Text: Vince Pornelos / Photos: Kelvin Christian Go | posted September 22, 2015 18:00
Natural Born Thriller
There are few things in this world that can give the thrills open top motoring. Sure, there are a lot of great sports coupes out there in the market today, but there are few words that can describe the pleasure of driving with the roof down with nothing but a great view of the sun or the stars above.
Such is the case for the fourth generation Mazda MX-5; a roadster that is pure, simple, and exhilarating to drive. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Examining the car for the first time and it's clear that Mazda designed it to look like it's moving even when sitting still. Mazda didn't use any fancy spoilers, aero splitters, vents, louvres or other rice-rocket essentials, as they achieved this look of motion thanks to their Kodo design philosophy; an interpretation of animalistic motion to automotive expression.
The snout is long and sleek, featuring the signature Mazda radiator grille and intake, flanked by a very sharp pair of LED headlights. The lines continue upward to the fenders which have been shaped to represent a cheetah's front shoulders while running. The curves on the side convey that same sense of motion, and is finished off with a short rear deck and taillamps that somewhat resemble the ones on the Jaguar F-Type.
Sitting inside, the MX-5 is tight. It's expected, given that this is a purely 2-seat roadster. The dashboard, much like Mazda's other models, is clean and straightforward; no fancy details or unnecessary trim or trinkets. The fabric seat hugs the body nicely and comfortably, while the primary controls such as the steering wheel and shift knob are perfectly shaped and wrapped in leather.
One thing I do notice that's much better than this car's predecessor is the driving position, particularly with regards to the footwell. Mazda says they moved the front wheels a bit more forward, freeing up more space for the pedals. On the passenger side, however, there is an unusual bump that protrudes from the floor; Mazda says it's to make space for the catalytic converter.
Of course being a roadster, the top can and probably will be dropped. Unlike the 3rd generation MX-5 (NC) with the power retractable hard top offered by then-distributor Ford, this 4th generation ND offered by Mazda is a soft top only. And there's no power retract mechanism; just a good-ol' latch and a bit of elbow grease will open it up. It seems odd to go back to a manual mechanism, but it does keep something very important down: weight.
The MX-5 has always been about keeping weight to a minimum. I remember back in high school that people used to say that the only reason the MX-5 (Miata in the U.S. or Eunos Roadster in Japan) was fast was not because it was powerful but because it was light. The unusual thing is that they said it like it was a bad thing.
For the 4th generation model, Mazda went back to the drawing board to keep their pure sports car as light as possible. SkyActiv, their name for their brand of efficient performance philosophy, gives Mazda's engineers and designers the tools they need to combat the number one enemy of fuel economy. Things like high tensile steel allow them to use less material on the monocoque (hence less mass), lightweight materials like aluminum and composites, and a minimalist approach to the roadster like the manual soft top, a simple manual A/C and omitting power features like power adjustable seats and the like. The result is a car that weighs just 1,041 kilograms; to put that in perspective, a similarly specced Toyota 86 2.0L 6MT weighs in at around 1,275 kilos.
At the heart of the MX-5 is a 2.0L SkyActiv inline four. With 160 PS and 200 Nm, it's not exactly revolutionary, but considering the weight, it's got a great 154 PS per tonne power to weight ratio. And the SkyActiv tech also allows it to achieve a very high compression ratio of 13 to 1 for fuel efficiency, something we'll put to the test later, along with the 6-speed manual gearbox.
There isn't much boot space to speak of, but it can accommodate a few backpacks or grocery bags. You do have to be mindful that there's no spare tire; this is a roadster after all. The MX-5 does come with a tire repair kit and a mini compressor. If all else fails you can just call the Mazda YOJIN3 hotline.
With the push of a button, that 2.0L motor gets going, letting out a rumble from the exhaust. It's no muscle car, but the sound is pretty good for a four banger. In the city with the top up, the MX-5 is actually a viable car to use everyday. The great part about the MX-5 is it's 6-speed manual. The transmission has a very positive feel to it; no notchy or spongy shifts.
The airconditioning is powerful and the audio system with the Human Machine Interface (HMI) knobs is very easy to use. Driver visibility is pretty good, though you do have to be mindful of the long bonnet in front as compared to most compact sedans. As for comfort, the ride is surprisingly better than I would have expected. It's not plush by any means, but it's definitely not harsh; there's a good level of absorption going on, especially for a sports car. One thing you do have to keep in mind is the canvas top; there's a plastic panel on it to firm it up, but expect exterior noise (i.e. motorcycles) to protrude into the cabin. That's just a part of roadster motoring.
Fuel economy in the city is surprisingly good. At an average speed of 16 km/h (heavy traffic) the MX-5 returns 8.6 km/l. In moderate traffic (21 km/h) that number goes up to 10.1 km/l. On the highway it goes up to 13.9 km/l (91 km/h average), but it could be better if the transmission didn't have as close a set of ratios as this one.
Where the Mazda MX-5 really shines is on an open mountain road. With the top dropped, I engage 2nd gear while heading uphill. It's visceral. The exhaust note and the power are just perfect for a car of this size and weight, as the powertrain can accelerated the MX-5 from a standstill to 100 km/h in just 7.3 seconds.
Find a corner and you'll see how well Mazda's vehicle dynamicists have truly earned their pay. The MX-5's brakes are excellent, easily scrubbing off the speed you've built up after going full throttle. The pedal placement is perfect for heel-and-toe downshifting, with the accelerator pedal being hinged on the floor instead of from above. Each blip is accompanied by the quick response from the engine as evidenced by the needle on the tach, but you really don't have to look at the tachometer anymore; just listen for it from the exhaust and engage the lower gear.
The steering, despite being assisted electrically instead of hydraulically assisted, gives a good degree of feel and has pinpoint precision. If you want to grab gutters and drop the front tires on the dirt at the apex of a corner, you can do so again and again with ease. Once you clip the apex, just feed in the throttle if you prefer to keep the back in check, or you can mash the throttle and kick the tail out a bit.
At PhP 1,680,000 (plus a bit more for the Soul Red variants), this MX-5 2.0L 6MT is a hoot to drive, and that's even compared to models like the Genesis Coupe, the 86, the BRZ and the CR-Z. All those sports coupes have revitalized interest in the performance car with their handling, power, and outright speed, but the Mazda MX-5 roadster is still special, and that's why this nameplate has become (and still is) the best selling two seat convertible of all time.
This MX-5 is a car where your only limit is your skill, how much you want to spend on fuel, brakes and tires, and how much you want to comb your hair afterwards.
Sure you can drive with the top up, but where's the fun in that?