Pure and simple
The back-to-basics roadster recalls the sharp responses of the 1989 original
SPRING is here, so is a new Mazda MX-5 and there’s a long line of MX-5 tragics waiting for pre-Christmas delivery of their new toy.
The waiting list is not as long as the one for the Ford Mustang, which now stretches beyond customer No. 3000, but the enthusiasm reflects well on a car that should be described as THE new MX-5 and not just A new one.
This one is closer to the original from 1989 than the cars that came between — it’s now safe to say the car got softer and more bloated with the passing of time.
This MX-5 is so sharp and focused that it’s back to a basic 1.5-litre engine and trim body. Little things, such as four wheel nuts instead of five and a superlightweight gearknob, show a relentless pursuit of … well, what makes it a real MX-5.
The result, driven briskly on home roads I know well, is a car that’s great fun and great to look at, and that shows great driving is still possible in 2015.
After sampling the MX-5 on preview drives in England, Scotland and the Sunshine Coast, I have a giant smile as I collect a car for The Tick test.
It’s no surprise that it’s red, that it’s the base model to get the purest experience, and that it’s heading straight to twisty roads in a secret river valley near my home.
But, first, we have to deal with the elephants in the room. There are two.
The first is the 2.0-litre version of the MX-5 that’s coming pretty soon and the second is a likely four-star ANCAP safety rating. The safety score is coming because a car without a fixed roof does not have the right sort of crash resistance and the 2.0 is coming because there are always people who want more.
Missing the five-star ANCAP target could hurt the MX-5 with some buyers, as well as harm its assessment in this year’s Car of the Year judging.
The bigger displacement engine will be for people who must go for the top end.
But, for me, the 1.5-litre with its modest 96kW/150Nm is more than good enough. It’s lively — something I’d never said about naturally aspirated Mazda engines before the advent of its new-age Skyactiv technology — and it works well with the well-chosen ratios of the six-speed manual.
I would like a bit more of a rasp from the exhaust and I know there are people, many living in cities, who won’t like the 1.5 getting beaten away from stoplights.
The 2.0 will probably remedy that but, for me, it’s more important to know the MX-5 can trump almost anything on a driving road.
That’s down to the weight reduction work, the front engine-rear drive layout, the engine mounted towards the middle of the car, and even seats that provide more cabin space while keeping you down low to feel what the car is doing.
I’m niggled by the lack of a reach-adjustable steering column but the compensation comes in Bluetooth with speakers in the driver’s headrest, as per the audio in the original MX-5, effective aircon, trip computer and cruise control. If you want more “stuff ” you can move up from the $31,990 base price to get the likes of a tablet-style infotainment display.
On the price front, the new MX-5 is fantastic value. That’s partly because Mazda plays to win in Australia and partly to keep on par with new rivals, including the Subaru BRZToyota 86 twins.
However, I’m not thinking about the price as I snap through the gears, run to the redline, and enjoy the way it sticks in corners. It’s terrific to drive, as responsive and sharp as the ’89 original.
The roof also works incredibly easily, although there is noticeable road roar at freeway speeds.
There is ( just) enough boot space and the narrow tyres provide just enough grip (they don’t overtax the chassis or oblige Mazda to go for more power, which brings more weight and a need for more power etc).
I like the styling, which is daintier that it looks in pictures, the feel of the leather-wrapped wheel — and the fact that the car is so small that you don’t really need a rear-view camera, although there are some people who will whinge.
In fact, there is lots to like and very little to quibble about. I’m looking forward to some time with the 2.0 MX-5 and the inevitable arguments, following some great driving, that will come at the COTY shootout.
Being honest and realistic, and considering the safety score and the lack of a rear camera, the MX-5 might not be quite good enough for a COTY crown in 2015. But it’s more than good enough for The Tick.