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2016 Mazda MX-5 1.5-litre Review

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We are living in a world where we are spoilt for choice when it comes to fun driving machines. For those stepping up from game console into the real world, there are cars like the Peugeot 208 GTi and Ford Fiesta ST. At the other end of the spectrum there exist speed demons like the Nissan GT-R and Porsche 911 Turbo. Then there is everything in between – Renault Megane RS, Volkswagen Golf R, BMW M4, Subaru WRX, Audi TT RS, Alfa Romeo 4C…

Can you see something common here? All the cars above are turbocharged and pack voluminous kilowatts. It seems our obsession with power and grip and lap times have blurred our vision on what exactly got us attracted to this thing on four wheels in the first place – driving.

If you need to wrestle a car at every corner just to get it to turn that’s not driving. If you need to throw all your strength just to keep the wheel straight when launching the car off the line that’s not driving.

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Fortunately some car makers have not forgotten about the essence of this art. The brilliant Toyota 86 gave us the purest, most connected driving experience this side of a Porsche 911 GT3 RS. And now there’s another one, the Mazda MX-5 – the world’s favourite lightweight roadster that is not designed to set the tarmac on fire but put a smile on your face.

Now in its fourth generation, the MX-5 recipe is still largely unchanged – engine at the front, gearbox in the middle and rear-wheel drive. But the latest ND model has lost all the extra fats garnered through the last two generations to become lightweight again. Shorter, lower and wider the new MX-5 is over 90kg lighter than the model it replaces, tipping the scale at just 1,009kg. It is the most compact yet of all generations and promises to embody the fundamental pleasure of driving, which Mazda calls it the jinba-ittai philosophy, Japanese for “in oneness between car and driver”.

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Few months back, we reviewed the 2.0-litre version MX-5 and while the more powerful engine certainly gave the world’s best selling roadster a harder edge, it was just the 1.5-litre that Mazda had in mind when sketching the fourth-gen ND MX-5. The 2.0L donk was only added later to meet the power-hungry appetite of a few countries. And Australia is one of them.

Down Under, the 1.5L MX-5 is priced from just $31,990 plus on-roads – a mere $2,000 more than the original 1989 launch price and $3,000 cheaper than the 2.0L model. For the price, you get a highly sculpted, low-slung and lustily sexy convertible body that sits two with a manually operated fabric roof. Now that’s what we call affordable.

The figures of 96kW and 150Nm aren’t going to catch any enthusiast’s attention, neither would they win you any bragging rights. But that’s exactly what the normally aspirated 1.5-litre SKYACTIV-G four-cylinder petrol engine makes. And precisely because it is scant, you can rev the s**t out of it and still stay within the legal speed limit. You can turn the electronics off, kick its tail out – how sweet the modest power is still enough to let you slide – and it will never bite back, no matter how crazy you go.

If this isn’t the funnest thing to do with a car, we’re not sure what is.

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The lesser MX-5 spins to a frenzy 7500rpm, seven hundred revs more than the 2.0L version. And this can only add to the fun but do not think it takes longer to get there, as the 1.5L sure loves to rev and it revs hard. The accompanying soundtrack is also considerably enthusiastic as far as small engine goes. This coupled with the added zest from the rorty exhaust, wringing out the little 1.5L MX-5 can even be described as addictive.

Affirming Mazda’s driver and car connectedness claim, the steering is faithful to every input and never ceases to telegraph what’s underneath the car. The throttle is sharp but not to the point of nerving and the brakes bite progressively right from the top of the pedal. The six-speed manual gearbox is sleek, tight and precise. Its shifts are properly short throw and when matched with that light clutch pedal changing gear is an absolute joy.

The only gripe in this area is the placement of the pedals, which isn’t the best for heel-and-toe, as the accelerator pedal is too low compared to the brake pedal.

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The MX-5’s delightful controls are connected to one of the best chassis we have ever sampled. With 50/50 weight distribution and an ultra low centre of gravity, the MX-5’s handling is wonderfully neutral and crisp. And it’s this fine chassis balance that makes the MX-5 feel like an extension of your body. There isn’t a lot of grip from those skinny (in performance car standard) 195mm wide tyres and the 1.5-litre’s softer suspension makes it dive and roll a tad more than what we’d expect from a sports car, but it’s these attributes that allow you to feel the car. The MX-5 isn’t a very fast car but it feels faster than it actually is.

The brilliant chassis also allows for quick turn in and swift change of direction. The fact that it doesn’t get upset no matter how you cane it is another rarity these days. It’s always predictable. You will pick up oversteer on corner exit if you give it too much of the right pedal, but it feels more like a playful ritual than anything. It wants to have fun with you.

You actually drive this thing. And it wants to be driven, too. Your driving inputs are in direct connection with the car and likewise its feedbacks are undistorted and pure.

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Around town, the MX-5 1.5L with smaller 16-inch wheels (2.0-litre gets 17-inch) offers a cushy ride with most road irregularities polished out with aplomb. Road noise is, however, a constant companion in the cabin due to the lack of sound insulation material and that thin fabric roof –  blame it on weight saving.

There’s another advantage to a small lightweight sports car – fuel economy. On test, our 1.5-litre, 6-speed manual MX-5 returned an average consumption of just 6.8L/100km even after some hard driving. That’s even more economical than some small hatchbacks.

It’s fairly basic in terms of equipment. Standard fitment in the MX-5 1.5L includes LED headlights, air-con, cruise control, 6-speaker audio with Bluetooth and USB, cloth seat trim and Limited Slip Differential for manual variant.

Mazda MX-5 Roadster full pricing and specifications

Verdict

Design and comfort: 8.5/10

Performance and handling: 9.0/10

Quality: 8.5/10

Economy: 8.5/10

Equipment and features: 8.5/10

Our Score: 4.3/5

If you’re looking for neck-breaking acceleration and high-g cornering, the Mazda MX-5 isn’t for you. But if you appreciate driving in its purest, you’ll be very satisfied with the latest ND MX-5, especially the 1.5-litre version with its perky engine and lively chassis.

Many performance cars today simply want to go fast, and you the driver is just a missing piece of the underlying technology that makes the car go fast. In the MX-5 however, you are part of the machine, you are its brain and you drive the car. And in essence that’s how a sports car should be.

Pros:

  • Engaging and connected driving experience
  • Agile handling
  • Balanced chassis
  • Great packaging
  • Affordable

Cons:

  • Noisy cabin
  • Pedal placement not ideal for heel-and-toe
  • Basic interior on base model

2016 Mazda MX-5 Roadster Pricing and Specification

Price (Excl. on-road costs): From $31,990 to $41,550

As tested: $31,990 (1.5L Roadster)

Country of Origin: Japan
Service Intervals: 12 months/10,000km
Engine: 1.5-litre in-line 4-cylinder 16 valve DOHC SkyActive petrol:96kW @ 7,000rpm, 150Nm @ 4,800rpm
2.0-litre in-line 4 cylinder 16 valve DOHC SkyActive petrol:118kW @ 6,000rpm, 200Nm @ 4,600rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic/6-speed manual (tested)
Drivetrain: Rear-wheel drive
0-100km/h (seconds): Tested: 8.1 (1.5L manual)
Combined Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 1.5L manual (auto) 2.0L manual (auto)
Claimed: 6.1 (6.4) / Tested: 6.8 Claimed: 6.9 (7.1)
Fuel Tank Capacity (L): 45
Fuel RON Rating: 95
Body: 2-door roadster
Seats: 2
Safety: 5-star ANCAP, 4 airbags, ESP, ABS, BA, EBD, TCS, Emergency Stop Signal, Hill Launch Assist, limited-slip differential (6-speed manual only) reverse camera, LED daytime running lights
Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) mm: 3,915/1,735/1,230/2,310
Kerb Weight (kg): 1,009 – 1,057
Entertainment: 7-inch touchscreen with MZD Connect and satellite navigation (optional on 1.5L), Bluetooth, USB/iPod and Auxiliary input

Competitor: Toyota 86, Hyundai Veloster, Abarth 595, Fiat 124 Spider

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