Mazda MX-5

Raising the bar and proving the importance of power-to-weight

TOBY HAGON

FIRST OVERSEAS DRIVE

AUDIOPHILES will tell you there’s something better about listening to the analogue sound reproduced by vinyl. The purity of sound is said to be purity of sound is said to be closer to the actual notes.

In a motoring context, Mazda’s MX-5 is the four-wheeled equivalent of a classic LP. Simple, faithful and largely unfazed by technology. That mantra continues in fourth-generation ND guise, which we’ve just sampled in pre-production form.

While MX-5s have been evolving since the first in 1989 – roughly when CDs overtook vinyl in popularity – it was the Car of the Year-winning original that provided the inspiration for the newest model. While acknowledging the contribution of the second- and third-gen MX-5s, there’s clearly a soft-spot with designers and engineers for the early NA.

The new MX-5 is the shortest of the breed by 40mm, yet it’s also the widest. And light. With more high-tensile steel, less cast iron, and aluminium employed for the boot, bonnet, front guards, roof components, and front and rear bumpers, Mazda has kept weight to just 1000kg. Some suspension components – wishbones up front and multi-link out back – and the engine frame are also aluminium, helping lower the centre of gravity and counter yaw.

Mounting the engine 13mm lower compared to the NC aids the centre of gravity and shifting it 15mm rearward the inertial moment, while reduced overhangs and clever design cues – the tapered rear corners and more heavily raked windscreen – create a sportier look.

It’s a different feel in the cabin, too. MX-5 enthusiasts will be used to a lack of storage, but they’ll now be doing so without the luxury of a glovebox.

The dominant wheelarches provide a visual reference to the forward extremities, but the windscreen is deceptively close; you can inadvertently tap the glass with your hands while twirling the wheel.

Throw in 50-50 weight balance and it amounts to a poised and animated machine. The ND MX-5 feels precise and alert, albeit lacking the lively feel to return the wheel to centre.

While there’s some pitching under brakes, the body is controlled, the lack of kilos aiding agility. Challenging mountain roads ultimately exploit the limits of the 16-inch Yokohamas, further revealing the joys of the chassis. Push too hard and it gently understeers, then feed on throttle and coax some oversteer.

The biggest surprise, though, is the engine. The 96kW 1.5-litre is the smallest to grace an MX-5 (a more powerful 2.0-litre fourcylinder will also be offered).

Based on the 2’s engine, the 1.5 gets a new crankshaft, unique head and block and new inlet and exhaust manifolds. But with the 1000kg frame, it makes for frisky performance. It spins to 7500rpm and pulls deliciously from 2000rpm. The sound and vibration, too, are in sync with the car’s playful DNA, with an adequate, gritty roar adding to the multi-sensory sensation. And the close-ratio six-speed snicks beautifully between ratios.

There’s meaningful bite to the brakes, too. Despite our concerted efforts down a twisting mountain pass, we couldn’t kill them.

Like the original NA, there’s a personality and perseverance that make the ND a riot of a machine.

It’s a pleasant way to get some wind in your hair but will equally devour challenging tarmac as though it’s having as much fun as you. A bit like playing vinyl. Now, time to find my old turntable…

PLUS & MINUS

No glovebox and limited storage; steering is sharp but lacks liveliness Peppy 1.5-litre surprises; beautifully balanced; simple but elegant

01 SPRINGS UNLOADED

Mazda ditched springs from the seats, instead using netting with six levels of tension.

Upper areas are more flexible, accounting for the lower loads being applied and allowing easy twisting of the upper body to manually fold the roof.

02 STEERING SIGHTS

Design chief Nakayama bought a first-gen MX-5 in 1989, which he says made him the perfect person to style the ND. He paid attention to the dimensions and cues of the original; raised front arches aid pointing the car, just like the NA’s pop-up headlights.

03 TALL STORIES

Leg clearance from the steering wheel has grown 12mm in response to people getting taller.

Mazda cites US data that show humans have grown 2cm since the first MX-5 was launched in 1989, with most of the increase in the legs.

Pure intent

SHOWING off the 96kW 1.5-litre version first indicates that Mazda sees it as the purest drivetrain, but expect the heavier 2.0- litre model to out-punch it – with about 130kW – and command a price premium. With either engine, the ND is the first SkyActiv MX-5, bringing a suite of fuel-saving technologies that span engine, transmission and body structure. However, base 1.5s don’t get idlestop and the six-speed automatic transmission will be a revision of the unit in the outgoing NC (so it won’t be labelled SkyActiv-Drive).

OR TRY THESE...

Subaru BRZ/ Toyota 86 From $29,990

THE Subota twins are most obvious rivals to the MX-5, albeit without the appeal of a drop-top.

Brilliant rear-drive dynamics, willing boxer engine and COTY pedigree make for fantastic, affordable fun.

Fiat roadster $40,000 (estimated)