Mazda MX-5 long-term test goodbye – 10 November 2010
Yes, I know that this is probably the longest gap between penultimate and final long-term reports, but believe me, it’s been worth the wait. We’ve always loved the MX-5 for its dynamic brilliance, its affordability and its clockwork reliability. It’s a giant-slayer, capable of putting a lot of faster and more expensive metal in its place – the ideal basis, then, for an affordable and hugely capable track and race car.
The problem is, while there are numerous companies that will supply MX-5 owners with all manner of aftermarket upgrades, none of them have any official relationship with Mazda UK. Which is why the compnay has joined forces with Jota Sport (www.jotasport.com), the ace Tunbridge Wells-based motorsport company that looks after Aston Martin’s global racing concerns.
Jota Sport has developed a simple tickbox menu of 12 upgrades and enhancements for the MX-5 – both for the current model and the previous generations. So if you just want one or two modifications, some uprated brakes and a sports exhaust for example, then that’s what you get. Or you can turn your car over to Jota Sport for its crack engineers to transform it into a full FIA-approved track-ready racer.
Rather than dip our toes in the water, I plunged right in and took a full optioned MX-5 racing. And not just in any old race, but as part of a five-strong team in the punishing Silverstone 24 Hours, the ultimate round in the hotly contested Britcar race series. With monsoon rain predicted the entire weekend. Gulp.
Despite rubbing shoulders with race-spec monsters including the Mosler MT900Rs, Aston Martin GT4s, Ferrari F430 GTCs and Porsches 911 GT3 RSRs, the plucky Mazda did a stand-up job. For a start it never skipped a beat – in 24 flat-out hours it ran faultlessly – which meant less time in the pits and more time harrying the big boys.
It was also light on tyres and very economical. Although the standard spec 158bhp 2.0-litre engine was constantly redlined, it returned an impressive 10.5mpg, which meant we could be out on track for three hours before needing to refuel. We made just 11 pitstops during the race, compared to the 20 or so our rivals made.
But the MX-5’s biggest asset was its pin-sharp dynamics. While most of the 200mph monsters would be braking hard and early into the corners, I’d be accelerating past them, braking much later, driving around them and then getting on the power sooner. I’d initially leave them behind – very satisfying – but then get inexorably caught on the next straight, only for the cycle to repeat itself at the next corner.
The Jota modifications – uprated brakes, suspension, rollcage – really paid dividends. The brakes were incredibly effective, the slightest brush of the centre pedal carving off great chunks of speed. The anti-roll bars significantly reduced body roll and the rollcage made the car feel incredibly strong and stable. In treacherously slippery conditions – the safety car was called out six times because of poor weather and the accidents it caused - the car felt honed, taut and composed. It was a fast-moving and dependable midnight ally.
And I felt like a winner crossing the finish line 474 laps and 1509 miles 24 hours later. My already huge respect for the MX-5 grew tenfold when that chequered flag fell. As it did for Jota Sport boss Sam Hignett: 'When a car manufacturer gets a car fundamentally right, as Mazda have done with the MX-5, it makes our job of taking it from road car to race car that much easier.'
Jota Sport’s Mazda MX-5 Motorsport Menu
Sparco carbonfibre race seat: £850
Ultra-lightweight FIA-approved bucket seat
Camelback drinks system: £150
In-cockpit drinks system for endurance racing
Sparco six-point harness: £450
FIA-approved and HANS-ready
Fire Extinguisher system: £600
Integrated FIA approved
Lightweight roll cage: £1050
Race loom and electrical system: £2500
Bespoke MX-5 race electrics, built in-house by Jota Sport
Gearbox & diff coolers: £550
Endurance quick fill fuel tank: £4500
Bespoke 120-litre endurance ATL-designed tank
Race brake package: £1800
Designed by AP specifically for this project. Four-pot front callipers with quick release pads for endurance racing, standard rear callipers with race-specification pads
Adjustable front and rear roll bars: £900
Race clutch: £900
Sports exhaust: £800
All prices are ex-VAT and include fitting and labour
By Ben Whitworth
Long-term test update – 6 January 2010
After a few thousand miles in the MX-5 I’ve noticed a few oddities that irritate and irk. Nothing major, just minor flaws that you only come to light after plenty of twenty-four-seven use.
Like the utterly useless storage areas on the doors. Not the decently-sized door bins themselves but the net-fronted holders that cover them. They’re so tightly drawn across the doors that you’d be lucky to slide something as thick as a post-it note into them, let alone a map book. They’re so inept I’d ditch them for the sake of a few grammes.
The location of the boot release is equally odd. It’s way down on the underside of the dash near the driver’s knee. I know where it is, but it still takes me three of four stabs before I can find it. At least the traction control deactivation button is conveniently located just to the left of the steering wheel – ideal for a quick jab when a damp and deserted roundabout comes into view.
The oval fuel filler flap sits just a few millimetres lower than the surrounding sheetmetal but my eye is drawn to this imperfection on the car’s otherwise smooth flanks every time I glance at the car. I now park my car so I can approach it from the unsullied side. I know, ridiculous, aren’t I…
The location of the fuel cap release – enigmatically housed in the small storage space between the seats – is no problem, but the hard and brittle plastic used for the cubby is. It means everything lobbed in there rattle and knocks about - and I hate rattles and noises when I drive. The oddment areas around the gearlever and cupholders are floored in a grippy rubber mat to avoid this very issue, so why not this storage area too? Its lock also feels incredibly flimsy and fragile – not good when it’s the only lockable unit in roof-down mode.
But these are trivialities and nothing more – like finding a small blemish on the white linen tablecloth during a world-class meal in a Michelin-starred restaurant with all your friends and family gathered around you as you celebrate winning a few million in the lottery.
I love this car for its driving purity and its unfailing effervescent spirit. Everything feels so intrinsically correct about this Mazda. I have yet to experience a trip where I didn’t relish every mile – pre-dawn motorway blasts to airports, banal grocery shopping trips, or fast late-night runs from Midhurst to Goodwood taken just for the hell of it. It makes every trip enjoyable.
And I’m not alone. After a roof-down run to play school on a cold and crisp February morning, my eldest daughter is now a huge fan of the ‘Mexfive’ and insists we go in it at every conceivable opportunity. Which means even Monday mornings school runs are something to be relished.
By Ben Whitworth
Since Last Report
Building the MX-5 fan base
Stranded on the A3 - 6 January 2010
Some of you might have heard on the news this morning that an estimated 1000 drivers we stranded on the A3 last night. I was one of those drivers. After a mid-morning meeting in Oxford I had dropped into Royal Surrey Hospital in Guildford to visit a family friend for half an hour on my way home to Chichester. Rather naively I assumed that the A3 – the major arterial linking Britain's south coast and the capital – would be gritted and snow-ploughed...
All went well for the first few miles. Pootling along through the snow at 35 mph, the MX-5 was relaxed and easygoing, but the slightest touch of the throttle had the back end fish-tailing madly on the compacted ice beneath the fast-falling snow. Fun in a deserted car park on a Sunday afternoon. Not so much fun surrounded by sliding artics and buses in the pitch dark.
Three miles before Petersfield, at around seven in the evening, our snaking procession ground to a halt after an articulated lorry reportedly jack-knifed on Butser Hill. We didn't move for another 15 hours. Fifteen hours!
The MX-5’s cabin is snug, the seats are firm and grippy, and every driver touch-point is a handspan from the thing-rimmed steering wheel. It’s the perfect driving environment when you’re driving, but it’s not much cop as a B&B. Snug turns to cramped, the seats become incredibly unforgiving and when hunting for somewhere to rest your head, every surface is rock hard. A good night's sleep was not had.
At 10am this morning we eventually started moving at slower-than-walking pace. I was starting to get nervous about fuel. Running the engine through the night to keep the cabin warm (it had been well below 0C) had used all of my half tank of petrol and that panic-inducing orange low-fuel warning light had been aglow for the last two hours. Not so much will we make the next garage, as will we make it through the night.
An hour later I slewed into Petersfield services, parking at a rather jaunty sideways angle to the pump. The 50-litre tank swallowed 49 litres. Fully armed with food and drink, I took to the A3 again, spending little of two hours it took to get back home in a straight line. Yes, I wish I had been in one of the many Discoveries, Outbacks and Navaras that swept past me in the night, but given the treacherous conditions, the little Mazda did a fine job of keeping me warm and getting me home safely.
Quite an adventure!
By Ben Whitworth
Winters here - 8 December 2009
Winter’s arrival has done little to diminish the MX-5’s shine – its effervescence and sheer brio makes me grin on even the coldest and darkest of mornings. The folding metal roof may be a must-have option, particularly in winter (I suspect the next-gen MX-5 will ditch the folding fabric roof entirely) but the Mazda’s fire-breathing cabin heater, powerful heated seats and superb Bose stereo mean the roof comes down for most trips, even when the frost lies thick on the ground. Crank up the windows and the cabin remains surprisingly gust free – just as well really, as I look like a right idiot in a bobble hat.
This ability to enjoy driving in even the grimmest conditions is central to the Mazda’s appeal. Everything evolves around its incredible – and peerless – ability to make the drive more important than the destination itself. You feel so in touch with this car because there are so few response-dulling layers between you and the oily bits. That’s not to say it’s uncouth or unrefined. The MX-5 never feels anything but polished and urbane.
Economy is still average – it’s covering around the 30mpg mark – but I must shoulder all the blame. I drive the Mazda pretty hard, enjoy using the revs and I don’t hang about even when there’s no rush. To prove my point, economy leapfrogs to 35mpg when my wife takes the Mazda out for a drive.
And I’ve finally sorted out the mystery of the light in the boot. There is one, but its location on the inside lip of the boot makes it almost impossible to see unless you stick your head right into the boot and crank it ninety degrees downwards.
By Ben Whitworth
Winter approaches - 16 November 2009
CAR's Mazda MX-5 roadster is such a joy to drive, even in the creeping clutch of winter. It feels so alert, so tail-up and feisty – an engaging effervescence that makes every mile something to be enjoyed, no matter what the road or the weather.
Still fresh and still relevant 20 years after the launch of the original, the MX-5 has adhered tenaciously to its straightforward but hugely effective dynamic recipe of mixing rear wheel-drive, low weight and modest power mantra. Our extended tenure of our 2.0-litre facelifted model is a great reminder of its inherent strengths.
The MX-5 has never been about outright speed. Its relatively modest performance – 158bhp, 132mph and 7.6 seconds to 60mph – belies its ability to make you feel like you are absolutely caning every road. It’s not just alfresco driving that heightens the impression of speed; it’s the way the little Mazda responds with such immediacy and clarity to the smallest of throttle, gear, steering and brake inputs.
The controls are such a delight to use. If only every car had the Mazda’s quick and mechanical-feeling gearshift, instant throttle response, direct and chatty steering and dynamic poise and balance. They easily add a perceived 20mph to your actually speed. Useful in these speed camera-laden times.
By Ben Whitworth
Long-term test hello – 28 October 2009
A few months ago Mazda gave its evergreen MX-5 the subtlest of refreshes, which in turn gave us an excuse to get one on to our long-term fleet for six months. Like the rest of the motoring world we love Mazda’s perky little roadster. Over 20 years and three generations – think of this latest iteration as Mk3.5 – the MX-5 has remained unerringly true to its front-engined rear-drive roots. At 1098kg it’s still light, with just 158bhp on hand it’s still about momentum rather than big speeds, and with perfect balance and impeccable poise, it’s still about driver engagement rather than posing performance.
So what has changed? Well, below the intricate headlamps sits Mazda’s new five-point grille (the folding metal-roofed versions, like ours, get theirs framed in chrome) and below that sits a pair of redesigned foglamps. At the back there are new taillights and bumpers front and rear are new, too. Minor changes, but collectively they inject a dash of athleticism into Moray Callum’s excellent design work.
The cabin gets a set of smarter dials, grippier sports seats, a punchier Bose sound system recalibrated for roof-down driving, and the kneecap-killing cup holders in the door panels have been ditched.
Mechanical changes are just as minor - the frisky 2.0-litre engine delivers an unchanged 158bhp, but fitted with a new forged crankshaft and an advanced valvetrain means it now revs even higher - the redline jumps by 500rpm to a wailing 7500rpm. The intake and exhaust acoustics have also been enhanced for an even more engaging open-air soundtrack. Modifying the ball joints in the front knuckles has lowered the suspension’s roll centre by 26mm for enhanced steering feel and agility. The six-speed manual transmission has also been revised for even shorter and more precise throws.
We ran a ragtop version a while back, and this time we’ve opted for the folding hardtop variant in range-topping 2.0-litre Sport Tech guise. It’s priced at £21,570 but before you start getting all shirty about affordability, have a look at what this includes. Lovely 10-spoke 17-inch alloys, snickety six-speed box, Bluetooth connectivity with voice activation, DSC stability control, a limited slip diff, front and side airbags, a superb Bose stereo, uprated suspension with Bilstein dampers, cruise and climate controls, a front strut brace and heated leather seats. What more could you want? All we added was gorgeous £375 Copper Red metallic paint
First impressions are superb. We’ve had a few weeks of sunshine down here in the sunny south and I’ve put on almost 1000 miles, enjoying every single one. I’ll tell you more in a week or so…
By Ben Whitworth
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