The new Mazda MX-5 in entry-level 1.5-litre form weighs just 1090kg, and is shorter in length than it has ever been in its 25-year history.
That, as you’ll know, is precious little for a car that has a longitudinally-mounted front engine and is rear driven. Especially when you consider that the MX-5 isn’t miniscule like a Suzuki Cappuccino or stripped-out like a Caterham Seven. A couple of engineers name-checked the Seven during their presentations. These are the kind of people we’re dealing with. Our kind of people.
On paper, it's a belting formula for a sports car. Mazda's designers, engineers and management have been teasing us with talk of back-to-basics purity for a couple of years now after the MX-5 in its current guise moved further away from its original brief, gaining power but also weight and girth.
We've determined that this MX-5 feels closer to the purity of the Mk1 MX-5 than ever, but the eternal argument rages on with regards to the MX-5 and power. How much is too much - and is more actually necessary?
Some are convinced it is, while others are happy to focus on the legendary sweetness of the MX-5's chassis. Like it or not, the 2.0-litre variant gets an extra 28bhp and 37lb ft of torque over the 130bhp 1.5-litre model and relatively insignificant 25kg, 22g/km and 4.3mpg penalties to go with it.
To tempt you even more, Mazda is including a limited-slip differential and front strut brace as standard on UK 2.0 cars and, on 2.0 Sport models, a sportier suspension set-up including Bilstein dampers.
And the price for upgrading? Not as much as you might imagine; across the range it's £850 extra. Break that down into monthly finance payments and it'll make even less financial difference.
So there’s extensive use of aluminium and the smaller powertrains allow them to be set 13mm lower and 15mm further back than on the previous car. That means the bonnet and overhang to be the lowest and shortest, Mazda claims, of any production car.
Up close, the MX-5 is even better looking. It's beautifully proportioned and has simple curves that make it look more expensive than its £18,495 starting price. Has there been a better-looking Japanese car in the past 20 years? I struggle to think of one.
Here is a car that is agile, not just because of the overall weight, but because so many kilos have been removed at the ends. Front and rear crash structures, the bonnet, bootlid and front wings are aluminium, focusing weight around the centre of the car and reducing the polar moment of inertia.
The steering, middlingly quick at 2.5 turns between locks has the ‘right’ kind of weight, and its electrical assistance gives it good feel around straight ahead. On lock, it’s supremely linear, accurate and consistent. Mazda likens it to being able to reach out and “feel the tyre”. I’d say it’s the best electrically-assisted setup this side of a Renault Megane Trophy R.
The Renault, of course, suffers torque steer: not an issue in a car whose rear wheels are driven. But even if the MX-5 was front-drive, I’m not sure its wheels would be particularly perturbed by the 130bhp of the 1.5-litre engine. This is developed from the 1.5-litre unit in the Mazda 3, but given its development has been so comprehensive, you might as well think of it as a new motor.
It revs to 7500rpm, and Mazda’s engineers encourage us to take it there. If you want to make the kind of progress a modern sports car will have you accustomed to, you’ll need to. Swift progress can be had at lower revs – 90% of torque is on tap from 2000rpm to 6000rpm – but in this entry-level form, blistering this car is not.
To that extent, it feels not unlike a Caterham Seven 160, though with the advantage that the Mazda’s 1.5-litre unit is happier to spin. The six-speed gearbox has pleasingly close ratios too, while its shift is a thing of pure joy; short, relatively light and positive, sucking the gearlever home once you’re part-way into the shift. Few do it better.
It’s backed by throttle, brake and clutch pedal weights that are expertly judged for this type of car: a sports car to be enjoyed by purists who’ll love the positivity; and moderate enthusiasts who’ll not just know why they find it easy.
Ditto a ride that’s compliant, with just a little shimmy from the body over bad surfaces to indicate that this is not as stiff as a coupe would be. The relative compliance of the suspension, though, means notable body movements under braking and cornering. Not that body control is loose, mind. Merely, what weight transfer serves to do is telegraph precisely what’s going on during cornering.
Let's not beat about the bush, though: as sublime as the 1.5 is, we think we'd probably find the extra for the 2.0 version. The Sport Nav model with limited-slip differential, strut brace and Bilstein dampers is nothing short of brilliant. It's tuned more stiffly than the 1.5, yes, but mid-corner bumps, camber and expansion joints all passed beneath us with minimum fuss.
True, for your £850, you aren't getting a handle-grabbing power upgrade, but what extra power and torque there is arrives earlier, and is most welcome out of slow corners and thrumming along undulating country lanes.
Let's be clear: the 2.0 still has to be worked hard and the super-slick six-speed manual gearbox requires plenty of attention if you want to press on or provoke the back axle. But it's an engine that loves to be pushed, and breaking through the high levels of rear grip is always progressive.
The advantages of a shorter cabin are also seen on the move with the roof down, because it's possible to hold a conversation without your hair in your mouth even up at motorway speeds. Folding the ultra-light roof mechanism manually up and down takes five seconds and one hand.
Cabin quality isn't up there with the BMW Z4s and Audi TTs of this world, but then neither is the MX-5's price. Importantly it feels well made, and there's enough soft-touch plastics and convincing trim details on show in the right places.
Entry-level SE trim foregoes it, but from SE-L trim and up, Mazda includes its brilliant infotainment system as standard, which is easily controlled using an iDrive-style rotary dial between the front seats. SE-L and Sport trims can be upgraded to include sat-nav for an extra £600. Snapper Luc's camera gear and our luggage just about squeezed into the 130-litre boot; that's 20 litres smaller than the outgoing car's, but it's a more usable space.
'Sweet' is the word we keep coming back to when describing the MX-5's dynamic repertoire and that word keeps returning as we try to sum up this car. It's sweet to look at, sweet to drive and sweet to sit in. Most likely, it will be sweet to live with, too.
Historically, the MX-5's larger engines have sold in higher numbers in the UK, though, and Mazda believes the 2.0 will do the same. Both cars will thrill in the corners, but choosing the 2.0 will ensure each thrill comes at you that little bit quicker.
There are many faster sports cars out there and ones that are even sharper to drive, but all are more extreme and, as a result, less usable every day. If you buy into the theory behind the MX-5, you'll love what they've done with this car in returning it to its roots. It feels hearty and wholesome and we love it.
Mazda MX-5 1.5
Price £18,495; Engine 4cyls in line, 1496cc, petrol; Power 130bhp at 7000rpm; Torque 111lb ft at 4800rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Kerb weight 1090kg inc driver; 0-62mph 8.5sec Top speed 127mph Economy 47.1mpg (combined) CO2 rating & BIK tax band 139g/km/22 per cent
Mazda MX-5 2.0 160 Sport Nav
Price £23,295; Engine 4 cyls in line, 1998cc, petrol; Power 158bhp at 6000rpm; Torque 148lb ft at 4600rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Kerb weight 1122kg inc driver; 0-62mph 7.3sec; Top speed 133mph; Economy 40.9mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 161g/km, 27%