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2016 Mazda MX-5 Review: Sandown Raceway weekender

Dave makes his Mazda MX-5 return to Sandown Raceway, but this time it's in the all-new 1.5-litre fourth-generation car...

Time has a funny way of getting away from us. Believe it or not, it's been 10 years since the third-generation Mazda MX-5 launched in Australia in 2005 and more than 25 years since the nameplate first made its public debut at the 1989 Chicago motor show. And now in 2015, the iconic Japanese drop-top is back, powered by its smallest capacity engine ever.

To find out if the all-new fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 is still fun, we took the 1.5-litre entry-level model out to Sandown Raceway for another CarAdvice weekend warrior track test.

We’ve actually attended a Driver Dynamics Level 3 High Performance driver training day at Sandown in an MX-5 before. It was in April 2014, it was in the previous generation car and we had an absolute blast.

That car was an NC MX-5 Sports. It retailed for $49,885 (before on-road costs), was powered by a 118kW/188Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine and weighed 1167kg.

This time, we’re tackling the 3.1-kilometre Melbourne circuit in the entry point into the new ND MX-5 range, the base Roadster.

It costs $31,990 (before on-road costs), has a 1.5-litre four-cylinder kicking out 96kW of power at 7000rpm and 150Nm at 4800rpm and it weighs 1009kg.

Despite the 22kW/38Nm deficit, the new fourth-generation MX-5’s 8.5-second 0-100km/h claim is only around half a second off the old third-gen’s 7.8-second triple-figure sprint time. Then again, being almost 160kg lighter is a big help.

Standard kit on the entry-level Roadster isn’t bad either and includes LED headlights and tail-lights; cloth seats; cruise control; a six-speaker stereo with Bluetooth phone connectivity and audio streaming; and a push-button start.

There’s also a leather gear knob, handbrake and steering wheel, 16-inch alloy wheels and, if you opt for the six-speed manual transmission over the six-speed automatic, a limited-slip rear differential.

The Mazda MX-5 has always been about corners, and while Sandown is famous for its two high-speed straights, there are plenty of twisty bits in between for us to test how the new car stacks up. First things first though, the sun is out, so it’s roof off – following the convertible mantra: Roof Down Unless Raining (RDUR).

With double wishbone front suspension and a multi-link rear tucked underneath the compact ND’s 3915mm of stylised bodywork, the new MX-5 is measured and exceptionally comfortable in terms of its on-road ride. But only once through Sandown’s first four corners is enough to feel that the setup is a little too soft for the track.

Grip from the relatively skinny 195mm-wide Yokohama tyres is top notch and give high levels of confidence all day, however the comfort focused suspension means the MX-5 isn’t as strapped down as something like the Toyota 86.

Where the heavier 2.0-litre Toyota feels more like a scalpel in its accuracy and agility, the softer MX-5 is more like a breadknife – it works, but it doesn’t quite have the same level of precision.

The electric steering is light yet direct and, while it lacks the feedback of older MX-5s, it still accurately places the car where you point it. There is some minor delay between driver input and vehicle response though.

Comprising 258mm ventilated discs up front, 255mm solid discs out back, and single piston calipers all round, the base MX-5’s brakes hold up well overall throughout the day. A few successive hard laps result in a little bit of fade, but a cool-down lap or two quickly works to dissipate excess heat and have good levels of retardation return.

A big part of what made the original MX-5 and subsequent generations so great was the gearbox. The stubby, short-throw manual transmission has always been a standout of the car, and the six-speed gearbox in the new ND is no different – it’s still one of the most fun around to use.

It’s not all smiles and sunshine for the day, though. As impressive as much of the MX-5 is, we discover three issues that need calling out.

The accelerator pedal sits too low compared to the brake pedal, making a good heel-and-toe shift more of a stretch than it needs to be. Roof up headroom – particularly for six-footers with a helmet on – is tight and could prove frustrating at a rainy track day. And the biggest criticism, there’s no telescopic (or reach) adjustment for the steering wheel. Mazda claims this was an intentional weight-saving measure in the MX-5 to keep the kilos down but we can’t help but feel, especially in such a ‘driver’s car’ that this is a poor omission.

Those few elements aside, the big question when it comes to the entry-level ‘Max 5’ is, is 96kW and 150Nm enough to keep you smiling?

Well, you’re unlikely to do too many tyre-frying power slides in the thing, but the little 1.5-litre four-cylinder is punchier than you might think. It’s also super smooth and linear in its power delivery all the way to its 7500rpm rev limit, and proved extraordinarily frugal with fuel. So the short answer is, yes.

The all-new Mazda MX-5 may not be the ultimate track weapon, but it’s fun and it’s playful. And we like it.

With only 11kW and 20Nm more than the original 1.6-litre MX-5, it’s easy to see why some people might go with the option of the more powerful 2.0-litre engine in the new car, rather than the 1.5-litre tested here. But that comes at a $2500 price premium. And you have to ask yourself, do you really need it?

Well, if you want an MX-5 to get you to and from work, the honest answer is probably not. And as we found out on our day at Sandown Raceway, if you want an MX-5 to have some fun in at the occasional track day, the answer again is not really. For the price and the fun, it’s hard to top the all-new entry-level Mazda MX-5.

Note: CarAdvice attended the day at Sandown Raceway as part of a Driver Dynamics Level 3 High Performance driver training day.

Click on the Photos tab for more 2016 Mazda MX-5 Roadster images by Tom Fraser.

Videography by Brett Sullivan.

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