25 years ago Mazda re-invented the affordable roadster when they launched the MX-5. Now they're back with an all-new generation. Did they pull it off?
The latest version of the iconic Mazda MX-5 isn’t just a new-generation car, it’s a total rethink of the world’s best-selling roadster.
With dwindling demand for its overweight and overpriced predecessor, the idea of a heavyweight investment in a brand new niche model was a bold move by the Japanese car manufacturer – just as it was a quarter of a century ago when Mazda first revived the convertible.
Prior to that, classic lightweight sports cars such as the Lotus Elan, Triumph Spitfire and even the Alfa Romeo Spider, which had brought driving thrills to the masses, had either fallen out of favour with enthusiasts tired of dodgy reliability, or quite literally, been regulated off the road.
The entire segment would linger in the doldrums until 1989, when Mazda presented the first MX-5 to a market keen for the kind of lightweight, rear-wheel drive kicks it promised. It's worth noting that Mazda's inspirations were those very same euro-styled roadsters, which had become obsolete.
Despite notching up sales of more than a million cars over the following twenty-five years, recent iterations of the MX-5 continued to drift further and further away from the purest driving experience of the original.
Little wonder that Mazda says the all-new, fourth-generation of MX-5 owes more to the first than the last, with a ‘back to basics’ approach to its roadster formula, which sees the new car shed up to 91kg over the outgoing model.
Tipping the scales at 1009kg, its also just 59kg heavier the first-generation car.
It’s a impressive achievement, especially when you consider the new MX-5 doesn’t employ a single strand of carbon fibre, or any other exotic material, yet adds all the latest electronic mod-cons and active safety kit that today’s buyers demand.
It’s all down to Mazda’s weight-stripping SkyActive technology, and strategic use of aluminium for the front wings, doors and boot lid.
In a bid to further reduce unsprung mass, the MX-5 also gets aluminium front suspension uprights and bumper reinforcements.
And just like the original, Mazda’s latest incarnation of its two-seater roadster will launch with a manual soft top (a folding metal hardtop will eventually follow) which can be deployed or retracted in just a few seconds, even on the go.
There’s a real sense of quality to the cabin, too, with stitched leather trim throughout, faux-knurled dials for the air-con controls and smart-looking body-coloured painted trim at the top of the doors.
In the spirit of the classic 60s roadster, the MX-5 still gets a simple analogue instrument cluster (though without a licence-saving digital speedometer) along with one of the most intuitive infotainment systems in the business.
Taking centre stage is a 7.0-inch, high-resolution touchscreen, which can also be controlled via a highly intuitive rotary-dial on the console, when on the move. It’s every bit as good as BMW’s much-lauded iDrive system.
If you love your music like I do, then you’re going to want the Bose Premium audio system fitted to our tester. It’s got nine speakers expertly positioned around the cockpit, including a pair heavily disguised inside the headrests for the ultimate roof-down listening experience.
The low-slung driving position is pretty much perfect and the front buckets are easy on the lower back even after hours behind the wheel.
Pricing, too, has been slashed in line with the MX-5’s repositioning as a sports car for the masses, rather than a weekend toy for the cashed-up retiree.
At $31,990 plus on-road costs, the entry-level 1.5-litre carves off more than $15000 from the outgoing NC model, and although Mazda is remaining tight-lipped about specs and pricing on the 2.0-litre version until closer to the local launch in August – expect the drive-away to be less than $40,000.
It doesn’t seem to matter who you speak to in Mazda’s engineering or design team – they all say they prefer the 1.5-litre version of the MX-5.
Even Nobuhiro Yamamoto, program manager for the new MX-5 and the guy who helped develop Mazda’s Le Mans-winning, rotary-powered 787B – said he preferred the 96kW/150Nm version to the slightly heavier 2.0-litre car, with 118kW/200Nm.
Never mind the fact that MX-5 1.5-litre needs 8.3 seconds to sprint from 0-100km/h – that’s not important, because you’ll be too busy grinning like a Cheshire cat, as you thread a series of bends together with all the precision of a paediatric neurosurgeon.
On track, at the historic Goodwood racing circuit in the UK, the car felt beautifully balanced. There’s some initial lean on turn-in to the tighter corners, but then it just plants itself, grips and gets on with business.
The power delivery is so deliciously linear, and the steering so precise, that mid-corner corrections can be made safely for even quicker progress.
It simply doesn’t feel like a sub-100kW car – mid-range torque is surprisingly strong all the way up to fifth, rewarded with an audible snarl as you climb the rev counter to 7500rpm.
As accomplished as this thing is on a circuit, that’s simply not where the MX-5 is going to spend most of its time. For a car that revels in a twisty back road, the Scottish Highlands offers a feast of perfectly cambered, undulating bends.
Out here, the Mazda MX-5 is in its element, where sheer power is secondary to supreme chassis balance.
As a corner-carving package, the 1.5-litre simply doesn’t get any better. It’s surprising that with skinny 195mm tyres all round, you’re never left wanting for grip.
That said, the front-mid engine, rear wheel drive layout also offers a playfulness that’s predictable and decidedly satisfying.
The six-speed manual gearbox contributes a lot to this feeling, with a flawless shift even at high revs. The engine spins up fast for perfectly executed throttle blips when downshifting late into corners, leaving you right in the torque band to power out.
Deeply satisfied with my drive in the 1.5-litre, I couldn’t imagine how the 2.0-litre would improve things. I was expecting the opposite in fact.
With an extra 22kW and 50Nm, you can certainly feel the extra kick from the bigger engine. On corner exits and straight-line blasts, the 2.0-litre offers a noticeable performance boost, without upsetting the balance.
Less roll on turn-in, and a slightly more planted feel thanks to wider 205mm tyres, equates to more pace out of corners, and the bigger brakes hold up longer under more severe punishment.
Perhaps the most delightful change is the snarlier engine note, sounding more satisfying when pushing hard. It’s the lazier of the two engines, too, with the added torque demanding less work from the shifter.
Whichever engine you choose, you can be guaranteed of a thoroughly comfortable ride.
The way the Mazda MX-5 anaesthetises bumps astonishes, with a level of compliance usually reserved for far more expensive vehicles with complicated suspension setups.
On the roughest of bitumen the car never feels unsettled, absorbing the bumps while keeping the wheels glued on the road.
The last car that I levelled this much praise on ride quality wore a Porsche badge and cost tens of thousands more.
You could spend fifty, a hundred, even two-hundred grand on a roadster and still not have as much fun as you would behind the wheel of the new Mazda MX-5.
What Mazda’s engineers have achieved hits the mark on every level. It’s light, agile and with a price tag starting from $31,990 plus on-roads, the people’s roadster is well and truly back.
Photography and video by Mitchell Oke.
Thanks to Inveraray Castle for their time and facilities.