Mazda MX-5 Review

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It’s a proper old school roadster with a front-engined, rear-wheel drive setup with a short-throw six-speed manual shifter

Mazda MX-5 Special Edition 2.0-litre four-cylinder six-speed manual transmission, 118kW/188Nm: $47, 200 (Manufacturer’s List Price)

It’s a proper old school roadster with a front-engined, rear-wheel drive setup with a short-throw six-speed manual shifter and near-perfectly weighted steering. It’s also got 50:50 weight distribution for completely neutral handling, and the number beside the redline indicates a race car-like 7500rpm.

You're looking at the world’s best selling sports car of all time, bar none. The Mazda MX-5 surpassed 900,000 sales across all continents in February 2011. The cost of this open air Mazda masterpiece is less than $50,000, so what’s not to like?

The Mazda MX-5 has also won a staggering 178 awards over the years and has even attracted unusually high praise from UK television personality, Jeremy Clarkson, who said,

“The fact is that if you want a sports car, the MX-5 is perfect. Nothing on the road will give you better value. Nothing will give you so much fun. The only reason I’m giving it five stars is because I can’t give it 14.”

He’s absolutely right. From the moment you feast your eyes on this proper little open top sports car, which was designed and built in the interest of reviving the wind-in-the-hair driving experience of those classic lightweight English roadsters such as the Lotus Elan and Triumph Spitfire offered, you’ll understand completely why the Mazda MX-5 has been such a runaway success.

It might be two generations on and a few kilos heavier (195 to be precise) compared with the original, but the 2011 Mazda MX-5 offers that same lightweight roadster experience, only better again.

Styling-wise, the latest Mazda MX-5 looks more aggressive than its predecessors with an aggressive all up stance from its deeper front fascia and bulging front and rear wheel arches. It’s a lot more focused too, with even shorter front and rear overhangs than the previous series cars and infinitely more aerodynamic.

Our test car is not your standard MX-5 though. It’s one of only 200 Special Edition models produced, and although the drivetrain and power outputs are identical across the MX-5 model range, this car has a few well-chosen upgrades. It would be hard to improve the superbly comfortable sports leather seats, but these pews are upholstered in unique grey leather that contrasts with the aluminum metallic paint job perfectly. You’ll also like the special bright painted 17-inch alloys, which resemble proper forged wheels.

Few would ever suggest Mazda needed to beef up the suspension on the MX-5 given its well-deserved reputation as one of the best handling sports cars in the world. But that’s exactly what it has done with this Special Edition model, by upgrading the standard suspension package with a more specialised Bilstein-tuned setup. You still get the exceptional road holding and grip levels afforded by the double wishbone front and multilink rear suspension systems, but the Bilstein shock absorbers enhance those attributes further.

The Mazda MX-5 is capable of carrying a lot of speed through the corners and it seems like the harder you push, the better it gets, with very little body lean.

It’s a bit of a treat when you slide down low into the MX-5, especially when a quick glance at the large red zone on the tachometer turns into a fixation as your brain confirms the redline is sitting equally between 7000rpm and 8000rpm.

Firing up the Mazda MX-5 is achieved via the old key in ignition barrel process, and frankly, Mazda would do well to adopt a power/start button as used on the Lotus Elise these days. It’s much more befitting a proper sports car, which the MX-5 truly is.

It may not be the world’s most powerful 2.0-litre engine, which is essentially carried over from 2006 when the first of the third-generation MX-5s rolled off the line. However, there were a few subtle improvements made, such as a forged crankshaft for less vibration at speed and higher rev limits. Overall power and torque outputs remain the same, while fuel economy improved markedly.

Don’t let that perceived lack of power worry you. At 1167kg (37kg less for the soft top) there’s still plenty of punch whenever you prod the accelerator pedal, and it’s pretty much instantaneous. Call that a very good power-to-weight ratio with the resulting characteristic being a rapid throttle response anywhere north of 2500rpm. It’s not that off the line starts are slow by any account, but at around 3000rpm, in-gear acceleration feels quick.

Of equal driving pleasure is the MX-5's classic old school sports car engine note, which is seemingly on tap whenever you dab the right pedal. That aural note becomes seriously addictive after a while, so that even backing out your driveway will require a few pumps of the throttle just to fuel your newfound MX-5 addiction.

It’s not by chance either. Mazda engineers made sure the MX-5 had a distinctly sporty engine with further development of the ‘Induction Sound Enhancer’ which amplifies and varies the exhaust note depending on the degree of throttle input. The best part is that you don’t need the roof down to enjoy this glorious note (although it does sound better) as it somehow filters into the cabin, rendering the Bose audio system superfluous.

I’m sure the Activematic (read automatic) transmission has its rightful place in the MX-5, especially for those who practice the peak-hour commute each day. But for the love of God, if you are proficient with a manual shift you’ll want the six-speed box with the extra-short-throw shifter for that proper sports car experience. The shifter itself is no longer than your index finger and the clutch is beautifully weighted for fast shifts. It gets better from the very moment you discover the drilled aluminium pedals are perfectly positioned for heel and toe shifting.

With the MX-5 it all comes together perfectly, but just like the six-speed shifter, the steering feel and response is as good as it gets. There is not one millimetre of play either side of the straight ahead and it’s the same all the way through to full lock. There are sports cars four times the price of the Mazda MX-5 that don’t handle as good as this thing.

Grip levels during hard cornering are extreme and that’s despite the MX-5 running on rather narrow 205/45 series tyres. That said, the lower profile rubber clearly helps with traction. So does the standard fit limited slip differential, which practically eliminates grip loss and wheel spin in the Mazda even when trying to do so.

It was the same story in the torrential rain Sydney had a few weeks back - traction and grip on board the MX-5 was exceptional and very confidence-inspiring.

As owners and prospective buyers will appreciate, the ride in the MX-5 skews on the side of firm, but there’s no harshness whatsoever felt inside the cabin.

This third generation is both a stiffer and lighter bodyshell than the second-generation MX-5, so flexural and torsional rigidity is high, but the Bilstein dampers ensure that the ride is always pliant and could never be said to be in any way uncomfortable.

Inside the MX-5 cockpit, space is well managed with plenty of room where it counts – in the footwell. There are more than a few well-known sports cars that lack sufficient room around the pedal box, but the MX-5 isn’t one of them. There’s even an unusually wide driver’s footrest (also drilled aluminium) making long, slow drives on the freeway quite a comfortable experience.

The seats are exceptionally supportive and bolstered, but not to the point of putting the squeeze on anyone larger than a Formula One pilot. They’re just very well designed to hold your torso in place during those more enthusiastic driving moments.

The centre console is neat and the switchgear layout is refreshingly simple, but there are a few disappointments to report. There are few if any soft touch materials employed in the MX-5 (at least I couldn’t find any) although the plastics have a high-grade look about them. I thought at least the dashboard might have been soft touch.

There’s a decent Bose audio system on board but unless you go ahead and purchase a couple of factory options that will enable Bluetooth phone and a direct iPod/iPhone connection, all that you get is the limited functionality of an auxiliary port. That’s a bit of a shame when there are perfectly good remote buttons on the steering wheel to up the volume and change tracks.

No such criticisms of the main instrument cluster though, with a backlit red glow with bight white gauge needles for easy reading at night.

Our Mazda MX-5 Special Edition is essentially a Roadster Coupe, which means exactly that – it’s both a hard top coupe and a roadster, depending on which way you flick the switch. The MX-5 has what must be the world’s fastest electric folding roof, needing just 12 seconds to open or close.

Better still is the fact that, unlike many of these mechanisms, the MX-5's roof does not impede any of the boot space when lowered and is all but a silent operation when in use. The roof itself weighs a relatively light 37kg and the principle reason why there is no discernible difference to the handling and dynamics of the car when in the lowered position.

It may be a diminutive sports car but the Mazda MX-5 has plenty smart storage space on board including the 150 litres in the boot and a multitude of nooks and crannies throughout the cabin.

Safety is well accounted for in the MX-5 too with front and side airbags for the driver and passenger, brilliant stopping power and the benefit of Dynamic Stability Control and Traction Control as standard fitment.

Fuel consumption is listed as 8.1L/100km combined, but we wouldn’t know. We were in fact way too busy having fun in the MX-5 to give fuel conservation a second thought. The best advice I can offer is that there was still plenty of fuel in the tank (at least 25 per cent) when I handed the car back to Mazda a week later. It's also fair to say that we were none too conservative in our driving style that week.

The Mazda MX-5 is a thoroughly modern take on a proper lightweight old school front-engined rear-wheel drive sports car. It also offers one of the most exhilarating driving experiences you’ll find in the automotive world today regardless of price and power and it has no peers when considering price point and the overall package.