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Mazda's smartened MX-5 remains the undisputed king of the affordable roadster segment. This part of the market isn't over-blessed with subjects at the moment and the latest set of improvements means that any newcomers that do emerge will have a difficult job dethroning the monarch. For pure driving pleasure on a budget, the MX-5 continues to be where it's at.
Beneath the friendly, accessible, even cute facade of Mazda's MX-5 lurks a streak of determined control freakery that has seen the car lord it over the affordable roadster market since 1989. There's something about Mazda's ubiquitous sports car that strikes fear into rival manufacturers to the extent that over the last two decades, only a plucky few have dared challenge it with like-minded models. To drive it or look at it, you'd never know but the MX-5 seems to guard its own corner of the market as jealously as a lion would a freshly slain wildebeest and now a package of revisions has been introduced to further underpin its dominance. Under normal circumstances, the merest whiff of profit in a sparsely populated area of the car market has the leading brands circling like vultures looking to grab their piece of the action. The Mazda MX-5, however, has done very nicely for twenty years without much in the way of direct or sustained competition. Could it be that Mazda's roadster is simply too good, making other brands reluctant to throw their own efforts into the ring for a swift mauling? If that is the case, things aren't about to get any easier with the latest facelifted MX-5 offering sharper styling and numerous improvements to its already slick driving experience.
This car may not be scintillatingly quick, but what it lacks in outright speed, it makes up for with outstanding poise and balance, enabling you to exploit more of its modest power more of the time. Now, the six manual transmission models feature a modified throttle to improve responsiveness and give more linear, nimble acceleration, especially when maneuvering out of corners.a At the same time, Mazda engineers have optimised the vacuum brake booster to improve brake return control and thus front-rear load distribution, particularly when braking into bends. As a result of all this, if you keep your momentum going over twisty roads, you can often reel in far more powerful machinery. The four cylinder engines have never particularly been a highlight of the MX-5 package and traditionally, most buyers have looked at the relatively small performance difference between the 126PS 1.8i and the 160PS 2.0i units and opted for the smaller one. Hence Mazda's 2009 improvements made to the 2.0-litre powerplant, giving it a revier nature and a more engaging soundtrack. Performance figures have remained constant though, with sixty 7.6s away from rest (just over two seconds faster than the 1.8) on the way to a top speed of just over 130mph. With the roof down, there isn't too much buffeting in the cabin - at least not at normal speeds - courtesy of good insulation and these high-backed seats. Of course, you'll find plenty of hot hatches that can match that, but few that can rival the way that this car corners. The rear wheel drive configuration means that this car remains a favourite with those fans of skid control. If you've an empty test track, a slightly damp surface and the courage to turn the standard stability control system off, it's sheer magic. As for the optional Powershift automatic transmission with its steering wheel paddles, well it isn't one of those hi-tech twin-clutch or sequential manual systems but it works well enough, provided you don't mind the extra second it adds to the rest to sixty time. I'd argue that less is more though and always opt for the lovely short-throw 5-speed manual gearbox.
You'll need to look closely to spot the improvements made to this improved MX-5. A more aggressive front grille and a revised bumper design with a bold chin spoiler aim to create a deeper and wider look that also improves aerodynamics by reducing drag around the fog lamp and over the front tyres. But, thank goodness, the basics haven't changed. Five basic requirements were defined to realise Mazda's design criteria for the MX-5. Firstly the car would be as light as possible while meeting global safety requirements. Next, the cockpit would comfortably accommodate two full stature occupants with no wasted space. The basic layout would continue with the original's front-engine rear-wheel drive configuration with the engine positioned ahead of the driver but behind the front axle for a 50:50 front to rear weight distribution. All four wheels would be attached by wishbone or multi-link suspension systems to maximize tyre performance, road grip and dynamic stability. Finally, the chassis would provide a solid connection between the engine and the rear mounted differential to sharpen throttle response. The car puts a big tick beside all those boxes and in its latest guise, dresses the winning formula in a smarter suit of clothes. The changes aren't drastic but the front end now has a more aggressive edge courtesy of a reshaped air-intake with cutaway sections either side to house the fog lights. Revisions to the side sills and the rear bumper complete the effect. The MX-5 interior is simple but effective and does indeed have space for a pair of lofty adults. There's more silver detailing about the place and that gives a more upmarket feel than the previous dark plastics. The hard-topped Roadster Coupe model has in recent times also undergone a series of changes aimed at reducing cabin noise.
Pricing is little changed, ranging from around £18,000 to around £21,500 for the Roadster version and from around £20,000 to 324,000 for the folding hardtop Roadster-Coupe. As ever, MX-5 customers can choose from 1.8 and 2.0-litre petrol engines, with the more powerful unit getting the option of a 6-speed auto 'box. This upgraded model benefits from enhanced equipment with climate control air-conditioning and glossy dark grey dashboard panel and steering wheel inserts on every model. OPther standard kit across the range includes ABS, stability control, alloy wheels, remote central locking, heated electric door mirrors, power windows, twin front airbags, a Thatcham Category 1 alarm and immobiliser, a height-adjustable leather steering wheel and a 6-speaker CD Stereo Further up the range, upgraded Mazda MX-5 Sport Tech and PowerShift models also gain an auto-dimming interior mirror, while Sport Tech models also boast an alloy pedal set. New to the line-up, the Sport Tech Nav model features a TomTom satellite-navigation system with a fully integrated 5.8-inch touch screen monitor, a 4GB SD card-based map, Live Services, iPod and Bluetooth connectivity and complete multi-media functionality. Keeping ahead of tougher EU regulations, the MX-5 is the first Mazda to be equipped with the company's newly-developed active bonnet system.a If a collision with a pedestrian is detected, the trailing edge of the bonnet instantly 'pops-up' to increase the crumple zone between the bonnet and engine, reducing the severity of pedestrian injuries.
Unlike many roadsters, the MX-5 doesn't cripple you financially for wanting a two-seat open car. These days, it's more efficient still, thanks in recent times to catalytic converter tweaks which have yielded a 7% improvement in emissions and an 8% improvement in economy. As a result, the 1.8 now delivers 167g/km of CO2 and returns 39.8mpg on the combined cycle, so it'll cost you under 40p per mile to run, about the same as a decently equipped family hatchback. Helped by modest Group 21 insurance, the MX-5 1.8i also scores when it comes to cost of servicing and residual values, clinging onto 49 per cent of its new price three years down the road. Step up to the 2.0-litre version and you're looking at group 27 insurance and a cost per mile of around 48p per mile, though this is still less than something like an entry-level 1.6-litre Volkswagen Eos. The Coupe Cabriolet versions cost a little more to keep on the road but they appeal to city dwellers who don't want to incur the cost of a slashed roof; a very real risk if your car is left on city streets at night.
Despite the fact that MX-5 sales are nearly a quarter of what they were when this car was first introduced back in 1990, the concept of a lightweight, affordable sports car seems as relevant today as ever before. Having said that, it wouldn't do Mazda any harm to stick the 256bhp engine from the Mazda3 MPS hot hatch under the bonnet and create something really special. Even in its current form however, this continues to be the sort of car that will appeal to those who take a tactile pleasure from the experience of driving. Unfortunately that sort of driving for driving's sake is becoming rare and there are many better cars to be stuck in a traffic jam in. There are few better cars however, that for this kind of money can indulge you to this kind of extent on a long and winding detour. One day, all our roads may be gridlocked. Until then, this is the kind of car you should take every opportunity to enjoy.
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