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Mazda MX-5

Mazda

Review

THE MX-5 is the one. Forget about Mazda’s recent flurry of new and engaging models.

While they have quickly and effectively put Mazda back on the motoring radar, it will be the all-new MX-5 roadster that will really determine Mazda’s future success.

Why? Because for many people the MX-5 is Mazda. It’s a stand-alone brand, a broad and lucrative silver lining that has shone through some of the company’s darkest days. If Mazda gets this wrong, the MX-5’s iconic status will be irrevocably tarnished.

When it arrives in November the MX-5, internally codenamed J04C, will also find its sales field more crowded than before. Although Mazda has decided against pushing the little roadster up against more powerful and expensive rivals including the BMW Z4 and Mercedes SLK, it will still face stiff competition from the Toyota MR2 and evergreen MG TF, as well as the entry-level Audi TT roadster, Ford StreetKa, MINI convertible and smart roadster. It will be well-armed for the sales onslaught though.

The Mazda two-seater retains its dinky footprint and simple front-engined, rear-drive layout, complete with manually-operated fabric and glass hood.

It also gets a power hike with the arrival of two new 1.8 and 2.0-litre four-cylinder engines with five and six-speed manual transmissions.

There is no word on pricing yet, but our sources indicate that the 1.8 and 2.0-litre models will cost between £1,000 and £1,500 more than the 1.6 and 1.8-litre models they replace, which means the entry level 1.8 will cost about £16,500 while the top-spec 2.0 Sport model should wear a price tag of no more than £19,500. That is a noticeable price hike, justified, Mazda claims, by the new generation’s higher performance, safety and specification levels.

Expect all models to come with aircon, alloys, four airbags, CD player, ABS brakes and traction control as standard. The MX-5 arrives in November and Mazda believes it will shift 6,000 of the roadsters in 2006. That’s a very modest sales target – it’s no more than the outgoing model will sell this year – but that sales conservatism is due in part to a capped supply from Japan.

DRIVING

JINBA ITTAI – you’ll get used to hearing this Japanese phrase, because it encapsulates the concept behind the MX-5.

It means ‘rider and horse as one’ and refers to Mazda’s goal of making the driver feel an integral part of the car. For such a small car, the MX-5 swings with a mighty punch.

Even on the verge of replacement, it is still a dynamic David, capable of toppling much more expensive and exotic Goliaths.

The key to the MX-5’s driving appeal is its simplicity. Not the kind of simplicity to be confused with primitive, but simplicity by which its relatively straight-forward, front-engine-rear-drive mechanics fuse together perfectly to create something well above their individual status.

The MX-5 is such good fun to drive because it peels back all the stifling layers between the driver and oily bits below.

It has nothing to do with three-figure speeds and mile-long burnouts, and everything to do tactility, deftness, precision and immediacy. Mazda promises the MX-5 will be an even sharper and engaging driving tool than before. That is quite a claim, given the excellence of the outgoing model. To enhance the driving dynamics, the engine has been pushed back by 135mm and canted over to the right by 10 degrees to give the roadster an even weight distribution and to lower its centre of gravity.

While the front suspension retrains its unequal length double wishbones, the rear now adopts a sophisticated multi-link set-up, similar to that found in the RX-8. So, expect the same telepathic and feelsome rack and pinion steering, rifle-bolt gearlever action, superb chassis balance, taut body control, rev-happy engines and supple ride. Anything less from the world’s best-selling roadster would be a disappointment.

DESIGN
YOU don’t have to squint your eyes too much at the new MX-5 too see the profile of the Ibuki concept car that Mazda unveiled to shocked show-goers at the 2003 Tokyo motorshow.

There is a new-found masculinity in the MX-5’s chunkier stance. It looks bigger, tougher and much more aggressive than the slender and waif-like model it replaces. Check out those flared wheel arches, the rounded creaseless flanks, near-flat bonnet, 17-inch alloy wheels, twin exhaust pipes and fuller waist – they imbue the roadster with a much higher degree of visual authority.

Despite this chunkier look, the MX-5 is still light – a key ingredient to its driving appeal. Mazda instigated a ‘gramme-by-gramme’ weight-loss programme for the MX-5, trimming the kerb weight of the 2.0-litre car to 1,123kg by using ultra-high tensile steels and aluminium – that is a modest 23kg weight gain over the older, less powerful model.

The wheelbase has grown to 2,325mm, a full 60mm longer than before, giving the cabin a much-needed boost in leg, arm and head room. You sit lower for a more rakish, sporting driving position in a new interior that is far more appealing – the scattered switchgear, cheap-looking plastics and dated styling of before are replaced by a spacious and intelligently configured cabin, swathed in soft-touch plastics, cloth and leather.

The deeply-hooded instruments now mimic those in the RX-8 and Bose was once again called in to develop the sound system, so expect a fine in-car entertainment system capable of delivering quality roof-down sound.

The fabric and glass roof, still a lesson in driver-friendly simplicity, now has a single centrally-located manual clasp and Mazda promises a bigger and more usable boot too.

Despite initial reports, there will be no coupe-cabriolet derivative with a folding metal hardtop – although it was under development for the MX-5, it was shelved on cost grounds.

POWERTRAINS
THE MX-5 comes armed with two new engines – a 125bhp 1.8-litre unit and a 165bhp 2.0-litre powerplant.

The 1.8-litre engine develops 125bhp and 127lb-ft of torque, and drives the rear wheels through a five-speed manual transmission.

The 2.0-litre unit gets a closely stacked six-cog manual box and is good for 165bhp and 136lb-ft of torque. The six-speed paddle-shift transmission offered in Japan and America is unlikely to come to Europe at first.

Both powerplants feature aluminium blocks and heads, variable valve timing and an acoustically tuned straight-through exhaust system.

Expect the bigger engine to bullet the MX-5 to 60mph in seven seconds and on to 140mph, while returning 30mpg on the combined cycle.

The 1.8-litre should be about a second slower in the sprint, and have a lower 125mph top speed, but with an anticipated fuel economy figure around the 35mpg mark.

Both engines are Euro IV compliant, but as yet there is no word on CO2 levels.

FACT FILE

1.8 2.0
MAX POWER (BHP): 125 165
MAX TORQUE (LB-FT/RPM): 127 136
MAX SPEED (MPH): 140 125
0-60MPH (SEC): 7.0 8.0
FUEL CONSUMPTION (MPG): 30 35
CO2 EMISSIONS (G/KM): NA NA
FUEL TANK CAPACITY (L/GAL): 50/11 50/11
TRANSMISSIONS: 5-SPEED MANUAL 6-SPEED MANUAL
ON SALE: NOVEMBER 2005
PRICES (ESTIMATED): £16,500-£19,500

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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