More MX-5 magic from Mazda

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The third generation of Mazda's wildly popular MX-5 has been subject to a facelift, probably its last before an all-new successor appears on the scene. Photos supplied

Mazda has updated its timeless MX-5 Roadster, and David Thomson has been taking advantage of some superb recent weather to use it in the manner intended.

It says a lot for the reputation of the MX-5 that the nagging concern any motoring writer has on testing a new version is that Mazda may have done something to diminish the car's long-standing status as a pure driving icon.

So far, in a genealogy that stretches back to the introduction of the original 1.6-litre, pop-up headlight MX-5 in 1989, Mazda has only dropped the ball once. That was back in 2004-05, when the short-lived addition of a turbocharger to the by then 1.8-litre MX-5 robbed the vehicle of all of its delicacy and much of its charm.

Fast-forward to 2013, and the current (third generation) has just been subject to a second, and probably final, facelift before an all-new successor appears on the scene in a few years.

The chances of a slip-up this time around were, admittedly, fairly remote. A two-litre non- turbo engine (which has been with the MX-5 since 2005) is retained. As before, it delivers peak outputs of 118kW and 188Nm, and is happy to run on a diet of 91 octane petrol.

The other mechanical and dynamic fundamentals are unchanged too, including a choice of six-speed manual (as tested) or six-speed automatic transmission.

What's new are changes to the accelerator control and brakes, new 17-inch wheels, and a new front bumper that is more aggressive-looking than its predecessor.

Mazda's obsession with controlling the weight of the MX-5 is legendary, so it comes as no surprise that the redesigned nose is lighter.

Similarly, one easily forgives features such as wafer-thin plastic sun-visors, knowing that they, and a hundred other small decisions, have played a vital role in making the MX-5 one of the few cars that has not gained significant weight over its lifetime.

The one area where the MX-5 packed on the pounds (or 36kg, to be precise) a few years ago was in the addition of a folding power-operated hard top.

The old soft-top wasn't bad: it could be lowered easily from the driver's seat, and a well-practised couple could raise it without leaving their seats. Even so, a power-operated roof that goes up or down in just 12 seconds and adds extra security for parking once up is hugely appealing.

It's no surprise, then, that the hard-top roof option has quickly overtaken the soft top as the roof of choice for the MX-5, to the point at which the latter is now available only on special order.

The hard top was certainly welcome on test, as in Dunedin's delightful summer weather it could be stowed readily and the car driven almost everywhere roof down. Indeed, except when parked, the only time the test car had its roof up was for a brief 5km run to assess cabin noise.

For a longtime sports-car fan who even took his driving test in a Roadster with the roof down, a week of topless motoring was something to savour.

There are other, much more expensive, convertibles that do open-top motoring with a more luxurious touch, but the MX-5 still covers the bases well, with an air diffuser behind the seats to minimise tumble-back breezes, and the all-important high-power heating system.

It ticks other key equipment boxes too, with a premium Bose sound system, leather trim and cruise control, and full electrics all on the standard menu.

Two changes have been introduced with this update specifically to improve driver appeal. These comprise throttle modification to enhance control when accelerating from a slow speed, and revisions to the brake to improve pedal feel.

You'd need to drive MX-5 old and new versions to isolate the impact of these enhancements, but there's no doubt that the car in its most recent form is every bit the cracking drive that the pre-facelift version is.

As ever, straight-line performance is relatively modest, and peak torque and power points of 5000rpm and 7000rpm respectively indicate the need to work the gearbox to keep the revs up and make the most of what the engine can offer. Let those revs drop too much and the car feels flat and unresponsive, especially on steeper hills.

But in terms of handling prowess, and most particularly in the areas of feel, balance and adjustability while cornering, the MX-5 remains a car with few peers. Take it down a twisty road at a modest pace and the sheer tactility of its responses not only delights, but encourages one to pay attention to driving as neatly and precisely as possible.

Pushed harder, it rewards even more, sliding a little if seriously provoked, but coming back into line with a touch of opposite lock. Magic indeed, especially on a warm, sunny day.


More MX-5 magic from Mazda
At a Glance


Rating: 4.5 stars

For: Fantastic engaging handling, effortless open-top motoring

Against: Average straight-line performance

Verdict: Remains the benchmark affordable sports car


Price (as tested): $55,190

Engine: 1998cc four-cylinder petrol, max power 118kW@7000rpm, max torque 188Nm@5000rpm

Transmission: Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive

Brakes and stability systems: Ventilated disc brakes, ABS, BA, DSC, TC

Wheels, tyres: Alloy rims, 205/45 R17 tyres

Fuel and economy: 91 octane unleaded petrol, 8.1 litres per 100km (on ADR combined cycle), capacity 50 litres

Dimensions: Length 4020mm, width 1720mm, height 1255mm.