Small-wheeled 1.8 sits high where old car hunkered down
It's better in every way, but perhaps lacks the old car's charm
1.8 struggles, opt for the 158bhp 2.0 if you can afford it
Driving position and cabin quality take a big step forward
Wheel spokes are obstructively chunky, but cabin looks and feels great
New car is grippy enough that this will only happen in the wet
Tail styling harks back to the original
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Right up until production ended earlier this year, the outgoing version of Mazda’s two-seater sportster was still highly regarded.
That it shook, wobbled and had a dated cabin didn’t seem to worry people because the charm of a basic, affordable roadster prevailed.
And now there’s an all-new one. But I’m disappointed when I see the new MX-5 on a British road for the first time. Where I’d hoped to find something broad and low-set sits a roadster with so much space between rubber and wheelarch I check to see if the shipping spacers have been removed. The headlights are set very high relative to the radiator grille and they’re closer together than expected: it’s an almost apologetic face.
Despite Mazda's claims for the new car's flab-eradication, 1122kg for a two seater 1.8-litre roadster with an all-alloy engine isn’t a figure that will have Gordon Murray twirling his ’tache.
Do the changes work?
Praise Hiroshima, MX-5 version three allows you to sit lower than before and the new cabin is as appealing as the exterior is questionable. The plastics are harder than you might expect, but it’s well put together.
The five-speed transmission is the sweetest manual gearbox around. Every journey will involve twice the necessary shifts, and in doing so owners will deduce that the motor parps enthusiastically when you match a downchange.
You don’t need the torsional stiffness figures of each car to tell you how much more robust the new MX-5 feels than its predecessor. Predictably, it’s a platform for firmer suspension and at first this is a distinct bonus.
The car rolls less and engenders a feeling of sure-footedness absent in the previous model. But this behaviour is specific to better surfaces, because for all its competence this isn’t a car that ever really flows over a road or picks up the kind of rhythm I’d hoped.
The spring and damper rates feel distinctly continental European. As in very firm, especially under rebound damping: all too often you’re impressed by how supple the car is when it dips into a compression, only to have it jack back up through its suspension travel in one sudden jerk.
I don’t remember ‘charm’ being listed in the damper handbook, but somehow Mazda located and implemented it with the first two generations, and I feel it has been slightly lost in this version.
Continuing the theme, the steering still chatters, but at reduced volume and through a wheel that is curiously large and whose spokes are so thick there isn’t a natural grip point.
The engine itself is fine: smooth, noisy enough when required, mute otherwise. But its power-to-weight ratio of 113bhp per tonne isn’t much, anyone in the market to enjoy the new MX-5 should opt for the stronger 158bhp variant and enjoy the extra 16lb ft of torque.
Should I buy one?
If I sound confused by the new MX-5, it’s because I am. I have never believed in old-is-best philosophies, preferring advanced dynamics and sheer competence over a series of wet-weather moments and a grin on my face.
But the combination of indifferent exterior styling and the car’s inability to work over a road with the Lotus-like agility and deftness that I’d expected were a disappointment.
I’m not for a minute going to conclude that the new MX-5 does anything other than beat its predecessor in all objective areas, because it does just that. But the cost of progress is a slight erosion in that most simple of commodities: appeal.