Take the high and low roads
WELCOME back, old friend. It’s been a while since I’ve felt so emotional about an MX-5.
I was around for the first one in 1989 and remember laughing out loud when I realised Mazda had turned the fantasy of a 1950s British sports car into a Japanese reality for a new age.
This week, I’m laughing again in a new MX-5. It happens first as I tackle the classic Goodwood racing circuit in brilliant British sunshine, then again on a wickedly twisty road through the Scottish Highlands on a day that’s quite a lot less sunny and warm.
But it doesn’t matter because the MX-5 is back to its very best after a total rethink and rework at the hands of project manager Nobuhiro Yamamoto, who knew from the start he had to reduce weight and complexity.
“For very high power, you can buy another car. For the MX-5 it’s more important with the sensation and feeling. It is an iconic car,” he says.
The result is a car that’s as sweet and sharp as the ’89 original.
I still have a couple of nitpick complaints, such as the lack of a telescopic steering column, but the rest is just the way I’d hoped since getting the invitation to taste test both the basic 1.5-litre MX-5 and the punchier 2.0 in Britain.
We’ve already had a Carsguide romp in the 1.5 but this is the first Australian exposure to the 2.0., the “big banger” that gives the punch to satisfy most Australian drivers. It will work best with the optional six-speed automatic.
It uses Mazda’s Skyactiv tech to produce 118kW, while its 200Nm allow it to jump away smartly and corner in a gear higher than I first expect.
There is none of the driveline harshness of the outgoing car, which I drove last month to calibrate myself for the new MX-5, and the chassis works much better with great grip, balance and feedback.
It’s a rigid little car, even as a full convertible and with a base weight just below 1000kg.
Most of the preview drivers in Scotland, including an American contingent, vote the 2.0-litre car as their favourite and love the 25 per cent extra torque, even if the peak is not reached until 4000rpm.
It’s more proof that Mazda is spot-on with Skyactiv, which has finally erased the harshness and inadequacies of naturally aspirated engines since the 1970s and given us great power with excellent economy and response.
The 2.0 is well matched to the sharp six-speed manual gearbox and classic rear-wheel drive, and many of the drivers say the mid-range punch and overtaking power make it the right driveline choice.
But not me. After a back-toback romp I’m convinced the base 1.5, even with just 96kW/ 150Nm, is more fun. It’s lighter in the nose, more responsive to the steering and has the sweet feel of the ’89 original.
Even better, it’s the car that opens the action in Australia in August with a starting price of $31,990. To give that some perspective, the ’89 car wore a starting sticker of $29,990 and that translates to $54,000 in today’s dollars and with the same level of equipment.
Yamamoto agrees, even if he knows there are people who will only be satisfied with the 2.0’s power and bragging rights.
“The small engine and small weight is good for handling. The 1.5-litre engine, I love. Pure is very important,” he says.
“But the 2.0-litre is also important as a customer enhancement. For expert drivers it is a higher driving experience, yes, but ...”
We’ve been through the MX-5 basics before, but it’s good to revisit the excellent manual folding top, the support and comfort of the basic cloth seats, the action of the six-speed shift, the ideal placement of the pedals, and more.
I really like the adjustable thigh support on the driver’s seat, the small but perfectly formed gearknob, the body colours carried through to the inside door caps — replacing cheapoid plastic — and the clear and simple dials.
On the downside, there is a steering wheel that adjusts only for height, not reach.
I also reckon that, without a metal roof, it’s only going to get a four-star ANCAP score. And that could kill its chances in the Car of the Year shootout that I know it will attend in a few months.
Mazda Australia is keeping quiet about full prices and fitout but it’s obvious the 1.5-litre car will have 16-inch alloys, aircon, power steering and much needed Bluetooth with speakers in the headrests. The 2.0 is sure to get 17-inch alloys, leather trim and Bose sound.
On the price front, marketing boss Alastair Doak denies the base price has been trimmed to combat the Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ twins.
More than 6000 people have already asked for a dealer to contact them when the MX-5 arrives (probably November for the 2.0).
I really enjoy driving the 2.0 because of its brisk step-off, the overtaking urge and the ability to run in higher gears for longer on twisty corners.
But it’s the 1.5 that has me laughing out loud as we take the high roads, and the low roads, around Loch Lomond.
It’s a car that’s just as much fun as the MX-5 that first got me in 1989.