We noticed you're blocking ads.

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker.

Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us

Font Size

- Aa +

Tue 26 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

Font Size

- Aa +

Bolt out of the blue

Mazda's little roadster has finally gone on sale in the Middle East. Shahzad Sheikh had an old score to settle with the MX-5.

Mazda's little roadster has finally gone on sale in the Middle East. Shahzad Sheikh had an old score to settle with the MX-5.

Sadly we never really got on, the two previous MX-5s and I. As others would wax lyrical about its handling, charm and back-to-basics personality, I'd simply nod sagely in silent agreement. The frustrating fact was that I could not share the enthusiasm, because I couldn't properly drive the damn thing thanks to my lanky long-legged frame!

Don’t dismiss this as a girl’s car; the proof is in the driving

Forget the Lilliputian 1989 original, even the 1998 Mark II left me scarred for life - literally. My first acquaintance with that car was short-lived, after gleefully jumping in, slamming the door and promptly, and painfully, trapping my knee between the steering wheel and the door trim.

In 2005 an all-new version arrived. Bigger, more spacious, with engine sizes now up to 2.0-litres, it's definitely a more grown up car. And yet it is also closer in silhouette and style to the first generation model, having abandoned the swoopy lines of the second gen car.

The latest car is tauter, more cohesive, and closer to conception. It conveys the impression of being a stiffer one-piece transporter pod. The bulging wheel arches, especially at the front, and arrow-shaped bonnet indent confirm its seriousness, even if the face seems to mimic that of Lightning McQueen from the animated movie Cars. Not exactly achingly desirable, nor quite show-stopping, it is nonetheless immediately likeable, unpretentious and a great example of clean simplistic design that just works.

Because of its diminutive stature some might dismiss this as a ‘girl's car', but the proof is in the driving, especially as it only comes with a manual gearbox. But first to see if a full-sized guy can fit. The seat has been lowered and the steering is tilt adjustable, so yeah. Legroom is good, elbow room is still a bit tight, but the controls and especially the short stubby, flickable gear lever are intuitively positioned.

Whilst greatly improved and far more accommodating, those of a largish frame should still take it for a long test drive before buying. With the seat all the way back, you have to stretch out for the wheel, which doesn't adjust for reach. With the electric hardtop in place an Afro would be out of the question.

But this is a roadster after all, so release the catch, hold down the button, and watch the nifty little hard top - the only choice available in the region - split into three and neatly disappear into a hidden cavity behind the rear seats, leaving the small but deep boot unencroached. It morphs from ‘coupe' to roadster in 12 seconds and only adds 37kg to the weight of the soft top available elsewhere. Since all of that extra kg is the in middle of the car, handling balance is preserved.

Need to knowPrice:$31,000

Engine:1999cc 16v four cylinder, 166bhp @ 6700rpm, 140lb ft @ 5000rpm

Transmission:Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive

Performance:8.2sec 0-100kph, 219kph

Weight:1207kg

And that's crucial, because handling and driver involvement are key to this car's appeal. Performance is not, and never was. Even with 166bhp, 8.2 seconds to 100kph is acceptable rather than neck-snapping. Roof up, there's little sense of being catapulted into the horizon, despite the very present wind and road noise - refinement was not paramount either it seems.

It's not slow or crude; it's thoroughly well-built and engineered, beautiful conceived and presented, and it becomes evident the more you drive it that a lot of thought, and indeed emotion, has gone into the creation of this little Mazda. Accelerate up through the nifty six-ratio 'box, leaving changes late as peak power and torque are just short of the redline. With the MX-5 you find yourself consistently doing 15-20kph less than you thought: which is good - more fun at less speed.

Aurally it disappoints; hollow tinniness in the drivetrain, a diesel-esque rattly idle, a droning rather than melodic noise which sounds somewhat pained at higher revs - surprising because this engine loves to spin. There are of course a couple of solutions: get a fruitier-sounding aftermarket exhaust or, less practical perhaps, replace it with a Honda VTEC. Sacrilege I know, but just think of the sweet S2000.

Still, stab the DSC off and it will happily light up its rear wheels on demand. And this is where the capital ‘E' in ‘Entertaining' comes into play. Along with the pleasing shifter, the steering is meaty, responsive, direct and communicative (despite the slightly artificial feel). The pedals invite frequent heel-and-toeing to blip and brake for downchanges and the whole driving experience invites you to have a play.

The limits of grip aren't scarily high, and the chassic is miraculously tuned to be both benign and ballsy. Turn-in is good, understeer is muted and it will wag its tail ecstatically. Okay there's a mite more body roll than you'd expect (the hardtop version is set up softer), and ride comfort is skittish and fidgety at moderate speeds, but all is forgivable (or fixable) when the fun quotient is this high.

Tellingly, within moments of having returned it I regretted not having thought of excuses to keep it longer. But the biggest excuse to own an MX-5 is its killer value: yours for $31,000 - that's $10k cheaper than a 2.0 Audi TT roadster.

THE HISTORYMX-5: A Copycat Lotus Elan

In 1976 American motoring journalist Bob Hall met Kenichi Yamamoto, head of R&D at Mazda, and told him that somebody should build a ‘simple, inexpensive classically-British sports car'.

When Yamamoto became chairman in 1981 plans were put into motion. Based closely on the 1962-75 Lotus Elan, the MX-5 (as in ‘Mazda eXperimental', project number 5) was introduced to the world at the Chicago Auto Show in 1989 with a 1.6-litre engine but weighing just 940 kg.

Slightly bigger and 60kg heavier, the second generation car arrived in 1998 and together the two cars secured a spot in the record books, making MX-5 the world's top selling two-seat roadster, and picking up over 150 awards on the way.

Arabian Business: why we're going behind a paywall