Mazda MX5

18 01 2008

The latest incarnation of the Mazda MX5 confused the hell out of me. What kind of twisted logic fits four cup holders to a car with two seats? Do MX5 drivers dribble a lot? Do they alternate between hot and cold drinks while driving? Then there was the driving experience, how can it be so Japanese sports carish and yet not? I was confused and I wanted answers.

Leafing through the propaganda, one philosophy becomes apparent. “Jinba Ittai”, Rider and Horse as one. It’s pretty hard for it not to be apparent, its in every second paragraph. The steering has Jinba Ittai, the 2 litre MZR series engine runs on Jinba Ittai, the roof liner is a sensuous weave of cotton and Jinba Ittai. And as soon as it was patiently explained to me that they were not talking about a perverse relationship up in the snowy mountains but creating a unified driving experience, where the boundaries between driver and machine blur yadda yadda yadda, then it started to make sense.

Mazda’s marketing team have overheard a catchphrase being used by the engineers and they’re Jinba Ittai’ing that poor pony to death.

Thankfully Mazda is one of the last remaining Japanese manufacturers that let the engineers build the sports cars so I’ll make a promise to you the reader, and to the Mazda engineers. I’ll stop repeating the marketing and start reviewing the machine. Oh and I wont unify or blur borders with anything, be it equestrian or mechanical.

Climbing into the MX5 the first thing you notice is that its low. Previous models felt like you were sitting on top of the car with your elbows flapping in the wind, not anymore. Now you slide down the seat to nestle inside the car. All around you’re cocooned by the bodywork and for drivers in the 180cm plus region you’re cocooned just a little to much. Here’s where the 200% cup holder to seat ratio started to irritate me. Centre console mounted cup holders will always be a nuisance in manual cars, they’re either blocking the radio or they’re in the way of your elbow when you’re shifting. To counter this Mazda put a second “bottle” holder in the door. And here’s the crux of the matter.

The old MX5 was loved by middle aged house wives, is was sporty and cute without being dangerously quick and guzzling fuel. The new model ticks all those boxes to, so that makes this next bit important. For those who’ve got big thighs, that door mounted cup holder is in the way. You can still drive perfectly well, but the cup holders are always just there, poking your leg like a three year old needing to pee. It doesn’t compromise the drive but I definitely did notice it on my test.

The dashboard is well placed, everything is within reach and put together well. But the MX5 is an affordable car and it shows. Plastic’s the name of the game and its everywhere. Compared its European rivals the MX5 feels less luxurious and more utilitarian. But when comparing the prices its only to be expected. Whilst it does use a lot of plastic in the build, it’s well made and never feels cheap. Storage spaces appear everywhere in the car, surprising amounts for a car of its size, and its boot is generous. There’s more than enough room to pack for a quick trip away and the multitude of compartments around the interior mean you can keep your sunglasses and various essentials handy for day to day driving.

On the outside my confusion continues. The styling is masculine. Mazda has given the MX5 pumped out wheel arches and a cheeky little power bulge in the bonnet. But I’m left wondering why. The MX5 is a small car with a small engine, why have they tried to make it look aggressive? For me there are two ways to go with small cars like this. Make it look cute, but risk being to embarrassing for the more dedicated enthusiast, or make it look sexy. Give it the kind of curves that will have middle aged men out on their front lawn polishing it with their eyes closed and then you’ve got a recipe for an icon. But Mazda went aggressive. From the front it looks like some sort of large mouthed fish. Coupled to a body that bulges here and there, it honestly makes me think of a steroid abusing Koi with an attitude problem. It’s still a good looking car, and some people will love its style, but for me it could have been so much more.

Still, the soul of a sports car is its handling. The 2 litre engine was exactly what I expected, competent for the job, with enough torque throughout the range to keep acceleration brisk and small enough to keep fuel consumption down to a frugal 8.8 l/100km. Its matched with the joyous six speed gear box which is perfectly geared for a spirited drive in the country, but might require a little more shifting around the city than ideal. It’s beautifully made, the throws are short and it gives great confidence that you wont miss a gear when under pressure. But it’s a oily smooth shifting experience now, and part of me does miss the slightly more mechanical feel of the older model that would snick into place.

You need to work the engine to really get the car excited and that’s pure Japanese sports car, but suddenly when it turns into a corner I come over all confused again. My previous experience in lightweight Japanese cars is that mid corner they’ll be a trembling mass of machinery ready to head in any direction with a squeal of tires and squirrelly grip. They feel darty. The MX5 on the other hand doesn’t. It picks a line and holds onto it tenaciously. It’s solid, sure footed and uncompromising. It feels like a German sports car. Don’t get me wrong, its not a bad thing, it’s a beautiful thing, the car feels like its on rails and linking up corner after corner on the back roads is a joy, but it no longer feels like the featherweight Japanese sports cars of old. The MX5 has matured.

Even more surprising is ride comfort. You can still feel the bumps but its far more comfortable around town than I was expecting after its joyous mid corner handling. And steering feedback is a dream, exactly what you’d expect from a car of its pedigree. In short it’s a car that looks like its Japanese, Has an engine that behaves like its Japanese, but corners like a German.

It’s a brilliant car, even with its quirks, and unparalleled value for money in its class. If you’re looking for a second car with enough storage space to be practical, that corners so well you’ll look 20 years younger when going around a hairpin and doesn’t rack up the fuel bills, this is the car you want.

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