The Mazda MX-5 still delivers old-school thrills with the perfect modern facade
The MX-5 has always impressed as a driver's car, but this latest hardtop iteration with its athletic 2.0-litre engine has to be the best of the breed.
If there’s one car on the market right now that feels more like a true driver’s car than any other, it’s the Mazda MX-5. Sure, there are some worthy contenders that do come close – the ageing Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ twins being the closest rival to this – but none manage to feel quite as well-rounded.
And that may come as a bit of a surprise given the MX-5 isn’t exactly a spring chicken, either. With the fourth-generation ‘ND’ model having first launched in 2015 as a soft-top, with the RF hard-top on test here later lobbing in back in 2017, you’d perhaps expect something better to have come along by now, but with the car market going in the complete opposite direction – electrification and autonomy are the clear way forward, with manual-gearbox’d petrol-burning sports cars a clear thing of the past – it’s left the MX-5 as somewhat of a last bastion for driving pleasure.
Even the many exceptionally fun cars to drive that have come along more recently – the BMW-powered, Austrian-made Toyota Supra comes to mind – may offer the malleable chassis and responsive engines one would demand for in a driver’s car, but even the shift to automatic transmissions as a default subtracts something from the experience, even if such transmissions are arguably better-suited to the car at hand.
As such, the MX-5 exists now as somewhat of a dinosaur – although it’s clearly more of a Compsognathus, the smallest known dino, rather than a Tyrannosaurus. This is a car that clearly looks to the past for inspiration, and it’s all the better for it even if there are some compromises.
It doesn’t take a historian to know that the MX-5 owes its existence to the legend of post-war British roadsters of yesteryear, with the original NA model picking up where the long out of production MG B and Triumph Spitfire left off. The RF, of course, adds even more semi-retro flair into the mix, with its unique roof arrangement paying homage to the Porsche 911 Targa and its flying buttresses giving a nod to the likes of the C3 Chevrolet Corvette and the Dino 246 GTS.
Part of the MX-5’s magic, though, has always been that while it exists as a nod to the past, it still feels every bit a modern car and doesn’t look or feel out of place in a showroom with a 2020 build plate on it.
The updates for the 2020 model year itself are all subtle items you’ll never know where changes unless you’re a real trainspotter – new badging, a new key fob design, auto-locking as you walk away from the car, perforated leather and stainless steel scuff plates in the top-spec GT model you see here, and the option of Polymetal Grey paint and burgundy Nappa leather – but it’s not like it really needed much of a freshen-up anyway.
Never mind that the 7.0-inch infotainment screen is on the smaller side by today’s standards and that there’s no digital speedometer – the MX-5 features enough of what you do want and need, with nothing that you don’t. Extensive tan leather trimming, heated seats, and a Bose sound system? They’re all there, and it’s all the better for it. Silly gimmicks that are only there to show off to your passengers that aren’t actually useful at all? Why, there’s none of that.
The 2020 changes to the MX-5, then, are clearly all non-events, quite frankly, as it was the 2019 update that really mattered most. Partially, that’s because a reach-adjustable steering column was fitted for the first time, which makes it far more comfortable for taller folks who have to sit all the way back like myself, but also because of what it packs under the bonnet.
While the soft-top can be had with a choice of 1.5-litre or 2.0-litre naturally aspirated twin-cam four-cylinder engines, the slightly heavier hardtop is only offered with the larger of the two, and trust me when I say that it’s the engine you’ll want to go for.
Although the MX-5 has never really been about power, it’s something that’s always nice to have, and this 2.0-litre unit has the perfect amount of. Reworking the older engine of the same size extensively to enable it to rev higher – its redline is now 7500rpm – and faster, it makes 135kW and 212Nm which, while not the biggest numbers you’ll ever see, are more than enough to get the 1087kg MX-5 RF out of it’s own way.
Not only does this engine look old-school when you pop open the bonnet – the timing cover is clearly reminiscent of twin-cam engines of old – but it makes a raspy old-school sound to go along with it. There’s nothing old-school about the way it performs though, as it rockets towards the redline quicker than you’d expect given how high up it’s pegged.
Key to that is the incredibly short gearing when fitted with the six-speed manual gearbox of my tester. (Yes, an automatic is available, but why on Earth would you want it in something like this?) With an incredibly short first-gear ratio of 5.086:1 and no overdrive gears – sixth comes in at a 1:1 ratio – it feels surprisingly punchy in any gear at just about any speed, yet thanks to the low final drive ratio of 2.866:1 the lack of an overdrive ratio means it doesn’t feel too strained on the open road, hovering around 3000rpm at 110km/h.
The thing I’ve always loved about the ND MX-5, though, is its chassis, as it’s one of the most malleable and compliant out there. Some may chide it for having too much body roll as there is quite a noticeable amount, but it’s actually a good thing as it not only makes it feel more forgiving, but it also allows you to better control the its lateral weight transfer.
To put that in simple terms, between that and the extra power, it’s an incredibly easy thing to get sideways and control it while its there, as a flick of the wrist and a quick dab of the throttle is all it takes to initiate a slide. The tight limited-slip differential – which is only available on manual models – makes a big difference here, too.
Drive with precision and it’ll do as you ask, too – the tiller is quick and well weighted, the shifter throw is short and tight, and being naturally aspirated the throttle response is immediate, and the overall responsiveness and precision of enables not only aggressive driving, but smoother driving, too.
The softer suspension that leads to its hints of forgiving body roll also helps it ride smoothly as well, with only the worst bumps able to come even close to upsetting the low-slung featherweight.
As a driver’s car then, the MX-5 continues to be pretty much my definition of perfect – responsive, forgiving, and thrilling – but it must be said that as a car to live with day-to-day, there are some compromises you’ll have to put up with.
Standing at 6'2", it must be said that I clearly wasn’t exactly the sort of person Mazda had in mind when considering the MX-5’s ergonomics. Admittedly I find the driving position absolutely spot-on once I’ve got it set up, but that requires the seat being as far back and low down, and the steering wheel pulled out as far as possible. Were I even an inch or two taller, I’m not sure I’d be saying I find it as ideal, especially as my hair is right in the wind’s firing line with the top down at freeway speeds.
Furthermore, my left knee hit against the handbrake when I went for the clutch, the infotainment system controls are mounted awkwardly close to you, and there’s no glovebox or door pockets with only a small cubby on the bulkhead between the seats to put your things in. The moveable cupholders are flimsy and awkwardly positioned in both positions you can have them, too.
But at the end of the day, who really cares? It’s a sports car, not a family sedan or SUV – a few minor compromises are easy to forgive and live with when you plant your foot and send it into a bend. Do that, and all is quickly forgiven.
This article originally appeared on drivesection.com on October 16, 2020. The vehicle tested here was provided by Mazda Australia.