The elaborate striptease of the all-new Mazda MX-5 has left little to the imagination prior to its arrival in Australia. From the novel ‘unveiling of the chassis’ at last April’s New York motor show to Our Tony’s deep-diving review through the Scottish Highlands, the fourth-generation roadster has hogged media limelight like a prime ministerial candidate, though feeling much more like an old friend…before we’d actually met.
But now that Hiroshima’s new halo car’s modest rubber footprint has hit local terra firma, there’s much more to reveal. Like whether the icon’s sharp new pricing spread is properly good value. And whether what many are forecasting as the new pint-sized messiah of world’s best driving cars is any good when let loose on Australia’s particularly uncompromising back roads. Or, for that matter, the daily urban driving duties so many local-spec Mazda MX-5s with inevitably see the majority of the time.
That the 2.0-litre versions of the two-door rag-top, some 52.0 per cent of Australia’s range allocation over the next 12 months, won’t arrive until November meant that Mazda decided, perhaps wisely, to only front up with the 1.5-litre versions – those due for immediate sale — during the Aussie launch in Queensland.
Mazda’s supreme confidence in the all-round abilities of the manual 1.5s – some twenty examples evenly split between base Roadster ($31,990 plus on-roads) and high-spec Roadster GT ($37,990) – saw a 300-kilometre trek that cherrypicked every twisty and challenging back road forging a beaten path between the Sunshine Coast and Brisbane.
Added to this was a handful of 1.5L automatics — $33,990 in base and $39,990 in GT forms – for sampling ‘around the block’ in Noosa.
If it looks compact from 20 paces, the MX-5 feels tiny once you drop, surprisingly easily and with little contortion required, into the low-slung seats. Ringing loud in my consciousness is Tony’s one-word description of negatives from the car’s international launch last month, simply stating “none”. I haven’t yet fired a litre-and-a-half of compact thunder into life and I’m already tending to disagree.
First up, the gorgeous steering wheel – not too small, perfect rim thickness – has no reach adjustment. Luckily for old long-arms here, it’s ideally placed, though it mightn’t be the case for all drivers and their tastes. Thankfully, the rest of the driver-centric ergonomics, from seating position to control layout, is superb in the cabin some 65mm longer than its forebear...at least from the driver’s side, which offers manual base adjustment to tune under-thigh support.
The MX-5 is less comfortable on the passenger’s side. The footwell feels short, under-thigh support compromised, and though the cabin space, roof up, is marginally larger in almost every direction, the (30mm) narrower shoulder room sort of pins you in place without wriggle room. It’s a masterful packaging job for such a small car, though not without its by-nature foibles, which includes an MZD infotainment controller (in GT versions fitted with the system) located awkwardly rearward on the centre console.
The leather-trimmed GT presents superbly, the body-coloured upper door trims that “enhance the open-top vibe” says Mazda, a neat styling feature. Look- and feel-wise, it’s on par with a ‘6’ or CX-5. One of the three MX-5s we sampled, though, had a noticeable alignment issue between the dash top and A pillar trims.
There’s no digital speedo. The (relocatable) at-your-elbows cup holders and behind-the-seats oddment cubbyholes are spine-twisters to access. And while the MZD infotainment ‘floating tablet’ full screen makes sense, the base car’s half-tablet/no-screen design is a little, well, strange. If you’re an average-sized adult and plan on wearing a helmet for a bit of weekend circuit work – as many owners may do – you’ll have to drop the roof, such is the lack of headroom. There are no parking sensors and reversing cameras are optional on any variant, even the $41,550 2.0L GT auto range-topper…
Of course, I sound like the Grinch at a sportscar Christmas. The broader view is that, cabin-wise, the MX-5 has the finest driver-centric friendliness, focus and vibe this side of a Porsche Boxster. But it’s very good, not outstanding or unmatchable. And that certainly also applies to the value quotient.
A $31,990 entry point (for the base manual) is razor sharp for a pure sportscar experience and makes the old gen-three MX-5 look laughably overpriced. However, in 2015, a low- to mid-$30K budget buys a lot of grin factor, the market brimming with alternatives offering markedly higher outputs than the 96kW (at 7000rpm) and 150Nm (at 4800rpm) on show here; healthier levels of specification than Mazda’s little one-tonne of fun. There’s so little of the MX-5 that, frankly, at a price spread much higher than where the range currently sits, it would suddenly look expensive.
It’s good thing that it’s such an impressive and completely resolved device to drive, regardless of how boring the road or how third world its surface conditions happen to be. You learn very quickly that while the MX-5 is modest in nature wherever you look, it uses what it’s got to supreme and maximum effect.
Even with two adults on board and a large luggage bag loaded into the surprisingly roomy boot – maximum capacity, then – the manual MX-5 is effortlessly swift, it’s engine surprisingly pokey even in the depths of the rev range. It sounds great, too, its satisfyingly forty soundtrack's volume rising in unison with rpm. You also realise that, around town and when parking, if any car on the market could get away without reversing cameras and parking sensors, the two-door Mazda is it, such is its compact, easy-to-judge size and excellent all-round visibility.
It’s easy to become convinced that maximum priority was given to connecting driver to the machine. The steering is not simply a high watermark for providing genuine feedback and connection with the road, but the electric assistance is tuned for lightness that, while not to everyone’s tastes, makes most average small hatchbacks or crossovers feel ponderous.
The excellent feel of the sweetly weighted clutch and stubby, short-throw gearbox deserve special mention. The manual’s ratios are closely stacked and, with a 1:1-ratio sixth gear, there’s no overdrive, but with 7500rpm of engine revs to play with the MX-5 darts around in traffic without constant gear changing. That said, when getting a hustle on or lunging for gaps in traffic, downshifts are mandatory, though it’s a joy rather than a chore given how sweet and interactive the cog-swapping process is. If there’s a markdown, it’s that the gearshifter wobbles hyperactively in tandem with powertrain movement going on down below the console.
With its simple manual movement, opening or closing the soft top can be done at lightning speed at the occupants’ discretion – at whatever road speed you’re brave enough to fancy – and it’s rattle and squeak free, though wind noise around the top of the side windows becomes noticeable above 80km/h, annoying at 110km/h. Road noise, too, becomes quite brash over coarse surfaces, though not unduly so for a rag-top sportscar.
The ride is firm, though if there was a case for forgiving the fidgety nature it would most certainly be in a lightweight, focused little sportscar such as this. In fact, given large bumps will naturally unsettle a car planting just 1009kg to the road, it’s impressively compliant.
The cocktail of ambient noise, prominent engine note, diminutive size and extrasensory driving connection conspire to create arguably the MX-5’s finest virtue: you feel like you’re belting along at a great and licence-threatening rate of knots, only to glance down to find you’re safely within the speed limit.
That’s really the key to the MX-5 experience, or any great sportscar for that matter: it’s not what the car is doing that really matters, but how it makes the driver feel while it’s doing it. But the MX-5 goes further in proving its thoroughbred sporting credentials, because the harder you push it, the better it seems to get.
At least, that is, the manual versions. While the six-speed auto’s Aisin-sourced transmission is a faithful companion at a cruise, a cursory spin around the Noosa block reveals that it won’t hold ratios right to the rev-limiter, and will upchange by itself even once you’ve engaged ‘manual’ mode. Also, automatic versions lack the limited-slip differential as standard in all manual versions, though for what reason is unclear. Whatever that reason is, it dilutes the otherwise sharpened nature of the MX-5 package.
Much more impressive is when you tip the manual MX-5 into a corner with gusto for the first time – it really grabs your attention. For one thing, there’s a surprising amount of body roll on turn-in, for another the turn-in itself is incredible tenacious. Rubber is grippy Yokohama Advan spec, but at 205mm there’s not much of it, so it takes some mental readjustment to confide in the amount of purchase the front end applies to the road.
The rear end, though, is a little livelier. Lift off the throttle pedal or, entertainingly, squeeze the brake pedal while entering a corner and the chassis will wag its tail like an excitable pooch. And without much stability control histrionics, too. This is driving aficionado gold: you can point it through a curve nice and early and get back on the noise promptly because, well, there’s not much torque on tap to drag you out of the mid-corner. It’s a barrel of laughs.
Part of the MX-5’s shining suit of dynamic armour is the excellent damping. The roadster is simply unfazed by the worst of Queensland’s unkempt mid-corner corrugations and potholes, its composure unflappable. It’s so grippy, accurate and just plain user-friendly that there’s immense fun factor on offer for modestly skilled drivers. Without an abundance of power and how it exacerbates the sensation of speed, it’s one of the few performance cars out there that you can properly dig into safely and legally.
The chassis is so accomplished that it leaves little doubt that it could harness more engine output easily. Which, fair or foul, impacts on the 1.5-litre’s overall ratings.
A car that delivers so comprehensively on its intended purpose deserves a stunning outright score. But a nine out of ten is, in my book, a recommendation to buy sight unseen, without the need for a test drive. And if Our Tony’s international drive of both 1.5L and 2.0L MX-5s is anything to go by, the two-litre is the more fitting version for ultimate driving thrills. We’ll find out when the two-point-ohs land in November, but, logically, I must allow some wriggle room in the scoring for the ‘big-engine’ roadster to shine.
Further, the MX-5 will simply be too impractical for some buyers wishing for a hoot of a drive but can’t live with the compromises brought about by the Mazda’s minimalist focus. Scoring a provisional nine of ten, then, is a score aimed a purists rather those after top-down weekend cruising.
Further still, such a rating would make the 1.5L MX-5 one of the few cars to score so in a CarAdvice review while merely hoping to achieve a four-star ANCAP rating (it’s currently unrated).
The issue for the roadster, which comes with four airbags, is that child seat mounting points are essential for a full five-star ANCAP rating — mounting points that are redundant in a two-seat, single-row roadster cabin featuring mandatory airbags. Overseas markets do accommodate switching off the front passenger airbag functionality, though it’s not an option Mazda Australia is currently exploring.
Call it an exceptional 8.5 out of ten, then. With more to come from the fantastic new Mazda hero car.