Growing up, I never really saw the reason why people were singing the praises of a small roadster from Mazda.
As a kid, I always preferred sport sedans over dedicated sports cars. You can use it as a daily, it's not flashy but you can bring it to the occasional track day for some thrills. I can honestly say I was no fan of the MX-5. I remember the days of ME playing Gran Turismo on the first PlayStation and was rather underwhelmed by the power stats. "How can you have fun in a car with less than 200 horsepower?" I said.
18 years after the first Gran Turismo came out, our editor-in-chief calls me and tells me that I will be driving the all-new MX-5. Oh yeah.
So there I was waiting in Mazda Pasig for the shuttle to bring us to Batangas Racing Circuit. I guess it could be said that BRC is well suited for the MX-5. With a short straight followed by a series of banked corners, the MX-5 shouldn't disappoint. After all, friends have hyped me about the roadster's famed handling. As we boarded, I decided not to let that hype get in the way of my judgement.
Two hours later, we arrived at BRC. Some of the Miata Club guys were already doing laps around the track. I noticed that at the end of every run, the drivers got out with big smiles on their faces. Right before entering the tent, the all-new MX-5 greeted us, practically telling us "have fun later!"
After speeches from Steven Tan and Mazda executives from Japan, we were oriented on the basics of track driving. Right after that, it was time to strap in the MX-5. We were each to be given two laps around the tracks in the two MX-5 transmissions available, the manual and automatic. I get assigned in the automatic first. It was time to answer an 18 year old question: how much fun can you have with less than 200 horsepower?
As it turned out, it was a lot. Even with an automatic gearbox.
The self shifting MX-5 left me pleasantly surprised. It had crisp upshifts and blips the throttle on downshifts. As for handling, the threshold for the stability control system was pretty high. It allows you to rotate the roadster and, as a result, take a corner much faster. The way it rotates isn't snappy either, making this friendly for those behind the wheel of a rear-wheel drive car on track for the first time. And this is when the (relatively) small power output made sense and I finally got it.
This car is a lot of fun. At a little over 1 tonne, it was agile, light on its feet and darty. While no car will ever handle like an actual go-kart, the MX-5 with an automatic can be best described as a comfortable shifter kart with fenders and air-conditioning. The smooth 6-speed automatic can even be mistaken for a dual-clutch transmission with its quick responses in sport mode.
The two laps flew by too fast but it was time to jump in the manual MX-5 for another two laps around BRC in a roadster I'm really starting to enjoy. While the DCT-like automatic was already impressive, the manual MX-5 enhanced the feel even further.
The clutch was well weighted and engagement was immediate but not snaggy. Rowing the gears was a short throw affair. There was a snicking sensation once you've put the gear in with every precise throw. The pedal placement is worth a mention too given how the accelerator was floor-mounted rather than being hinged from the top. It made for easy heel-toe down shifting and a more rewarding drive around the track. Surprisingly, the all-new MX-5's steering system offered loads of feel, feeling like a hydraulic system even when setting off. The steering never felt artificial at any point which has been a struggle for a lot of manufacturers. Among the electronic power steering systems around, this is one of the best I've tried.
After a total of four laps, I now understood why the Miata Club drivers, even MX-5 owners, always got down with smiles on their faces. It's easy to fling the MX-5 around the track and it doesn't scare you in the process. You feel confident with the car and it goes around bends at speeds that would make a sports sedan beg for mercy.
Now I'm itching for another run around the track in the MX-5.