Last autumn, somewhat belatedly, I got behind the wheel of the small sports car phenomenon of the late 20th century, the outgoing Mazda MX-5. My first drive was of one of the very last of that generation of MX-5 and I was left smitten by the driving experience, but underwhelmed by the interior and packaging. Only a few months later and the car has been replaced with the new version you see here. The new Mazda MX-5 is tasked with the unenviable job of trying to move the MX-5's remarkable success story further forward. It needs to be something very special indeed.
Most obvious changes are the looks; the new MX-5 is more muscular and defined. Flared arches and bulges have displaced Coke bottle curves; the bonnet bulge of the old car remains in a subtly evolved form. From certain angles the front end bears a strong resemblance to the 1993 Toyota Supra, which shared similar headlight and bonnet treatment and the same curio of appearing to have too much ground clearance. The space in between tyre and wheelarch is similarly awkward. The new car is definitely more modern though and whilst it isn't radical, it is a suitably pretty evolution of the brand.
On the inside space is still at a premium despite improvements and it feels a little claustrophobic with the hood up. Passenger legroom isn't generous and if you value your own personal space you may find the proximity of the other occupant a little invading. Boot space isn't hugely generous either although there are several cubbies around the cabin and behind the seat. One question remains unanswered: why are there four cupholders in a two-seater car? Elsewhere, the trim has been improved significantly and a large swathe of Mazda's favourite black plastic stretches across the centre of the dash breaking up the potential tedium of slabs of grey plastic moulding. Clever detail changes have been made though; the roof for example now has one central latch rather than one on either side. This central latch also clips in place in the bulkhead behind the seat to lock the hood in a flat stowed position.
The dials are an improvement on the older car's; clearer and neatly arranged and finished. Switchgear is also improved and the ventilation controls are much alike those found in the saloons and hatches elsewhere in the range. Minor stereo controls migrate to the steering wheel. Ah yes, the steering wheel. It may just be me but isn't it too big? It feels huge and I think it may have necessitated a movement of the steering column an inch or two to the left to preserve right hand elbowroom. I'd be fitting a smaller wheel if I bought an MX-5. The new car's driving position is much better than the previous car's, sorted with the seat sited lower in the chassis, so you sit deeper in the car and feel more of a part of it than before.
While I'm being a little negative I'll mention the fact that refinement is not a strong point, as that blink-and-you'll-miss-it quick stowing hood still lacks sufficient insulation to keep out road and traffic noise. It's like driving a car with the window slightly open. At speed the wind roar around the hood and screen is pronounced; a shame but to be fair it's in keeping with the attention to weight saving elsewhere - insulation is heavy.
So the looks are fresh, but many of the foibles are very similar to the original's. However, in a way, it's a good thing as it means the development time and money was focused elsewhere. Places such as the Nurburgring for example, where the new Mazda MX-5 has been pounded for hours in search of a perfectly honed chassis and an engaging driving experience. So, yes, compromises remain in terms of packaging but thankfully the carryovers extend to the driving experience.
Intense efforts were focused on keeping weight out of the car, to the extent that even the rear view mirror was shaved of a few grams, and what mass there is has been distributed perfectly between the axles. Another main criteria of the development program was to ensure that the low speed fun factor was not lost in the interest of modern trends towards ever increasing wheel and tyre sizes and therefore grip levels. And so it proves on the road. On your favourite stretch of asphalt on a sunny day with the roof down the new Mazda MX-5 is as engaging at the old one. The extra stiffness in the chassis eradicates the scuttle shake of old and the steering column remains free of the corruption of flex. The steering itself is different; not as feelsome, delicate and communicative as it used to be and somewhat artificially heavy, particularly around centre. The ride is stiffer and less forgiving but this may be as the chassis flexes less and so more exertions are transmitted directly to your spine, though not uncomfortably so.
The Mazda MX-5 is still a great place to learn and hone driving skills. Under and oversteer, throttle control, heel and toeing; it's all here and it's accessible to drivers of all abilities. This will always be one of the key appeals of the MX-5. Simply by turning off the stability control system and playing with the balance in an appropriate corner, a driver can enjoy excursions beyond the limits of adhesion. On wintry, damp and salty roads in the UK you can enjoy low speed oversteer thrills at will given the right conditions but there is also much fun to be had in more grippy conditions as well, as the deliberately low grip levels allow the car to be slid around. Our Editor attended the launch of the new MX-5 in Cornwall, which was beset with a freakish snowstorm. Apparently the new MX-5 was a complete hoot to slide around in these conditions, enabling the little Mazdas to keep going in conditions that side-lined a lot of motorists.
It's worth noting however, that our test MX-5 exhibited some strange new handling traits. There's a lot of bump steer, which makes the car almost overly reactive to throttle inputs and changes in pitch. It also displayed something of a non-linear steering response with very little reaction to the first few degrees of input and then something of an over reaction to the subsequent inputs. This made the car quite nervous to drive, more difficult to drive smoothly and a lot more edgy than the previous car, at times lacking some of the composure towards the limit of its grip. You get used to these traits over time but they weren't in the old car and the new MX-5 is not better off for their presence.
Straight-line performance is much swifter than before. The two-litre car has useful low rev response with a noticeable change at around 3200rpm and a willingness and unburstable nature that sees it spin around the upper reaches of the rev counter time and again. Zero to sixty mph in 7.1 seconds and a 130mph maximum reflects the extra potency of the 157bhp four-cylinder engine. It's just a shame it has an uninspired and featureless sound quality. However, it is an improvement over the previous offering with more induction noise in the low and mid range and some more top end zing where before was a drone. An angry Honda V-TEC type wail would be just the ticket; sadly it's not present, although the twin tail pipes do emit something approaching a sporty bark.
The gearshift is perfect. A mechanical and deliberate action that is as swift as it is accurate and is a joy to use. New, more powerful brakes are feelsome and strong and didn't protest once during extended periods of heavy use on our favourite twisties.
The new Mazda MX-5 is something of a victim of the previous model's success. Improving on what was near perfection in the shape of that original car some 16 years ago was never going to be easy and so it has proved. The new car is stiffer and quicker with updated looks, but to improve dynamically was something of an impossibility. It remains a great drive and enjoys something of a niche of its own in the £15k to £20k bracket, although cheaper rivals such as the folding hardtop posse may begin to make inroads into the MX-5's sales amongst those for whom the driving experience isn't the be all and end all. For those for which it does, it remains the enthusiasts' default choice and the definitive affordable roadster.
Significant gains over the previous model. New engine is potent and torquey, but sounds bland. Perfectly balanced and offers huge amounts of fun at all speeds.
Still a little cramped. Weight saving measures preclude a raft of gizmos but plenty of kit nonetheless in the version tested.
The ride is smooth and easily faster then the Sunny. I have added the Z-stab, and magnetic fuel breaker. They have increase the fuel efficiency, not that it is bad to begin with.
With the z-stab, the gear shift and pick up is much better. Air con also seems to be a tad colder and less noisy. Or is this a review for Z-stab? =p Anyway Altis is most valued car you can get out there, unless you are feeling rich.
Clean and respectatable interior, both engine and auto transmission is smooth.
Limited/no choice of interior. Take it/leave it sales attitude.