MAZDA MX-5 has become part of motoring folklore in the same manner as the Volkswagen Golf GTI, Porsche 911 and Nissan GT-R. If ever you wanted to experience the embodiment of driving fun, you needed to look no further than the rear-wheel-drive roadster from Japan. After three generations and a quarter of a century, Mazda has sold close to a million of these little cars worldwide. The Japanese automaker recently released the fourth iteration of the MX-5 (or Miata, as it is known elsewhere), and we snapped up a car ahead of its local launch to bring you this scoop test.
It’s an unavoidable part of the motoring script. Each successive generation of a model grows in all directions, so we’ve become accustomed to seeing ever-larger versions of the same nameplate. However, viewed in the flesh for the first time, you’re struck by how tiny the all-new MX-5 is. It was dwarfed by almost everything else in our test-car garage. Perusing the stats shows why: compared with its predecessor, it’s 80 mm shorter – 20 mm of which was taken from the wheelbase – and 15 mm lower. The only dimension that’s shown growth is the width, which has increased fractionally by 15 mm.
Most impressive is the 115 kg mass reduction recorded on our scales. In fact, the mass is comparable to that of the first-generation (NA) model, which lacks the mod-cons of this latest version. That makes it an impressive feat; not only is the new ND series MX-5 smaller and lighter, but most of our team, bar the beanpoles, found it more user-friendly than its predecessor – kudos to Mazda.
While some find the styling of the newcomer a little awkward, especially when it’s viewed from straight on, the design does grow on you. Mazda has foregone a folding hard top in favour of fabric, no doubt to help keep mass to a minimum. That said, we wouldn’t be surprised if a solid top is added later in the production cycle, similar to the previous range.
To further aid the mass-reduction process, a process that Mazda dubs Gram Strategy, the roof’s folding mechanism isn’t electrically actuated, but relies on human power to unclip and stow the canvas top. This process requires little effort and takes just a few seconds. Such is the ease of use that, during the test period, the roof was only ever in place when the car was parked overnight.
Grab your sunscreen, stow the roof and head off in search of your favourite piece of twisty tarmac. On the way there, you will note that the engine is a naturally aspirated unit, without the slug of bottom-end torque that force-fed units deliver. Instead, you have to work the 2,0-litre hard before it delivers strong performance. One of the few criticisms we have of this car is that the four-pot can sound somewhat strained when being revved.
That said, even though the SkyActiv engine delivers just 118 kW, with just over a tonne to haul around, performance is spirited (as the MX-5 proved when we drag raced it against a Toyota 86; view the video on CARmag.co.za). A wonderfully precise, short-throw gearshift action is one of, if not, the best on offer in any car at the moment, which makes stirring the ’box to stay in that powerband a treat.
Of course, the real fun when driving an MX-5 doesn’t happen in a straight line; it comes alive when you find a stretch of snaking blacktop and chuck it in to exploit its full rear-wheel-driven dynamic repertoire. There is a moment, in that transition from turn-in to apex, when you momentarily feel uncertain. Unlike most other cars with a sporting bent, the
MX-5’s suspension setup isn’t overly firm, and occasionally doesn’t feel completely tied down. The soft springs allow a degree of roll to which we’ve become less accustomed. But persevere by staying on the loud pedal and you will find that, while there is pliability to the setup, there is also plenty grip from the tyres. Wait for the body to settle and feed in the power as you exit. It may feel a little unnerving initially, but after a few corners you learn to play with this trait and adjust the balance of the car with the gas pedal. It’s wonderful, old-school fun.
Of course, the side effect of the softer-than-expected suspension is that ride comfort is surprisingly good, even matching some family cars for bump absorption. Which means that one of the MX-5’s best traits – its everyday user-friendliness – has remained intact.
Should you overstep the grip limit, there is an electronic safety net to rein you in. If you prefer to forego the (sometimes too aggressive) intervention and drive with the ESC switched off, bleeding of rear grip is clearly telegraphed thanks to the proximity of your rump to the rear axle line. The eventual break-away is progressive owing to a limited-slip differential and wayward movements of the rear axle can be easily gathered up thanks to a quick steering rack.