Car Reviews

2016 Mazda MX-5 ND 2.0L review

Robert Pepper’s first drive 2016 Mazda MX-5 ND 2.0L review with pricing, specs, ride and handling, safety, verdict and rating.

In a nutshell: tiny size, big fun – the MX-5 is an all-round improvement and has returned to continue its dominance of the small roadster market.

2016 MAZDA MX-5 ND 2.0-LITRE ROADSTER

PRICE from $34,490 (plus ORC); WARRANTY three-year, unlimited kilometres; SAFETY Euro NCAP 4-StAR (ANCAP TO COME) ; ENGINE 2.0-litre four-cylinder naturally aspirated petrol 118 kW @ 6000 rpm, 200 Nm @ 4800 rpm; TRANSMISSION six-speed manual, optional six-speed auto; BODY 3.92m (L); 1.74m (W); 1.23m (H); WEIGHT 1033 kg (manual roadster); THIRST 6.9-7.1 (M, A) L/100km (95 RON premium unleaded, combined)

More specifications to be found at the end of this review.

Editor's Rating

95%
The MX-5 has always been the modern definition of cheap, fun, motoring and this new ND model certainly continues that tradition with a welcome focus on light agility and driving pleasure. Small roadsters are never going to be practical, but at least this one is reasonably liveable and the daily drive will be made easier by the quality and design of the vehicle. Keen drivers should certainly pick the manual with its more immediate throttle response and limited-slip differential.
95

WE’VE DRIVEN MAZDA’S new MX-5 1.5L, and now it’s time for the 2.0L. You can read Paul Murrell’s review of the 1.5L over here.

Mazda’s basic approach to the new MX-5 is to make it a fun driver’s car, very much in the style of all the others, particularly the first-generation 1989-vintage NA MX-5.  Mazda say the driving experience should be jinba-ittai which is a Japanese expression meaning “one with horse and rider”, continuing a long industry tradition of using foreign phrases because they sound much more impressive than English. Regardless, they do seem to be taking the driving idea very seriously which is more to the point, and the focus here is lightness, the universal key to performance. During the launch presentation the platform lead engineer reeled off figure after figure where they’d shaved a kilo here, made this or that 5 or 10mm shorter, used steel 1 or 2 mm thinner, all part of the “gram strategy” to shave weight wherever they can.
 
The result is a tiny car, 105mm shorter than the previous NC model at 3915mm and, more importantly it weighs a mere 1033kg (manual 2.0L Roadster GT, the lower spec Roadster’s weight is not stated) which for a modern car makes it an absolute featherweight. Interestingly, Mazda also goes out of its way to acknowledge the pioneers of the cheap, light roadster who were the English with the likes of the Lotus Elan, Sprite and MG. Car companies love to talk about their own heritage (standard PR word there) but it’s not often they properly respect inspiration from others.
 
IMG_4338
Quite a bit of bodyroll for a small sportscar…but forget that and look at the end result which is all that matters.
 
Mazda also goes on about a 50:50 weight distribution, which is important but not critical. You can get 50:50 very easily simply by shifting components over the axle of whichever end of the car is a bit lighter, which will then destroy the handling because you’ll have a large mass a long way from the centre of gravity.  What’s more important, and what Mazda mention but do not emphasise so much, is the location of the mass.  Better to have say 40:60 with all the mass very close to the centre than 50:50 and a car that feels like driving a dumbbell.  Happily, Mazda has engineered both into the MX-5, and have moved various components around to achieve a “lowered yaw inertia moment” which means a nice central mass location.  They even claim the car pitches around the driver so when you brake you don’t much feel the fore/aft movement, which isn’t the case because while the driver’s backside might be lined up with the centre of gravity the driver’s eyes are well above it.  Nevertheless, it’s a nice idea.
 
This test is about the 2.0L, but it’s an identical car to the 1.5L except for the engine and 17-inch rims in the Roadster GT variant. Transmission, gear ratios, final drive, suspension… all the same.  We asked if that meant the car was developed as a 2.0 and then the 1.5 was dropped in, or vice versa, and the unsurprising answer was that development was carried out in parallel for both.
 
IMG_4325
 
So what’s it like to drive?  Slip behind the wheel and everything feels properly sportscar-like.  The tacho is prominently in the centre, because you don’t look at the speedo when driving quickly, just glance at the revs.  The view out the front is marked by prominent wheelarches with a low-slung bonnet, giving a bit of racecar feel.  The seat is low and comfortable, the steering wheel is unobstructed, there’s a sensation of a cockpit and in general you feel ready to drive before you’ve even switched the car on.
 
IMG_4293a
 
We’re first up in the automatic, and, well, let me cut to the chase.  It’s a disappointment, but only because of the near-stratospheric expectations 25 or so years of MX-5 have set.  It’s not the handling, it’s the engine.  It feels gutless, there’s no sense of urgency, and nor does it sound even remotely exciting. Put your foot to the floor and noise happens, but not much else.  You can blip up and down the gears, but there’s a sense of why bother.  Like all modern cars, the noise itself is somewhat artificial with a ISE (Induction Sound Enhancer) that “amplifies the engine’s natural induction sound and delivers it to the cockpit as a lively and pleasing note”. Well, the first part is correct anyway.
 
But that’s the only negative.  Now let’s talk about the handling, which is pretty easy.  Just think of all of the words ever used to describe great handling sportscars – sharp, feelsome, direct, balanced… they all apply here. I’ll need some time on roads where there are no limits, but if that happens I suspect the MX-5 will out-handle the Toyota 86 (corner speed but not straight-line) and that’s saying something. So to be precise (just like the MX-5’s steering); the brakes are strong and progressive.  Visibility is excellent, aided by the wheelarch view over the bonnet for added sensation.
 
The seats don’t appear to bolster well as they lack big wings, but that’s an illusion, they’re much better than they look.  Steering is immediate, there’s great feedback, lines can be adjusted mid-corner with liftoff or more power.  The suspension is soft, and there’s lots of body roll for the class and weight of car, but that’s a good thing.  It makes the car more fun, it looks great, and it certainly doesn’t detract from the drive – quite the reverse, you have to tip it in smoothly for best effect and biggest reward, or tip it in sharply and deal with the result which is simple and satisfying.
 
Softer suspension also means the car soaks up bumps in a way that more harshly sprung vehicles cannot manage, and the result there is uncomfortable occupants, slower progress and nasty little loss-of-traction moments that are in no way fun.  Mazda also say that “high torsional body stiffness does not necessarily bring a vehicle behaviour faithful to a driver’s intention”, which is another way of saying that extremely high rigidity is not always a good thing.  No argument here.
 
MX-5 2 (14)
And here we have a MX-5 spotted in its natural environment, flowing from apex to apex.
So that’s the auto.  Into the manual and it’s different.  Same handling, but here’s the MX-5 I was expecting.  The overall power is the same, but put your foot down and there’s an immediate urgency where the automatic is lethargic, and that’s even reflected in the 0-100 times of 8.2 auto, 7.1 manual.  When I say ‘urgency’ that means you can feel the car sharply change pitch which is fun and what you want in a sportscar, as opposed to just gently gather speed.
 
The engine sounds sweeter too, or maybe that’s just because there’s more of a direct connection from engine to wheels.  The manual shifter is an unalloyed delight to flick from gear to gear, heel’n’toe is as easy as it gets, and it all adds up to a back-roads experience that I don’t think any other car can equal, especially with the top down.  Sure, other cars are faster but fast has never directly equalled fun, and with the MX-5 there’s no abundance of power to cover up mistakes, yet there’s enough to move smartly.  It’s a real driver’s car, the very definition of rewarding.  Love it, and there’s no question the manual is the only version serious drivers should consider.
 
Oh, and there’s an actual handbrake that operates on the rear wheels, essential for off-street enjoyment.   Finally…the ESC is well calibrated, only kicking in the once and then to smoothly assist not slap down – this was when my partner hooked in too fast and had to take a second bite at a corner.  You can switch ESC off, and we’re told that means totally off including traction control.  Whether that’s really off will need to wait for a another time.
 
Now take a look at this:
 
MX-5 2 (49)
 
Yes, it’s a wheel and tyre. Specifically, a 4-stud wheel and tyre. The fifth stud has been deleted in order to save weight, and these are indeed 4×100 PCD so opening a whole world of aftermarket rim options, including old classic Japanese options for those wanting a retro look.  The change to 4-stud is also welcome news for those people that need to swap tyres at trackdays, as there’s four less bolts to work on.  If you roll up to any grassroots motorsport event you’ll find MX-5s everywhere and this new model shows no signs of changing that popularity.  As with previous models, long fast tracks are likely to be a bit tiresome, but motorkhanas, hillclimbs and autokhanas… they’re going to be a blast!  Expect a range of exhausts, headers, turbos and all the usual aftermarket tuning gear to be available soon.
 
Now to the boring realities of life, and it’s time to look at the MX-5 as more than just a top down, music up funmobile.  And this is where the car starts to lose points, because it’s just not practical.  To be fair, Mazda hasn’t designed it as such, making no apology and nor should they.  The fanatical weight saving would be compromised if there were too many niceties.
 
That aside, the MX-5 lacks many things that you’d want in a daily driver.  Storage space is woeful – no glovebox, just a few small compartments behind the seats, and you can’t put much behind the seats either.  The boot is tiny.  There’s no spare wheel or an option.  There’s no hard top – there are rumours of a factory unit, but the aftermarket will no doubt step up.  At cruise speed there’s a lot of wind noise.  The drinks holders are small and fiddly.  The sun visor doesn’t rotate ninety degrees. There’s one 12v socket which is stuck out of sight in the passenger footwell.  There’s two USB ports, but no phone cubby unless you’re still rocking an old micro-Nokia. The list could go on, and it’s not a criticism per se, just something to be aware of if you’re coming from say a small hatchback. 
 
One good point is the speakers in the headrests, adjust the fade (front/rear balance) back a bit and you can get a lovely surround-sound effect.  The photo below shows the GT model, but the speakers are also present in the Roadster trim albeit covered by cloth.  Very cool.
 
IMG_4298
There’s no airscarf or any such luxury items.  You need to wear an actual scarf.  Again, this is all fine because such things start to get away from the simple, light premise of the MX-5. 
 
You also need to know that the MX-5 is a small car and not for large people.  I’m 1.8m tall (a little under 6ft) and found my eye line rather too close to the top of the windscreen. My driving partner seemed to be about another 5cm taller than me so his head was touching the roof, and he hit his head on the side panels.   Do check this if you’re tall.  I also found the gearshift to be a little to close to me to be perfectly comfortable when selecting 2nd, 4th and 6th, and in general I’d say the car is best for people 1.75m tall or shorter.  The seats cannot go very far back, or tilt back to any degree, and the steering wheel is only tilt not reach adjustable.  When checking fit, remember to wear a helmet if you’re considering trackwork.  I doubt I could fit in this car with a helmet on and the top up. 
 
The convertible roof is very easy to put up and down. One latch to undo, pull it over your hand, latch down, job done.  Takes about three seconds, and I reckon you could do it within two when practiced.  Same deal for the coverup.  You can see why Mazda simply didn’t bother with an electric motor, saving both cost and weight.  One of the storage compartments is lockable, but it doesn’t look very well proofed against crime so I’d lock all valuables in the boot.  Speaking of the boot, there’s no in-dash button to release it, only on the keyfob or a hidden button on the rear bumper.   Annoying.  However, the fuel tank cap (95 RON) locks and unlocks with the car.
 
MX-5 2 (9)
The controls are done well.  Simple, easy dials, no overly complex pretentious touchscreens or other gimmicks desk-jockey nerds dream up when left unattended.  It all just works and works well, and I’m a big fan of the dial control for the screen instead of a touchscreen.  There’s navigation, Bluetooth, audio streaming and it all feels modern.  The MX-5 is very usable on a day to day basis, but that’s not quite the same as very practical.
 
Clean, modern, easy to use.
Clean, modern, easy to use.
 
Here’s the interior of the Roadster and Roadster GT (with larger MZD screen):
 
 

Safety is interesting.  The MX-5 ND hasn’t been ANCAP tested as of yet, but Euro NCAP have had a crack and scored it four stars.  Here’s the results:
 
MX-5-safety
 
So good for crashworthiness and excellent for anyone you run into, but what lets the car down is lack of active safety features such as AEB.  At present, despite the TAC making a big (and incorrect) fuss about it, AEB and the like do not feature so heavily in Australian testing so we expect the MX-5 to manage 5 stars.  The last model tested by ANCAP was a 2009 and it scored 4 stars, like every other MX-5 ANCAP has tested.  This doesn’t seem to affect sales though.
 
So what’s Mazda’s strategy with MX-5?  They’re very much committed to it, but won’t be drawn on motorsports commitments, only saying they are “looking at” the race-ready version already in production in the USA.  I asked whether Mazda would follow Toyota’s lead with the 86 and run a grassroots race series (and maybe make it actually a proper low-cost grassroots series as opposed to the way Toyota have done it), but it was clear there wasn’t much interest even if the idea wasn’t ruled out – “we’re as close as we ever are” [to something like that].
 
Now to where the MX-5 fits in the bigger scheme of things.  The car is important to Mazda because they have their “zoom zoom” image and without a sportscar that’s a bit hard to carry off.  We are also one of the few markets to get both the 2.0 and 1.5, whereas for example the USA only gets the 2.0, and Japan only gets the 1.5. 
 
Here’s what Mazda expect to sell of each of the eight variants across engine, trim and transmission:
 
MX-sales-split
That’s 40% automatic, 60% manual, 48% for the 1.5 and 52% for the 2.0, 31% Roadster spec and 69% higher GT spec.  As of 26/11/2015 there have been 170 firm sales on the as-yet-unseen 2.0L.  Equal largest sellers at 20% each are expected to be the 1.5 and 2.0 manual base-spec Roadsters, and least popular the 1.5L automatic Roadster at 5%.
 
It seems the last buyers of the NC model (all sold now) were older people, with some 80% of buyers over 45 years of age.   Mazda is keen to re-orient the MX-5 towards a younger demographic, saying: “We are challenging younger buyers to look up from their mobile and enjoy driving” and “people below 30 are still sussing out what a car means to them”.
 
Interestingly, Mazda also said that the name “MX-5” did not generate instant recognition amongst sub-25s, but when shown a photograph of the car they connected the name with the vehicle.  This focus on younger people is perhaps the standard ploy to attract buyers into the brand with entry level models and then keep them there through perhaps a 3, followed by a CX for the family, and then finally back to an MX-5 once the kids have left home! Mazda also spoke of their engagement with clubs, but didn’t go into much specifics about what that would be other than speaking at club functions.  They did send a club president overseas though which is good, much more than most manufacturers would do.
 IMG_4326
 
Sportscars typically suffer a dip in sales after the first year or so, but Mazda “has some ideas to keep things fresh” over the model’s lifecycle.  That can only be good news for motoring enthusiasts, because the MX-5 2.0L you can buy today is a very fine sportscar that anyone who calls themselves a driver will surely enjoy.

1.5L and 2.0L specs compared

 1.5L2.0L
Weight (man Roadster GT)1009 (M) / 1032 (A)1033 (M) / 1057 (A)
Power96kW @ 7000rpm118kW @ 6000rpm
Torque150Nm @ 4800rpm200Nm @ 4600rpm
Redline75000rpm6800rpm
Power/weight (kg per kw)10.58.8
0-100 (sec)8.5 (M) / 9.7 (A)7.1 (M) / 8.2 (A)
Top speed (km/h)204 (M) / 185 (A)214 (M) / 193 (A)
ADR 81/02 combined fuel6.1 (M) / 6.4 (A)6.9 (M) / 7.1 (A)
Fuel type95 RON95 RON

The weights are for the top-spec Roadster GT.  Mazda tell us the weight for the Roadster version isn’t known, but it would be a little less given the GT’s extras like heated seats and the like.

How does the 2.0L go against the 1.5L?  I’ve not had a lot of time in the 1.5 and only driven the 2.0 on a press launch, but some early impressions – the 1.5 is a good, good little thing with 96 of the funnest kilowatts on the market.  It would be the pick for suburban speeds.  It’s slower, but nicely revvy, feels a touch lighter, all to the good.  I’d also take it for motorkhanas.  I’d pick the 2.0L for any trackwork or hillclimbs because my guess is that you’d fall asleep right after corner exit in the 1.5 and only be woken by the sound of everything else screaming by, and I can’t see there being the power to play around with the back end or drift.  I’d prefer the 2.0L for rural roads as it has a bit more grunt, but the 1.5L would still be a bundle of joy.  More on this if we manage to arrange a proper back to back test.

How big isn’t it?

Here we have the sizes and weights of the four generations of MX-5.  See notes on weights above.

 TransLengthWidthHeightWheelbaseWeight
Gen 4 ND1.5L/6 MT39151730123523151009
Gen 3 NC2.0L/5 MT40201720124523301110
Gen 2 NB1.6L/5 MT39751680122522651030
Gen 1 NA1.6L/5 MT3955167512352265940

2016 Mazda MX-5 range and pricing

Prices exclude on-road costs.

EngineGradeTransmissionLSDPricingDiff to next
1.5LRoadsterManualYes$31,990 
  AutoNo$33,990$2,000
 Roadster GTManualYes$37,990$4,000
  AutoNo$39,990$2,000
2.0LRoadsterManualYes$34,490-$5,500
  AutoNo$36,490$2,000
 Roadster GTManualYes$39,550$3,060
  AutoNo$41,550$2,000
 
Some paints are additional cost, around $285.
 
IMG_4327
 
Roadster (key features)
  • LED headlamps
  • Cruise control
  • Bluetooth audio and streaming
  • Keyless entry
  • Tyre pressure monitor
Roadster GT spec adds (key features):
  • Gunmetal colour wheels
  • Headlamps auto on/off, LED DRLs
  • Rain-sensing wipers, heated mirrors
  • Heated seats
  • Auto-dim rear-view mirror
  • Climate control
  • 7″ display (MZD Connect), Internet radio integration
  • Bose audio, 9 speakers
  • Satnav
  • Advanced keyless entry

Other notes

  • The 2.0L Roadster GT gets 17″ rims on 205/45/17 tyres.  All other grades are 195/50/16. PCD is 4×100.
  • Service intervals are every 10,000km

Options

All prices are fitted:

  • Reversing camera – $485 (only with vehicles with MZD Connect)
  • Black multi-spoke wheels – $1248
  • Front parking sensors – $615
  • Rear parking sensors – $415, integrated with the screen $1344
  • Cargo tray – $135
  • Kuroi bodykit –  black front, side and rear under spoilers, rear lip spoiler and black multi-spoke wheels (pictured below):

kuroi

Brief thoughts: Mazda MX-5 vs Toyota 86

The MX-5 and Toyota 86 are both small Japanese rear-drive sportscars with driveaway starting prices of under $40k for the base models.  But they’re very, very different and that’s even apparent only after a launch-based drive of the MX-5.  The 86 I know well as I own one and there’s a BRZ in the household too.  We’ll need some serious time with the MX-5, but for the moment here’s some first impressions of the two manual versions:
 
First off the price difference is around $34,000 for the 86 to $38,000 for the MX-5 as it’s fairer to compare the 2.0L Mazda with the 86 which is also a 2.0L.  The oft-quoted $31k MX-5 price is for the 1.5L and that’s plus onroads, manufacturers always quote the cheapest model even though it is often not a big seller.   The 86 is therefore cheaper, and $4k will buy a lot of modifications, track day entries and the like.
 
That cheapness is well reflected in the thin paint and cheap interior – the 86 has been accurately described by one of our testers as a ’90s car in 2015, and while that’s praise for its general driving it’s also true of the interior and that’s no compliment.  The MX-5 by contrast is better finished, designed and feels much more modern and premium, not least with the infotainment unit.
 
When we come to practicality it is a rare car that the 86 beats, but that’s true here.  The 86 can seat four, kind of, the MX-5 only two people who best not be large.  You can take four tyres to a track day inside the 86, but the only way you’ll do that in an MX-5 is if your race involves radio controlled vehicles.   The 86 has a glovebox, storage compartments and way more bootspace, and its second row folds down too.  No contest which one you’d prefer to own as an only car on that score.
 
Driving around town the MX-5 wins, it’s more tractable, the gearshift is less notchy when cold and the car is more willing to do more at lower speeds and revs, and the clutch is less finicky.  Being tiny helps too. The 86 feels like a large car is comparison – and it’s much better able to accomodate larger drivers.  The 86 runs on 98RON and uses more of it than the MX-5 on 95.
 
Out on the open road and if it’s a rural twisty road then the 86 will deliver a richly satisfying driving experience but given a choice between it and the MX-5 then I’m reaching for the Mazda keyfob.  The MX-5 is slower, but it’s 250kg or so lighter, narrower and that translates into better agility, feel and an ability to connect the lines the 86 can manage but not quite as well. Oh, and there’s the option of top-down fun.  But it’s only a narrow win to the MX-5 because the 86 has something many drivers will prize, and that’s a certain amount of untamed oversteery naughtiness you very rarely see in cars these days.  You need to be careful with the 86 even at relatively slow speeds, whereas the MX-5 feels far more forgiving, there’s depth there to be explored but it’s not as intense as the 86, the throttle response isn’t as immediate, the rev limit is lower, the dynamics don’t change as much with throttle movement.
 
At this point the difference is clear – the 86 is cheaper, bigger, quicker and far more practical.  The Mazda feels far more premium, has a drop-top and edges the 86 for smoothly rich dynamics if not on-edge challenge.
 
The MX-5 is closer in concept to Toyota’s forthcoming micro-sportscar, the S-FR.  Read more about that, including a spec comparison, hereFiat have also released some early details of their version, the Fiat 124 Spider.
 

4 Comments

  1. Fred
    December 7, 2015 at 2:03 pm — Reply

    This is what you buy just for fun, or trying to be young again , practicality is for Suv’s.

  2. Richard Houlton
    January 25, 2017 at 8:42 pm — Reply

    Gee. I own a BRZ (on STi springs and Dunlop SP Sport Maxx RT rubber) and I’ve driven a rag top MX5 and the RF. The BRZ handles and steers better than both of the Mazdas. The amount of body roll on the MX5s is alarming, the way that it rolls onto it’s outside rear is unexpected and alarming when first experienced, but it’s never confidence inspiring and I expect, on bumpy back roads, you’d never be far from the bump stops.The MX5s are TOO soft. WAY to soft. The Abarth 124 (which we also have in the garage with the BRZ) is a car that you feel confident to drive hard from the get go. Sorry, you can stick jittabug-ittai. If I bought an MX5, my first action would be to visit someone to get the suspension fixed.

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Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper