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Mazda MX-5: Review

New MX-5 won't actually save the world shocker (it is fun to drive though)

By Dan Trent / Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Don't get the whole MX-5 thing? This new

isn't the car to overturn your prejudices. It's a bit cramped inside, not especially fast, rides a wave of cutesy Jinba Ittai 'horse and rider as one' propaganda and is liable to provoke evangelical preaching from the converted.

This is fun until you have to overtake someone

This is fun until you have to overtake someone

Working on the idea that if you don't get the whole MX-5 thing you probably wouldn't have clicked the link in the first place, let's assume none of the above is especially problematic...

It's an interesting car this new MX-5. In spirit and fundamental design and engineering it's perhaps the closest to the template set down a quarter of a century ago by the original pop-up headlight NA version. And yet it's also making a deliberate attempt to break out of the (ready the MX-5 bingo card) hairdresser image. At one stroke it's a more aggressive looking car. Yet at another it rejects the industry-wide move to turbocharging, sticking with weedy-sounding normally aspirated motors. This will please the purists but arguably confirm the worst fears of those who've always considered it overhyped and underpowered.

Considering numbers aren't where the MX-5 traditionally impresses let's get them out of the way first. As you probably know by now there are two engines from Mazda's Skyactiv-G (for gasoline) range. These reject the fashion for forced induction and diesel-like torque delivery and instead run unusually high 13:1 compression ratios and insist on nearly 5,000rpm before giving you peak torque. There's a 1.5 derived from that used in the Mazda 2 and 3 with a beefier crank and raised rev limit to deliver 131hp and a 2.0 with 160hp. The 1.5 gives you 111lb ft of torque at 4,800rpm and the 2.0 147lb ft at 4,600rpm. So 1hp and 8lb ft more than the most powerful version of the previous NC MX-5. And this is progress?

Coloured door cappings help sense of Jinba-whatnot

Coloured door cappings help sense of Jinba-whatnot

Weight of expectation

Yes! Because it's 173kg lighter than the NC Roadster Coupe, fabric roofs on the outgoing car confined to 1.8s for the last cars. Power to weight is therefore more revealing. Ready? An original NA 1.6 Eunos is around 127hp/tonne, the outgoing 2.0 NC 136hp/tonne. That's only a fraction better than the new 1.5 while the 2.0 is now 160hp/tonne.

That's a significant stat but you're probably reaching number blindness by now. So as far as dimensions go let's just say it's slightly longer in wheelbase but quite a bit shorter overall, a little wider and a little lower too. New car smaller and lighter than predecessor? Yup!

Let's take a breather from the stats and go for a bit of a drive... Location for this first UK taste of the new MX-5 is a speed restricted Goodwood circuit and the surrounding back roads busy with pre-Festival of Speed traffic. First impression? It's definitely cosy. There's a great story about the Japanese presenting an early model of the original MX-5 to Australian dealers and there being a degree of teeth sucking about how powerfully built Antipodeans were going to fit in it. The response was typically polite and Japanese, paraphrased as 'so sorry, if you're a big man it's not for you'. And so it is with the new one.

It's a much more stylish cabin with a nice mix of traditional - round vents, simple and unadorned wheel, stubby gearlever and the rest - and more modern trappings like the screen emerging from the dash. Quality is night and day better.

The view out is great too; expansive and bordered with those previously discussed peaks in the wings. They look odd proportionally but from the inside draw your eye to an imaginary line drawn upwards from the axis of the steering kingpin, supposedly giving a mental connection between where you look and where you go. Sounds cheesy. Actually kind of works. Likewise the body coloured door cappings that when you drop the manual roof (twist latch, flick back, job done) make a visual link between cabin and exterior.

Less wind in hair, more water down neck

Less wind in hair, more water down neck

We've been here before

Immediately the signals are pure original MX-5. The gearshift has the same 40mm throw (it says in the press pack), the controls are nicely weighted and it feels light, nimble and immediately eager to please. If not very fast.

Maybe the engine is just a little too smooth and refined. Maybe we're just too used to rushes of turbocharged torque from 1,500rpm. But your first impression of the MX-5 isn't likely to blow your socks off in performance terms.

Given that you'd automatically assume the 2.0 is a no-brainer, right? Well it definitely pulls a bit harder. But the 1.5 is revvier, delivering peak power 1,000rpm beyond the 6,000rpm of the 2.0. As a whole it's 25kg lighter too and runs on 16-inch wheels for maximum anti-fashion cred. That the car wears them well without looking like it's on space savers is credit to the work of the styling department.

No turbos means it needs lots of revs

No turbos means it needs lots of revs

Safe to say the skin of your rice pudding (still have that bingo card?) has little to fear from the 1.5 but there is something appealingly old-school about its purity and flicking the little shifter to and fro is a reminder of the innocent pleasures the MX-5 does so well. Just a little more exhaust noise might convince you it's worthwhile doing so though - in the absence of meaningful forward motion the sense of it would go a long way to helping.

Walk the walk
Especially when the price walk from a mid-spec 1.5 SE-L into the 2.0 equivalent is just £850. For which you get the bigger engine, the extra power, 17-inch wheels with 205-section tyres, a limited-slip diff out back and a strut brace up front. You'd find the money, right? Word to the wise though - don't bother with the extra £2,600 for the Sport version. Sure, you get leather seats. But the bulk of the additional kit is made up of arguably pointless gizmos and uprated 'sport' suspension with Bilstein dampers which, while not harsh, is stiff enough to send shudders through the body on bumpy B-roads.

1.5 on 16s - the purist spec option?

1.5 on 16s - the purist spec option?

On the greasy Goodwood track the 2.0 feels a bit on tip-toes too. Like all 'stock' MX-5s it seems to ride too high, a crossover-like gap between top of tyre and wheelarch not doing the looks any favours at all. Just have a gander at the

if you were in any doubt about what a few millimetres out of the ride height can do.

Like early NC/Mk3s it actually ends up feeling a bit precarious and a little too pointy on turn-in and very eager to snap into oversteer, which is quickly contained by the stability control but nothing like the sweet, throttle adjustable balance you get in well-sorted versions of the older cars. It's not a problem in the dry, where that sense of 50/50 weight balance and classic rear-driven stance is more subtle and enjoyable. But it seems weird for Mazda to crow about this car having the lowest centre of gravity of any MX-5 and then jack it up on oversprung stilts.

Rubber up
With some more sidewall on the 195/50R16 tyres the 1.5 squelches around a bit on the track but feels fundamentally just as balanced and a little more relaxed. On the road it's even better; poised, direct and agile with none of the shudders of the Sport chassis'd 2.0. Both cars are in their element carrying speed rather than building it of course and the harmonious control weights, spot-on driving position and general effervescence all add up to a back-road experience that sums up all that's lovely about an MX-5. Until you have to overtake something. And then you're a bit knackered.

Aftermarket already working on suitable mods

Aftermarket already working on suitable mods

That aside it remains as refreshing an antidote to the power struggles elsewhere in the business as it always was. It's entirely faithful to the original but forward looking and not tied to the past - a tricky thing to pull off. Mazda also deserves a hearty round of applause for bucking prevailing industry trends, sticking by its guns and hitting the safety, quality and emissions expectations of 2015 without compromising on the purity that made the MX-5 such a hit back in 1989. And a volume sales success since.

The pick of the bunch? A 1.5 SE-L has enough toys to keep you sane and a nav-equipped option for another £600 if you can't face using a map or a Tom Tom. Either way it's just below the psychologically important £20K barrier. For just £95 over that you can have the 2.0-litre SE-L though and, with a little help from the aftermarket when it comes, a little more noise and a bit more poise.

1,496cc, 4-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 131@ 7,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 111@4,800rpm
0-62mph: 8.3sec 
Top speed:127mph 
Weight: 1,050kg (with 75kg driver) 
MPG: 47.1mpg (NEDC combined)
CO2: 139g/km
Price: £18,495 (SE), £19,245 (SE-L), £19,845 (SE-L Nav), £21,845 (Sport), £22,445 (Sport Nav)

1,998cc, 4-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 160@ 6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 148@4,600rpm
0-62mph: 7.3sec 
Top speed: 133mph 
Weight: 1,075kg (with 75kg driver) 
MPG: 40.9mpg (NEDC combined)
CO2: 161g/km
Price: £20,095 (SE-L), £20,695 (SE-L Nav), £22,695 (Sport), £23,295 (Sport Nav)

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