Something wick ed this way comes...

into your face Corvette-ish front flanks seem to funnel the foreground

WORDS MICHAEL STAHL PHOTOS MARK HORSBURGH @MichaelStahl44

SLITHERING stretch of road clings and coils on a hillside, a slideshow of second- and third-gear corners that transports us to a fast, open ridge. From there, the straights are long enough to open views to the geometric shards of the Glasshouse Mountains and a strip of ocean defining the horizon. Then the road rolls downhill, the surface smoother, the corners more consistent.

So we turn around and do it again.

This part of Brisbane’s hinterland is called Mount Mee. Funnily enough, that paraphrases what I keep saying to myself as I zip along its 36km length in a light, lithe convertible that could have been built just for this.

On reflection, Mazda’s fourth-generation MX-5 isn’t perfect. There’s a smidge of artificiality to its steering feel, a lick of electric-motor stickiness in the column. Its body rolls around to a quaint degree, especially in the rear. It is light, refreshingly so, but just a teensy bit tinny.

And you’d want more grip. Yeah, and more power. Definitely more power.

Oops, we’re doing it again. There, before you, is the mission creep that had set in by the third-generation MX-5 (the NC). Mazda, to its eternal credit, has rewound with the ND, getting back to what the MX-5 is supposed to be about: pure, affordable, drop-top driving bliss.

I’m in the most pure example, the base 1.5-litre with six-speed manual that kicks off at $31,990 (add $2K for the six-speed auto). Above it, there’ll be a leather-andluxo 1.5 GT ($37,990). Later this year will come 2.0-litre versions costing $2500 more.

Even those prices recall the original MX-5 NA of 1989. The new 1.5 makes a modest but eager 96kW (11kW more than the NA), weighs just 30kg more at 1009kg, and costs about the same as it did 26 years ago, factoring in air-con.

The ND has air-con standard, but we’d be philosophically on-message with Mazda if they’d left it out. Somehow they’ve packaged the regulations and expectations of 2015 into a shorter (but wider) footprint than the NA’s, while achieving interior dimensions that match or marginally exceed the just-superseded NC in every dimension but shoulder width (-30mm).

Compared with the outgoing 2.0-litre model, the new 2.0-litre ND is as much as 130kg lighter and up to $13,000 cheaper.

It’s a masterly feat, welcomed by everyone who didn’t buy an NC MX-5 recently.

I won’t diss the NC series, though. It was a worthy Wheels Car of the Year 11 years ago – 16 years after the NA won it – and I still prefer its looks to the newcomer, whose front end reminds me of the horrid BMW Z3. And the NC’s classy details put light on the ND’s cost-cutting measures.

In this base car, those are evident in base-coat whenever you open something, a dinky feel when you thumb-press the panels – the doors, bonnet and boot being aluminium – and a basic-black interior, albeit leavened with a variety of textures.

One wonders at the influence of the Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ, which redefined not only what we expect from an affordable coupe, but what we accept in terms of materials quality. But we’re talking here about Japanese finite-element-analysed cost cutting, not clumsy Chinese cheapness.

A neat illustration is the seats, trimmed in a neoprene-look fabric and comprised internally of urethane pads and netting.

Dispensing with metal springs entirely, they save space and weight. They’re good, too, other than being slightly narrow in the backrests and shy in lumbar adjustment.

The driving position initially feels tall and wonderfully kart-like, though you soon seem to merge into a perfectly rendered pedal-seat-wheel relationship, helped by steering column height adjustment.

into your face Corvette-ish front flanks seem to funnel the foreground

More for more

MAZDA expects the up-spec GT variants to account for most sales.

The GTs boast 17-inch wheels with 205-section tyres, bigger disc brakes, leather seats with heating, a seven-inch MZD touchscreen infotainment and navigation system, climate control, keyless entry, and a nine-speaker audio system with a Bose amplifier.

Shaving weight

@wheelsaustralia 67 THE new ND MX-5 achieves its impressive weight loss with the help of aluminium panels for its front quarters, doors, bonnet, bootlid and bumper reinforcements – the latter alone shedding 3.6kg, crucially at each extremity of the chassis. The engines, despite strengthened blocks compared with hatchback counterparts, are 8-14kg lighter than the superseded car’s 2.0- litre unit, and the sixspeed manual gearbox sheds a further 6kg.

MX-5 tech

68 wheelsmag.com.au Soft-top is the simplest and most space-efficient yet, with an interior lining to reduce noise and an aluminium header panel at the leading edge to reduce fluttering. The roof folds into its own compartment, forward of the boot, and forms its own cover, though side mechanisms are left exposed.

Seats use a new design dubbed S-fit Structure. Dispensing with metal springs, they incorporate urethane pads supported by knitted-polyester netting. This disperses pressure across the body better, allowing thinner and lighter padding and a lower hip point.

Surprisingly spacious cockpit finds room for dual front and side airbags, the latter mounted in the shoulder of each seat.

Pedestrian-impact regulations are met by an active bonnet design. Seatbelts feature pretensioning and load-limiting.

Suspension design is from the superseded NC, with double-wishbone front and multi-link rear. Reduced kerb weights allow plusher ride, but geometries have been revised to provide better front grip via increased caster and improved toe-in control at the rear.

A variety of centre console spaces, stowage bins on the rear bulkhead and detachable cupholders prove handy. The boot has shrunk about 14 litres, but Mazda says it’s shaped to be more practical.

The soft-top couldn’t be simpler, opening via a single latch at the header, a clicklocking function in its folded position and a helper spring to aid raising it again.

A rigid semi-lining helps dampen noise with the roof up. The only dud note is that its mechanism and stowage channels are exposed when the roof is down.

Lightness and simplicity brings you lots of good stuff for free.

Prepare to be amazed by a 1.5-litre engine with its roots in the Mazda2 hatch.

It’s copped a personality transplant thanks to a substantially new top end, strengthened block and steel crankshaft, which allow it to redline at a sonically inspiring 7500rpm.

Peak power arrives way up at 7000rpm, with peak torque of 150Nm at 4800. But the numbers understate its flexibility: it doesn’t have to shrill like a sewing machine to make meaningful forward progress, its mid-range being strong enough for flowing corner exits.

The six tight manual gear ratios – sixth is a direct-drive – are perfectly chosen to exploit that flexibility, though the snickety shift action is most rewarding when revs approach the stratosphere. Mazda is always pretty quiet on 0-100km/h figures, but reckons the 1.5 is good for 8.5sec.

Along with the gearing, the lack of mass gives the 1.5 MX-5 an unexpected agility and punch off the line and out of corners. It also rides supremely well on plush suspension and 16-inch wheels, subtly reading and responding to dips and bumps in the road’s surface and tracking determinedly, even across choppy stuff.

Within the first few corners, you’ve got a grip on this confident and communicative little machine. And it’s not all toy-time.

There’s a hint of roadster machismo from the feel of the rear axle at your elbow and the Corvette-ish front flanks that seem to funnel the foreground into your face.

It also helps that the MX-5 feels like it’s going faster than it actually is. You drive stupid-deep into corners, the sensation of lightness and kart-like command giving full confidence in the brakes. The steering turn-in is sharp and linear, hinting that a smaller-diameter steering wheel would really show what it can do.

The rear end is quite rolly on turn-in, but the chassis’ confidence and predictability have the feel of a longer wheelbase. The rear end’s tracking stability also points to the suspension’s passive toe-in, a feature in which Mazda is certainly not alone but with which it has noteworthy experience.

So well checked is the tail’s weight transfer that you start throwing the MX-5 even harder through the corners, revelling in the gooey Blu-Tack grip and progressive slip of the skinny (195-section) Advans.

The chassis sits so neutrally and squats so confidently you almost inevitably exit a corner with a fully floored throttle and a resolution to try and go faster next time.

Like an early Boxster, the MX-5 begins to feel unspinnable. Which it isn’t, of course (hence we have stability electronics). But on the wheel-sawing climbs through Mount Mee flip-flops and 90-degree corners cambered like a catcher’s mitt, I couldn’t provoke any difference with DSC off.

Obviously I wasn’t going fast enough.

Or maybe I was. This latest MX-5 once again makes us ask what is enough.

We’re quite fond of supercars with their mega-chested kilowatts and the exciting, technologically advanced systems required to rein in all those kilowatts. But what about away from track days and straightline acceleration?

Maybe the crux of quick driving isn’t really the speed. It’s the threading of cornering lines, the minimisation of braking, the anticipation of throttle, the constant coddling of hard-won momentum.

For that, the MX-5 demands you. And a road like this.

The MX-5 feels faster than it actually is and you confidently drive stupid-deep into corners

Mazda MX-5 1496cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v 96kW @ 7000rpm 150Nm @ 4800rpm 6-speed manual 3915/1735/1225mm 2310mm 1009kg 8.5sec (claimed) 6.1L/100km $31,990 Now Model Engine Max power Max torque Transmission L/W/H Wheelbase Kerb weight 0-100km/h Fuel economy Price On sale

RINGSIDE SEAT

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