Take the high and low roads

The Advertiser - Motoring - - FIRST DRIVE - PAUL GOVER CHIEF RE­PORTER

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.

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