Mazda MX-5 still a blast - but at what cost?
By Jim Bray
Mazda's little bundle of joy has been putting smiles on enthusiasts' faces for more than 20 years, and it's still about the best iteration of the classic British sports car you can get without being left on the side of the road.
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The car was an instant hit and since then has gone on to sell more than 900,000 units, which Mazda claims makes it by far still the best-selling two-seat roadster in the world.
What was in earlier versions called the Miata (and I have to admit I still think of it as that) has grown over the years, like every other car. And while that growth and the addition of new technologies have also made the car heavier, Mazda also upped the oomph ante so that today's MX-5 packs very nearly the same poop aspirated normally that the old Mazdaspeed Miata did with a turbocharger. You don't get the delicious "whoosh!" when the turbo kicks in, which is a shame, but you still get a car that's quick if not blindingly fast. And what it lacks in "fastness" it more than makes up for in driving enjoyment.
Providing the MX-5's poop is a wonderful-sounding two liter 16 valve, double overhead cam, four cylinder engine Mazda says puts out 167 hosses @ 7000 rpm (you only get 158 if you opt for the automatic transmission, though, and it would serve you right). Two hundred nags would be nicer but, that said, I never had trouble zipping up to speed in the Miata, er, MX-5 during my time with it. And it never failed to put a goofier than usual smile on my face.
The standard transmission is a five speed manual, but that's only for the bottom end GX model. A slick six speed manual graces the GS and GT models, and that's what Mazda Canada's sample sported. As it should! If you want to make the ghost of British Leyland roll over in its union-built grave, you can opt for the six speed automatic transmission which, on the top line models, comes with paddle shifters. I'd be curious to try the sport auto version, since I love paddles and it would be an interesting experience, but as long as there's a manual MX-5 available that'll be the way to go.
You can also configure your MX-5 as either a soft top (again, only for the GX trim level) or the much preferable powered retractable hard top that's standard on the GS and GT. The soft top works fine, but I remember the lowering/raising process nearly dislocating my shoulder, whereas the hard top operates from dash-mounted buttons.
That hard top is truly marvelous. Unlike some more expensive competition, you have to be at a full stop to operate it (and, for some reason, the transmission must be in neutral - and not just via your foot on the clutch), but it's fantastic: in only a few seconds it folds back into the area where the soft top would go, leaving you the full trunk - a trunk that's surprisingly generous considering that the whole car's the size of a shoe box. And when the car's buttoned up, it feels about as tight as a non-retractable hard top. If any option's worth the extra money, it's this one.
All MX-5's come with a minimum of 16 inch aluminum alloy wheels, dual exhausts, bright silver headlamp bezels, power-adjustable mirrors, power windows (with driver's one-touch up/down), a leather-wrapped steering wheel, AM/FM/CD/MP3-compatible audio system with six speakers, auxiliary audio jack and speed-sensing automatic volume control. The cloth upholstered seats are adjusted manually as are all MX-5 seats.
Optional on the GX is air conditioning (otherwise you can just drop the roof!) and the automatic tranny (sans paddles).
The GS gets 17 inch alloy wheels and black-colored details (outside mirrors, head lamp bezels and rooftop), a front air dam and rear diffuser and glossy black seat back bar garnish. Automatic GS's get Bilstein shock absorbers and a limited slip differential. The cloth seats feature red contrast stitching.
The top-line GT gets a body-colored power-retractable hard top, xenon headlights and a nice smart keyless entry system. There's leather inside (watch out for those hot days when the roof's down!), an auto-dimming rearview mirror with Homelink, Bluetooth for the phone (but not tunes, alas), a Bose seven-speaker premium surround sound audio system, and a few other trim thingies.
Don't expect a lot of elbow room - let alone storage space - in the MX-5's interior, and if you're intimidated easily you'd probably best stay out of traffic because even supposedly Smart cars tower over the little Mazda.
Chances are you won't care, though. The MX-5 is a wonderful car to drive, despite being small past the point of snug and not as powerful as you probably want. But while it won't smoke that Vette, it's a quick car with excellent responses and reflexes that seem wired into your brain. Very Porsche-like, but for a fraction of the price.
Or is it a fraction of the price? Well, if you compare apples to apples - a new MX-5 versus a new Porsche Boxster, BMW Z4, etc. - there's no comparison at all. But the price of the plucky little Mazda has been creeping up there, to the point where Mazda Canada's loaded 2014 MX-5 GT sample crossed the $40,000 threshold. That's a lot of money for an MGB even if it does run when it rains.
The base MX-5 starts at about $29,450 according to Mazda Canada's website, which is more like it - but by the time you get to the price of Mazda's sample GT you're looking at $40,250 and that's starting to be serious coin. Making it worse: after doing some digging around online I discovered you can get a not-too-old Boxster or Z4 or S2000 for around that money. Sure, you wouldn't be getting a new car, but you'd be getting a better used car - with better performance, more elbow room and probably more amenities.
Even the base MX-5 faces some stiff competition now, thanks to the Scion and Subaru twins: the FR-S and BR-Z. They aren't convertibles (yet, anyway), but they're just as much fun to drive, boast 200 horsepower, and they even give you a larger trunk and a laughably vestigial Porsche 911-like back seat you can throw stuff onto as long as it isn't people larger than toddlers. And the "Scionbarus" are a tad cheaper than the base MX-5.
There are other areas where the MX-5 falls down as well. For example, Mazda's sample had the worst phone pairing system I've seen in years. You have to be walked through endless voice prompts, confirming over and over again, you also have to come up with your own four letter pairing code and confirm it, and you have to name the phone by voice (say "the name of your phone after the prompt", which is what I called it), and then you're in, finally.
Thank goodness you only have to do it once! And why wouldn't it stream my tunes via Bluetooth, like most other cars do these days?
I noticed a couple of other things I'd call shortcomings in a car that expects to be competitive in 2014, including the fact that there is no auto headlight setting and you don't get variable intermittent windshield wipers.
The annoyances and/or oversights are all minor, but they added to the amount of angst I experienced. In fact, after I'd had the MX-5 for about a day it snowed (yet again!) and at the same time I got ill and so the car had to sit outside stately Bray Manure for a few days. During that time, I obsessed from my sickbed over how my beloved Miata had finally let me down. It was enough to make a grown man cry.
Then the snow melted and I felt better. So I sallied forth into the sunlight, dropped the Mazda's top and headed out to the open road - and I got the MX-5 once again. And fell in love with it again. It really is a wonderful car - and if it's getting a tad dear you can get good used ones for a reasonable price.
If I had forty grand to blow on a toy burning a hole in my pocket, however, I think I'd be checking out the Auto Trader for a nice Boxster first. And I never thought I'd say that about Mazda's little bundle of joy.
Copyright 2014 Jim Bray
Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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