From the popular 323 Familia family car to the 787B, which is still the only Japanese car to win at Le Mans, Mazda has given onto the world plenty of iconic cars. But of them all, Mazda’s charming little MX-5 roadster probably holds the greatest significance to the brand, its Guinness World Record of being the world’s best-selling two-seater sports car notwithstanding.
Instead the MX-5 importance in Mazda has to do with the philosophy which defined the development goal of the first-generation 1989 Mazda MX-5, a philosophy known as “Jinba-Ittai”. A four character Japanese phrase which roughly translates into “horse and rider as one”, Mazda’s engineers set out to develop a car that is able to deliver drivers the feeling of being one with the car. Needless to say that directive has been hugely successful for Mazda.
As Mazda enters a period of independence “Jinba-Ittai” is no longer exclusive to the MX-5, and has instead become an integral part of Mazda’s corporate identity. Every new generation model in their line-up, from the 2 hatchback right up to their CX-5, are said to carry a part of the “Jinba-Ittai” ethos.
That leaves us with the MX-5, is it still as special as it was? To answer that Bermaz Motor brought us to Japan to see for ourselves if the MX-5 can still live up to its longstanding reputation.
No More Evolutions, It’s Time for a Revolution
There were plenty of mentions of “Jinba-Ittai” at the MX-5’s product briefing, especially pertaining to Mazda’s current model line-up. But when it comes to the MX-5 in particular, Munenori Yamaguchi, product manager of the MX-5, believes that the roadster has to be the brand icon for Mazda, and thus has set the bar high for the latest fourth-generation model.
For the past 26 years Mazda has been steadily evolving the MX-5 with such care that the notable changes through the three generations were size, weight, and features. With the new MX-5 Yamaguchi wanted to elevate something he calls “Sensation-Kan”, which was to focus on sensation and feel. Together with the use of Skyactiv lightweight body, chassis tuning, and efficient drivetrains, Yamaguchi believes that it is time for a clean sheet redesign on the brand’s icon.
Keen followers of the MX-5 would have noticed that fourth-generation bears little resemblance to its predecessors. The styling is more aggressive, with taut and muscular curves lending it a ground-hugging stance on the road. Where previous iterations had always tried to move its design on with an eye on the past, the only homage to the original is found in the round lighting element on the taillights. In the sheet metal though the MX-5 is gorgeous, sensous, and intense, words that are rarely used to describe its predecessors.
Smaller, Lighter, Lower
Rather than the looks, the MX-5 has shrunk remarkably in size. It has a 20mm shorter wheelbase, with 45mm and 40mm chopped off the front and rear overhangs respectively, whereas the bonnet is 28mm lower and the overall height has been reduced by 10mm.
That reduction in size isn’t as impressive as its reduction in weight. Compared to its predecessor, Mazda managed to shave 100kg off thanks to the use of lightweight construction in the body, drivetrain, and suspension components. Even so when you look at its plush cabin you can't tell how Mazda managed to throw so much weight out the window.
There is air conditioning, the MZD Connect infotainment system, and even i-ActivSense. Part of the weight saving measures derived from Mazda’s “Gram Strategy” also involved removing inconsequential trim pieces such as the fabric lining you would normally find around the sunshade. Not essential to the experience, and something few will really miss.
That being said the passenger glovebox was thrown out with the bathwater, but Mazda says that was done to achieve a lower dashboard, which is true, forward visibility is incredible, despite the low seating position. As compensation though, Mazda placed a large lockable storage compartment behind the centre armrest, and two small storage bins behind each seat, so you still have space to store your belongings.
Mazda also went through the cabin with a fine-tooth comb and picked out any imperfections in delivering the ultimate driver connection. For that Mazda moved the front tyre position forward by 80mm to allow optimal pedal placement, and managed to give a more optimal seat positioning at 20mm lower and 15mm more inwards.
The new MX-5 is not only the lightest iteration since the 1989 original, at 3,915mm from nose to tail it is also the shortest in the MX-5 lineage. That being said, when Mazda first rolled the latest one out, some eyebrows were raised when it appeared with a 1.5-litre 4-cylinder naturally-aspirated engine under the bonnet. It is the smallest powerplant in MX-5 history. Though small, the engine produces a healthy 131PS and 150Nm on hand, to which Mazda promises that it is enough to deliver a pretty spirited drive. For those who aren’t convinced, Mazda eventually announced a 2-litre variant with 160PS and 200Nm available for countries outside Japan, and all was made well with the world again it seemed.
Though Malaysians will have the 2-litre variant, our drive being in Japan meant that Mazda Corporation was only able to prepare half a dozen MX-5 examples in the 1.5-litre guise. Now that doesn’t sound very encouraging, but if Mazda is confident that the 1.5-litre powerplant is enough to excite, then the MX-5 would truly turn out to be something special. And to put it through its paces, Mazda kindly granted us the use of their secretive Mine proving ground.
Moment of Truth – How does it fare?
Yamaguchi certainly knew what he was doing when he detailed the lengths to which they redesigned the driving position. Sitting low and leaned back, the pedals are exactly where you would expect it to be and the driving position is perfect for someone of my 175cm frame, my eyes just peering over the bonnet line, catching the car’s distinctive front flanks.
The engine’s humble quartet of cylinders delivers a fruity note when stoked and eager to rev up the powerband at the prompt of the throttle. Small in size it might be, but it certainly gives the MX-5 a big hearted character.
Though Mazda doesn’t quote 0 to 100km/h figures, acceleration off the line feels brisk enough, an experience made all the more visceral with the roof folded down and the wind blowing overhead. Although the engine’s peak torque of 150Nm is achieved at 4,800rpm, the Skyactiv-G engine doesn’t feel the least bit limp-wristed as it manages to dole out a smooth flow of power. After all it only 1,040kg worth of mass to push along, allowing the MX-5 to build momentum at a decent pace for a sports car.
Masami Mimori of the vehicle development division says that the engine output has been tuned to deliver an acceleration force that correlates exactly to the natural reaction time of the driver’s body. In essence, the MX-5 was engineered not to dump a big serving of power early on. Indeed whilst the MX-5 feels eager to go, it doesn’t deliver a kick to your back. Almost as though every action and reaction is cantered to your demands and expectations. Again, giving a feeling of oneness with the car.
Already through the first sequence of bends and the MX-5 and I are already bonding really well. Like the first-generation original, the steering is quick and precise, but not too nervous as there is a slight amount of free play from dead centre. You don’t need to wrestle the car into the corner, instead guide the nose smooth through the apexes, and the car follows through willingly.
The car’s 50:50 weight distribution and communicative chassis makes it easy to point the nose wherever you want it to go and lets you know what all four tyres are up to. Mimori further elaborates that the chassis has been designed to give a steady and progressive build-up of body yaw (sideways) movements, instead of giving big yaw movements early on that require driver intervention and corrective steering.
The six-speed manual Skyactiv-MT transmission on the test car is an absolute treat, so delectable is its slick shift action that I found myself hoping to squeeze one more gearshift before every corner, just to feel that smooth and mechanical movement in the palm of my hand.
In the interests of Malaysian preferences for automatics, I can report that the six-speed automatic isn’t half bad. It is responsive and shifts gears fast enough, with engineers even weaving in that slick mechanical shift into the stubby gear lever. Sadly it doesn’t quite have the immediacy and direct feel of the manual transmission. According to Mazda the MX-5’s automatic is similar to that used in its predecessor, instead of Mazda’s current Skyactiv-AT. Built for a front-engine rear-wheel drive setup the 6-speed automatic comes with a better control logic and faster response, but lacks the immediate clutch lock-up that the Skyactiv-AT offers.
Despite Mazda’s best efforts in improving the automatic, it is better to wait up for the manual transmission MX-5 that is set to be introduced next year, which will complement the MX-5’s nature better.
In keeping with the spirit of the original, Mazda has steered clear of giving it hard riding suspension, choosing instead to keep it pliant. No surprise then that there is plenty of body lean when you really push it hard into the corner, but it feels more beguiling for it. Many sports cars would resist body roll to a point you are left guessing where its limits lie.
Whereas with the MX-5, with its 195-width tyres, just lets you corner like you are riding on its door handles, tyres squealing away with utter abandon. Even when the tyres do give way the chassis is progressive, very forgiving, and easily correctible. A little slip in the tyres and a quick dash of opposite lock and all is well again. No fuss, the MX-5 keeps you in the centre and in control of things, as promised by its “Jinba-Ittai” philosophy.
If you still think 131PS is too low of a figure to count it as a sports car, then you are missing the point of driving. You don’t so much at marvel at its speed and pace, but by just how friendly and easy it is to drive right to the limit all of the time. And for drivers at heart, isn’t that what matters in a driver’s car?
That being said Malaysians will get to enjoy the 2-litre variant with a 29PS and 50Nm surplus of power to haul the variant’s 50kg worth of added weight from the bigger displacement, brakes, and wheels. For all its added mass Yamaguchi assures us that the 2-litre variant maintains the MX-5’s ideal weight balance.
Is the MX-5 Still Relevant?
For the MX-5 2.0L’s asking price of RM226,376 in Malaysia there are plenty of options present for the driving enthusiast. At that price bracket, the RM217,888 Volkswagen Golf GTI and its hot hatch kin immediately comes to mind, but they are a different kettle of fish. Hot hatches are fast and practical, but they cannot deliver the whole lightweight al-fresco sports car feel. That feeling of sitting low down, enjoying the rush of wind overhead, and the intimate connection with the road beneath. It is the sort of experience that make hot hatches feel like a sensory deprivation tank.
But what about the likes of the Lotus Elise and Toyota 86? Both with a similar focus on lightweight and driver entertainment rather than outright speed and power. Unlike the RM279,888 aluminium and plastic bathtub on wheels that is the Elise S, the MX-5 has a beautifully trimmed feature packed interior and doesn’t compromise when it comes to user friendliness. Its roof takes one hand and a few seconds to close and open, instead of a few minutes and a friend to help on the Elise. Getting in and out is easy with its low sills, and while the Elise offers a raw and pure driving experience, it can be a pain to drive on anything but a track or a smooth winding road. The MX-5 on the other hand is more relaxed, more of a car that delivers the pleasure on any drive anywhere and everywhere.
Arguably the Toyota 86 is the rival that many will compare the MX-5 to. The 86 makes a better case for itself by being a 2+2 coupé, with more interior and boot space than the MX-5, and is more willing to kick its tail out than the Mazda. If you like having a coupé with a fixed metal top, the 86 is the answer, no doubt about it.
But as a driver’s car, the 86 and MX-5 are worlds apart. One is a coupé built to appeal to people who like to go sideways and little else, whereas the other is built to be less of a ruffian and more of a car focused on giving drivers that feeling of being one with the road be it on glorious open country roads or long highway jaunts. It really depends on which side of the coin you really prefer.
Verdict – Has Mazda done it?
One of the biggest criticisms of the third-generation MX-5 is that it didn’t quite live up to the 1989 original, that less-than-one-tonne back-to-basics roadster that had enthralled a generation of drivers. By growing in size and flab, only to be countered by more power from bigger engines, the MX-5 was in danger of falling away from Mazda’s original focus on not trying to chase the sports car trend of more power and speed.
Mazda’s decision to use small engines, and pare back the weight, whilst stuffing it with features, and breaking conventional packaging expectations follows closely to the spirit of the original. Less weight is a welcomed move, but less power from the 1.5-litre engine has allowed Mazda to focus on the sensation of driving, to which they have done remarkably well. So much so that I think this is the best MX-5 since the first iteration, perhaps the best interpretation of the “Jinba-Ittai” of them all.
After a few laps of Mine I didn’t care that it doesn’t accelerate hard or that it didn’t corner like a race car, because let’s face it, we aren’t all racing drivers. You don’t need the skills of Hamilton to get the best out of the MX-5. It already makes you feel like a hero from the moment you chuck it through your first corner. The way it connects you with the road and the confidence it instils in you to wring out its engine at every opportunity, makes it all the more endearing than the next 1,000PS supercar. And that is what “Jinba-Ittai” is all about, and why the MX-5 deserves to be celebrated.