Lighter, stiffer and looking a whole lot sharper, the all-new Mazda MX-5 returns to the core principles of the first generation roadster. It delivers a pure driving experience that, despite its advanced construction, still feels beautifully analogue.
In the metal 5/5
Unlike its predecessor, which had begun to carry some fat, the new Mazda MX-5 looks positively pared back. It is the sharpest and some would say most aggressively styled MX-5 to date. It still retains the recognisable proportions of its predecessors but its look is the most radical of the four generations - less evolution, more revolution. Given that so much has been shaved from the overall kerb weight it is somewhat appropriate that the MX-5 should look so taut. Every panel on it looks metallically shrink-wrapped over the body, while those stunning new headlights present the type of face not seen before on Mazda's popular roadsters.
In side profile the Mazda has minimal overhangs and the raked A-pillars are finished in gloss black irrespective of body colour. At the rear the boot lid is wide and flat, featuring a clean design where even the button release is hidden just above the rear number plate. There is a hint of Jaguar F-Type about the rear lights, which itself is no bad thing. They are pushed out to the widest part of the rear to help emphasise a broad stance when viewed from behind.
Mazda will give buyers a choice of seven different exterior colours to choose from, including the Soul Red metallic seen here and a very striking Ceramic Metallic that is a whitish grey hue. Other options include Arctic White, Crystal White Pearl Mica, Blue Reflex Mica, Meteor Grey and Jet Black Mica.
In keeping with the small roadster style the cabin is best described as cosy, but not cramped. You sit low in the car, though generous door apertures make access easy and legroom for both driver and passenger are good considering the overall proportions of the car. Our review took place in pre-production cars that Mazda was keen to stress weren't quite as good as the finished item, but we found no issue whatsoever with either fit or finish. Throughout the cabin there are numerous small storage areas including one located just behind and between the seats, while sliding those seats forward reveals two additional storage bins. You don't, however, get a glovebox, but the increased space for the passenger's legs is a trade-off that is easy to accept. On paper, 130 litres of boot space doesn't sound too practical but it is wide, so it looks and feels bigger.
Driving it 5/5
The weight of expectation, not only from the 950,000 MX-5 owners to date but scores of other enthusiasts around the world put plenty of pressure on Mazda's engineers to deliver - and they have. Despite the increased levels of safety and regulatory necessities the new MX-5 has still managed to shed over 100kg, leaving it with a kerb weight of 975kg. As you ease yourself into the figure-hugging driver's seat - which now sites you 20mm lower than before, as well as 15mm closer to the car's centre line - you can't help but feel part of the car. Mazda has paid a significant amount of attention to getting those seats just right. They now feature a new construction that includes a newly developed net material incorporating six different sections of individual tension that give the driver and passenger greater levels of lower back support while the design of the seats gives the shoulders more freedom for both driving and operating the manually operated fabric roof.
Ergonomically the car is close to perfect for the driving enthusiast. The steering wheel thickness has been reduced and is adjustable for height, but not reach. For those that prefer to sit a little closer to the wheel the dashboard encroaches just slightly around where your left knee is (in the case of this five-foot-ten correspondent), which will be up against where the dashboard meets the centre console. The short, stubby six-speed gear selector falls perfectly to hand while the traditional rather than electronic handbrake is well placed. Slightly harder to reach is the rotary dial and buttons for the MZD infotainment system, but you'll soon be distracted by other things.
The 1.5-litre engine spins to life with a press of the engine start button. Depressing the moderately weighted clutch pedal and slipping the gear selector into first instantly gives you the feeling that you are in a well-honed machine. Within the first few metres you get the sensation of the weight loss that Mazda has achieved. Even at slow speeds the MX-5 moves with the kind of poise and precision that many cars costing significantly more would be envious of. Yet it never feels uncivilised.
Find an open road upon which to start stretching the 1.5-litre SkyActiv-G engine and you'll find that it likes to rev, but doesn't do it too freely. It's happy to hold onto each gear, as peak power doesn't arrive until a heady 7,000rpm, whilst maximum torque is achieved at 4,800rpm. That's not to say that it's lacking lower down the rev range; for day-to-day commuting the Mazda offers up enough power to satisfy while no doubt proving to be quite economical in its fuel consumption.
The initial impression from driving the new MX-5 is that its chassis engineers have clearly been fastidious in their attempts to ensure that it drives with real balance. Despite the weight saving they have given the roadster a 50:50 weight distribution and on winding, free flowing roads the car can be placed with a high degree of accuracy. Electronic power assisted rack and pinion steering replaces the hydraulic setup of the previous car. It is precise and really does offer the driver a true sense of connectivity to the front end, proving light enough at slow speeds but never overly weighted when travelling faster.
The suspension retains a double wishbone arrangement at the front and a multi-link setup in the rear, but virtually every component has been reworked to maximise its operation while also being lightened. The front caster angle has also been raised and even at moderate to high speeds there seems to be little in the way of understeer, while the levels of grip, combined with its modest power output, suppress any evidence of oversteer, in the dry at least. More enthusiastic drivers will rue the omission of a limited slip differential, as it's an option that has been solely reserved for the more powerful 2.0-litre version that isn't being offered in Ireland, for now.
Drive the MX-5 at six tenths or harder and it really comes alive, rarely feeling like it's getting out of shape. Turn into a corner and there is a small degree of weight transfer, but the suspension instantaneously firms up and seems to always feel settled. The damping rates are also very good with the Mazda never feeling over-sprung nor, more importantly, too soft, something the previous model was guilty of. Should you need to correct or adjust the steering angle mid-corner the chassis responds well.
What you get for your money 4.5/5
Mazda will offer the MX-5 in two specifications: the well-equipped standard car and a more heavily loaded GT model. For €27,995 (plus dealer-related charges) buyers get an MX-5 that features 16-inch silver alloy wheels, Bluetooth connectivity through the MZD infotainment system and digital radio. There are also two USB ports and an auxiliary input. Air conditioning, cruise control and a leather upholstered multi-function steering wheel, as well as electric windows and heated door mirrors all add to the creature comforts. Safety wise there's Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) and a Traction Control System (TCS) along with front and side airbags.
The MX-5 GT model carries a €2,000 premium coming in at €29,995 (plus dealer-related charges) and is visually differentiated by gun metal grey alloy wheels and black door mirrors. For this you get an upgraded Bose nine-speaker sound system, a black leather interior with red stitching and heated seats. On the technology side there's adaptive front headlights and a lane departure warning system. Satellite navigation remains an optional extra on both models.
A folding hardtop version of the MX-5 is likely to be launched in the middle of 2016 and we're hoping that Mazda sees sense and offers the 2.0-litre version in Ireland then - along with its optional limited slip differential.
Mazda's new MX-5 had a lot to live up to and to the full credit of the company's engineers it hasn't disappointed. Its radical looks and finely honed chassis make it a package that is nothing short of sublime and even though it may have limited appeal in Ireland it is offered at a price that will do little to deter the more enthusiast drivers.