Jude Morte / Jude Morte, Brent Co | June 05, 2008 00:00
Reclaiming a birthrightWhen the Mazda MX-5 (then known globally as the Miata) was first introduced in the early 90s, its strong interest sparked a massive roadster revival. Since then many a manufacturer has had their own take on the "inexpensive" roadster - Honda's Civic del Sol and S2000, Toyota MR-S/MR2 Spyder and Smart GmBH's Roadster come to mind - and the sports car that began the aforementioned fascination was relegated to the shadows. Mazda had enough of the bad raps after slow sales of the second generation MX-5 (which by then took out the Miata branding) and released the third-generation MX-5 in the Manila International Auto Show in March as an all-new design. Can it set the roadster bar again?
Power from the new MX-5's (chassis code NC) 2.0L spreads over a wide area - especially at the bottom end - despite the numbers - 166 hp and 190 NM of torque - falling way short of the 200 mark. In fact you can run in sixth gear at 2500 rpm and the revs NOT dropping greatly. This is because the MX-5 is light (1095 kg curb weight, with an all aluminum block), the engine is longitudinally mounted, and the front engine/rear wheel drive setup retained. The 232-kph tested top speed is hardly surprising, but not its consumption (7.2 km/l, four days mixed driving). And the exhaust note - although a little less throat-clearing than the first Miata - still sounds like sports car nirvana.
The NC writes the book on m/t stick precision, effort and feel, and you can present the car as a classic example of power delivery to the ground quickly. The short throws from the six-speed slam you back in the seat (be it upshift or downshift) due to the savage thrust delivered by the time your foot comes in contact with the right pedal, with every throw nestling solidly in each slot. Clutch takeup is weighty but doesn't make your left calf burn, and is more livable than, say, that of a current Porsche 911 Carrera. You feel like there's constant heavy resistance in the latter, more forgiving and less stressful (on the left foot) in the former. Given that, the FR setup and a 1.5-way limited slip differential (for better oversteer management), you can do your best impression of (D1 Grand Prix driver) Ken Nomura on downhill tarmac. Or wet mountain tarmac.
Speaking of mountain tarmac, the MX-5 begs to be flung down snakelike roads constantly. Traction from the Michelin Pilot Preceda 205/45R17 84Ws break at 145-150 kph, and a longer travel suspension (with a Mazda RX-8-sourced rear setup) gives nicely controlled compliance over choppy surfaces where previous MX-5's used to feel harsh while bouncing and flailing about. The steering can be compared to a point-and-shoot camera - just point the steering wheel in a particular way and the front wheels easily and quickly shoot in the needed direction.
When asked to shed speed, the new MX-5 does with aplomb. Slightly larger disc brake rotors (from 270 mm to 290 mm in front, from 276 mm to 280 mm in back) plus a larger vacuum booster, new linkage ratios and more rigidity in the lines and calipers provide immediate, crisp response and great pedal feel. The handbrake has decent grip, but after four days of testing the handbrake had to be positioned at the 15 to 20 degree mark to get passable bite.
Occupants will enjoy the rather spacious interior. Six footers won't be rubbing elbows all the time, and the flat-shaped dash seems to be mounted far away and high above the deep, broad foot wells. There's decent legroom, and you sit low so you feel integrated into the cockpit. The air conditioning is weak and a hideous lacquer interior beltline (it doesn't blend in with the rest of the flat black interior colorway) are among its negatives, but they're more irritating than irksome.
Neither scowling nor cute, the 2006 MX-5's exterior is a blend of Mazda styling cues. It's got the clean surfacing of MX-5s past, blended with the RX-8's overdone front fender flares and tastefully sculpted rears, plus the signature hood bulge creased neatly into the aluminum bonnet. It attracts stares wherever you go, the kind of stare that's either due to envy (at the driver) or being blown away by the MX-5's looks. You feel that you're slowly being stripped naked in public with the looks that you receive whether in, getting in or getting out of the car.
Taking the top down is easy. You don't even have to leave your seat; you pop a release button in the middle of the front windshield, unlock the single central latch and press a button on the middle dashboard to toss the top back. The top cleverly folds into the well in a way that presents a finished appearance, almost as if you affixed a hard boot over it. And with the top down, turbulence and wind racket are considerably improved by reshaping the header, adding front-quarter window panels in the "V" section of the A-pillars and providing a wind blocker behind the seats. Two warnings - you have to keep your finger on the buttons that take off or attach the MX-5's roof until the whole process is done, but there's a buzzer that tells you if the motions are finished.
And you have to keep the roadster stationary and the handbrake pulled up in order for the aforementioned buttons to activate. A bit frustrating, but well worth the hassle just to experience unlimited headroom. Then again, considering its P 1.999 million tag and its target market (top level executives and company presidents/CEOs and executive vice presidents), there are other roadsters with faster (and easier) roof removal/roof reinstallation. Like BMW's Z4 3.0si, f'rinstance, which just requires a one-touch dab of a button and the top goes up or down, and potential buyers in its class are more than willing to fork over an extra P 2.72 million just to enjoy that and 1000 cc more of sheer driving pleasure. But hey, since prices of most goods nowadays are going up, a fun but relatively inexpensive roadster may be a top-of-mind choice than a fun one from a premium brand.
The first total rework of everyone's lovable roadster comes across as not having lost the driving experience's fun quotient, doing a superb job of reclaiming its birthright as a car simply meant to be pure fun.