“PRACTICALLY PERFECT IN EVERY WAY THAT MATTERS” BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS
IT HAPPENS to the best of us. The compulsion to continually acquire and accumulate, to expand our empire, to want more than what we already have. It’s hard-wired into our consumptive consciousness, yet true enlightenment lies in the reversal of that thinking. A deliberate rejection of excess to achieve a fundamental lightness of being. A Mazda MX-5, in other words.
Here is an open-top, rear-drive sports car that weighs about as much as a supermini, yet exhibits the body strength of a car weighing 50 percent more. It’s also more compact from nose to tail than any MX-5 in history, yet manages to extract vital cabin-space increases over its larger, heavier predecessor. As an exercise in balancing weight management with crash safety, and the sporting philosophy of a front-midship drivetrain configuration with 50/50 weight distribution, the ND MX-5 is a stunning achievement. Hence why this delectable roadster has earned the coveted title of Wheels Car of the Year for 2016.
Had we been gambling types, the petite Mazda would’ve been the odds-on favourite for taking out this year’s gong. Yet two-thirds of the way into COTY’s exhaustive week-long testing regime, the outcome was anything but clear-cut. The Audi Q7’s outstanding refinement and air-sprung ride, the Jaguar XE’s superb dynamic performance and the Volkswagen Passat’s sophisticated polish ensured the MX-5 needed to mobilise every fragment of its gram-strategised form if the Wheels trophy was to land on its mantelpiece.
The MX-5’s journey to COTY glory began at Holden’s proving ground, appropriately in the least sporting variant of its four-strong line-up – the 1.5-litre GT automatic. Laden with $5000 worth of luxury extras, including leather trim, seat heaters, and a Bose stereo with speakers cleverly embedded in the seat headrests, the GT could’ve easily slipped into the ‘hairdresser’s car’ category and potentially undermined the MX-5’s chances. But no. Not even for a nanosecond.
The six-speed auto 1.5 proved an enormous surprise. “A revvy, ever-willing little thing” enthused Carey, while Byron agreed the “sweet, zingy 1.5 is a peach”.
Despite its modest 96kW and 150Nm, the babyengined MX-5 has an effervescence that makes you want to continually spank its bottom to the 7500rpm redline (and beyond), accompanied by a delightful rasp as it extracts those last few hundred revs.
The ‘SkyActiv-Drive’ auto ’box is primed for a good time too. Smooth and intuitive – if sometimes rather busy – in regular driving, the auto has an innate ability to keep the 1.5 ticking along in its pleasure zone. And if you flick the ‘Sport’ toggle at the base of the transmission gate, the effect is like shot-gunning a can of Red Bull into the MX-5’s gullet. If you aren’t up for a punt, things can get a little frantic, but the Sportprimed auto ’box does exactly what it says on the tin.
And it has a manual gate configured just the way we like it – forward for a downchange, back for an upshift – as well as excellent paddles on the MX-5’s rather large and slightly retro 366mm steering wheel.
The six-speed manual 1.5 demands more work from its driver, but what an utterly fabulous piece of mechanical goodness! The short-throw, stubby gearshift combines with perfectly placed pedals and an impressively flexible engine for one of the greatest driving synergies you’ll ever experience. The way the crisp, beautifully oiled gearshift almost sucks itself into the next ratio is like eating ice cream on a hot day. And all this for $31,990. Call it a win for democratic motoring.
Cough up another $2500 and you move into 2.0-litre MX-5 territory, gaining a chubbier, slightly throatier and more tractable 118kW/200Nm engine for minimal additional coin. But here’s where the (friendly) debate raged. The 1.5’s raspy, rev-happy sweetness or the 2.0-litre’s muscularity? Where the 1.5 extends
beyond redline to a giddy 7750rpm and rewards right-foot commitment with additional aural flavour, the 2.0-litre calls time at six-eight, yet it doesn’t need to be driven as hard to deliver. An impromptu poll between all eight COTY judges resulted in a virtual tie, though as fence-sitter Byron Mathioudakis pointed out, “the fact that we’re arguing over which engine is best means it’s a victory for the customer because they’re both great engines.”
Of even more tangible functional benefit to the MX-5’s station in life, and its COTY win, is its chassis.
It’s almost difficult to put into words just how revelatory it is to experience a small, lithe, superagile and exquisitely balanced little thing like the MX-5. And at sane speeds too.
As Sally Dominguez pointed out, “it’s the only car I’ve driven that makes the speed limit seem acceptable and fun.” Combined with the relative paucity of grip of the 1.5’s Yokohama Advan 195/50R16s, and a delicious serving of bodyroll, there’s a playfulness to the MX-5’s handling that has been lost on so many modern cars.
And while the 2.0-litre wears grippier Bridgestone Potenza S001 205/45R17s, it upholds the chassis’ spirit by having the muscle to step the tail out under both power and load.
Then there’s the MX-5’s ride suppleness, which is seriously brilliant for a sports car, no doubt helped by its body rigidity. Roof up on really rough roads, it’s strong enough to be almost totally devoid of screen wobble, and even with the roof down, you need to be consciously looking for it to notice any A-pillar flex.
No MX-5 variant is immune to fairly persistent tyre noise, yet there’s a pleasant calm to the MX-5’s cabin when driving with the roof down at three-figure speeds. And that shapely soft top is incredibly easy to operate. Click a centre latch down with your thumb and forefingers, flick the roof behind you, then lock it open by lightly pushing it down. To close, simply flick a latch between the front seats and repeat in reverse. About the only black mark against the MX-5’s beautifully crafted cloth roof is that it isn’t really receptive to being opened on the move. Wind can point the glass rear screen at an awkward angle, obstructing its natural folding gait.
Inside the MX-5’s characterful cabin, clever use of space abounds. A movable pair of cupholders, sprouting from lightweight, shock-absorbing arms, can be mounted either between the seat backrests or from the centre console in the front passenger’s footwell. There’s a decently sized, lockable glovebox between the seats, liberating extra space for the passenger’s legs, and unlike the previous NC’s, the door trims are functionally minimalist for some extra love-handle room.
But a roadster as small as the MX-5 was never going to be a perfect fit for everyone. Despite the ND model’s increases over its NC predecessor – 65mm more cabin length, plus 10mm extra width and height – it isn’t a one-size-fits-all type of car. My 179cm frame settles perfectly into the MX-5’s low-slung interior, but taller judges wish it had a reach-adjustable steering column (it’s height only) and those with larger thighs would prefer a smaller steering wheel.
But the wheel itself is art, with a slim, leatherstitched rim just like the 1970s British roadsters that inspired the original MX-5, guiding near-perfect steering that spans a super-tight 9.4m turning circle and delivers scalpel-sharp turn-in and precision.
As the most generously proportioned member of our judging crew pointed out, while the MX-5 is a blissful freedom machine for just about any body type with the top down on a sunny day, driving with the roof and windows up, like we did through monsoonal rain on our road loop, “makes for some claustrophobia and seriously reduces headroom”. But even the lanky 192cm Peter Robinson, paying a visit to the COTY fraternity because the reality of retirement hasn’t quite sunk in yet, came back with a simple answer following a quick blat in the MX-5: “Yep, I fit.” And yes, we can report the roof is perfectly water-tight.
The MX-5’s seats – trimmed in a rubber-like cloth in standard models and sumptuous leather in the GTs – eschew foam and springs in lieu of a lightweight net material and urethane pads that allow you to sit deep within the seat. As a result, the MX-5 has clearly the most comfortable front passenger’s seat in Mazda’s entire model portfolio, while the driver’s bucket delivers a terrific driving position for the majority of Australians out there, despite relatively limited full-manual adjustment.
While the MX-5 effortlessly aces the Function
It’s not easy ensuring that a car as compact as the new MX-5 achieves a solid number in NCAP safety testing, but Mazda has cracked it.
The MX-5 achieved 84/100 for driver protection in Euro NCAP testing, courtesy of multi-load path structures that enable enough impact absorption and dispersion without affecting the ND MX-5’s short-overhang design. And while its super-low bonnet line and charming wheelarch bulges could potentially be hazardous to pedestrians, the MX-5 scored a brilliant 93/100 for pedestrian protection, thanks to an active aluminium bonnet that raises the instant that sensors in the front bumper detect human impact. p
The entry-level MX-5’s interior (above) prides itself on back-tobasics minimalism. All-charcoal colouring, hard-wearing fabric seats, and even the base Mazda 3’s lowspec multimedia unit in the standard 1.5, remind occupants that the MX-5 is about sports, not superficialities.
That said, there’s something distinctly special about the up-spec GT’s interior (below.) Body-coloured door tops, stitched dashboard trim, lovely leather seats and an excellent nine-speaker Bose stereo make it the MX-5 to covet.
aspect of COTY’s criteria, its successes in the Technology, Efficiency, and Safety departments aren’t quite so clear-cut. It could be argued that Mazda has merely refined an existing design blueprint, making it appear that the MX-5 lacks innovation. But the holistic thinking behind its overall concept means this isn’t the case.
While the MX-5’s ‘SkyActiv-G’ drivetrains are developments of existing engines, there isn’t a single item in the entire car that hasn’t been touched by the further optimisation of Mazda’s fastidious ‘gram strategy’. The 1.5- and 2.0-litre engine blocks are between eight and 14kg lighter than the previous MZR units, the all-new manual transmission is 7kg lighter and the rear differential is between seven and 10kg lighter.
In combination with a bodyshell that is 20kg lighter – due to an increase in high- and ultrahigh- tensile steels, as well as aluminium, from 58 to 71 percent – Mazda has managed to strip 91kg from the previous MX-5’s overall weight.
The MX-5’s focus on improved technology yields gains in efficiency and safety too. Despite being flogged mercilessly, the 1009kg 1.5-litre manual averaged an impressive 8.0L/100km carrying two occupants on our hilly, twisty road loop, closely followed by the 1033kg 2.0-litre manual (8.2L/100km) and the 1032kg 1.5-litre GT auto (8.6L/100km). And we’ve no doubt that all three could easily dip into the sixes (or better) on a flat 110km/h cruise.
While the MX-5’s NCAP score reads four stars, mainly because it doesn’t tick the box marked ‘curtain airbags’, Mazda has engineered seat-mounted side airbags that not only protect occupants’ torsos, but extend further than the norm to protect heads as well, much like a curtain airbag.
And then there’s the efficacy of the MX-5’s stability-control system, which maintains a decisive grip on the car’s overall composure with a subtlety that minimally inhibits its dynamic flow.
Ultimately, the over-achieving MX-5 isn’t quite perfect. While its chassis and ESC calibration are brilliant, even in COTY’s emergency lane-change manoeuvre, the lack of an ESC Sport setting removes the possibility of enjoying more of its rear-drive deliciousness while still having a safety net.
Its brakes – larger in diameter, front and rear, in the faster 2.0-litre – perform strongly on both wet and dry surfaces, less so on dirt.
And to keep that sticker price looking golden, our MX-5s miss out on autonomous emergency braking (AEB), as well as Mazda’s excellent idle-stop system. Given the inherent efficiency of MX-5’s light weight, the lack of ‘i-stop’ is a non-issue, but the lack of AEB is something we’d like to see addressed. Even as an option.
Finally, the MZD Connect multimedia system in our test 1.5 GT auto wasn’t quite the full six-pack and kept glitching when connecting to phones and searching for tracks to crank through its excellent nine-speaker Bose stereo.
But there’s an essence to the ND Mazda MX-5 that transcends mere box ticking and clipboard analysis. It gets under your skin and attaches itself directly to your emotional centre, in the most exquisite fashion imaginable.
The MX-5 proves you don’t need brute power and insane speeds to have a momentous time behind the wheel. It’s motoring at its purest – beautifully simple, yet simply beautiful to drive – and it achieves all that with a delicate global footprint. Here’s hoping its brilliance is the genesis for a new era in sports cars, where less overwhelmingly means more.
Type 2-door, 2-seat roadster L/W/H 3915/1735/1225-1230mm Wheelbase 2310mm Track (f/r) 1495/1505mm Boot capacity 130 litres Weight 1009 – 1057kg
Layout front engine (north-south), RWD Engines 1496cc 4cyl (96kW/150Nm); 1998cc 4cyl (118kW/200Nm) Transmissions 6-speed manual; 6-speed automatic
Brakes ventilated discs (f), solid discs (r) Tyres 195/50R16 – 205/45R17 Spare tyre repair kit only ADR81 fuel consumption 6.1 – 7.1L/100km CO2 emissions 142 – 165g/km Front airbags .
Side airbags .
Curtain airbags .
Knee airbags .
Collision mitigation .
Crash rating 4-star (Euro NCAP) Prices $31,990 – $41,550 3-year retained value 51 – 54% Service interval 12 months/10,000km