More than just a convertible canyon carver
For my final car review for Fast Times, I decided to do what journalists do best: find new and compelling ways to tell stories.
Many of my colleagues have reviewed the Mazda MX-5, exalting the little roadster’s nimble handling and strong performance, often after a blast around mountain roads with the top down. At the risk of merely playing the same tune, I decided to explore a different side to the iconic roadster, especially after I’ve already thrashed it around the Clark International Speedway in Pampanga.
Many have said that the little Mazda, despite its pretensions as a weekend toy, could work as a daily driver. To truly put this claim to the test, I left my 1.3-liter subcompact sedan in the garage and logged more than 450 kilometers over six days in nothing but an MX-5.
Soul-stirring, eye-catching looks
Indeed, the car had an impact on almost everyone I drove past. For instance, when I was driving with the top down in the city (especially in the morning when it wasn’t too hot and traffic wasn’t too bad), truck drivers would shout compliments and give me a big thumbs-up, while people on the street would stop and talk to me about the car as I sat in traffic.
I think much of this is down to its looks. Compared to the soft curves of the previous models, the “ND” MX-5 is edgy, a bit menacing even, as a result of the carmaker’s signature “Kodo” design language and the body kit fitted to this test unit. And in the optional Soul Red color (worth P16,800), the MX-5 looked exactly like the little red sports car that everyone dreams of.
Up front, the tall and broad snout of the previous-generation model (which I always found looking a bit unsightly) has been replaced with a low nose flanked by the teardrop-shaped LED headlights that are housed at the end of the big front fenders. Lower down is the large, gloss-black grill framed by the beautifully styled LED daytime running lights.
From the side, those flared wheel arches flow in tandem with the beltline, which ends at the roadster’s pert tail. And even when it was up, the MX-5’s easy-to-use, manual canvas roof accentuates the car’s sleek profile. In addition, black 17-inch alloy wheels, a gloss-black windshield surround and gloss-black mirror caps add a racy attitude to the little Mazda.
At the back, the trademark oblong taillights of previous MX-5s have been replaced by striking LED light clusters that feature round brake lights and triangular turn signals. Mimicking the LED daytime running lights up front, the reversing lights are nicely integrated into the wide lower bumper.
Clever interior, nicely shaped trunk
Before I talk about the interior itself, I should now mention two of the MX-5’s biggest problems: ingress and egress. Although the doors are big and open wide, the car’s 1,230-millimeter height with the roof up, the fairly high door sills and the low seats mean you have to be quite flexible to get in and out of it. For the passenger side, an intrusive hump in the footwell makes things a bit more difficult.
Once you do get in, you are cocooned in a gorgeous tan-and-black leather interior where everything, including the windshield, seems a lot closer to you than even in the smallest city cars. From the pilot’s seat, you get a leather steering wheel with three clear gauges in front of you, with the tachometer taking center stage in true sports car tradition.
In the center, Mazda’s excellent MZD Connect touchscreen infotainment system (connected to a fantastic nine-speaker Bose sound system available only in this automatic model) sits atop the knobs for the automatic climate-control system and the heated seats. Much more noticeable is the tall and wide transmission tunnel, which squeezes in the large gear selector, the parking brake and the infotainment system’s control knob.
Now I know we’re in a sports car, but journalistic pragmatism requires me to report another noticeable thing about the MX-5’s cabin: the lack of storage spaces. In lieu of a glove compartment, there is a hard-to-reach storage box between the seats that’s big enough for the owner’s manual and some small items. In addition, there are two detachable cup-holders, a tiny storage box that’s big enough for the MX-5’s keyless entry remote and small “secret” compartments behind the seats.
Overall, as my mother brilliantly pointed out, the level of thought that was put into utilizing the space in the MX-5 is akin to how manufacturers of commercial jets manage to cram all sorts of in-flight equipment into very limited space. In other words, Mazda made very good use of what little they had.
If you really need to carry things, you’ll have to use the 130-liter trunk. Although the sill is very high, the trunk is deep and boxy as a result of having no spare tire (you get tire sealant and a compressor as standard), which means unlike the letterbox slot you get in a Toyota 86, you can fit overnight bags, carry-on luggage or large backpacks for two back there. I do wish, however, that Mazda put an interior release for both the trunk and the fuel door so I wouldn’t have to extricate myself from the MX-5 to open these.
Go-anywhere driveability, superb economy
Now that the practical stuff has been discussed, it’s time to talk about what the MX-5 is like to drive. As expected, getting a perfect driving position is easy, although I would have liked a telescoping steering wheel. Aside from catching all the looks and the rays (when it wasn’t raining), I preferred driving with the roof down as much as possible because all-around visibility is very bad with the roof up.
Although the side mirrors were helpful, rear-quarter vision was simply non-existent and the view out the rear window was so tiny that I couldn’t even see the heads of the motorcyclists riding behind me (thankfully, rear parking sensors are standard on the MX-5). Also, from a road-safety perspective, driving around in a car where your head is level with the fenders of a Mitsubishi Mirage G4 means you need to make sure that other drivers see and hear you.
Once I got used to the MX-5’s physical limitations, I found it a most enjoyable car to drive even in the city under the pouring rain, which many would consider the worst conditions to drive a convertible sports car. For one, even with the body-kit, there is more than enough ground clearance to get over speed bumps and climb ramps without having to angle the car. Also, the firm sports suspension that makes the MX-5 such fun around the bends takes road imperfections with aplomb.
The canvas roof does well to keep the weather out, but I would like tighter seals around the windows as too much outside noise and noxious fumes were getting into the cabin. Meanwhile, the 2.0-liter, twin-cam, 16-valve, direct-injection, SkyActiv inline-four, which produces 160 horsepower and 200 Newton-meters of torque, was quiet and smooth in bumper-to-bumper traffic, but produced a fabulous exhaust note as it pulled strongly to the redline.
Mated to a very responsive six-speed automatic gearbox with sequential-shift mode and paddle shifters, the MX-5 was no more difficult to drive in urban traffic than any other Mazda. However, having so much power and agility meant it was far better at threading between other cars, helped greatly by the quick, well-weighted steering and the powerful disc brakes controlled by the firm, responsive pedal.
On the expressway, the MX-5 felt planted, exhibited minimal wind buffeting with the roof up or down and revved at a low 1,750 revolutions per minute at 100 kilometers per hour. In the brief moment that I did take it to a twisty road, the little roadster had almost no body roll and had neutral handling, although you can get the tail out if you boot the throttle with the traction control off (the lack of a limited-slip differential in this model does mean initiating and holding power-slides requires a more ham-fisted and lead-footed approach).
And considering the superb MX-5’s superb performance, fuel economy was better than most subcompact sedans. I got 8 to 10 kilometers per liter in the city and 14 to 16 km/L on the expressway, depending on whether or not I used the air-conditioning and the excellent i-Stop stop-start system.
In summary, the Mazda MX-5 automatic is a two-seat convertible sports car that looks fantastic, drives marvelously anywhere you take it and is as economical as subcompacts. In other words, it is a very capable and very fun daily-driver, so long as you don’t need to carry a lot of people and things.
Certainly, you can buy faster and more practical two-door coupes like the Toyota 86 and the Hyundai Genesis Coupe for less than the MX-5’s P1.86-million price, while a Subaru WRX will blast past the little Mazda while having four doors, four seats and big trunk. But it is only with the MX-5 where – without having to pony up more than double the cash for European roadsters with their European-car running costs – you can have unlimited headroom on a whim, allowing you to marvel at the majesty of the wide-open sky as the wind flows past you.
And the unparalleled pleasure from that kind of motoring experience is something that can never be valued in terms of money, but in terms of memories, senses and experiences. Bravo, Mazda.