Mazda scores a bullseye with MX-5

By Jesse Adams Time of article published Oct 19, 2015

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ROAD TEST

Mazda MX-5

By: Jesse Adams

Johannesburg - From one generation to the next, a car’s natural progression almost always sees them getting bigger, more comfortable, and more laden with hi-tech features in the name of convenience and safety.

But for some, which made their initial impact decades ago for compact designs and simplistic nature, this can be a dangerous evolution.

The previous, third-generation Mazda MX-5 was already starting to pork out with a waistline teetering on chubby. While it was still very much a compact roadster in relation to other cars of the genre, it was quite plump in comparison to the original 1989 model, and its (optional) electronic roof opening mechanisms, well-insulated cabin, and comfy modern feel almost went against the raw grain of what made the first-generation version the icon that it is.

I can imagine that Mazda’s engineers and designers were split when presented with a blank sheet of paper at the start of development for the all-new fourth-generation MX-5. Some were probably in favour of an even more portly model stylised to fit in with 21st century methodology and filled to the brim with all sorts of modern day gizmos; and some probably leaned more towards primordial dimensions and pureness.

It’s a tough tightrope to walk; fall too far one way and the result will be criticised for turning its back on history, and the flipside could be accused of skimping on modernity and innovation. In the end, it looks like both were accommodated in near perfect balance. The former group were given free reign in aesthetics which owe nothing to the passively sculpted original.

The latest model features far more aggressive sheet metal than the three that preceded it, and its angry new lines wouldn’t look out of place in a Japanese animé film. The more reserved half of the table, however, was left in charge of what makes the tiny droptop sports-car tick mechanically and dimensionally.

The finished product is only marginally bigger than the 1989-97 version known to automotive anoraks as the ‘NA’ model, and when parked side-by-side, the latest ‘ND’ only juts out by a matter of millimetres from all angles except height, where it’s lower.

Interestingly, and judging by looks alone, it seems the NA’s boot is actually fractionally bigger and it has a tiny spare wheel where the ND gets a puncture repair kit.

SUBTLE NUANCES RING TRUE

I’ve had a 1991 model NA in my family for the past 15 years, and many of the subtle nuances I’ve become quite familiar with ring true in the ND. The new MX-5 gets a manual gearbox with six speeds to the original’s five, but the lever’s short throw and ultra-precise clickity H-pattern are pretty much identical.

Its naturally-aspirated engine has grown from 1.6 to 1.8 and now two litres but it too sounds remarkably similar, and it delivers power in much the same way even if the new one’s output is much higher at 118kW and 200Nm.

I also couldn’t help but notice the same faint gear whine on overrun emanating from the transmission tunnel, which also produces heat and warms driver’s left hand and knee in exactly the same way. Even the interior light, which is renowned for its insufficient brightness, is still too dim at night. Sure, some of these things might be accidental but I’d like to believe they were engineered in on purpose, and if so, kudos to Mazda for doing so.

Anyone who knows the first MX-5 will appreciate how easy it was to unlatch and stow its soft top, and designers have done a fine job to emulate the simple system. Actually, it’s even easier now with only one central latch to undo before tossing the lid rearward with one hand. A strong forearm can now pull the roof back up from a seated position, where the old one required two hands from outside the car.

I’d prefer to call the interior intimate rather than small, but some taller drivers might feel cramped especially without a reach adjustment for the steering wheel. Instead of a glove compartment hole there’s now a small stowage space between the seats and Mazda’s done some clever work with clip-out cupholders that can be positioned between the seats or to the right of the passenger’s leg.

EXTREMELY SHARP STEERING

Everything is well placed ergonomically and easy to use, and the central touchscreen multimedia display is almost within a finger’s length of the gearlever. Unfortunately, and as per most Japanese cars, its functionality is limited when the car’s moving.

Performance is right inside the realm of fun two-seat roadsters, and though it’ll never get your hairs on end like a Boxster or F-Type, keep in mind that this will be the most affordable convertible sportscar on the market when it goes on sale here next month.

Its tail can be put out into a powerslide if you’re forceful with steering and throttle, but there’s not quite enough gusto at the rear wheels to keep it there. It’s still reasonably brisk in a straight line, and at our test track it scored a best 0-100km/h time of 7.9 seconds and covered the quarter-mile in 15.7. What’s important here is that it’s quicker (by half a second) than Toyota’s more powerful but heavier 86 coupé in both of our tests.

But as you might expect, it’s handling where the MX-5 really shines, and its short wheelbase and wide track work hand in hand with an extremely sharp steering ratio to make for a great connection between driver and road.

The 3.9 metre-long car darts left and right with small inputs, and 90-degree intersection turns can be done with hands stuck on the wheel at 10-and-two positions.

VERDICT

Mazda has struck a nice balance between size, tech and newness with its latest MX-5. Its style might be a step too far from previous models for some purists, but the way it drives is bang on.

Pricing is yet to be confirmed but Mazda SA says we can bank on just under R400 000. Not bad considering we’ll only get the high-grade model locally, which comes standard with Bose sound with headrest speakers, leather, Bluetooth connections, and the aforementioned touchscreen display. - Star Motoring

FACTS

Mazda MX-5

Engine: 2-litre, 4-cylinder petrol

Gearbox: 6-speed manual

Power: 118kW @ 6000rpm

Torque: 200Nm @ 4600rpm

0-100km/h (tested, Gauteng): 7.9 seconds

Top speed (claimed): 212km/h

Consumption (claimed): 6.9 litres per 100km

Price: Less than R400 000

Warranty: 3-year/unlimited distance

Service plan: 3-year/unlimited distance

* 0-100km/h figures as tested by us at Gauteng altitude using Racelogic Vbox

Follow Jesse Adams on Twitter @PoorBoyLtd 

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