Mazda MX-5 2.0 Review 9

“It’s important not to get hung up on numbers. Not on power, or torque. No, what is more important is the feeling. The driving experience and feeling is more important than power. In my mind it just has to be fun to drive,” Nobuhiro Yamamoto, programme manager of the latest Mazda MX-5, told Top Gear.

Do you agree with the thinking behind the MX-5?

Unlike some philosophies that aren’t debated because they’re too abstract, this is one of those things that divide car enthusiasts. One is no less a petrolhead if he’s in the turbocharged hot hatch camp, sniggering at this red ND as a wimpy machine for poseurs.

On the other hand, there are those who swear by the joys of a sporty naturally-aspirated engine, more so when it’s allied to a lightweight RWD chassis. There’s also much to be said about the open-top experience, which you must know it to love it.

You’ve undoubtedly read fantastic things about this fantastic little car, but it really isn’t for everyone, even many car enthusiasts. Here’s why.

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The fourth-genration Mazda MX-5 was revealed to the world in September 2014, and a gradual roll out across the world saw us getting the roadster in August last year. Lots of tugging at enthusiast heartstrings in between made it a much-anticipated launch, even if few will eventually own one.

The big news here is that the world’s best selling roadster is going back to its roots. As we age, our waistlines expand, and the little Mazda wasn’t immune to the trend – although the third-gen NC wasn’t exactly obese at around 1,150 kg, it had gone past the four-metre mark and gained 200 kg from the original. The trend had to be reversed, and Mazda set out to shave the grammes from the start with the ND.

The ‘Gram Strategy’ employed to trim unnecessary mass resulted in kerb weight that starts below 1,000 kg, which is 10% less than before and close to the NA’s 940 kg – no mean feat considering the relatively generous equipment levels (it’s no stripped out Lotus) and safety standards that today’s cars require.

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Aluminium was used for the suspension (front double-wishnones, rear multi-links), engine frame, bumper reinforcements and those shapely front wings. The structure uses more high-tensile steel than before, too.

By the way, the MX-5 scored four stars in the Euro NCAP crash test; one star less than max not because of the lack of crash protection, but the unavailability of autonomous emergency braking.

At 3,915 mm long, 1,730 mm wide and 1,235 mm high, the ND MX-5 is actually shorter than the NA from 25 years ago, besides being 105 mm shorter, 10 mm wider and 10 mm lower than the NC it replaces. Throw in 50:50 weight distribution with the driver behind the wheel, the lowest ever centre of gravity in MX-5 history, and you have a great recipe for a sports car.

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Low weight doesn’t need big power, and the ND is available with a 1.5 litre naturally-aspirated engine with just 129 hp and 150 Nm, a motor smaller in capacity than the NA’s starter 1.6. But local importer Bermaz Motor has elected to only bring in the bigger and biggest available engine for the roadster, a 2.0 litre SkyActiv-G engine with 158 hp at 6,000 rpm and 200 Nm of torque at 4,600 rpm.

Why not the 1.5? “Because it’s a no-no in this country for a sports car. Why would you want a 1.5 litre when you can have a 2.0 litre?” asked Bermaz boss Datuk Seri Ben Yeoh. We can’t argue with that.

Made available with North America in mind, the naturally-breathing 2.0L four-cylinder sits longitudinally in front, with drive going to the rear wheels via a six-speed SkyActiv-Drive torque converter automatic transmission, hooked up to manual mode and steering wheel shift paddles. Also in are Mazda’s i-stop auto start-stop system working together with i-Eloop energy regeneration. 0-100 km/h in 8.0 seconds.

Something missing? That’s the SkyActiv-MT six-speed manual gearbox specially-adapted for the ND, and its unavailability here is a real shame. While the local Mazda arm did promise a manual “in a couple of months” at the launch, there has been no update on this front. Could be a lack of demand, so if you’re heading over to Bermaz to beg for a stick shift, do share with us the result.

Does the lack of a manual ruin the MX-5 experience? This car is too well-conceived and talented for that to happen, but the performance of the automatic did leave this writer hankering for a DIY ‘box.

Response is far from immediate in normal mode, but feels a touch too hyper and jumpy in Sport, which you can activate via a switch behind the gear knob. There are paddles, but it really shouldn’t come to that.

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The 6AT is efficiency-focused, and its modus operandi is to get up to the two highest ratios as soon as possible, and stay there unless heavily provoked. It cruises serenely at just 1,500 rpm at 90 km/h and 2,000 rpm at the highway limit, contributing to decent fuel economy – the trip computer indicated 7.4 litres per 100 km (13.5 km/l) over three days of regular driving, and even after a day of hard running and long idling for photography, stood at 7.7 litres per 100 km.

Not everything is immediately better with a manual, and a slushbox has its merits even in a sports car, but the SkyActiv-Drive’s character isn’t fully in-tune with the MX-5, which is as lively as you can imagine.

Now that we’ve got the only drive-related issue out of the way, the Mazda MX-5 is as advertised. Like how superheroes first discover special powers, I experienced heightened senses in my first few hours with the car. Sounds that are normally muted or distant came at me from all directions, and this writer was as alert as a cat, even if his internal compass needed more calibration. With the top up, by the way.

The MX-5 is clearly not a normal car by most standards. I’m coming from a Honda CR-Z with two doors, a 2+0.5+0.5 cabin and a low seating position, but the MX-5 interior is significantly cozier and lower. It’s pretty much the lowest riding car on the road unless a Lotus pulls up alongside, and the typical view out of the ND is of its curved cowling and other vehicles’ bumpers.

Just enough space for the serious work of driving, nothing more. The lack of conveniently-located storage spaces is something the MX-5 owner will have to get used to. There are no door pockets and just a small slot under the AC controls for a mobile phone. Keys and access cards will have to go into the tiny cubby under the armrest, SmartTags into the cupholders, wallet between your thighs.

I belatedly found a solution of zipping all knick knacks into a toiletry bag, which sat snug at the base of the centre stack. Glove box? No such thing here, although there’s a storage box behind the seats. It’s wide enough to swallow a DSLR, but is two-tier in height and access can be obstructed by drinks in the cupholder.

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Due to a habit of emptying all pockets before I set off, I found the lack of convenient storage harder to get used to compared to the cabin size itself. I don’t remember the first-gen Toyota MR-2 and MR-S being so uncompromising, so those coming from normal sized cars might need some orientation.

But get over the small issues you must, because the MX-5 provides a driving experience that could well be the most raw and involving in today’s car world. Like good sashimi, less is more here.

The ND fires up with a rorty engine note, which you’ll hear plenty of with the top up. You’ll feel the buzz too, and the lack of insulation is something to be celebrated in this context. Just a few corners in and the MX-5’s communicative nature is apparent – feedback comes in the form of engine fizz and volume, and sensations filter through the steering, pedals and seat.

Speaking of the seats, the manual chairs aren’t heavily bolstered but are supportive enough, and a great driving position can be found for this 175 cm writer despite the non-rake adjustable steering. The transmission tunnel’s intrusion into the already small footwell may look severe, but it doesn’t affect the driving. The body-coloured upper door caps – in our case a deep, lustrous “Mazda red” – look convincing as extensions of the outer body, and add some sense of occasion to a functional cabin.

Push on and you’ll appreciate the pointy nose and sharp responses of the ND, plus decent feel and good weighting (not too heavy) from the electric power steering. Sitting close to the fulcrum of the roadster as you interact with it, you are now part of what Mazda calls Jinba Ittai, horse and rider as one.

Interestingly, unlike many cars with sporty intentions, the MX-5 allows for some body roll in the corners, apparent when you power into the first highway entry ramp. Not unnerving, the lean is actually pretty refreshing, and fits in with the organic nature of the ND’s ride and handling.

Cruising on the highway, you stick to the speed limit, because 110 km/h feels a lot faster than it normally does – the earlier mentioned lack of insulation combining with substantial wind noise. This would have been a negative point for most cars, but the MX-5 is not most cars.

Exit on to a B-road and the roadster flows along instead of hopping and bucking around our scarred tarmac, aided by generous suspension travel and good bump absorption.

Ride comfort is a strong point, and it’s clear someone in Mazda took into consideration more challenging road surfaces when developing the suspension. An unsettling ride can take the fun out of road driving, so we’re happy to note that there’s no such distraction here. There are SUVs that are less-forgiving on this count. By the way, our MX-5 rides on the larger 17-inch wheels (205/45 rubber, base rim is 16-inch), which work well aesthetically.

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Favourite stretch of road located, you floor the pedal in search for thrills. The vocal 2.0 litre SkyActiv motor serves up a strong mid-range to get you up to speed, although there’s no high-end crescendo waiting at the top. Take a few corners in anger and the MX-5 feels more like a proper sports car than a rear-wheel drive special like the Toyota 86.

There’s strong bite from the front end and good traction out of corners. The roadster’s pert butt isn’t as easy to unstick as some might think, although there are hints of a lively tail to remind you that it’s rear driven. Trail braking into corners does the trick, with an obliging DSC there to monitor proceedings.

With the knowledge that RM 8000 belongs to the Bermaz boss, I did not once smoke the rear wheels, but you don’t have to go sliding to enjoy driving the MX-5. That’s not its raison d’être.

Mazda MX-5 convertible roof operation

We simply love the simplicity of the Mazda MX-5's manual convertible roof! Single-handed operation. Learn more about the Mazda MX-5:

Posted by Paul Tan's Automotive News on Tuesday, 26 January 2016

As you wind down and wipe the smile off your face, use a moment to take in the ND’s serpent nose, the impossibly small eyes, and those sinewy lines that wrap around a perfectly proportioned roadster. Even the soft top blends into the design, although those uniquely-shaped tail lamps haven’t grown on me yet.

The MX-5 is a head turner, more so in this tight red dress. To all the ladies who turned to check this driver out, I’m sorry to have disappointed you.

The long journey home is the perfect opportunity to complete the MX-5 experience by going topless. Easier than taking off your own top, all you need to do is unfasten a spring-loaded latch and push back the fabric roof till you hear a click, as demonstrated by colleague Jonathan Lee in the video above.

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It just takes one hand, two motions, a few seconds and not a lot of strength to completely transform the experience. Opening and closing the roof can also be done by your companion, and at low speeds, too. Windows up, two can have a normal conversation without the need to raise volume, and only the top of my scalp was ruffled. Like al fresco dining, you don’t want to do it all the time, but it’s a real treat in the right conditions.

The Mazda MX-5 is a throwback to the days when cars were more simple, a sensory overload in a cold and digital four-wheeled environment. But it’s also a capable sports car, and one that is equipped for the modern world – adaptive LED headlamps, keyless entry, Bose speakers in the headrests, MZD Connect with seven-inch touchscreen and lane departure warning are all standard on Malaysian cars.

Just as well, because this tiny roadster costs RM219,999 on-the-road without insurance in Malaysia, a princely sum for what was conceived as an affordable sports car. At this price range, the MX-5 is open to competition from cheaper and faster new cars (hot hatches) and more prestigious options in the grey/used market (think Audi TT, Porsche Cayman). It’s the same problem faced by fellow Japan CBU import Toyota 86.

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The MX-5’s pure, minimalist approach to driving pleasure isn’t for everyone. Performance and pleasure can be had in less focused machines that don’t require Miata levels of compromise. That’s applicable everywhere, but in Malaysia, and at RM220k, this gem of a sports car will be a very rare sight.

It’s hard to make a case for the MX-5 as a daily driver and your only car, but the Mazda would serve well as a toy in a multi-car garage. For the affluent individual with “car guy” roots, this is an unique opportunity for raw man-machine interaction that’s rare at any price. An escape from reality, the MX-5 could even remind you of when you were, you. But I bet you were driving a manual back then.

There’s hope (or should it be consolation?) for the rest of us, though. While the MX-5 is Zoom-Zoom personified, the essence of the brand value is present in the cars below the halo, as my old Mazda 6 – the first car born under the Zoom-Zoom banner – is fond to remind me of. Sensation and emotion are powerful tools, and no one uses both as well as Mazda.