MX5 Road Test Top Gear

Posted on 28 Mar 2008

Although Mazda has changed everything on the new MX-5, the idea is the car makes you feel magically happy in just the same way it always did. A good, pretty little roadster is one of the great, simple, unchanging pleasures of life, like a Sunday roast.

In the middle of a car industry that can't bear to stop fiddling, you've got to give a warm nod to the MX-5 team for its admirable focus. It didn't try to take the MX-5 into new engineering lands. No turbocharger, no folding hard top (not even a powered roof), no four-wheel drive or high-tech gubbins. The idea was just to modernise it where needed. And, of course, make it look slightly different so people will notice and buy another.

Snuggling down into the cockpit is easier than before. The seats are still simple little buckets, and the high centre tunnel still helps hug you securely when the cornering gets frenzied, but there's more room now: slightly more cockpit length and a deep breath's more width too. Your legs and arms are set straight ahead, the gearlever is just an arm's flick from the steering wheel. It's all perfectly laid out.

The engine fires to a deeper note now. It revs, cleanly as you like, to and beyond the 6,700rpm redline, flowering to 160bhp when you give it the full beans. It's not a torquey engine, but delivery is predictable, and flicking around the gearbox keeps it on the boil. Besides, that power is enough for just 1,120kg.

Demolishing that speed is all part of the fun. This car fits you like a well-worn trainer, all its controls matched in effort and travel, so it's a snap to flick down through the gears, heel-and-toeing while you tip deep into the braking force.

The middle pedal is short and snappy, but not so aggressive it'll bite your leg, and the ABS arrives with real finesse. The six-speed gearbox is standard on the top-spec version and comes from the RX-8. By almost any standard it snaps about the gate with ultra-short exactness. But not by one standard: the original five-speed is even better, and it's still available.

The MX-5 is supposed to be your extrovert little mate and, boy, does it get into character when you roll your wrists on the steering wheel. It darts into bends, can't get enough of them, sniffs them out, tugs at your sleeve and pulls you into the game.

As you really load it up, this thing just comes alive, the steering opening up a great plate-glass window of transparency, flooding the experience with light and warmth. There's feel and balance, and the notion that you can do anything with it.

On slower roads, there is occasionally a shuddery quality to the ride that makes you think the body is a-quiver, but it's just suspension movement. Otherwise, this is a brilliant car for wafting.

Show-offs might want a powered roof, but the MX-5 fights back in the name of simplicity. The top opens with a one-handed flick of a single catch, then a backward shove and down it flops. One more downward push and a catch holds it tidily flat, with no need for a clip-on cover. Five seconds, tops. And all from the driver's seat.

If soft plastic is the short-cut metric by which we classify cabins these days, the MX-5 is bottom of the heap. There are a couple of little elbow patches on the door armrests. That's all. Everything else is brittle and hollow to the touch, and the pockets and trays are all unlined. Even so, it fits together immaculately, and the design is a lot crisper than previously. Plus there's a bit more storage and a deeper boot.

The two-litre engine is new to the roadster, though it's derived from the one in mainstream Mazdas, but has a variable intake for a stronger mid-range. You can have a 126bhp 1.8 too.

Suspension is now RX-8 stuff, mostly alloy to cut weight, and there has been an effort to shave weight everywhere. Maybe that, as much as cost, is why the interior is so thinly moulded.

The fuel tank is lower and further forward, the engine further back, which makes the car more willing to start and finish every turn. There are side and head airbags, too, and the bodyshell will look after you better in a crash. The shell is also bigger and stiffer, yet lighter than ever.

So the little Mazda is more than ever a good-time, all-the-time car. Daily grind? It's lively and carefree. Favourite road, ideal weather? Not the wall-of-death exhilaration of a supercar, no, but an accessible, fun ride, testing your skills without troubling the lawman.

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