When Mazda sat me down with its development engineers at a “sneak preview” of the new MX-5 in Barcelona, there was, unusually, no spiel about more electronic aids, better equipment, improved in-car connectivity, high-powered infotainment systems or increased cabin space. And the talk wasn’t even about more power or blistering performance figures.
Instead, the engineers prattled endlessly (and enthusiastically) about weight loss, a lowered centre of gravity, optimal 50:50 weight distribution, reduced yaw moments and superior driving dynamics. All music to the ears of the automotive purist, and proof that in developing the fourth generation of its hugely successful budget roadster, Mazda has got its priorities absolutely right.
The convertible certainly looks proper. Its taut, shrink-wrapped shape is superbly purposeful, from the squinty-eyed prow to the pinched tail that tapers in dramatically from the broad rear fenders.
The new car’s styling is much slinkier than that of its predecessors, especially in the way the waistline rises from a very low nose, swells above the wheel arches, and slopes back down at the tail. Front and rear overhangs are very minimal, and the car is significantly shorter from bumper to bumper than its Mk 3 predecessor. In fact, it is even shorter than the original MX-5 of 1989.
In this age of ever-ballooning replacement models, launching a new model that is smaller than its quarter-century-old forebear is unheard of.
Even the car’s four extremities have been sharply truncated, such that in plan view, it looks like a rectangle with its corners shaved off. This is clever thinking by Mazda: Apart from the weight saved, it also makes the vehicle more manouevrable in carparks and cramped traffic situations.
And the new MX-5 doesn’t just look more lithe than before, it actually is so. Thanks to extensive use of aluminium and other clever weight-paring measures throughout (read box story, Seeing The Light), the Mk 4 MX-5 is a full 100kg lighter than the Mk 3, at just about a tonne for the base version.
Insert myself into the snug, lightly bolstered but very supportive seat and everything falls perfectly to hand. The steering wheel (adjustable for height but not for reach) is ideally placed, with the gearlever just a short wrist-twitch away. The handbrake to the right of the gearlever does sometimes get in the way, however.
Despite the two occupants sitting 20mm closer to the tarmac than in the Mk 3, driver visibility is excellent, thanks to A-pillars that have been thinned out and positioned further backwards to minimise visual obstruction.
A fringe benefit of moving the windscreen backwards is that the (manually operated) foldable fabric top can be tinier and lighter, which in turn means it takes up less space when stowed, and is also easier to raise from the driver’s seat with just one hand. It also helps that the roof is stiffer than before, and has built-in assist springs to ease the raising process.
With the roof in place, the cabin is a snug and well-insulated place. Roof down, there is no buffeting – the windscreen has been carefully angled to avoid directing blustery winds to the face, while allowing a “pleasing” breeze to the torso.
The project engineers may have placed pure driver involvement above accommodation and luxury, but despite the roadster’s reduced footprint, they have somehow still managed to carve out more space inside.
Legroom is identical to the Mk 3’s, but the seats recline by two degrees more. And because the occupants sit lower, there is 9mm more headroom, despite a 10mm reduction in the height of the roofline.
The boot is deep, well-shaped and big enough to swallow two carry-on bags. Inside the cabin, there are no door pockets or glovebox. Storage duties are handled by a trio of large lidded cubbies behind the seats and a small compartment on the centre console.
Bucking the trend for ever more powerful, uh, powerplants, the new MX-5 actually has less poke than before. Where the Mk 3’s engine range comprised a 1.8-litre and a 2-litre, the Mk 4’s base engine is a 1.5-litre – the smallest ever fitted to an MX-5.
Based on the 1.5-litre unit in the Mazda 3, this motor has been heavily reworked, and provides a peppy 129bhp and 150Nm of torque. There is also a 2-litre unit with 155bhp, down from the 167bhp put out by the 2-litre Mk 3.
As the car will have its official launch only in June, Mazda would not quote any performance figures at this point, but from the drive I had in the 1.5-litre MX-5, the engine feels well up to the task.
There is healthy torque in the low- and mid-range, and thanks to the car’s very low weight, the acceleration feels very keen, possibly in the mid-8-second range for the century sprint.
More importantly, the engine spins very freely to its 7500rpm redline, its rorty note egging me to keep my foot in. Power delivery is also very linear (and not by accident either – the Mazda engineers specifically tuned the throttle response to ensure consistent correlation between throttle input and engine output). It is only at the higher reaches of the rev range that the urge peters out.
Engine power is sent to the rear wheels via a close-ratio 6-speed manual gearbox (there will be an optional 6-speed auto, too), which is a delight to use. The crisp, short-throw transmission is a joy, and the gearchange action has even been lightly sprung so that after the driver initiates the initial movement, the lever is seemingly “sucked” into its slot.
Attention has also been paid to clutch pedal weighting, to ensure that the biting point can be clearly felt, and for the ideal degree of pedal effort on both the up- and down-stroke. Yes, the Mazda chaps have been obsessive…
The electrically assisted steering is quick-geared, light, yet very accurate, amplifying the car’s eagerness to change direction, whether it’s flicking sharply into a tight bend or subtly aiming the nose into a fast sweeper.
Mazda has chosen a fairly compliant setup for the suspension (no multi-configurable adaptive dampers here; only good old fixed-rate ones), so don’t expect a planted, track-car-like stance – this is not what the MX-5 is about. Instead, it is about accessible fun, without the need for huge speeds or intimidating performance parameters.
While this car always feels amazingly agile, nimble and utterly playful, there is slight but noticeable lean in corners. Not a disconcerting or excessive amount, but enough to let me sense the cornering loads the car is resisting, the amount of grip at my disposal, and to let me push past those limits to get the tail out of line, without fear that it will bite back.
And thanks to that compliant suspension, coupled with the fairly high-profile 195/50 R16 tyres (skinnier than those on the Mk 3), the ride is super. Sharp bumps are easily smoothed off, even severe undulations are no bother at all. And the car feels utterly composed no matter what.
So, this is what a two-seater put together by a bunch of OCD petrolhead engineers is like to drive. The new MX-5 is not a hardcore device, and it doesn’t try to overwhelm the driver with aural drama, mind-blowing acceleration or outright grip. But be in no doubt, its driveability is exceptional and stems from the very core of its design. Yet (or perhaps therefore), the car is so easy to exploit, and always on tap whatever your driving pace or your level of driving ability.
This roadster just oozes fun all the time, from every pore. Bravo, Mazda, bravo!
TYPE Inline-4, 16-valves
BORE X STROKE 74.5mm x 85.8mm
COMPRESSION RATIO Not available
MAX POWER 129bhp at 7000rpm
MAX TORQUE 150Nm at 4800rpm
POWER TO WEIGHT 129bhp per tonne (estimated)
GEARBOX 6-speed manual
DRIVEN WHEELS Rear
0-100KM/H 8.5 seconds (estimated)
TOP SPEED 200km/h (estimated)
CONSUMPTION Not available
CO2 EMISSION Not available
FRONT Double wishbones, coil springs,
REAR Multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar
FRONT / REAR Ventilated discs / Discs
TYPE Yokohama Advan Sport V105
SIZE 195/50 R16
TRACTION AIDS ABS with DSC
KERB WEIGHT 1000kg (estimated)
TURNING CIRCLE Not available
PRICE INCL. COE To be announced
WARRANTY To be announced
+ Pert looks, playful handling, eager acceleration, good ride, accessible fun
– Could do with higher horsepower, incomplete technical information at this point