I loved this car. I still have fantasies about it. Whenever I see one on the road there’s a piece of me that dies ever so slightly. It’s a fabulous car and if you’re thinking about getting one, think no more – go on and place an order right now. You don’t even need to read the rest of this review. Just go out buy one.
But if you’re still here with me, please do carry on reading.
Having a fun sports car in bad weather seems to be a recurring theme for me. When I tested the Honda S660, a fun open-top sports car, the weather was less than ideal to be driving a convertible. It was especially worse during my time with the new Mazda MX-5.
I had been waiting anxiously to test the new ‘ND’ generation MX-5, the fourth generation of the most successful sports car in history. Mazda had made big claims for this new generation. It’d be 120kgs lighter than its predecessor, weighing as much as the original. It’d be more economical yet just as fun as MX-5s of old.
I was very much looking forward to seeing if these claims were true. The plan was to pick up the MX-5 from Mazda’s R&D centre in Yokohama then take it out to the mountain roads in Chiba. More specifically, Mount Nokogiri. If that sounds familiar it’s the same place where Top Gear went during when they raced a Nissan GT-R with a bullet train. Unfortunately the weather had other plans. But I wasn’t going to let a bit of drizzle ruin my fun with the MX-5 so I soldiered on.
Let’s get right down to it. The Mazda MX-5 has always been the go-to sports car for anyone wanting an affordable, fun drop-top. This new generation is no different. It’s a cracker of a thing to drive. Japan-spec MX-5s (or Roadsters as they’re known here) are powered by a 1.5-litre SkyActiv engine. New Zealand buyers will also get the option of a 2.0-litre model.
It might sound like a no-brainer to go for the larger, more powerful engine but I’d seriously consider the 1.5. Not only is it lighter but the engine is an absolute gem. The 1.5 develops a modest 131bhp/96kW and 150NM of torque compared to the 2.0’s 160bhp/118kW and 200NM of torque. This car is more about enjoying the journey rather than getting to the destination in the fastest time.
What I really liked about it was its rev-loving nature. It’s an engine that enjoys being worked hard, and it has to be worked hard to get the most of that power. Unlike the Toyota GT86, the noise it made wasn’t so harsh so you’re able to keep revving and pushing the engine without fear of ruining your ears.
My test car came equipped with a 6-speed manual (I had to thank the Buddha at Mount Nokogiri for that) and it hands-down wins the best manual shift I’ve used. Ever. With accurate shifts and a short throw it reminded me a lot of my friend’s old NA. As cliche as this’ll sound, changing gears in the ND felt like shaking hands with an old friend.
While I like a lazy V8 with a huge torque reserve as much as the next person, the little 1.5-litre and that brilliant 6-speed manual meant making the most of those 130 horses was more fun and engaging than much more powerful and expensive cars. And that’s before we get on to the way it handles.
After a long and arduous drive on Japan’s seemingly endless motorway network, going through an underwater tunnel, and a bit of rural town driving, I managed to arrive at the base of the road leading up to Mount Nokogiri. Unfortunately the main road there was closed due to the rain so the man at the gate directed to me to the back roads to go up the mountain. I wasn’t going to complain about that.
It was a perfect test for the MX-5’s rear-wheel drive handling. A wet Thursday afternoon on a mountain road, yeah of course it was going to be empty. With tight hairpins here and a cambered corner there, it was a road fit for an iconic car like the MX-5. But while it may be a rear-wheel drive car, it’s not one that likes getting its back out. Something a GT86 will do in even while sitting still.
For some people powersliding a car is the definition of ‘fun’ but for others, the neutral handling and balance of the MX-5 will allow them to push it to the limit without having to organise their funeral the next day. This is a car even a fool like me can confidently push and take liberties with. If you want to learn the dynamics of a rear-wheel drive car, the MX-5 is a perfect starting point. Get one of these, go to a track day, and in no time you’ll be thinking about entering in the next D1GP.
With ESP on, the MX-5 will not kick its back out. With ESP off it still needs a lot of encouragement to do so, but it will. With the way it behaved in the wet I have no doubt that in the dry it’d stay planted to the road. It did roll a tad, but I suspect it was more to shift weight around than it being a softie.
The steering was a perfect balance between light and responsive. It wasn’t overly weighted as some sports cars are, which sometimes feels artificial. It was manageable yet gave all the necessary feedback and feel you’d want from a sports car. The steering wheel itself was just about perfect too – not too big or thick.
Looks Like A Winner
The driving experience is the defining characteristic of the MX-5 in the same way Angelina Jolie’s humanitarian work are hers. But like Angelina Jolie, the MX-5 isn’t a bad thing to look at either. I really like what Mazda have done with the evolution of the MX-5. The previous generations were good looking, if a bit cutesy. This one has been given a healthy dosage of aggression. It’s still not an intimidating car but it won’t offend anyone’s eyes.
My test car was painted in a ‘Ceramic Metallic’, silver to you and I. With the black coloured wheels, wing mirrors, and windscreen surround, it stood out. Previously I would’ve gone for that dark red or a blue but I was quite won over by the spec of this test car.
Some may argue a coupe is better, but I’ll fight for convertibles tooth and nail. Okay, I admit, most of the time the roof will be up. So it’ll be like every other car. But when the sky clears up, or at least when the rain stops, you drop the roof and suddenly there’s a million kilometres of headroom above you. If that’s not guaranteed to give put a smile on your face, I don’t know what will.
Driver Centred Cabin
Perhaps the biggest difference with the ‘ND’ generation MX-5 is inside. To put it simply, it’s a class act. It’s still driver orientated and the few distractions are proof of that. However, owners of previous MX-5s might not be able to recognise the interior of this new car. The design, materials, and technology have been significantly improved. It feels every bit as special as the rest of the car.
My favourite feature was the body-coloured panels on the doors, possibly because I liked the exterior colour a lot. The MX-5 also comes with Mazda’s new MZD Connect infotainment system. Unfortunately it was all in Japanese so I couldn’t use much of it. But from my previous experience with it in a Mazda3 back in Wellington, it’s an intuitive system that’s controlled via touchscreen or a rotary dial.
You sit low and far back in the MX-5 – the ideal sports car driving position. You get a nice view out of the bonnet, the sharp creases of the arch reminding you that you’re in something special. There are only two-seats inside but they’re comfortable and supportive. As part of the S-Package the seats were trimmed in leather and also had heaters, which would’ve been nice if it wasn’t so hot and humid during my time with the MX-5. A neat touch were the built-in Bose speakers on the headrests, so I could carry on listening to my tunes even with the top down.
Surprisingly there was decent amount of storage space too. The glovebox was a useable size and there were nifty cupholders too. There was some storage space under the central armrest and a cubbyhole in between the two seats. Though the awkward shape meant I wasn’t sure what you could put in there. Maybe a handbag or a couple of guinea pigs perhaps?
Boot space was good. It could easily fit luggage a weekend’s worth of luggage for two or a typical weekly shop. The boot opening is quite high so you have to lift things in and the button to open it is in quite an awkward place but hey, this is a two-seater roadster and not a family sedan so of course practicality isn’t going to be its strong suit.
Living With It
That said, I could easily see the MX-5 being an ideal daily driver. The interior is well laid out, the controls are easy to use, and there’s decent amount of visibility. The wing mirrors are a good size and came with Blind Spot Assist. The MX-5 also came with Lane Departure Warning which vibrates and beeps the speakers on the side of which you strayed from.
Operating the roof was an easy job too. It’s a manual affair, to save weight. But it’s very easy and quick. That came in handy, especially during the unpredictable weather on the days I had the MX-5. I certainly would’ve gotten a lot wetter had it been a slow electric-operated roof.
To make the MX-5 light they’ve shaved a gram off here, and a gram off there. Everything in the MX-5 is as light as can be. But it’s light without being some kind of stripped out racer. All the creature comforts such as climate control and iPod connectivity were still there. However, the pursuit for lightness did mean that some of the trim felt a bit flimsy and cheap (the sun visors in particular). But plasticky sun visors are far from being a deal breaker.
Unsurprisingly, the MX-5’s ride wasn’t the worst I’ve experienced. The suspension setup was a tad on the firm side but it never felt disturbingly uncomfortable. On rougher roads you could feel the stiff chassis and sports-tuned suspension through the seats, but it’s all part of the sports car experience. This was never going to compete against a Mercedes S-Class.
But the best thing about living with the MX-5 is that while it’s possibly one of the most fun sports cars on sale at the moment, it won’t cost much more than a hatchback to run. In fact, during my time with it it barely used half a tank. And that’s with me driving it like a lunatic for most of the day on a mountain road. It’s quite literally having your cake, eating it, and having seconds. It just goes to show that making cars light isn’t only good for petrolheads but also for the environment.
|Brand/Model||Engine||Power||Fuel L/100km||CO2 g/km||0-100 km/h||Price – High to Low|
|Fiat 500C Abarth||1.4-litre, four-cylinder turbo petrol||160bhp/118kW||6.5L/100km||151g/km||7.9 sec|
|Toyota 86||2.0-litre, four-cylinder petrol||200bhp/147kW||7.8L/100km||180g/km||7.6 sec|
|Citroen DS3 Cabriolet||1.6-litre, four-cylinder petrol||120bhp/88kW||6.7L/100km||154g/km||10.9 sec|
|Mazda MX-5||1.5-litre, four-cylinder petrol||131bhp/96kW||6.1/100km||142g/km||8.3 sec|
¥3,034,800 (approx. $37,398)
What Do We Think
|Balanced handling||Deciding between the 1.5 or the 2.0|
|Drop top fun||Far from being the most practical car|
|Rev-loving engine||Lane Departure Warning can be startling|
|The smiles it’ll give you|
Mazda have always used the ethos of “Jinba Ittai” which translates to “the horse and rider as one”. That’s the best way to describe the driving experience of the MX-5. Sure there are cars that’ll smoke the rear tyres better or get you to your destination a couple tenths of a second quicker. If you care about that sort of thing then you don’t get the point of the MX-5. This is a car in which fun takes all priority over everything else.
I hesitate giving the MX-5 five stars because in actual fact it deserves more. For people like you and me (petrolheads) feeling involved and part of the experience is what it’s all about. Even though this a modern car with modern electronic aids, it never felt like I was detached from the driving experience. It never felt like it could go on without me. The MX-5 isn’t a hairdresser’s car and it’s not a girly car either. It’s a petrolhead’s car.
Convertible sports car
¥2,494,800 (approx. $30,744)*
¥3,034,800 (approx. $37,398)*
1496cc four-cylinder DOHC SKYACTIV petrol
|Length x Width x Height|
3915mm x 1735mm x 1235mm
|ANCAP Safety Ratings|
*These prices are for Japan-spec cars. NZ MX-5s will have different specifications.