Mazda MX-5 (2016) review: Absolute driving purity

Mazda's 2016 Roadster focuses squarely on making driving fun

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Mazda Australia MX-5
  • Mazda Australia MX-5
  • Mazda Australia MX-5
  • Mazda Australia MX-5
  • Expert Rating

    4.50 / 5

Pros

  • Light and balanced design for superb handling
  • Throaty naturally aspirated engine
  • Simple and intuitive infotainment system
  • Roadster good looks
  • Simple soft top mechanism

Cons

  • Limited on space
  • Not the fastest roadster

Would you buy this?

Fast cars aren’t always fun to drive. The tiny sensations that add up to make driving joyous are often sacrificed. A turbo will be thrown in and kill the throttle response, or the oversized engine will bog down the car’s size and weight. Negotiations take place in order to boost numbers on a sales sheet, but in the real world, drivers are left wanting.

The individual numbers behind the MX-5 aren’t extraordinary. Most of them are perfectly ordinary. Add them up though and the results are electric.

This is a car that appeals to the senses and it starts right from the beginning, with nothing more than a glance. All of the ingredients behind a charismatic roadster are present. A long bonnet; check. Two seats; check. Convertible; check. A stout boot; check. Rear wheel drive; check.

Hips stand higher than the car’s doors as it hunkers low. Exquisite lines ripple throughout the body, channelling airflow and highlighting flared wheel arches. Stare at its profile on the side, no matter if the roof is up or not, and it’ll echo the silhouette of Jaguar’s breathtaking F-type, only scaled down.

The view is just as enticing from the driver’s seat. The exterior and interior aren’t treated as two isolated environments. Body coloured panels extend from the bonnet right to the door panels. The resulting sensation is that the MX-5 feels focused, concentrated and downright determined to capture the ethos of a roadster. After all, this is a convertible, a type of car that naturally blurs the distinction between the interior and the world outside.

Space is a rare commodity in the MX-5. People taller than 6-foot run the risk of having their head scrape the roof lining. Cup holders breach personal space. Some people will have to sacrifice leg room in order to lean their seats further back. No doubt the interior sides more with sports and less with luxury.

This isn’t to the car’s detriment. The cabin of the MX-5 is packed so tight that it feels built around its occupants. The steering wheel and pedals are perfectly positioned. Every part is intended to make the driver feel as though they are an extension of the car, a pivotal component of the driving experience, right down to the vibrating gear stick being steadied by the driver’s hand.

Getting drunk off the driving experience is easy when the soft top comes down. The roof comes undone in a few seconds and is simple enough to be handled with one hand. Twenty-five years of ongoing refinement has made folding the roof down no more difficult than winding a window. Putting it back up is just as easy.

It is here the MX-5 gains points over a close rival, the Subaru BRZ. Driving a convertible is among the most liberating automotive experiences. The wind rustles your hair as the car rides a vocal engine note under the shining sun.

Upholding the driving Nirvana is an outstanding entertainment system offered in the better equipped Roadster GT variant. A 7-inch touchscreen presents a simple, responsive and aesthetic interface. A navigation knob is used to sift through the menu, while text input is handled quickly by using the touchscreen. There’s support for Bluetooth, two USB ports, an auxiliary input and a commendable GPS system, all of which lean on a 9-speaker Bose sound system. It is among the best infotainment systems we’ve used, alongside VW’s own offering.

This generation ND MX-5 is lighter than its predecessor. Last year’s model was already a featherweight and yet the boffins at Mazda have managed to shed more than 112 kilograms. The resulting 2016 model has a curb weight shy of one tonne and it is split evenly, 50:50, between the front and the back.

There will be days when this sporty roadster will need its roof up; days when drivers simply want to get home. The MX-5 will oblige with a ride that is more tolerant than the Subaru BRZ and the more expensive Audi TT. The clinging roadster still hugs bumps and potholes, only it does so with a temperament that is more forgiving.

Two 4-cylinder engines are available in this generation MX-5: a 1.5-litre outputting 96-kilowatts and a 2-litre delivering 118-kilowatts. Both engines are offered in automatic or as a 6-speed manual.

Good Gear Guide reviewed the 1.5L Roadster GT with a 6-speed manual transmission. Over the course of a week — and just under 400km of driving — the MX-5 averaged 8.1-litres for every hundred kilometres.

Every single kilowatt in the MX-5’s engine is material. It can be felt, measured and savoured. The 96kW might come off as malnourished, but coupling it with the lightweight physique makes for a lively recipe.

Bury the throttle and the rev counter will climb past five, six and seven thousand, until it hits the coveted 7500rpm. The engine is vocal, giving off a throaty hum that is joined by the ancillary sound of air being sucked into the filter. No embellishment is taking place from the exhaust; this is a raw melody, pure and unadulterated, hailing from the magnificent march of pistons.

Ditching a turbo costs the MX-5 additional horsepower, but top speed is not the end goal here. Mazda is after the thrill of the drive and the immediate throttle response of the naturally aspirated engine delivers. A tap of the accelerator returns an instantaneous bark and an accompanying gush of power routed to the rear wheels. All of its power is available at everyday speeds and the theatre of its delivery ensures it is exciting, even if the speedometer reads a pedestrian ‘60’. Then there’s the ace up its sleeve.

Aim for the apex of a corner and the MX-5 will nail it every time. Few cars respond with its enthusiasm and agility, and those that do often eschew its level of comfort, such as the infamous Lotus Elise. The even weight distribution is evidenced in its darty response to a change in direction. And because the power isn’t overkill, anyone can throw it into a bend, laughing, without the fear of losing control.

Calling the fourth generation MX-5 a ‘hairdresser’s car’ is a grave misgiving. This is a car for people who love driving; who want to feel closer to the road; who want to be a mechanical cog in the machine. It is utterly enjoyable and an absolute success as a roadster. There are faster cars, but only a few that are equally fun.

In photos: Mazda MX-5 (2016)

Pricing for the MX-5 starts at $31,990 for the 1.5L Roadster in manual and tops at $41,550 for the 2.0L Roadster GT in automatic. The model reviewed by Good Gear Guide is priced at $37,990.

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