Mazda MX-5 MK4, Still one of the all time greats?
The Mazda MX-5 has long been a humble hallmark of car enthusiasts and everyday motorists alike. Ever since the original MK1 released back in 1989 the world has gawked at the little Mazda's success amongst the entry level sports car category. Wait.. I said "sports car"? Is the MX-5 a true sports car or rather something in-between?
The Mazda MX-5 MK4 builds upon the tremendous success of the previous three models by bringing the car back to its roots paying homage to original MK1 yet bringing in the latest and greatest tech from the egg heads at Mazda. How the MK4 manages to still drive like a traditional classic sports car from the 60's and 70's and contain the latest and greatest gizmo's to satisfy every geeks heart bemuses me. First of all the MK4 shrinks to dimensions closer to that of the MK1 unlike the more bulberous MK3 which gained quite a bit of weight since the MK2. The car is actually slightly shorter in length and boasts a similar weight of just a tad over 1 tonne (Depending if you decided to use the bathroom or not). This makes the 50/50 weighted chassis handle in that predictable iconic enthusiasm which no other car quite manages to match in terms of fun factor. To put it simply the latest iteration of the MX-5 is an engineering marvel, from the simple RWD front engine manual gear box to the weight saving design features implemented across every single crevice of the car.
By no means is the MX-5's chassis as hardcore as a Lotus Elise or as refined and suave as a Porsche Boxter, but it does have its own playful character. The particular model I am reviewing is the Sport Nav 2.0 Litre model which is to say the "souped up" version of the standard car. Differences include a limited slip differential, larger brakes, extra strut bracing and Bilstein suspension. The outcome is a car which is eager and compliant whilst never being intimidating or boring to drive. Continuing with the chassis set up... the Bilstein dampers add slightly more rigidity to the body roll of the lesser trims but still don't completely mitigate the somewhat wallowy nature of the ride. For a full blown track car this would be an issue however its seems as if Mazda intended the car to have a certain degree of deliberate body roll to make sensing the car's balance and weight shifting in the corners much easier to feel. The rear LSD helps the car maintain composure through the corners however it is still easy enough to get the tail out with squirt of power when exiting a bend. Overall the car handles exactly as you would expect a MX-5 to handle, its stupidly fun to drive!
Now the engine.. The MX-5's heart and soul
Previous iterations of the MX-5 have always featured naturally aspirated inline 4's mounted longitiudionaly in various states of displacement and tune. The MK4 is no exception, with this particular Sport Nav trim featuring the more powerful 2.0L unit producing 160bhp @ 6000 RPM and 200 NM of torque. Whilst on paper this all sounds fairly mediocre, you have to consider the cars 1 tonne weight giving it a power to weight ratio similar to that of the latest Lotus Elise. This Allows the Mazda to propel itself to 60 mph in a respectable 6.9 seconds and reach a top speed of 130 mph.
This places the cars straight-line performance firmly in the "warm-hatch" territory making it similar to the likes of the Golf GTI and the Fiesta ST. However straight line performance really isn't the point and if you are looking at the MX-5 for its earth shattering acceleration and autobahn crushing top speed then you better look elsewhere. This is because the MX-5's real trump card is how it makes you, the driver feel. The sheer joy of going on a blast down your favourite back road with the roof down on a warm summers evening is one of drivings greatest sensations! Seriously you should try it!
The engine does not only yield respectable performance figures but also holds a certain charismatic charm which is all but forgotten in the modern days of forced induction turbo charged cars. Firstly the smooth, lightning quick response from a press of the accelerator pedal makes the car rev quickly and freely not showing any hesitation in reaching its redline. You still need to work the engine hard to get the most out of it but that's half of the fun with MX-5. Simply rowing through the gears and hearing the raspy soundtrack from the exhaust without doing ludicrous licence loosing speeds makes the car just as much fun as a sub 5 second sports car which can't use half of its power on public roads. The engine guru's at Mazda have also somehow managed to make the engine highly fuel efficient with a claimed 40mpg average. In my personal experience over 3 months driving using a variety of relaxed and enthusiastic driving styles returned a pleasantly surprising 37.8 mpg average. This makes the car fairly cheap to run however to get the most out of the Skyactive engine Mazda recommends using premium fuel at 97+ octane which certainly certainly hurts the wallet especially here in the UK with absurd fuel prices.
Exterior and Interior
Mazda have taken a radically bold approach to the styling of the MK4 departing from the slightly more subdued styling of the previous generations. The design language tries to find a compromise between aggressive and elegant and just about pulls it off. Obviously the styling of a car can be highly subjective and truth to say from some angles the car doesn't look particularly graceful however there is a shear beauty to be admired in its simplistic lines and classically correct long bonnet and short tail. Typical of most soft top convertibles the car always looks better with the roof down. This is a good thing as it encourages you to drive with the roof down as much as possible even on the dullest of days. Personally i think the car sits a little too high from factory even on the sport nav's Bilstein suspension, however it is an easy fix with a simple lowering kit Mazda offer from factory. The Sport Nav features 17 inch gun metal grey 8 spoke alloys, which have been purpousfuly designed to be as light weight as possible, however i think Mazda could of put a little bit more effort into the brake callipers as they really could add a bit of contrast with a lather of yellow or red paint.
MX-5's have never been known for their outstanding interiors however the MK4 brings a a whole new design which is senomonous with the rest of the Mazda range. The dials are absolutely gorgeous with the central large rev counter, speedometer to the right and customisable digital display to the left. At night the interior looks fantastic with the white luminescent theme and the soft glow from the central display. Onto the display... you could be forgiven for thinking that the MX-5's infotainment system looks like someone took a cheap android tablet and stuck it right in the middle of the dashboard which is a bit of let down. I wish Mazda would of taken a few cue's from some of the earlier Audi and BMW models with electronically retractable displays but that's really starting to nit pick. The leather clad interior of the sport Nav with it's red accent stitching gives the interior a more sporty appeal than the lower spec trims and the design is overall elegant and simplistic. The interior is not without its flaws however, build quality is a little ropey in some places and don't get me started on the removable cup holders... Whilst a clever idea to overcome some of the many impracticalities of the MX-5 they just end up getting in the way and becoming an incovinence. In car storage is generally poor with a small central compartment big enough for a couple of pairs of sunglasses and a rear storage compartment which the Mazda supplied documentation folder takes up about 50% of the space leaving it good enough for your wallet and that's about it... No glove box!? Boot capacity is actually 'fairly decent' for sports car standards at 130 Liters however the boot opening makes what you can actually put in it quite limiting. Despite the lacklustre storage and ropey build quality you have to remember why the car is like this. Weight reduction! Weight saving features are everywhere from the contouring of the seats down to the thickness of the sun visors, everything has been carefully considered to allow the car to hit that magical 1 tonne weight.
Whilst the MX-5 certainly hasn't been renowned in the past for its cutting edge technology the MK4 hopes to change that by providing the driver with pleteny of gizmo's to keep them happy no matter the journey. Firstly the infotainment system is intuitive and easy to use and provides a choice of inputs including a rotary dial and touchscreen. Thank you Mazda for being one of the few car companies left keeping the rotary dial! Whilst touch screen's work great on phones, they don't work so great on cars when traveling down a bumpy road whilst trying to concentrate on driving and maintain two hands on the wheel. The menu's and graphics whilst simple, are similar to the likes of BMW's older iDrive systems however not quite as polished and slick. And don't even bother with the car's built in GPS, just opt for paying the extra cash for Apple car play as the built in navigation will get you hopelessly lost otherwise. Alongside the nifty infotainment system the car features heated seats, rear parking sensors, adaptive LED headlights and a whole host of other goodies including the optional safety pack for an extra £800. The safety pack contains the useful blind spot assist and reverse assist and the not so useful lane departure warning which can become insanely irritating at times. One of the hallmarks has to be the premium Bose sound system which consists of 9 speaker setup including a DAC/AMP and a subwoofer. For such an acoustically compromised cabin Mazda and Bose certainly did a good job of making a decent sound system for the MX-5.
To answer my original question, is the Mazda MX-5 Mk4 a true sports car? Yes.. without a doubt. The car remains true to the original spirit of the MK1 whilst taking on a radical new approach to styling and technology. I would call the car "Perfectly Imperfect". If you try to use the car as a regular everyday hatchback for commuting to work, doing the shopping, giving friends a lift, you will be left feeling thoroughly disappointed and short changed. That doesn't mean the MX-5 isn't capable of of doing all of those things, it's just to really understand the car and what makes it so good you need to properly drive it. Wait for that quiet Sunday afternoon where there a few cars on the road, and hoon it down your favourite backroad and only then the true charisma of the car is revealed.
Seriously you have to try it....