Mazda MX-5 1.5 GSX: Purity and light
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Mazda's MX-5 is a car that everyone who loves driving should try
Colin Chapman is famous for a number of things. There's the Lotus marque, and the spinoff Formula One team that won seven drivers' championships and six constructors' championships. On the downside, though he may have been an engineering genius, he was not the best businessman. Remember the tie-up with John Z. DeLorean that cost the UK taxpayer almost NZ$25 million?
One of the things for which he is best remembered is his principle involving speed; notably, how to get it. Chapman had an almost obsessive hatred of weight and his mantra that "adding lightness" was the best way to improve performance stands to this day.
One mainstream car company has had a similar obsession with adding lightness longer than most.
That is Mazda, which has concentrated on removing as much unnecessary weight as possible for the past few generations of its car range.
Though this is ostensibly for fuel economy purposes, there is one car in the line-up that is made as light as possible for the sheer pleasure it can bring. It's the rather wonderful MX-5.
Although the previous version of the iconic sports car noticeably succumbed to pressure for extra power, folding hard tops and other unnecessary extremes, the newest version is well back on track by being smaller, lighter and more fun than it has been since the first generation appeared 26 years ago.
Weighing a tiny 1009kg, the Mazda's size and precise, razor-sharp steering make it feel instantly different in a world where bigger is largely considered better. Or, at least safer. The purity of feel and instant responses are a revelation.
Simply driving any other car and then moving into the Mazda makes you think, "Oh ... that's way better."
The steering's complete immediacy takes a bit of getting used to, particularly around town -- you put in way too much steering to begin with -- but on a winding road it is utterly sublime. Its instant reactions and beautifully communicative feel are addictive.
To call the MX-5's turn-in "razor sharp" is giving razors far too much credit, and driving the MX-5 enthusiastically on a tightly winding road is something everyone who claims to enjoy driving needs to try at least once in their life. Preferably many times.
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The tradeoff for this wonderful feel, feedback and agility is size. The MX-5 is small.
And before you say, "well, duh!" take this into account -- the new MX-5 is roughly the same size (slightly shorter, slightly wider, more or less the same height) as the original MX-5 that had almost none of the modern safety equipment in the current one.
This does mean it can be a somewhat challenging car to live with on a daily basis if you are larger than a small dog.
With my 1.85m frame I found it easier to open the roof, get in the car and then close the roof, as opposed to clambering down and inside with the roof in place.
Still, the MX-5's purpose in life isn't to be a daily driver. It is a car that is built purely to be fun, and it most certainly is.
The MX-5 is such a thing of undeniable purity -- everything is perfectly matched to everything else and works in perfect harmony -- that it pains me to say something I hate about it: that it could do with more power. A more powerful 2-litre version is coming, but the 1.5-litre would be perfect if it just had a tad more power around the 4000rpm mark. Not a lot more, just a tiny bit.
The only time the MX-5 proved to be slightly disappointing was coming out of a third gear corner -- if the revs drop to 4000 it bogs down slightly and hampers momentum. If you change down to second, it is hammering on the redline cutout.
Still, this is a relatively minor frustration in what is a remarkably complete package.
The Mazda MX-5 may not be the perfect driving machine, but I can't think of much else that is closer.
Mazda MX-5 1.5 GSX
Engine: 1.5-litre inline four-cylinder petrol
Positives: Superb handling makes it one of the purest driving experiences available today
Negatives: It is VERY small
Toyota 86 vs Mazda MX 5
As much as the Toyota 86 is held up as a paragon of light and simple driving fun -- and it is -- the Mazda MX-5 makes it feel like a fat, ponderous pig.
Though that is not meant as an insult to the 86, I will admit it is quite insulting. But it proves how ridiculously sharp and precise the MX-5 is. While Driven had the MX-5, we also had a Toyota 86.
Unfortunately, it was the least-convincing version -- a top-spec automatic GT86 with a full aero kit that added the utterly huge wing to the rear. Throwing the MX-5 and 86 over the same piece of road was an interesting exercise.
Driving the Mazda first, I was convinced the 86 had been trumped in the pure-fun stakes. The Mazda was almost telepathic in its responses and its levels of grip were truly heroic. Though it could have done with a tad more power around the 4000rpm mark, it was still more fun on a tightly winding road than a large cylindrical container of tailed primates.
Hop in the 86 and it instantly feels bigger and less responsive. It is faster, but the six-speed auto transmission does conspire to add an additional layer between the driver and the road, and the extra 290kg over the lightweight MX-5 doesn't help either.
Out on my favourite piece of ferociously winding road, however, the 86 clawed back major points on the MX-5.
Sure, it wasn't as sharp and communicative as the MX-5, but it was still sharp. If anything, the 86 is a more satisfying tool for the driver who likes to feel the limits of a car and work with them, while the MX-5 is so pin-sharp that anyone can drive it fast and enjoy it.