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We drive Mazda's new MX-5 roadster!

2005-11-11 12:38

John Oxley

You know that feeling when you go into a corner as quickly as you think the car will go, and halfway through you realise you were much too slow?

So you go in harder next time, and the car responds with a shrug, and there's still more to come!

Finally you go in REALLY hard, at a seemingly suicidal speed, and the car gives a little waggle of its tail, squats its haunches, and you rocket around with the biggest smile of the day on your face.

That's the new Mazda MX-5, a complete remake of the iconic Japanese two-seater sports car. Slightly bigger, even better, and with more modern styling that brings its looks bang up to date.

Not a facelift, but a whole new car.

The MX-5 is now on sale in South Africa, with pricing largely unchanged from the previous model at R241 990, plus R17 000 for the improved optional removable clip-on hardtop.

What's more the latest MX-5 has just been selected as Japan's Car of the Year for 2005-2006.

The beginning

It all started way back in 1989, when the best handling sports car in the world was undoubtedly the Lotus Elan, an iconic British-built masterpiece.

It was, however, like many British cars of its time, plagued with mechanical problems, it was difficult (and expensive) to maintain, and it had a hood that proved a nightmare to erect.

What's more, even if you could afford one, there weren't that many around.

As so often has happened in the past, a group of Japanese engineers looked at this situation, and decided to provide an alternative.

Thus the Mazda MX-5 was born.

The Japanese took the look of the Lotus, the feel of the Lotus and the handling of the Lotus, and they condensed it into a package that was much more user-friendly, much more comfortable, and where all the parts fitted together properly, in a car devoid of rattles and squeaks, and at an affordable price.

It had a beautiful Mazda DOHC fuel-injected 16-valve 1.6-litre engine, a slick and quick 5-speed gearbox, and proper windup windows that didn't fall down on their own.

Easy hood mechanism

What's more it had a simple hood that could be opened by simply releasing two clips and folding it back.

No more having to erect a "birdcage" and stretch a canvas cover on it as was the norm for the British sports cars of the time.

Some 720 000 units have been made since then, and the Guinness World Records organisation recognises the Mazda MX-5 as the world?s best-selling two-seater sports car.

It has also gained the accolade "Best Sports Car of All Time".

Since 1989 it has been in for one big facelift - in 1997 - with a 1.8-litre engine plus a removable hardtop added to the mix, and the pop-up headlights of the original replaced with fixed ones.

However, all good things come to an end and people's needs change.

But how do you change an icon?

Simply, you look at what owners have been niggling about, and you get rid of the niggles, while ensuring you don't change it's character.

And Mazda has certainly done all that with this latest MX-5.

Everything is new

Not one part has been carried over from the previous car, yet you immediately recognise it as a Mazda MX-5.

There's more room inside, it's got even better balance, a more powerful engine, more modern materials and crash resistance, a bigger boot, and an even better hood - and yet it weighs only 10 kg more.

What's more the engine has been moved back, and the fuel tank forward, to give it true 50:50 weight distribution (the battery has been moved under the bonnet, too).

ABS brakes are fitted (with electronic brake force distribution and brake assist) and DSC anti-skid control added to the mix to improve its ability even more.

It also gets dual front airbags and side airbags, and a much stronger and more rigid body shell.

The Mazda engineers started with the superb platform from the RX-8 coupe when they set out to build the new MX-5 - which is a great place to start - with a double wishbone front suspension and a multi-link rear.

They popped on 17-inch alloy wheels with 205/45 R17 Michelin tyres, and bigger brakes (290 mm ventilated discs front, 280 mm solid discs rear).

They then added a new all-alloy 2-litre engine producing 118 kW at 6 700 r/min and 188 Nm of torque at 5 000 r/min, then made it all very useable by strapping a slick and smooth 6-speed gearbox on the end, with drive to the rear wheels.

Mazda claims a 0-100 km/h sprint time of 7.9 seconds and a top speed of 210 km/h. Overall fuel consumption is a claimed 8.2 litres/100 km, and there's a 50 litre fuel tank.

All-new body

Then a new body was designed, but it had to retain the look of the old one even though it's longer, wider and higher than the old model.

And though different, it's still the same, if you know what I mean.

But it has strong, muscular, wheel arches, it has new projector style lights with Xenon bulbs covered with a streamlined polycarbonate cover, it has new rounded tail lights, a new dual tailpipe exhaust system, and a new hood that has only one clip in the centre of the windscreen surround.

The hood can still be opened and closed from inside the car, and it has a glass rear window, with electric demister.

When stowed the hood itself forms a neat and flat tonneau-type "cover".

The interior has been completely redone, too.

Beautiful saddle-stitched tan leather is standard on the seats and door panels, with chrome-look trim on the door handles and gearbox gaiter surround.

The dash gets a "Japanese black" shiny panel, there's a black centre console panel, and the instruments have been revised.

There are two main dials in front of the driver - black with matt chrome rims - the left-hand one for revs, the other for speed.

Flanking them are a fuel gauge and water temperature gauge, with an oil temperature gauge slotted in between.

More room inside

The larger exterior and redesigned cabin translates into increased leg and head room for occupants.

The seat adjustment range has also been increased, and there's tilt-adjustable steering through 35 mm.

Stowage space is also improved, with door pockets with bottle holders, a lockable glove box, lockable rear centre console, driver and passenger back-panel storage boxes, a rear tray, net storage pocket and a passenger seat back pocket

There's no key, either - instead you get a thick plastic card (credit card size).

You pop the key in your pocket, and then to get into the car you simply push the door knob and it will open.

The car recognises the key, and you then start the engine by turning a little plastic knob on the right-hand side of the steering column.

Buttons are also provided on the key to lock and unlock the doors remotely.

The new MX-5 also comes equipped with an anti-theft system that triggers an alarm if the vehicle is tampered with. A backup battery keeps the alarm active when the main battery is disconnected.

As a security measure for when the top is off, the boot is equipped with a cancelling mechanism. When the switch is off the boot cannot be opened with the remote interior release mechanism unless the keyless entry system or master key is operated.

Standard equipment includes automatic air-conditioning, heated seats, electric outside mirrors with heated glass as well as electric windows with one touch operation on the driver side.

There's a 6-CD front-loader in the dash with a seven-speaker BOSE sound system and remote operation via switches on the three-spoke leather-rimmed steering wheel.

On the road

The new MX-5 is one of those cars in which you feel comfortable right from the first touch of your bum in the seat.

You sit low in the car, so getting in isn't as easy as a regular sedan, but once in the seats are comfy and it's easy to get your position adjusted right.

Then it's simply a matter of adjusting the steering wheel for your preferences, turn the starter, and she purrs into life.

The engine is smooth and relatively quiet, with just enough sound from the exhaust to let you know it's a sports car.

Acceleration is brisk, and you immediately feel the responsiveness of the new assisted rack and pinion steering.

With the roof down there's naturally lots of wind roar, but a small diffuser between the rear roll-over bars prevents buffeting inside the cabin, and you can converse at speeds up to 110 km/h without having to shout.

On highways the car is smooth and the motor a lot more flexible than the torque figure suggests - in part thanks to that close-ratio gearbox - but it's only when you get off the main routes and onto the twiddly bits that things get exciting.

I was lucky enough to have a virtually empty Franschhoek Pass (that's outside Cape Town) in front of me, and it was simply awesome the way you could go into the tight corners and simply steer through them without having any understeer, any interference from the traction control, and only the weakest whimper from the tyres.

The RX-8 heritage is strong in the way the car is balanced, while the new brakes ensure you can bring speed down enough to ensure you don't have to encroach into the forbidden road on the other side of the white line.

You get lots of feedback through the steering, especially at high speed, so you know what's happening, and the engine never feels stressed or thrashy, even at close to the red line.


This is a car you'll want to use all the time.

It goes quickly, but it can also go slowly, and cruising slowly through the Strand with the top down was nearly as good an experience as whipping it through fast corners.

It's also beautifully put together, with a real upmarket feel to the interior, and if resale values of the old cars are anything to go by, it's going to make a great long-term investment.

The car comes with a 3-year/100 000 km warranty plus 3 -year unlimited distance roadside assistance, and service intervals are 15 000 km.

If there's a negative it's that the car doesn't have a spare wheel, having only a puncture fix bottle in the boot. Hence the free roadside assistance.

However, I'm sure you could fit runflats, although you'd also have to fit a tyre pressure monitor, too.

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