Expert Reviews

Big Guy, Small Car Test Drive: 2016 Mazda MX-5

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This score is awarded by our team of expert reviewers after extensive testing of the car

Here’s the thing about being a Big Guy. In fact, here’s pretty much the reason I started this column in the first place: while I like a nice, luxurious SUV as much as the next guy or gal – big or small – what I really like about a car is how it drives. And if we’re honest, there are few cars that drive as well as the MX-5.

If we’re honest, there are few cars that drive as well as the MX-5.

Thing is, you won’t find many people that are going to tell you that the MX-5 is fit for a king in the passenger comfort department. It has a smaller wheelbase than a Nissan Micra, the trunk is pretty non-existent (the fact that you lose no space in here with the top folded is nice, though) and anybody taller than 6 feet (I’m 6’3”) will have a hard time getting their forehead below the top of the windshield. So as well as this baby drives  – and we’ll talk about just how well in a moment – there’s no way the Big Guys would ever be able to justify owning one, simply because they couldn’t fit inside, right?


The Knee Test

I’m not going to lie to you: when it comes time to clamber down into one of these, you’ve got to be careful. The cockpit, while bigger than it was back in ’89 when this product line started, is a snug, snug place to be and you do have to thread your legs into it. It’s not as bad as it is in, say, a Lotus Exige, but there is a strategy involved if you don’t plan on shearing the skin from your shins and kneecaps.

It’s a matter of sliding that right leg in there, cocking it a little to the right to avoid the steering wheel (it’s not huge, but it’s not tiny, either) dropping your butt into the seat and letting the left leg follow behind. It’s a bit of an art, but that kind of adds to the sense of occasion, right?

Once inside, though, I was pleased to find in both this car – which has the high-bolster Recaro sport seats – and a car fitted with the more standard leather items, that I didn’t have the top of the windshield bisecting my field of vision.

That’s with the top down, though. Top up – and this should come as little surprise – it’s a bit of a different story.

For starters, don’t even think of wearing a baseball cap. In fact, I would imagine that even a flat poorboy-style lid would cause some problems. Unless I was willing to drive with my head cocked to the right or left, the bill of my hat would be jammed up against the headliner, which is never fun.

Hat off, it’s serviceable; you can see from the side profile shots that the roof isn’t completely flat, but a little rounded for a little extra headroom. Still, 950 mm really isn’t very much.

Which is why I kept the top down pretty much for my entire test, and would probably do the same during my entire ownership of one of these.

An Ode to the MX-5: Shall I compare thee…

Of course, once you get past all that, it’s easy to see the advantages of having such a cozy cockpit. The controls are all just right there, falling easily to your grasp. The steering wheel, the stubby gear lever and the pedals are all arranged so that they fall almost exactly where you’d expect them to. Sure, it would be nice if the wheel both tilted and telescoped – it only tilts – but since it’s so snug in there this didn’t bother me as much as it did in any Mustang before the current gen, or a Jeep Wrangler. The latter still doesn’t offer a telescoping wheel; I guess that’s a thing with cars as iconic and focused as the Wrangler or MX-5: sacrifices have to be made in the name of getting other aspects just right.

As you really start to attack the twisty roads and tracks that the MX-5 is made for, however, you see why it’s just so important that the controls sit where they do. With a chassis as responsive as this, you want to feel as much as possible that you’re one with the car, so your body can keep up with the ultra-athletic and reflexive chassis.

Our car featured the Sport Package, which adds special 17-inch wheels, red-painted Brembo brakes, leather and Alcantara upholstery and those Recaro seats that are also adjustable and heated. All that exterior stuff makes the car look great, and the stopping power of those Brembos can’t be denied. The interior additions, meanwhile, make for a much more luxurious-looking space and the seats are ultra-supportive. The problem for Big Guys, however, begins as you start to take longer drives. They are heavily bolstered, to the point where the side-bolsters were digging into the sides of my legs, forcing me to kind of shift my butt right and left in order to take some pressure off. I’d be happy sticking with the standard seats, which are plenty supportive themselves. Also, the thickness of the Recaros means you sit a little closer to the closed roof’s headliner, and if you want to slide the seat back further on its rails, you have to tilt the seatback up or else it simply won’t have the room to move.

The Hockey Bag Test

Yeah, so… no. You aren’t going to get anything bigger than a small overnight bag in the trunk, but as we mentioned before, it’s great that you don’t lose any trunk space once you stow the roof. It makes sense; you wouldn’t want anything bigger than a soft duffel upsetting the perfect weight balance of the car anyway. If you really want to hit the rink or the links, however, you can always use the passenger seat, right?

The Rest

We talked before about how perfectly aligned the cockpit is, so I won’t bore you by going over all that again. There is a good helping of tech, however, that deserves some mention.

The GS is the second of three available trim levels, and it comes standard with Mazda Connect infotainment and a 7-inch touchscreen display that can also be navigated with a console-mounted scroll wheel, à la BMW iDrive. It’s actually the way I preferred to navigate the system; even though the cockpit is so snug it keeps the screen pretty close to your outstretched digits, I’m a big fan of buttons and knobs. After all, when you’re attacking your favorite b-road, you don’t want to be wasting too much time searching for the right part of the screen to prod.

Let’s hit the road

Big Guy or not, there’s no denying that the MX-5 remains one of the best driver’s cars available on the market today, and perhaps the best performance bargain you can find this side of surfing or hitting the used car lots.

At 155 hp and 148 lb-ft, power is modest but when all you have to do is hustle along just over 1,050 kilos of mass plus the driver, of course, I wouldn’t worry too much about it affecting the bottom line in the performance sense. Even if said driver happens to be a Bigger Guy.

Even with me inside it (and once I got past the lumpy idle on start-up, a SkyActiv staple), the MX-5 will take off from the line not quite with its hair on fire, but at least with its eyebrows singed. Plus, when you’re sat this low to the ground, things seem to be moving a lot faster than they actually are anyway, so I really couldn’t care less if the stopwatch on this was a little slower than it would be in other cars. Having said that, I do wonder how the car would feel with a little turbocharging; guess I’ll have to wait until I try the MX-5’s Fiat 124 cousin to find out.

Not to mention that rowing through the six-speed gearbox is just such a joy. The stubby gearlever is easily reached and flicked, compelling you to perhaps shift a little more often than you otherwise would, just to feel the fantastic linkages at work. Plus, the power being what it is, you’re going to want to row those gears a little more as you do your best to keep everything on boil.

Of course, the big story with the 2016 MX-5 – as has been the case with MX-5s since they first landed – is its performance in the bends. Which, safe to say, is as precise as it looks, what with its wheels pushed all the way to the corners, those skinny headlamps and that Jag-F-Type-mimicking rear end.

Left-right-left-right-left… I could probably do this all day, as addictive as it is to nail every possible apex on my favorite roads in this car. There’s just something about looking out and using the front fenders as aiming reticles, and just watching as the road flows underneath. Even though that 6’3” frame of mine may stick out a little over the windscreen, that low-to-the-ground feeling remains, as does the added speed sensation that comes with that. I still felt like I was right at the centre of everything as the road unfolded ahead of me to the horizon.

Would I like to be able to get the rear end to step out more on occasion? Perhaps – the centre of gravity is so low and the track so wide that this is no easy task, especially in the dry. I guess there’s something to be said for being able to better carry out a slide or two, but it’s a sacrifice I’m happy to make for just how easy it is to get comfortable with the chassis, and how well it works in the day-to-day.

So if you’re of taller ilk…

I have to say, I was quite relieved to find that I would have very little trouble living with an MX-5. I wouldn’t use it as a daily driver, but then I don’t really know how many do, if they’re Big Guys or otherwise. Especially if they live in the parts of Canada that face snowy winters. Which, if we’re honest, is pretty much everywhere. The bottom line is that the pure, essential, fun drive that the MX-5 has always presented is still there. It’s just that now, you should have no trouble enjoying it even if your shirt has an XL tag on it.

NRCan Fuel Consumption: 8.8/6.9 City/Highway

3 years/unlimited distance; 5 years/unlimited distance powertrain; 7 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 3 years/unlimited distance roadside assistance
Model Tested 2016 Mazda MX-5 GS
Base Price $35,300
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,795
Price as Tested $41,895
Optional Equipment
$4,700 – Sport Package ($4,400), Metallic Paint ($300)