The Mazda MX-5 has been the world's best selling sports car for the last 25 years thanks to a unique combination of simplicity, value for money and joyful handling. The old car always had one problem though...the styling. While terrific to drive the MX-5 has always carried with it a certain "image", however I'm glad to say Mazda have finally fixed the problem. The new car looks absolutely brilliant. The styling is very clean and simple while managing to look aggressive and sporty. We're off to a good start but in order to succeed the MX-5 needs to retain the essence of what made it so popular. The way it makes you feel...
As the years have gone on, cars have tended to become larger and heavier as a result of increased safety regulations and the rapidly increasing use of technology in the automotive industry. Mazda have not fallen into this trap. The first thing that strikes you about this car is just how compact it is. The new MX-5 weighs just over 1000kg. A remarkable achievement for a car that comes with dual zone climate control, cruise control, Bluetooth and all the other modern amenities as standard. The new car actually measures shorter than the original mkI MX-5. As a result 6footers may find it slightly hard getting in and out.
The MX-5 comes with just two choices of engine. There's a 1.5 litre petrol engine which produces 130bhp or a 2.0 litre petrol which produces 160bhp and is quick enough for a 0-60 time of 7.3 seconds while returning a claimed 41 mpg. Whilst these numbers are by no means ground-breaking, the MX-5 has never been about outright speed. It delivers its thrills in the bends. The 2.0 litre petrol in the car I drove was certainly quick enough. The lack of power low down really encourages you to rev the engine all the way to the 6,500 rpm red line to extract it's performance. The exhaust note is pleasing too and the whole car just fizzes with energy as you climb through the rev range. I'm told that the 1.5 litre suits the car even better.
In fact that's how everything about this car feels. It just fizzes with energy. The steering, as is customary these days, is an electrically assisted job. While it isn't full of feel, it is sharp and light and weights up nicely as you put load on the tyres. The gearbox is a masterpiece. Never before have I used a manual transmission as engaging as this. The gear stick is perfectly placed and is constantly vibrating with energy. With a short rifle-bolt action, it's one of the big highlights of the car and you find yourself changing gear for the sake of it. The pedals are perfectly placed for heel and toe and throttle response from the naturally aspirated engine is excellent. Luckily Mazda haven't fallen into the trap of giving the MX-5 various driving modes that alter the car's throttle response, exhaust noise and suspension. Instead, this is a car you just get in and drive.
The car I drove was on the optional Bilstein dampers, and while they made the ride a bit firm for my liking, when you arrive at a corner they prove their worth. The car corners remarkably flat inspiring you with confidence to push harder and harder. What's more, due to the lack of power you're not afraid to get on the power early and drive out of the corners. The car feels really agile and changes direction sharply. The MX-5 is a car that feels like it was built by people who love driving. As with the rest of the car, the roof follows the same philosophy of lightness and simplicity. Rather than an overly complicated and slow electronic mechanism, the Mazda makes do with a simple latch that you unhook manually. It takes all of 3 or 4 seconds to undergo the transformation. With the roof up, refinement isn't out of this world with plenty of wind whistle from the wing mirrors, but that is to be expected for a car in this price point. With the roof down the car is in it's element. Driving down a British B-road with the top down and the wind in my hair, it's hard to think of anything that I'd rather be in.
And that brings us onto one of the big problems with this car...The MX-5 is unique in that Mazda has in fact helped create its own biggest rival. The Fiat 124 spider.
The two cars are in fact produced on the same production line in Japan and share the same chassis, much of the interior and practically everything else. The key areas where they differ are in the engine department and the styling. The Fiat is powered by the 1.4 litre turbocharged engines from the Giulietta. These produce 140bhp and 170 bhp in Abarth trim, but crucially produce more torque. This gives the Fiat a very different character to the Mazda and makes the power more accessible low down in the rev-range. However, when it comes to styling I think the Mazda wins it. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but to me the Fiat just looks like it's trying too hard. It doesn't have any of the elegance of the original 1960s 124 spider, and for me that puts me off the car. Of the two, there's no doubt in my mind, the Mazda is the one I'd have.