Mazda MX-5

AutoTrader NZ
Published 3 September 2020

But if there is one sure-fire antidote to the often-repeated generalisation that “Japanese cars are all the same” then it’s got to be the Mazda MX-5.

Whenever I hear anyone generalise about “dull Japanese cars” I’d like to flip them the keys to an MX-5 and tell them to put its capability for attitude adjustment to the test. I reckon even the most hard bitten critic would reluctantly hand back the keys and admit there can always be an exception.

Since the MX-5 debuted in 1989 – and single-handedly revived the affordability of genuine convertible sports cars – the Mazda roadster has undergone one total redesign (1998) and several phases of upgrading.

But regardless of the various technical improvements and new features the thing Mazda has done best during the past dozen years is to avoid confusing or diluting the keep it simple philosophy of its sports car.

Compared with the 1.6-litre original the 2001 MX-5 has had its engine output increased by one third. It also has slightly larger dimensions and just over 100kg of extra weight. The specification level has also been arsied significantly, but the winning formula remains the same.

For 2001 the MX-5 has a new front bumper with the five-point grille treatment that is Mazda’s new corporate styling signature. It also has an upgraded engine that addresses the wishes of MX-5 drivers who wanted more power, and it has a six-speed gearbox.

The latest Sequential Valve Timing (S-VT) version of the 1.8-litre BP-Series engine delivers more mid-range muscle and revs with heightened enthusiasm. It has a more serious exhaust note at the upper end of its range and also makes more power.

In S-VT guise the 1839cc 16-valve twin cam pokes out an eager 113kW at 7000rpm and peak torque steps up to 181Nm at 5000rpm.

The S-VT variable inlet timing hydraulic mechanism enhances mid-range flexibility by a worthwhile margin.

Refinement has been improved at low revs and the engine responds better to part-throttle. At higher revs there’s a second wind of breathing that’s not quite as pronounced as Honda’s high-performance VTEC engines but the theme is similar.

Actually there’s a slice of irony in the fact that the MX-5 which demands the fewest gear changes also has the most gears.

Mazda has slotted a six-speeder behind the S-VT engine and thanks to the close ratio gearing, running the hard-edged twin cam up and down its register becomes more fun than ever before. The stubby gear lever provides a rifle-bolt shift action that’s not too far shy of the intimate precision of the Honda S2000.

Cruising at 100km/h offers the choice of turning the engine at 2850rpm in sixth gear or 3400rpm in fifth and working it harder at 4300rpm in fourth. When dancing the MX-5 through the twists and turns at which it excels the combination of stronger mid-range grunt and close ratios means it’s possible to be caught one gear too high on corner exit yet pay little penalty in its responsiveness.

In sixth gear the new engine responds cleanly from as slow as 80km/h if you really want to test its flexibility.

Even more so than a free-revving four-cylinder engine the primary appeal of the MX-5 has always been its authentic front-mid engine/rear-wheel drive sports car configuration and the resulting near 50:50 weight distribution.

Double wishbone suspension at each corner and direct steering with minimal power assistance once the vehicle speed progresses beyond urban speeds are other contributors to the driving experience.

The nose responds immediately to small steering inputs and the balance inherent in a traditional front engine/rear drive sports car configuration makes for a totally communicative driving experience. Through the steering and through the seat of your pants you not only feel every attitude change but with a little familiarity you quickly learn to predict them.

The body is impressively taut for an open cockpit design and the quick steering (2.7 turns lock-to-lock) with superb straight-ahead accuracy helps you zip through serpentine stretches of minor road with minimal steering inputs.

Part of the MX-5’s secret is the lightweight girder which reinforces the drivetrain – including the differential – into a single unit The structure of 2001 versions has been further strengthened by a new front strut tower bar.

With the extra power there’s been an upgrade to a new 16-inch diameter alloy wheel with an aggressively open five-spoke design and a move to wider Bridgestone Turanza ER30 205//45 R16 radials which provide confident adhesion.

It’s a measure of the MX-5s personality that I wanted to drive it top-down at every possible opportunity. Cooler mornings and overcast skies had no affect on the sunny attitude the MX-5 provokes.

Whenever rain threatened I removed the tonneau cover ready to quickly raise the roof but I was always prepared to brave the first few spits of precipitation with the confidence that it would probably amount to little.

The manual hood isn’t as effortless as the power operated soft tops on more expensive cars like the Honda S2000 or Audi TT Roadster but provided you don’t count the time involved in removing the clip-in tonneau cover the roof can be lowered or raised just as quickly.

And with a little practice it’s also possible to do this while remaining in the seat. Two locking latches at the top of the windscreen secure the roof.

If the second generation MX-5 has a major advantage it’s the glass rear window. It improves visibility – especially in cold weather because it has a demister – and there’s considerable feel-good value appeal in knowing that for $44,950 you get a genuinely practical feature that neither a Honda S2000 nor even a Porsche Boxster possesses.

Roof-up the MX-5’s headroom is marginal for taller occupants and from the low driving position the rear three-quarter visibility can be limited. It’s a difficult car in which to make a fully effective glance over the right shoulder but fortunately the side mirrors provide good coverage.

Nowadays the MX-5 isn’t as minimalist as the original. There are dual airbags, air-conditioning, power windows and mirrors, a keyless central locking system which includes a boot release and immobiliser, an upgraded four-speaker Compact Disc sound system with power antenna and front fog lamps as standard in New Zealand.

There’s a three-spoke Nardi leather steering wheel and Nardi gearshift and the classic black cloth-trimmed seats have enough embracing side bolster shape to hold the driver and passenger in place whenever the MX-5 is pointed through the twists and turns.

The seat design is new for 2001 with improved contouring but the chairs remain simple with only slide and recline adjustment and you can’t adjust the steering column either. The lack of adjustability mattered little to me as I find the MX-5 has the same sort of comfortably snug and familiar fit as a favourite pair of slippers.

The storage options you’ll make use of within the cabin are the glovebox and the small centre console, both of which are lockable.

Getting away for the weekend demands the MX-5 driver and companion must travel lightly. The new shape MX-5 has fractionally more boot capacity than the first generation model with a 144 litre volume measurement but even a trip to the supermarket can be a challenge for the shallow boot.

Any practical shortcomings of a two-seater convertible will always be set aside by the romance of fresh-air motoring and the agility of a relatively lightweight sports car with involving handling and adequate performance.

After 12 years no other mainstream car maker has been as successful at cracking the genetic code of the affordable, no-frills sports car.

Driving the better-equipped, more muscular 2001 MX-5 was like greeting an old friend again after many years. The good news is the MX-5 is fit, healthy and enjoying life to the full with the very same cheerful personality and sense of adventure that first brought you together.

AutoPoint road test team. Words and pictures, CM.