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Test Drive: Mazda MX-5 1.5

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Pablo Mayo Sanz
@pablomayosanz
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The Mazda MX-5 enters my select list of cars that I will always be able to remember, and, when I do, I will smile. I have only driven two generations, NC and ND, but I have fully understood what the Japanese engineers wanted to convey model by model. I'm convinced that if I drove the NA and NB, I would also enjoy like a pig during its orgasm. It's one of the few things left for purists at first hand, at a reasonable price.


In September I had a test drive on Catalan roads with both engines, the 1.5 and the 2.0, in dry and wet conditions. This time, I'll give you my impressions after driving it for a week, this time in very cold weather, with the engine of lower power, and with a more usual pattern of use. I haven't kept it for the simple reason that I don't have the necessary euros right now, otherwise, I would have called the press department and asked for an account number, I would have kept it without further ado.

Design

What was the starting point for the MX-5? We have to go way back in time, when fuel was cheap and the roads were very clear of traffic, in the post-war 1940s. We imagine driving a small roadster through the British countryside on a spring day. Thanks to so much motorway and the lack of agreement from the OPEC bloodsuckers, we can now enjoy the same thing on some back roads in Spain.

When the first MX-5 was released, it was a tribute on wheels to the Lotus Elan, Triumph Spitfire, MG B and similar models. The Japanese interpretation, in addition to charm, added legendary reliability and the formula has been a success. There are over a million units made between the four generations, and at a time when manufacturers sometimes bore us to death, the MX-5 is something really different. And it's not expensive!


I know that my pictures can't compete in quality with those of the master Daniel Murías, who also reviewed the MX-5, although with the more powerful engine. Anyway, even if I bombard you with photos and explanations, nothing can replace the feeling of having some intimate time with the car and exploring each of its angles. It's like exploring your partner's body in the nude... it's hard to get tired of exploring. We can choose from seven shades of paint.

Anyone who doesn't like the MX-5 has very dubious tastes in cars.

There is only one design element common to all MX-5s, the round turn signals on the front wings. Each generation has maintained its own personality, with Mazda not looking for major changes to its successful formula. This time it's smaller and wider, and through the most inadvertent design tricks, it doesn't look so small. According to the designer, Masashi Nakayama, Mazda hasn't looked at its "competitors", just as it has in the past. By the way, despite the era we're in, it was modeled in clay, not by computer. We owe it to Yukiharo Asano, a veteran modeller of the Hiroshima brand.

Its forms transmit tension, beauty, modernity, classic style, poise, lightness... a real cocktail of sensations that may seem contradictory. Moreover, it is a car made from the inside out, and yet it is objectively beautiful. It is instantly identifiable as a sports car, others have to adorn the car with superfluous aesthetic elements or add emblems that say "Sport". The MX-5 is self-explanatory.


LED headlights give exceptional night driving performance.

It may look spartan in details like the single-color canvas top, the exhaust tailpipes or the tiny disc brakes (258 mm for the 1.5's front ones). None of that is important. If we're very picky, we won't agree with the location of the trunk release button, or the radio antenna, or the visibility through the window once the roof is in place. Purists won't find any of these details a problem, far from it.

By the way, the 1.5s always get 16″ aluminium electroformed wheels, and the 2.0s get 17″ ones, in both cases there are two shades to choose from.

Cabin

The MX-5 is a two-seater for "everyone", but it should be clarified that they are all people of no more than 1.8 meters tall, and not very corpulent. In this car space is not something that is over, SUVs have made us accustomed to that, and you can have the feeling of being a little boxed in. Then that feeling will evolve to feel its embrace, and hugs when they are sincere never uncomfortable. The body color penetrates the cabin, creating a curious visual effect. The color of this unit is not the one that stands out the best in that sense, it blends in with the other tones.

Nor is it the most comfortable car in the world to get in or out, or to manipulate the glove box (between the rear seats), or to connect an electrical appliance (under the dashboard, part of the co-driver). There are cars much more suitable in that sense, but we are talking about a sports car, and the priorities are different. I assure you that I have no trauma in this regard, but of course, I have a medium height, just over 1.7 meters, and I'm around 70 kilos. I would say that everything was within my reach and in the right place.


What prevails in the MX-5 is the total union between man and machine, a perfectly placed steering wheel, as well as the pedals, the gear shift or the instrumentation. Mazda calls this the Jinba Ittai, the union between rider and horse. The steering wheel can't be adjusted in depth for weight and cost savings, but I felt comfortable. Other people will have to move further away or closer to the pedals. Also, the riding position is just about perfect, leaving the hips 145mm off the ground and as close to the center of gravity as possible.

The car becomes an extension of ourselves, we will be one.

The days I drove in the cold, when I didn't deprive myself of removing the roof whenever I felt like it, I appreciated how well designed it is. The air vents on either side of the steering wheel are strategically placed so that the heating relieves your hands from the scratch. If that wasn't the designers' intention, they nailed it anyway. My feet didn't get cold either. Add to all of the above the heated seats (depending on equipment) and believe me, the car is like a hot tub on wheels. It was designed with that in mind, it's no coincidence.

The roof can be put on and taken off without unbuckling the seatbelt, unless you have very short arms. The unlocking mechanism is very simple, there is a handle to release the hood above the rearview mirror, and another between the seats if we want to release the hood from its stowed position. A couple of movements, and voila. It doesn't need an automatic mechanism at all, it would only serve to add weight and complexity (more money, in short). The windows go up and down by themselves to facilitate the operation. If we get caught in the rain, we can react quickly.

It has anchors for a hardtop, but Mazda won't be making one.

It's a car made to be driven, very driver-oriented. One of the few points of criticism is in the position of the roulette of the MZD Connect system with 7″ screen. When inserting a few even gears, it's not hard to touch a button and have unwanted behavior, like skipping a song or cutting the volume dry. You can't have classic handbrake, roulette, manual gearbox and slides all at once, in such a small amount of space, without some glitch coming out.

The seats of the 1.5, regardless of the equipment, are not like the Recaro, but they adequately fulfill their function holding the body, I have not found anything uncomfortable, although the part of the headrest has less foam to contain speakers inside. The adjustment possibilities are limited, as I said, height is important. It is better for a small woman than for a big man. For taller people I recommend to travel with a cap, whether there is sun or not.

The BOSE sound system distributes nine speakers throughout the cabin, the result is worthy of a music lover.

Accessing the drinks, which are placed between the seats, is not easy. If there's no passenger, or they're pushed to one side, a cup holder can be placed near the gear lever. Pockets for emptying our pockets are not particularly abundant, but for what is a regular use we have what it takes. The lid of the central box allows a cable to pass through to charge the phone without imprisoning it, a detail that is appreciated.

If I were to complain about the noise, I'd be lying. According to Mazda, it's up to 40% quieter than the MX-5 NC at high frequencies, and the hood doesn't vibrate at high speeds. It doesn't have the sound insulation of a hybrid or a high-end car, but it's perfectly bearable at legal speeds or a little above, although conversation isn't easy above 120 km/h (75 mph). At speeds where you lose points, it starts to get a bit uncomfortable, especially without the roof on. But to enjoy the MX-5 you don't need to go fast, far from it. Nor is it essential that there are curves, but its presence is always appreciated.

It is a quality car, although most plastics are hard, but they fit well, and it is not easy to hear any structural noise. The strategy of saving gram for gram has not left the car with a buttery chassis, exactly. Some components have been inherited from lower segment models, yes, but they work as they should, that's the important thing. The overall impression is good. Doesn't it look like there's a metal part in the interior door? Well, it's plastic.

There is another detail to highlight, and that is that being lighter, the suspension is not hard at all; despite being a sports car it is not uncomfortable at all. The 1.5s have the "soft" suspension as standard, which I think is very well adjusted and has an almost perfect balance between comfort and efficiency. The MX-5 NC was more radical in that sense, and the engineers wanted a sweeter car in general terms, although it can still seduce a purist.

I end this section with the trunk. In my day to day life, to tell the truth, I have hardly needed its services. If we travel with a passenger, two cabin suitcases will fit, or a single medium suitcase. The large format does not fit even if you ask for it. The capacity is 130 liters, the widest object that can be put in can't exceed 808 mm. Although the NC cubically accepted more volume, the ND has a better use of it. If more capacity is needed, it has as an accessory some supports for the tailgate, more retro impossible. One last note about the tailgate, it is very light!

Technique

Although the Mazda MX-5 that preceded it were very fun to drive, with good behavior, it has wanted to go further. It retains the basic architecture of the NC, but is stiffer and lighter. High-strength steels are 71% by weight (previously 59%), and aluminum reaches 9% (previously 0.1%). Weight has been reduced wherever possible and without any other penalties.

One of the most important changes is the removal of the hydraulic power steering, and an electromechanical and pinion steering has been adopted, with 4.3% less gear ratio. I found it quite informative, although my colleague Daniel thought it could be improved near the neutral zone. In terms of precision and feel, I can't criticize it. Between curbs only needs 10.4 meters to change direction, so it goes well in urban areas.

The suspension keeps the front double wishbone and multi-link axle at the rear, but it goes much smoother. As the car has been lightened by about 100 kg, the shock absorbers don't need to be as firm, and increase their effective travel. That's why it's now sweeter than before. The 2.0s may have firmer Bilstein suspension components, but they're still not uncomfortable. The increased stiffness means better handling, and according to Mazda, understeer has been reduced.

In terms of engines, there are two four-cylinder units, with natural intake, direct injection, variable valve timing and high compression ratio (13:1). The 1.5 delivers 131 hp and 150 Nm @ 4,500 RPM, and the 2.0 goes to 160 hp and 200 Nm @ 4,600 RPM. It's gone for what, in my opinion, is a better bet than a tighter turbocharged engine. With both engines the transmission developments are identical. We'll have to see if the Fiat 124 Spider -basically an MX-5- with a 1.4 turbocharged engine convinces us. Mazda is one of the few manufacturers that still believe in good naturally aspirated engines, and we thank them for it.

It's only offered with a six-speed manual gearbox, with very short travel (40 mm) and a feel to be envied by the rest of the market, segment by segment. The gearbox is lighter and makes better use of the energy of gasoline compared to the NC, and is really addictive. In a naturally aspirated car you have to change gear more often, and that's why we will love the gear knob and assume it as a part of our body. Anyway, I wouldn't mind an automatic, because there are people with physical limitations who also deserve to enjoy it, or who don't master the technique in certain circumstances. As long as it's optional...

The difference in consumption is small between engines, but the 2.0 has more power, 33% more, but with an additional 50 kg.

The design premises are a few: lightness, compact size, delayed front engine, rear propulsion, 50:50 weight distribution, low moment of inertia and affordable price. They nailed it. Takao Kijima, responsible for the NA chassis, and the NB and NC programs, said at the time that it wasn't worth making it more powerful because that meant making it heavier. Besides, the power is just right to be always controllable, and to avoid any unexpected response. On second thought, he's absolutely right.

Driving

Driving the MX-5 is first and foremost an experience for the senses. I must protest about its false efficiency: despite all the work the engineers have put into reducing the engine's fuel consumption, it's very easy to take a longer way home, or to get into a curvy road where you can squeeze the low gears and ruin the averages. With the 131 hp of the "small" engine I have not been bored at all, indeed, I almost prefer it to the big engine because of the injection cut well past 7,000 RPM. It's not an RX-8, but it's a delight to rev it up.

The performance is more than adequate, 0-100 km/h in 8.3 seconds, a top speed of 204 km/h and quick recoveries: 80-120 km/h in third gear in 5.7 seconds, in fourth 7.9 seconds (tenth up, tenth down). In addition, in a civilized use the consumption is practically competitive with that of a Prius. Think about it, it barely exceeds the ton, has good aerodynamics, and the engine is "round". You don't need to start a cylinder to get a low fuel consumption, it's a pity that most manufacturers don't think like that. Homologated 6 l/100 km, is a pretty honest data, if it were a turbo three-cylinder would be announced something below 5 l/100 km, and probably spend the same.

High gears don't choke it, but when torque is scarce, just change gear.

In my usual use I was able to get it under 6 l/100 km with an ideal flow of traffic, with no difficulty. In high gears, the SKYACTIVs suck very little. Overall, the computer indicated an average of 6.3 l/100 km, and the real consumption was slightly higher, about 6.5 l/100 km. It's not too far from what a diesel car with low gears does, mind you. It's a VERY bearable consumption considering the amount of fuel I put on the accelerator, I did an average of 60 km / h, very varied. With 45 liters of gasoline, its range is very respectable, it gives to go far away.

The MX-5 with 1.5 engine doesn't have the self-locking rear differential. This means that if you come out of a corner with your foot flat in second gear, one wheel can spin much more than the other if the traction control is deactivated. It only happened to me on a slow hairpin, where one wheel let off some white smoke, as it partially lost grip on the ground. Traction losses are not frequent, you always have to provoke something, such as a quick change of support, which, by the way, it does with great agility.

Driving in the rain I hardly missed the self-locking differential, just be gentle with the accelerator pedal, and with the right experience, you can have fun on a slippery road, and without being a public danger. It's fun to tickle it and ask it to cross over, and keeping it in the yaw sweet spot is very easy (or so it seemed to me). The electronic aids are deactivated at the touch of a button, and instantly. No rituals, no begging.

There's no in-between mode with and without aids.

The brakes of the MX-5 1.5, although tiny, do what is expected of the car and stop the car effectively, with less travel than heavier cars and bigger wheels. Let's keep in mind that we're talking about a 195 wide with mid-range Bridgestone Turanza tyres; they can easily be found on a Skoda Octavia with the "TAXI" sign. I consider the choice of the standard tyres to be adequate in terms of consumption, noise and efficiency.

Have I told you that toe-tapping is a piece of cake? Another detail that makes you fall in love

You can tell that the men who designed this car are lovers of driving, and that's why they have made such a good car in that sense. It may sound like an empty phrase taken from the press kit, but after meeting the man in charge of the MX-5 ND project, I had no doubt that this is the case. It's made with love, passion and attention to the smallest dynamic details. It is enough to mention that the wheels use four nuts instead of five to save weight, or that the differential saves 7-10 kg, or that the viscosity of the gearbox oil allows better cold response.

In terms of driver comfort, the clutch pedal is now a little softer, which is especially appreciated in urban driving and in traffic jams. As for Stop&Start, it doesn't have it with this engine. The car has a very precise feel, I appreciated it especially when I rushed a braking in support and it lifted slightly from behind. I noticed it on the spot, it's so progressive and we're sitting so correctly, it would only be more informative if it could talk. In other words, we'll know on the spot when we're approaching its limits.

One of the times I climbed my favourite mountain pass - out of sheer viciousness - I came across two large motorbikes on the way up. Did we get stung? The other way round. I placed myself between bike and bike, and if someone had filmed us, the result would have looked like a ballet choreography. It was pure harmony and enjoyment, them in their own way, me in mine, rushing the apexes of the curves and enjoying every gear change, every downshift, every exhaust snort, every change of support. At the end of the pass, they greeted me in a friendly manner. It was unforgettable.

The MX-5 enters the curves with a lot of security, it stays on the trajectory, and if we don't want it to do anything strange, it won't do it. We can force the situation a bit with a weight transfer or other drifting techniques to take the roundabouts in a way that more than one would be shocked, with enviable control and safety! Age improves palates when drinking wine, and experience educates the hands better. This car is much more enjoyable when it is already well driven with rear-wheel drive, when we can master it without creating danger.

Whatever the driving situations - with the exception of traffic jams - I have been tremendously happy. Whoever got in with me got out with a big smile on their face, whether they knew about cars or not. It's a pity that this kind of conception is being lost, so few manufacturers are betting on sensations, and more and more we are moving towards a machine doing everything for us. The MX-5 reconciles us with pure driving, without going to the extremes of resisted steering, the crank, or not having a simple anti-lock brakes. The spirit of the NA, with an unprecedented sweetness in its almost 26 years of history.

You have to try the experience of going one gear after the other, without reaching an excessive speed, squeezing the rev counter. It's time to reduce, tip-tack, the car seems to read our thoughts. The exhaust makes us horny lost. We don't drive any supercar with more than 300 hp, with less than half of it, it's enough to have fun. That's the spirit of the MX-5, and that's why it's such a successful formula: it's the world's best-selling roadster. Driving this car is highly addictive.

Technology

Before concluding, I would like to make a necessary digression to talk about other things the car has that are worth mentioning at least. In the chapter on safety, I would like to mention two very important aids, the Lane Keeping Assist (LDWS) and the High Beam Beam Assist (HBC). If we step on a continuous or broken line without a turn signal, we will receive an acoustic and visual warning, but the steering does not correct itself. The correction doesn't work well in this car, but it would prevent a distracted drifting off the road.

If we are not very used to the MZD Connect system, it is something that can happen, although it can be manipulated without looking at the roulette or by voice commands, and although the screen is very high and hardly distracting. The touch function only works when the car is stationary. With a little training, you can control it quickly and with minimal distraction, as long as you're responsible (Mazda isn't like our mother, nor does it pretend to be).

Luxury with Sport pack includes adaptive function in the lights (AFS).

On the other hand, the high beam assistant automatically switches the high beams on and off. It doesn't have LED matrix headlights, so it can't do the more sophisticated headlight shadow games. Is it fast or not? To the best of my recollection, only one car threw a protest flurry at me, just over a crest change. I would therefore say that it doesn't dazzle practically anyone.

It is also important to note the blind spot warning (BSM), which can avoid more than one scare when changing lanes. Turning your head all the way around is the best way to be sure, but this system is more comfortable, you have to admit. The head turn can be reserved for the anti-helicopter function, which is very effective when the canvas roof is folded down. If Pegasus is around, we can greet him, as a British gentleman would do.

The BSM includes another interesting function, warning of perpendicular traffic in reverse manoeuvres (RCTA). What it doesn't have is traffic sign reading, automatic braking and forward collision warning. Those functions are based on video camera, the car has it, but it lacks that kind of programming in its software. Adding those features wouldn't increase the weight, I'll drop it.

The most "techy" thing I've done with the car has been to connect my cell phone, and enjoy Spotify music via Bluetooth Audio. In this car a higher level of connectivity I see it completely accessory, for that there is something called "co-driver", because there is nothing nicer than sharing pleasurable experiences with others. However, with the phone's internet connection (if it supports it), you can access Aha, Stitcher, connect to Twitter and Facebook or perform advanced searches in the browser, or so says the press kit.

Conclusions

I'm afraid of being repetitive or tiresome in my verdict, but I'll try to elaborate. It's not the first test I've written about the MX-5, I already played it at the presentation in Barcelona. It's a pity that the loans are for a week, for me it could be like this all year long. It is a very usable car in the day to day life, it uses very little, it has the comfort that the body needs, the fun that the heart needs, and the mind will be convinced with the complete package. This car has to be tested to be judged fairly.

It's the size of a hatchback, a very good city car, and a greener option than any diesel SUV of the same length. We have to get used to the idea that the MX-5 is going to generate a lot of envy wherever we go, and it won't be for what it costs, nor for the space it occupies, nor for what it boasts. It transmits another kind of values. It can appeal to the most inexperienced driver, as well as to the senior who has lost faith in modern cars and misses the sensations of yesteryear.

For those who are tired of "more of the same", give it a try. It is very difficult to find complaints about this car, beyond questions of habitability/practicality, or lazy arguments like "there is no diesel" or "it lacks technological equipment". Yesterday I read a lapidary phrase: "life is too short to drive boring cars". I wish there were more like him.

Thanks to Luis Blázquez for his help with the dynamic photos.

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