant. This one does a pretty good job of swapping cogs too, while even in ‘Auto’ mode a flick of the paddles will still let you think you are having a sporty moment as you cheerfully force the car into the wrong gear.
Mazda knows this, and it knows its target market. The PowerShift lacks the LSD and the Bilsteins of the manual car, and probably rightly so. It’s quick enough, and that’ll do. It seems unfair, though, to subject this car to Mazda on Track’s excellent Nürburgring trip, entailing some 80 cars from across Europe meeting up at the Ring for a gathering known affectionately as ‘the Hairdresser’s Convention’. We swap the car for the six-speed manual, as it appears that Mazda has been busy doing interesting things like altering the intake to generate more induction noise and raising the rev limit of the 160PS 2.0-litre to 7500rpm. Sounds great and, when it arrives, the folding roof car in Brilliant Black looks so promising that I wheel out the wife’s car for comparison. Just 500 RS Limiteds were produced for the Japanese market at the end of the run of Mk1s with Bilsteins, shortened ratios, a proper torsen LSD and achingly lovely bespoke carbon/kevlar Recaros. It looks tiny compared to the Mk3.5 – so is that heritage still intact?
Unlike seemingly every other car on the planet, successive generations of the 5/Miata/Eunos Roadster haven’t increased exponentially in weight. The original Mazda eXperimental project 5 (MX-5) weighed in at just 940 kgs, but despite more of everything, including front and side airbags and the addition of a roof - the Mk3.5 is just 1080 kgs. That’s an amazing achievement, because it feels so much more rigid that the original car. You are always aware of a bit of shudder, a shimmy on poor surfaces in the Mk1 despite its extra bracing; but this just doesn’t feature on the new car, even with the roof folded. It feels rock solid.
What is doesn’t have is that pointiness, that immediacy of response to input that the early car has. Bilsteins or not, the SportTech is a lot softer than I was expecting. Admittedly, I’ve played with the suspension settings of the RS Ltd, so that my wife has to take the firstborn to the childminders with camber that would be more at home at the D1 drift championships, but a bit of experimental weaving just seems to push the new car’s nose wide. There’s not much time to play, however, as photographer Trevor and I discover that packing into a roadster’s boot to capacity is possible only if you’ve 150 litres of liquid luggage. However, by the time we’ve caught up with the convoy of British coiffurés at Dover any misgivings have disappeared. It’s late at night, we’ve done A, B and M roads, and the car feels really good.
There’s no two ways about it, Mazda has deliberately set the ride height and geometry to banish any hint of oversteer, unexpected or otherwise. It’s all very predictable, and very safe. The Sport Tech leans, and then it squeals the tyres as it pushes on. Turning all the driver ‘aids’ off takes a mighty eight-second press. Eight seconds! There’s nothing spontaneous or sporty in that, you might as well apply to Hiroshima in writing. But for all that, on the Nordschleife the Sport Tech didn’t let the side down – quite the opposite. It was hilariously, unexpectedly rapid, the freedom of the 'Ring and the lack of oncoming traffic allowing it to be chucked into bends, the car’s attitude adjusted on the throttle. Predictable limits often flatter at the 'Ring, where changing cambers and surface terrify those who are already treading a fine line.
The diehards, myself included, debated just how much faster it could be if the suspension was lowered, if the castor was pushed all the way out, if the rear camber was maxed, and in doing so we kind of missed the point. All that stuff would affect its performance on the road, and out of the box the MX-5 Roadster Coupe is a fantastic road car. That balance is deliberately safe, and as such caters for those who wish to drive their cars solely in the direction that the car is pointing. For those who don’t, there’s so much potential to make one really quick just by tweaking the setup. As it stands, oversteer was still possible through hooliganism, and rarely have I had so much fun trying to keep up with the BMW M5 'Ring Taxis.
For your £21,195 there’s plenty of kit too, including a dash MP3-compatible multichanger, fancy handsfree, and leather heated seats. The centre console is now padded, giving a perfect elbow rest while, presumably to cater for Americans, the driver and passenger have a choice of not two, but four cupholders. Thankfully, the driver’s side one that, in the Mk3, would dig into the driver’s thigh has now been properly recessed into the door. In fact, in the middle of discussing this with my passenger on the way home, it suddenly occurs to me just how far the MX-5 has come. We are doing 120mph, on the autobahn, and I’m having a normal conversation, at a normal volume. Albeit about cupholders.
Pictures courtesy of Frozenspeed motorsport photography