2012 Mazda MX-5 Road Test Review

Simon Hill - CAP staff
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There aren't many cars in current production that can lay claim to being in the Guinness Book of World Records, but the Mazda MX-5 is one of them, holding the title of the best selling roadster in history. The record was initially achieved when production reached 531,890 units back in 2000, and it has been updated every few years since so that in 2011 it stood at 900,000 units and was closing rapidly on a million.

It's a heady number for a niche two-seater, but it doesn't take long behind the wheel of a Mazda MX-5 to figure out why the little roadster is so very popular: It's because it has great balance. And by that I don't just mean that it's handling is well-balanced (which it most certainly is), but that the entire car is a perfect blend of simplicity and sophistication, with just the right amount of power, a suspension that's sporty but not harsh, and a simple cabin that's cozy yet comfortable. It all adds up to a sublime driving experience, one that's engaging and immersive without being demanding or tiring. Through all three generations of the MX-5, Mazda has adhered to the design philosophy of "jinba ittai" - "horse and rider as one" - and this continues to be made true on the road.

With the May 2012 announcement of a new fourth-generation MX-5 in the pipeline, developed in cooperation with Alfa Romeo, it seems that days of the current third-generation car are numbered. But a week behind the wheel of a special edition "Velocity Red" MX-5 SV proved that while the current design may be seven years old (it was introduced in 2005 for the 2006 model year) and coming up for replacement, it's still got a special magic.

Part of the MX-5's magic is simply its uniqueness - save for perhaps the Mini Roadster, there really isn't any car out there that can be considered a true competitor. The BMW Z4 and Nissan 370Z Roadster are probably the MX-5's nearest rivals, but they both carry much steeper price tags. The Mini Roadster, which starts at $30,495 including destination, is right on the money with the MX-5's $30,940 destination-in base sticker, but the Mini is a front-wheel drive car with a whole different personality than the MX-5. Perhaps closest in personality are the new Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ twins ($27,485 in the Scion flavour), but they're only available as coupes, not roadsters. And while you might price-compare a convertible pony car such as the Chevrolet Camaro or Ford Mustang, they're really as different from the MX-5 as apples from oranges.

Appearance-wise, the MX-5 is a quintessential roadster: compact, low to the ground and with a longish hood compared to the rear deck. Back when it was known as the Miata in North America the MX-5 garnered a bit of a "girl car" reputation due to its overabundance of cuteness, but Mazda has tweaked the car's appearance over the generations so that the current MX-5 is much more muscular looking, with big boots, bulging fender flares and a planted stance. The special edition 2012 SV, which sells for $35,790 including freight, is even more masculine in appearance, sporting 17-inch gunmetal alloy wheels, a blacked-out grille surround, black mirrors, black leather seats with contrasting stitching, and a unique black convertible hardtop offset against the exclusive Velocity Red paintwork (making it the first MX-5 in North America with a non body-coloured hardtop). Verdict: this is one purposeful-looking and head-turning MX-5.

Personally I think the standard glass-windowed soft-top is better looking than the hardtop, which is a little bulbous at the back, but I'd take my MX-5 with the hardtop regardless, as the extra 36 kg of weight and slightly less classic looks are more than offset by the hardtop's improved security, quietness and weather resistance. The SV's black hardtop is a neat compromise, offering a bit of the soft-top's classic looks with the hardtop's practicality.

Speaking of practicality, the power hardtop is quick and easy to operate - you have to stop the car and put it in neutral, but then it's a simple matter of unlocking the centre catch above the mirror and pressing a button on the dash, and the top stows in about 12 seconds flat. The two-piece design doesn't take up any more space when folded than the soft-top, so the trunk remains unimpeded (a good thing too, as the MX-5 doesn't have a huge trunk to start with, being just big enough for a week's load of groceries or a weekend's worth of luggage for two).

Key the ignition and the MX-5 fires up with a surprisingly lusty bellow from its 2.0-litre inline 4-cylinder engine. The little secret here is that Mazda uses an intake noise induction tube to feed some of the engine's happy banter into the cockpit, but in every other respect the engine is perfectly straightforward and it produces a healthy 167 horsepower and 140 lb-ft of torque, which in a car as light as the MX-5 (1,115 kg in base trim and 1,182 kg with air conditioning and the power hardtop) is good enough to zip from 0-100 km/h in just under eight seconds. Fuel economy is decent too, at a rated 9.7 / 7.1 L/100 km (city/hwy) with my test car's 6-speed manual transmission.

While a 6-speed automatic is available (and a 5-speed manual is the standard offering in base models), the 6-speed manual really seems to me to be the transmission of choice. It has short throws, closely spaced ratios and a slick, easy-to-shift feel that makes it a genuine pleasure to work through the gears. The clutch is likewise easy to modulate and perfectly weighted, offering good pedal feel without demanding a workout from your leg.

It's in the corners that the MX-5 has really earned its reputation, and my test car didn't disappoint. The suspension is actually a little softer than one might initially guess, so the car exhibits a bit more body roll in the corners than its low stance would suggest, and undulating high-speed turns can leave it feeling vaguely unsettled. But the MX-5 has good grip, wonderful balance (yes, that word again) and offers superb feedback through the steering wheel. Given the right approach to the corners, this allows you to dial in whatever cornering attitude you desire, whether it be understeer, oversteer, or a nice four-wheel drift. The short wheelbase also means that the car can skitter around tight low-speed corners in a way that few (if any) other cars can possibly match, and its quick, direct steering allows you to hit the ideal cornering lines with accuracy and ease. It's little wonder the MX-5 has ruled the nation's autocross courses since the day it was conceived, and it means that weaving the MX-5 through the corners is something I can't imagine growing tired of.

Inside, the MX-5 is a study in form following function. The cabin is simple, with easy-to-read gauges and all controls easily at hand. It's not particularly quiet - with the top down there's a fair bit of wind noise and with the top up you can hear a certain amount of mechanical symphony coming from the drivetrain, but the seats are comfortable and the view is superb, at least it is with the top down (with the top up rearward vision is somewhat restricted, most notably when shoulder-checking or backing into parking spots). My only real complaint was my test car's lack of Bluetooth connectivity, which seems an odd omission in today's world (according to Mazda Canada's website you have to move up to the $41,940 GT to get this feature as a factory option, though you could add basic Bluetooth functionality with a few well-spent dollars at your local electronics outlet).

All that said, perhaps not having Bluetooth in the MX-5 is all part of Mazda's greater plan: the car is, after all, a driver's machine that thrives on simplicity. And when you're having as much fun driving as I was during my week with the car, who wants to answer mundane phone calls from your boss regarding deadlines, or reminders from your significant other to be home on time? After all, the long route home has far more corners…

©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)

Topics: Roadster, Mazda, 2012, Miata, MX-5, $30,000 - $39,999, Compact,

Organizations: Mazda

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