March 29, 2016 @ 06:35 AM

Review: Mazda MX-5 - The best roadster, yet?

Mazda says it’s the re-imagination of the original formula, but do they remember how good the original recipe was…

It was perhaps around 8.30pm, one cool November evening in 2015 when the launch gambit for the all-new Mazda MX-5 had drawn to a classy close. I made a friend with one of the many devoted members of the Mazda MX-5 owners club – invited guests of honour and generally good friends of Mazda’s local stakeholder Bermaz.
 
An inspired move, in my opinion, allocating ‘VIP’ parking slots for the older (‘NA’ first generation, NB and ‘NC’ third gen) cars metres away from the main stage where the new car would be rolling in. I’m pretty sure it felt special for the owners alike.
 
In any case, if you’re selling a niche product, largely unusable by the majority of the motoring populous, in the current economic climate... these owners; hardcore types that grin with excitement at the sight of a narrow rutted path and mark their calendars down in eager anticipation of their next tyre alignment visit, are your traditional buyer base.
 
Who better to provide referrals for the new product? Which has the unenviable task of satisfying weekend ‘Touge’ warriors, track day addicts and perhaps, more importantly, the first timers with a budding fascination for open-top motoring. 
 
After some gentle persuasion, ‘Botak’ as he liked to be called, passed the keys to his 1.6-litre, manual ‘NA’ series MX-5. The car sat with the top down, locked in-gear because the handbrake was shot, seats well-worn by years of fun-inducing service and the driver’s door required an experienced jolt of the arm to be secured. For the most part, it seemed as if ‘Botak’ had little quarrel with his pride and joy's niggling faults. 
 
Frankly, neither did me once that little longitudinally-mounted four-banger fired up and those iconic pop-up headlamps illuminated the road ahead… everything made sense! The car felt taut, organic, buzzing with cohesive data from the road; transmitted through the pedals, steering wheel and worn leather seats – no wonder Mazda have almost sold a million of these things. The MX-5 is like marmite chicken, the experience (of an NA-series) can either be a dreadful awakening or the purest sensation of driving. 
This brings me to the crisis of adjudicating of the all-new ‘ND’ generation Mazda MX-5. Do we judge the execution great because it draws its identity from a formula of the past or, exceptional in nature for evolving into a modern interpretation of the roadster concept? 
 
The launch came with a sobering announcement – we won’t be getting the entry-level 1.5-litre. It’s blind hope on my part, that Bermaz imports that modest 129bhp mill with its end tacked to a six-speed manual, sitting on miniature 15-inch steel wheels priced at circa RM95k – thereby instantly making Malaysia a better place to live in. 
 
But for now, it’s the RM219,998 2.0-litre automatic we have to contend with. And yes that’s pricey – when one considers the VW Golf GTI delivers two more doors, wholesome fun and roughly 50bhp more for RM2k less. 
 
Then understandably, it’s the firm fabric canvas atop my head that is the trump card. A large central locking mechanism sits where the interior lights normally would. Slide a locking switch with your thumb before disengaging the main lever, swing the whole lot back followed by a firm push to secure it within the compartment just above the boot.  
 
The A-Pillar frame extends further rearward now to meet the soft top. This preserves that taut roadster silhouette and requires smaller mechanical linkages which in turn save weight. With some practice, the smooth operation can be performed from within the driver’s seat. 
This bathes the sexy yet minimalist interior with sunlight. It’s small, possibly claustrophobic for someone above six-feet. One sits low, within the cabin – instead of offering height-adjustable seats, the units actually slide on an ascending track (back to front), the rationale being; if shorter drivers need to sit closer to the steering wheel, they probably need to sit higher as well. It’s an inspired bit of kit – and saves weight too.  
 
Sitting one notch from the rearmost position, I’m tucked right next to the door sill – the centre console rises next to my thigh; the painted door sill aligns next to my shoulder. The driving position rests 20mm lower within the chassis now and 15mm closer to the centre of the car – allowing the engine to be moved 15mm backwards and 13mm lower down. The unavailability of steering reach adjustment the only complication to finding the perfect driving position – but it works and provides beautiful awareness of the periphery. 
 
The firm yet cosy seat bolstering puts you in arm’s length of the handbrake and sublime steering wheel, despite the switchgear looking and feeling very familiar to offerings in the Mazda 2 and CX-3, there’s a deeper sense of occasion when in the MX-5. The colour coded door highlights being the focal point. The front wheel arches climax mid-way along the bonnet line, the ebb and flow of this line flows across my view out the windscreen – enveloping some of the outsides in.  
 
It’s a lovely outside too, where the third-gen (NC) simply got fat in hopes of becoming Porsche Boxster, the new car is svelte. The squinty-eyed yet sleek looking headlamps and sides of the front bumper wrap around the large central air inlet – a fetching allure that continues down the barreled flanks, rising around the rear haunches to meet the rear deck lid. 
 
There are elements of BMW’s older Z8 in the waistline and Jag F-type in the tail lamp graphics. Factor in the superb looking 17-inch alloys and you have sculptured figured seemingly vacuum-packed around the mechanical skeleton. 
At 3915mm, the new car is circa 60mm shorter than the first generation car, and tipping the scales at 1080kg, only around 100kgs beefier than the original – even after factoring in all the safety equipment (ABS, EBD, Stability Control and four-airbags here) and crash-safe chassis reinforcements these newer cars take on. The employed ‘gram-strategy’ takes into account everything from the diameter of chassis bolts to the thickness of the paint finishing, shedding every ounce of weight where possible. 
 
This is why a 7.4 second century sprint time is achievable with just 158bhp. An extensive rework on the intake and exhaust plumbing and electronics was required to sit the engine perpendicular to the firewall and as low as possible, cradled within the suspension strut towers. Peak power happens at 6000rpm while 200Nm of torque is dispersed at 4000rpm. The flywheel is tacked to Mazda’s familiar six-speed SkyActiv-Drive conventional auto sending power to the rear wheels. 
 
There’s not much below 2000rpm, managing a bit more then to get the car rolling swiftly, but as soon as 2600rpm clicks by, the unit revs like a banshee across the rev dial – the soundtrack isn’t quite as engaging as a Honda’s VTEC system, but it makes all the right noises. The power falls ever so slightly circa-6200rpm but the close stepped ratios of the six-speed are there to fill in the gaps. 

As a package, the SkyActiv’s suite is as good as they come. Features such as the advanced lock-up (8kph onwards) range of the torque converter – after which providing the crisp-connected feel of a manual, the trigger quick paddle shift responses and predictable delivery of torque that comes with the 13:1 cylinder compression ratio bode extremely well with the ethos of the MX-5.
And like the rest of the Mazda range, the proven real-world economy holds true in the MX-5 as well, returning circa 425km from a full 45-litre tank – even after some rather lead-footed driving. 
 
Everything works of course, but I can’t seem to drown that one simple thought: what if there was a gear knob that reads position 1 through to 6? There’s an impartial flash point between a purist machine and one that merely floats the boat for most. 
This, in turn, brings into question the concept of ‘jinba ittai’. Mazda’s overarching theme behind the new car - translated to mean the ‘oneness between the horse and rider’.
 
The low-slung seating saddles me into the thick of the action. The electronic steering rein is sublime, progressively weighted and very talkative; every gentle twitch of the wheel produces a quick arc of the front wheels. Plonked just before the rear axle, with so much of the car in ahead of you; makes you feel like ‘Ben Hur’ piloting a Soul Red chariot of fire – snaking between apexes and following an invisible racing line across longer sweepers. The brakes are sharp and very reactive to input is given there’s much less momentum to quell than normal – which takes some getting used to for the average driver. 
But yet, and I say this with remorse – something still doesn’t quite hit all those notes I want so much to hear. The new MX-5 steers accelerate and stop like it should – which leaves the ride. 
 
While at speed, it’s comfortable, compliant and superbly poised – but get into the tighter bits, requiring quick direction changes and it starts to dive from side to side. The squat and dive motions are less pronounced front to back – just so side to side, which according to ‘Jinba Ittai’, is supposed to slow down the process, presumably like the ‘Slo-Mo’ video recording on iPhones, and not be a knee-jerk response to weight distribution.
 
And I get that it’s safer too, but it’s killed those final synapses that announce when the car is ready to step out of line, building up polar inertia, which is paramount to the purity of the experience. 
 
In conclusion, the MX-5 is superb in every sense of the grading – in an age of gross electronic dependency, it manages to exude mechanical clarity and character. Mazda has in earnest, crystalized the original formula and given it an entirely new genre of appeal – just don’t drive the ‘NA’ generation car first.   

Words and pictures: Arvind Kumar

SPEC
MAZDA MX-5 2.0
Price RM219,998
Engine 1984cc 16v 4-cyl direct-injected VVT, 158bhp @ 6000rpm, and 200Nm @ 4000rpm
Transmission Six-speed Auto, Rear-wheel drive
Suspension Double wishbone front, Multi-link rear
Performance 0-100kph 7.4s, 222kph max speed 7.8l/100km, 
Weight 1080kg
Rating 4.5/5 stars 
 

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