LOS ANGELES, CA – The Mazda MX-5 is so tied to the image of a pivotal old British roadster that anytime someone mentions its name, supplications to the Lotus Elan and Colin Chapman must follow immediately after. While Mazda thoroughly embraced the comparison during the original Miata's debut, surely now 25 years and several generations later it is time to stop.
The MX-5 is now an icon in its own right. It is the best-selling roadster ever made, with nearly a million having happily found homes, and it offers a breadth of appeal that far exceeds that of any of its British forebears.
The first and second generations are easily the most popular race cars in North America thanks to the immense appeal of Spec Miata. And even the outgoing third-gen ‘NC’ remained focused on the philosophy of employing modest power through a light and balanced rear-wheel-drive chassis.
Although revised over its lifetime, that NC architecture debuted 10 years before. Mazda was a very different company then, with Ford as its corporate overlord, for better or worse. There were deep pockets to rely on and little competition.
Today Mazda is free from having to answer to someone else, but its budgets are significantly tighter. Since its split from Ford, in 2008, there have been few ways to spread its investment dollars around with other corporations, but recent deals with Fiat and most recently Toyota will help.
The ND MX-5 is the proof of how well the company has been able to cope with its newfound independence and corresponding budget. Its appearance and specifications have been public knowledge for months. Now, it is finally ready to test.
Although Mazda is a very Japanese company, the Miata's lineage is traced through its California design studio with an American heading the project. So it isn't surprising that the roads around Los Angeles would be chosen as an appropriate tribute to the original.
Why not at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca a few hours up the coast? To better emphasize that, despite the gazillions of Miatas that have been modified into race cars, this remains first and foremost a street car. And an excellent one at that.
The 2016 is easily the most lust-inducing of the MX-5 lineage, with its complex curves, squintier headlights and – let's be honest – rear end and taillights heavily inspired by the Jaguar F-Type. It has those classic long-hood-short-deck proportions buried deep in sports car history, but isn't tied to that history as is the recent batch of modern muscle cars.
If for some reason Mazda's Kodo design leaves you cold – hard to imagine – you can wait for the upcoming Fiat 124 Spider version that should be unveiled soon. Italian design and Japanese engineering? Could be a recipe for reasonable success.
Back to the car at hand, Mazda's strict SkyActiv generational philosophy extends wholeheartedly to the MX-5. The goal is to reduce mass one gram at a time, whether by using four wheel lugs instead of five, or employing lighter but higher strength materials. More bits are made of aluminum now, including the front crash structure and front fenders.
The headline figure is a mass reduction of around 65 kilograms, leaving a total mass of just 1,060 kilos with a manual transmission, compared with 1,140 for a comparable NC-generation car. That figure is also within a kilo or so of the later NA originals with the larger 1.8 litre engine..
Mazda has also reduced overall length to that of that first generation, as well as reducing overhangs by 45 mm and wheelbase by 15 mm. Overall height is lowered by 10 mm too, and the driver's position is altered downwards by 20 mm. The only measurement that increases is the track, getting wider by 5 mm both front and rear.
Even the engine sits both farther back in the chassis and sits lower to the ground thanks to its narrower bore spacing, all in an effort to reduce polar inertia.
Given that the '16 model is packed with leagues more safety and convenience figures, being able to package a vehicle with such a diminutive footprint is seriously impressive.
Anyone expecting to be cramped will be very surprised with the lack of intrusion into the footwell. A forced symmetry that ensures the pedals, ultra-thin net-constructed seat, steering wheel and gauges are perfectly in-line has erased any possible complaints about driver comfort. Really superlative!
Power comes from a version of Mazda's 2.0-litre SkyActiv G engine that is used in most other Mazda models, although here it suffers a modest peak power decrease. While ratings of 155 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 148 lb-ft of torque at 4600 rpm don`t shout performance on paper, the engine's tuning and direct fuel injection combine to provide more throttle-responsive torque at lower revs than the outgoing engine. And the power-to-weight ratio has been greatly improved!
Also helping the cause is a pair of six-speed transmissions – manual or automatic; your choice. Revised gear ratios, combined with a new differential and final drive, rarely leave you feeling like you're in the wrong gear. Acceleration is brisk, with a light clutch action and an easy shifting box. Plus, the solid shift knob is a treat to hold and use.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the cars substantial fuel-economy improvement – around 25% across the board. The manual transmission model now gets 8.8 L/100 km in the city and 6.9 L/100 km on the highway, while the automatic scores 8.9 city and 6.5 highway (Natural Resources Canada ratings).
The total experience
The MX-5 has never been a hot rod. It's not all about 0-to-100 times. It's about embracing fun. About the stimulating rush of colours and smells on those too-few days you get to put the top down. The way you and the car have a conversation about the road, through the seat, pedals, gearshift and steering wheel.
After a full day drive that included everything from stop-and-go urban boredom to full-bore highway blasts and some of the best twists and turns the canyons and mountains north of LA could muster, I came to an easy conclusion. If I could have smuggled one home in my carry-on I would be a happy gent.
Even though it uses electric assist, the steering is full of feel and changes in effort are smooth. Pedals are spaced perfectly for heel-toe shifts, the repositioned windshield allows you to track much farther ahead in corners, and its pillars remain usefully thin.
The manual folding top has been engineered to be lighter and have less resistance in operation, and it pops up a few centimetres out of the rear deck to be easier to grab. Even the exhaust note is perfectly judged so it's expressive enough to enjoy but not so overly loud to become droning and intrusive on the highway.
In cars with the uprated Bilstein dampers and sport suspension settings, the car remains surprisingly compliant. No signs of crashiness over big bumps, and never any surprises when needing to change lines unexpectedly while committed in blind corners.
Broad price range
The test vehicles on hand were American spec and prototypes, so they didn't quite match the specification coming to Canadian cars, but close enough to judge.
Those black 17-inch BBS wheels with sticky tires, and the Brembo brake calipers behind them will not be available on the first model year in Canada. But they will be included in an optional Sport package on the mid-line GS trim, which will also include spiffy heated leather-covered Recaro seats.
Base GX models are priced slightly higher than before at $31,900, but they also include a host of features like full LED lighting, cruise control air conditioning and push-button ignition that were optional before.
The GS stickers at $35,300 and includes a seven-inch display screen with rotary command unit, navigation, a nine-speaker Bose audio system and the sport suspension/LSD combination.
The GT, at $39,200, adds leather seats, more metallic detailing in the interior and a suite of active and passive safety systems that include blind-spot monitoring, lane departure warning, active headlights and rain-sensing wipers.
Interestingly, the six-speed automatic is a no-cost option, which will appeal to the 40% of buyers who currently buy their MX-5s that way. Opting for the autobox removes the enthusiast-friendly bits on the GS and GT, however.
While there is no immediate replacement for the PRHT (Power Retractable Hard Top) version – which had a 40% take rate in Canada – chances are good that something similar will be introduced in the next year or two.
When it comes to competition, there are very few rivals around that match the MX-5s focus at its relatively low price. The Nissan 370Z comes closest in price in coupe form but the roadster version costs 18-grand more. The Mustang and Camaro convertibles are the closest drop-tops price-wise but trade nimble handling and stiffness for more power and space.
Others, like the Scion/Subaru twins and Hyundai Genesis Coupe don’t offer drop-top versions. And the German quartet – Audi TT, BMW Z4, Mercedes-Benz SLK and Porsche Boxster – have prices starting tens of thousands more than even a loaded MX-5 GT.