Mazda MX-5 Tops Its Own Act!
By Jim Bray
Mazda's little bundle of joy was reborn about a year ago, moving beyond the loveable and classic Miata with a new look, new power, and a new, shorter name: just plain MX-5.
At heart, it's still the joyful little Miata, the two seat roadster that turned the automotive world on its ear by taking everything that was great about affordable, open top motoring as personified by classic MG's, Healeys and Triumphs and bringing to the mix the legendary Japanese dependability.
And now, with the addition of an optional power-operated retractable hard top, it's even better.
Sure, the car still gives you the wide open, drop top joy it always has, but now it's stiffer and snugger, so its tight handling should be even tighter than before, and it'll be cosier than before when the weather gets cold and wet.
So now we have all season fun! I can live with that.
It looks better, too; the hardtop smoothes the roofline without looking like it's the afterthought that in reality it probably is.
I've driven several Miatas over the years and last year spent some quality time in the new, soft top MX-5. Any of them are probably the most fun you can have for the price, and really do impart that wonderful feeling I first experienced with my 1963 MGB back around 1971.
But the Mazda version of classic British motoring works when it's wet - unlike any of my "MG's B" - and rather than just being low cost sportiness like those old cars were meant to be, it's reasonable cost motoring with a lot of today's technology sweetening the deal.
The MX-5 comes with a 2.0 liter four cylinder engine that pumps out 166 horsepower @ 6700 rpm and 140 lb-ft. of torque @ 5000 rpm. That's just a couple of ponies shy of the oomph oozed by the turbocharged Mazdaspeed Miata before it was put out to pasture with the old car. The new engine doesn't give quite the thrill of the turbo, but that doesn't prevent it from being an absolute blast anyway, and that makes me salivate in anticipation of what I hope will be the inevitable Mazdaspeed MX-5!
The normally aspirated setup moves the Miata, er, MX-5 along at just about whatever clip your little heart desires. This is not a slow car by any means.
But there's more to the joy of driving an MX-5 than horsepower.
Part of the joy comes from the slick, six speed manual transmission that's geared for fun (a five speed is standard, but the six is more fun) and attached to a feather-light clutch. You might find yourself cruising along in urban driving in fourth gear (to lower the revs and the noise level - and save some gas) when you'd be in third in many other cars, but step on the gas and the little bugger leaps to attention like an obedient puppy - especially if you drop it back a gear.
The ragtop roof is easy enough to raise and lower, but I loved the retractable hard top from the first time I tried it. Shift the car into neutral (you should probably stop first, too!) unfasten the single latch in the middle of the windshield frame and press the "lower" button on the center stack - and the little MinX pops its top like a high tech, upholstered beer can.
And then, the world's your oyster.
When it's time to quit playing and go back inside, the roof lifts, folds and stows itself quickly, with no fuss. All you have to do (besides pushing the "raise" button) is remember to lock it back into place and raise the windows.
Windows? When you raise or lower the roof, the car lowers the windows a bit to help the process. But, it doesn't raise them again for some reason, so you'll have to do this yourself.
When the roof is up, it creates a little space behind the seats you could use as a storage compartment in a pinch (though Mazda probably doesn't recommend it), as long as you remember to take the stuff out again before putting the roof down. Better for those with little short term memory, there are other little storage boxes in the bulkhead behind the seats, though they're pretty small and can be hard to access if you aren't a contortionist.
The MX-5 isn't something you drive as much as you wear it like a comfortable set of casual clothes. The interior is very snug, but very welcoming. Mazda said the MX-5 is bigger inside than the Miata, but it doesn't feel like it.
The steering wheel tilts, but doesn't telescope, and I found it a little hard to get a perfect driving position because the gas and brake are mounted on a different level than the clutch. This won't be a problem for people who opt for the automatic - which is also available with paddle shifters - or people with legs that are longer than mine (which is undoubtedly most of you!).
The steering wheel feels nigh on perfect in the hands and has controls for the audio system on it, which is thoughtful but a tad superfluous considering the small reach to the center stack. In fact, everything is close at hand (No kidding! The whole interior's the size of a bathtub!)
The HVAC controls are simple twist knobs that work well, though they're kind of recessed into the dash and may not be easy to use when you're wearing gloves.
I didn't have to wear gloves because we happened to have a gorgeous Indian summer during my time with the MX-5 and it allowed time for some serious bonding.
The heated seats came in handy, though, for evening runs under the stars.
The Bose audio system is very good - better than the one I remember from the last MX-5 I drove (though perhaps it's just my memory that's different). It features a six disc CD changer, and it can adjust itself for open or closed top motoring. You'll still need to crank the volume knob to drown out road noise, though, which isn't surprising.
A little wind blocker folds up between and behind the seats and it does a pretty good job of keeping the wind from being too obnoxious when the roof's down.
MX-5's fully independent, double wishbone suspension and power-assisted steering feels like they're psychic. Flick your wrist and you've changed lanes. Crank 'er a bit more and you're carving up an apex with a big smile on your face. Steering is effortless and intuitive and it feels like the car knows exactly what you want.
Power-assisted discs all around, with diagonal hydraulic circuits and ABS, bring the MX-5 to a confidence-inspiring stop.
Now, Mazda, how about bringing on that Mazdaspeed version!
The MX-5 with the retractable hard top starts at about $25,035U.S./$31,390 Canadian.
Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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