Never before has the Mazda MX-5 come with the option of two engines, but that has changed with the fourth-generation model.
For the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Australia is one of only a few select markets to get the choice of the entry-level 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine or the new 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol fitted in the just-released model.
Mazda Australia said it launched the 1.5-litre MX-5 a few months ahead of this 2.0-litre version because it figured it was better to get some runs on the board in terms of sales.
The company could just as easily have waited and had both engines launch around this time, but – aside from meeting the demands of MX-5 buyers who had been waiting years and paying way too much for their convertible fix – we’re fairly sure they wanted to ensure that the motoring press churned out two stories on the cars.
Fair call, Mazda. And right call, too, because the two vehicles not only have different-sized engines – they also have pretty different characters.
Starting from $34,490 plus on-road costs, the 2.0-litre engine adds a $2500 premium over the base model Roadster variants, while the Roadster GT model asks a smaller premium ($1560).
The 2.0L versions get different wheels and tyres to the 1.5L models (17-inch rims with 205/45 tyres) and they also gain LED daytime running lights. The base model Roadster 2.0L gains a 7.0-inch MZD Connect media screen and rotary dial controller, too, which includes satellite navigation.
The engine pumps out 118kW of power and 200Nm of torque, which makes it 22kW and 50Nm gruntier than the 1.5L.
For the money-minded, that works out to $114 per extra kW and $50 per additional Nm in the GT, and $71/kW and $31/Nm in the GT Roadster.
That’s all well and good. But let’s get one thing straight: this isn’t a really fast car. Sure, it’s quick enough, but the acceleration would best be described as ‘brisk’ rather than ‘rapid’.
And it would be hard to go as far as calling the MX-5 2.0L ‘rapid’ when equipped with the six-speed automatic gearbox. It’s more ‘swift’ than ‘rapid’.
We started off in that spec car at the launch, where it was clear that the 2.0L engine offered more perky response than the 1.5L auto. The engine revs willingly and smoothly, and is most impressive up high in the rev range.
The auto’s shifts are quick and clean, and in Sport mode the gearbox allows you to rev the engine harder, and it will hang on to ratios for longer. The paddleshifters on the wheel offer smart fingertip shifts, too.
But the real star of the show, as you may expect of a driver’s car like the MX-5, is the six-speed manual.
It’s cheaper than the auto ($2000 in all spec levels), it’s lighter (by 24 kilograms), and it allows you to better exploit the power of the engine.
With the manual the engine sings a much sweeter tune - though not literally, as the engine sounds a bit boring.
We found ourselves regularly revving the engine out to the redline, and it seemingly takes a long time to get there, such is the gearing of the transmission and the buzzy nature of the engine.
It isn’t as peaky as the 1.5L, which reaches max power at 7000rpm and peak torque at 4800rpm, but the 2.0L still likes to scream, producing peak power at 6000rpm and peak torque at 4600rpm.
Switching between gears is a joy, as the six-speed manual has a slinky and communicative shift action. The clutch in our test car was beautifully weighted, too.
Over the 1.5L, the 2.0L version has a more impressive 0-100km/h sprint time of 7.1 seconds (as opposed to 8.5sec for the smaller engine), and it also gets bigger brakes to help rein in the momentum, with 280mm rotors front and rear (1.5L: 258mm front and 255mm rear).
All told, it goes and stops pretty well, but corners are where you enjoy the MX-5 most.
The steering is precise, darty and fast to react to inputs, and there’s an excellent amount of communication to the driver’s hands. You really get a feel for what the front wheels are doing, even over bumpy surfaces.
In fact, it’s so beautifully balanced and composed through bends that you’ll find yourself pushing harder than you otherwise might. The little sports car never seems to lose its composure - you can get the rear to step out, and it's just as easy to rein it in.
While the 2.0L has a different spring and damper tune to the 1.5L to accommodate the extra weight of the engine (it still weighs just 1033kg in manual guise), the ride is very well judged. It is a little jittery on coarse roads, but the suspension generally copes with surface changes and pockmarks well.
The MX-5 feels stiff with the roof up or down, and with the cloth top dropped (and the windows up) there’s some buffeting in the cabin, but it’s still possible to hold a conversation without too much hassle.
The biggest complaint is that it’s almost as loud with the roof up as it is with the lid down. There’s a lot of tyre roar over rough road surfaces, and there’s evident wind rustle from the roof behind the occupants’ ears, too.
It’s a small car, the new-generation MX-5. In fact, the new model is the smallest yet in terms of length (3915 millimetres), though it is also the widest yet (1730mm).
It certainly doesn’t feel wide inside, particularly with two burly blokes in the cabin.
Headroom is tight for tall occupants (big boppers need to watch their heads when raising and lowering the roof!), and in the driver’s seat people with that body shape may find they are uncomfortable with the driving position, as there’s no reach adjustment for the steering, and there’s an exhaust-housing hump in the driver’s seat foot-well that limits the amount of stretch space.
There are a few other ergonomic issues that come with having so compact a cockpit.
For example, the bottle holders are mounted near the occupants’ elbows, and they aren’t cup-style holsters, rather they are rings that allow the bottles to sway with the roll of the body. Our water bottles even fell out a few times during more spirited cornering.
Further, the storage on offer is poor. There’s a small cubby near the bottle holders, but no door pockets for loose items. And the rectangular boot is just 130 litres in capacity, smaller than pretty much anything else on the market, and just big enough for a carry-on suitcase and laptop bag. An optimist might say it’s ‘made for scantily-clad weekends away’.
It is nicely finished for the most part, though. The fact that all the 2.0L models get the MZD media system adds a level of flair over the budget-feeling 1.5L Roadster.
There’s Bluetooth phone and audio streaming and satellite navigation, and while the graphics are somewhat juvenile, the system itself is one of the easiest on the market to use thanks to that rotary controller.
The cloth seats and hard plasticky doors in the Roadster models certainly offer a ‘purist’ feel, but the Roadster GT models – with their exposed body-coloured door tops and the choice of black or tan leather seats and colour-coded padded dash – make for a much more premium feel to the cabin, despite the fact that there’s a dearth of soft-touch surfaces in general.
Safety could be a concern for some prospective buyers. The MX-5 recently received a four-star EuroNCAP crash test score, and there’s no reverse-view camera fitted as standard on any grade (optional for $485 for vehicles with MZD Connect). Airbag protection comes in the form of dual front and front-side airbags.
MX-5 owners tend to hang on to their cars for a while, and the ownership plan on offer is pretty solid. Services are due every 12 months or 10,000km, with visits costing between $295 and $336, not including fuel/air filters or brake fluid.
The biggest question for buyers will be whether to save the cash and buy the 1.5L model – which is a hoot in itself – or go for the more powerful 2.0L.
Sounds like a great idea for a comparison test. Stay tuned.