Expert Reviews

First Drive: 2016 Mazda MX-5


It’s 10 am, the sun is bright and I’ve just hit the first set of corners in the all-new 2016 Mazda MX-5. The top is down, BackSpin is cranking out killer tunes and I am in my happiest of happy places.

Underneath me, this new, lighter, shorter chassis follows the ribbon unfurling ahead with effortless swagger. The engine revs high, and the short throws of the gearbox feel solid. My foot moves constantly from firm brake pedal to eager accelerator and back to brakes again. The car pitches forward and pivots smoothly into the corner. The camber of the road catches and balances the nimble little Mazda as we pile on revs and head for the next complex.

Senior Editor Jonathan Yarkony has issued a ban on the use of Mazda’s iconic catchphrase – but bugger that for a joke. Zoom-Zoom motherhuggers!

Driving isn’t always like this, but if it were the world would be a happier place.

Of course, that’s being joined by a new slogan, “Driving Matters”, which is ridiculous. Why? Because right now, in this moment, nothing matters. This is like meditation, only with adrenaline and huge grins and power and sun and pure, unadulterated joy.

“Zoom-zoom” is defined best by one model in the Mazda lineup: This one. So, there is more than a little weight on the shoulders of the team redesigning the marque’s defining car. If this car can’t adequately satisfy the expectation that slogan brings with it, there’ll be trouble. Thankfully, they’re off to a good start.

First, Mazda has done the impossible. They’ve taken the trend of ever-bigger, heavier and brawnier cars and thumbed their nose at it. This new edition (ND for the chassis nerds among us) is shorter than the first generation. Never mind the NB and NC – this is smaller than an NA!

This edition has been built from the driver’s seat out, and with 10 years of improvement in design tools, manufacturing techniques and materials the results are mind-boggling. For a start, the old MX-5 had the steering wheel offset compared to the pedal box. In the new one, there is no such offset. Not only that, but the driver sits 15 mm closer to the centre of the car thanks to a redesign of the powertrain frame and tunnel – the driver also sits 20 mm closer to the ground.

Even complex things, like the centre of pitch under braking, were altered slightly to give the driver a more centred and composed feel. In the previous gen, when you braked hard you actually pitched up a little in the driver’s seat with the tail. Now, you go down with the nose. It definitely adds confidence when hard on the stop button.

They call it “driver-centred everything” and it’s a design philosophy dedicated to improving the relationship between car and driver. Moving the driver into the centre and the windscreen back has opened up forward visibility by a claimed 5 degrees – I don’t ever remember complaining about that anyway. The hood is lower, which Mazda says improves the sense of speed for the driver by allowing them to see closer in front.

Larger drivers benefit, too. While my 5’6” frame has never had dramas fitting in the MX-5, taller folk have had to be comfortable with the ceiling. By applying a thinner net-style seat Mazda has opened up some recline angle and therefore headroom – about 28 mm of it in fact. A smaller steering wheel and increased tilt angle also open up knee space for those with longer legs.

The steering wheel is still not telescopic, which Mazda says they’ve done to save weight. Instead, the driver’s seat rail is angled up, so the closer to the wheel you are the higher you get, leaving less need for a telescoping steering column. Still, my informal poll had most of my colleagues wishing the wheel was a tad closer – and Mazda staff confirmed that seems to be a common request.

Peak horsepower is down from 167 hp @ 7,000 rpm to 155 @ 6,000, while torque is up from 140 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm to 148 at 4,600. Far more importantly, both horsepower and torque are greater throughout the rev range (until the end where it drops off).

The 2.0L four cylinder is straight from the 3 with little fettling. Other markets get a version with a 14:1 compression ratio. North America’s is still the 13:1 version, but it has been tuned for premium fuel – only the best for this little buggy.

The result is a far more responsive throttle with a greater sense of urgency when prodded as well as a massive improvement in fuel economy. Under the new five-cycle figures the outgoing model was rated at 11.5 L/100 km city in auto guise and 11.1 in manual. Highway figures were 8.5 and 8.4 respectively. The new model is good for 8.9/6.5 L/100 km city/highway for autos and 8.8/6.9 for manuals. That’s about a 20 percent improvement!

Part of that obviously is the dramatic reduction in weight. In fact, this new MX-5 is the lightest since the second generation – only the first generation was lighter, and then only by 50 kg. This one weighs 1,060 kg in base trim compared to the 1,130 kg of the previous generation. That’s 90 kg lighter – oh, and this time heavy air conditioning is standard.

The weight reduction is more dramatic in GT trim thanks to the removal of the mechanical folding roof. Sure, it was cool, but it was heavy and, frankly, pointless. So it’s gone. The top trim then will be 1,080 kg in automatic trim but still only 1,060 kg in all other forms. That’s down from a max of 1,194 in automatic and 1,182 kg in manual guise, a whopping 100 kg saving.

“Yeah, but I liked the roof! And it was only about 20 kg. Besides, do you really notice a difference of 100 kg in a car like this?” – You bet your backside you do!

The MX-5 dances through the curves, relishing every change of direction. I think if we ever had turned the same direction twice it would have sulked. Instead, the little charger sat up and turned in gleefully. The electric-assisted steering is superbly weighted and offers clear and direct communication with the front tires. The servo is mounted to the rack, not the column, to maintain that direct connection.

Steering effort has been tuned specifically to be more linear than the outgoing model, and I felt a definite difference in the way the car found its centre again exiting a corner. The progressive nature of steering effort would help if one were to, say, steer out of an accidental skid, or perform several accidental u-turns on a gravel turnout. Or so I’m told.

Body roll has always been a hallmark of the MX-5, and during the morning presentation Mazda explained why. Then, when we were chased down by a keener in an NC gen MX-5, he explained why, too. “It’s for feel,” Graham, the owner of the burgundy NC, told us. Dave Coleman, Mazda’s MX-5 “nerd” said the same thing. The point, he explained, is for the MX-5 to feel engaging at all speeds. A stiff car feels great on the track, but on the road it feels a bit vague and skittish – the balance isn’t quite right.

Of course, should you want to firm up your Mazda on the track the MazdaSpeed shop is more than willing to help you out. Meanwhile, this car is superb on real roads. Brilliant. Stunning. Mind-boggling. Addictive. Ridiculous. Etc.

We tried the MX-5 two ways, with the 17-inch wheels, Bilstein shocks and limited-slip diff, and without. You want it with. The LSD makes the car easier to turn on throttle and gives a more even response out of corners. The Bilstein shocks give a more composed mid-corner attitude and help the MX-5 turn in with confidence. They are minutely more firm, and you won’t care a bit.

That LSD (and the regular diff) has a revised gearing – in fact, all the gears have been altered. In order to have a 1:1 sixth gear (because a direct connection means less drivetrain loss and thus more efficiency) the final drive ratio is changed from a 4.10:1 to a 2.867:1. All the other gears in the smaller, 7 kg lighter gearbox are taller to suit.

Other weight savings come from the suspension (12 kg), engine (8kg), power frame (0.7 kg) and the body structure itself (20 kg). But mostly, weight savings come from how incredibly tiny this new MX-5 is.

As I mentioned, we were met on the road (and then chased down spookily) by a keener in a previous-gen car. As we pulled over to chat and take some photos, he gushed over the size of the new model. “Oh, THIS is a Miata,” he exclaimed. “That’s [pointing to his own] not a Miata – it’s too big”. The visual differences were uncanny, and sitting behind the wheel of both cars back to back really hammered home the point.

The cabin is nominally the same size but feels so much bigger. Visibility is indeed improved. The seating position feels more natural and more thrilling.

The power-frame tunnel that runs down the middle of the car has been redesigned and now curves in seductively on either side right where the driver sits, opening up centre space and helping centre the driver. It’s why the steering wheel is no longer offset and part of how the new cabin feels so much better.

Interior materials are a world apart, as is the whole radio/infotainment system. Cabin storage is still woeful – but now you get two removable cupholders, which you can use two-up in the back of the centre console, or one there and one mounted on the passenger side of the centre stack.

That passenger-side footwell is encumbered by a lump that houses the catalytic converter, something we’re told is still there on RHD models but won’t impact the driver as it’s behind the driver’s knees. It got in my way, but I had the seat way back and my legs are very short.

The tops of the doors have body coloured panels that help tie the cabin and the exterior together, enhancing the feeling of space, especially with the top down.

The top is a bit of a marvel, too. The hard top will not be offered any longer. All models get the canvas roof, but it’s been altered. There’s an aluminum panel at the front to help secure it against buffeting, increasing stiffness and quietness. The bars that hold the canvas in place have been shifted so they no longer run over the driver’s head, instead sitting just in front and behind. Never has bumping your head in an MX-5 felt so good!

The roof is lighter and takes less effort than ever before to open yet is still stable and more rigid than the old. When I casually mentioned to my colleague we should put the top up while on the highway, I immediately realized my mistake. “Wait, not yet we’re going too fas…..” I needn’t have worried; he’d already completed the manouver. The roof was up in less than three seconds while traveling at 100 km/h. Because we like to tempt fate, I asked him to put it down again at the same speed. No drama at all! At a much slower speed I found I could one-hand it from the driver’s seat, and at any speed at all I could easily close it with one hand from the same place. Porsche could learn a thing or two from this. I’ve put whole Ikea bedrooms together quicker than I’ve put a Boxster roof up or down.

Audiophiles have been taken care of, too. GT trim gets a nine-speaker Bose premium audio system with a subwoofer and two headrest speakers in both seats. GX and GS trims get driver seat headrest speakers only for six speakers in total and no subwoofer. The sound from the Bose unit is clear, strong and powerful enough for me to embarrass my co-driver with 90s on 9 classics played for maximum pedestrian annoyance/confusion. (Everybody dance now!)

Bluetooth streaming and USB audio is now standard on all MX-5 models, something I complained about bitterly in the previous generation. The MX-5 also gets push-button start, air conditioning, and LED headlights as standard on all trims. The bump in features comes with a bump in pricing. GX models now start at $31,900, up from $29,450.

GS and GT models are now a tad cheaper though, down from $36,045 to $35,300 and GT from $40,250 to $39,200. Or, to put it another way, expect some angry recent buyers of 2015 editions. 

An automatic gearbox with sport mode and drive selection switch is a no-cost option on all trims, and GS/GT trims get paddle shifters, too. This is normally where I’d grumble and moan and tell you that anyone who buys a non-manual MX-5 is wrong and broken and should be taken out the back and given a stern talking to – with a 2x4 – but I won’t. Why? Because I recently learned that 40 percent of buyers choose automatics, and I don’t want to antagonize nearly half of all MX-5 owners purely to #savethemanuals.

You might also be surprised to learn, given some of the comments we see on our forum, that the MX-5 skews 70 percent towards male buyers.

Back to the feature lists, the GS trim gets 17-inch wheels with 205/45R17 tires, sport suspension with Bilstein shocks, an LSD, strut-tower brace, induction sound enhancer and leather steering wheel and shift knob. New for 2016, GS models also get a seven-inch touchscreen with Mazda’s fantastic puck-style HMI controller, navigation, rain-sensing wipers, automatic headlights and an additional USB port.

In the US, GT trims delete the good shocks and LSD, but happily we get those plus leather seats with red stitching, heated seats, Sirius XM, and new for 2016 high-beam control, adaptive front lighting, lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring, heated mirrors, and an auto-dimming driver’s side mirror. Still no back-up camera, however.

Recaro seats will be offered in an option package with BBS wheels in the near future. BBS wheels were fitted to some of these pre-production, US-spec units.

If that feels like a lot of information, it’s because it is. There is a lot different about this new MX-5. It’s a dramatic rebuild and recaptures all of the lustre of the original Mazda roadster.

Parked in the lobby of a swanky Hollywood hotel, the MX-5 drew admiring stares, photograph requests and animated conversation from all onlookers. Given these are people used to seeing movie stars and celebrities on a daily basis, their admiration was notable.

Driving this car is intoxicating, so much so I plain forgot to stop and take more photos. Apologies for that. Other drivers on the road were craning their necks to get a look, and every time we passed an older MX-5 they either chased us down or nearly crashed looking at us.

If you had any complaints about the old MX-5, the new one will silence them. If you have any corner you think you have mastered, this new car will re-educate you. If you have any preconception about what a sports car, manliness and performance are that doesn’t include this car, the new MX-5 will shatter your paradigm and crush your world view.

And you won’t care, because you’ll be on a ribbon of tarmac with the wind in your air, a bug-splattered grin from ear to ear and the steering wheel seemingly pulsating in your hands. You won’t think the slogan is naff because all of a sudden it makes sense. And like me, you’ll think to yourself: “This could well be the best MX-5 yet.”

Actually, scratch that. One should always have courage in one’s convictions.

This is absolutely, unequivocally, gloriously and joyously: the very best MX-5 yet.