Getting high on MX-5

The new Mazda MX-5 is a compact beauty that drives with a relaxed sportiness.
The new Mazda MX-5 is a compact beauty that drives with a relaxed sportiness. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Mazda's latest iteration of its iconic roadster offers old-school charm in a modern, stylish package

Mazda's first MX-5 was a runaway hit when it was launched in 1989, but the subsequent versions were less gripping.

That is partly because other brands, including Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Porsche, had come out with their own modern roadsters by then. And they were all fun and competent in their own ways.

But just when you thought Mazda had run out of tricks to keep its wonder car relevant, it unleashes the fourth-generation MX-5. And, boy, what a rip-roaring roadster it is.

It looks like a million bucks, with sophisticated lines you would normally attribute to an Italian design house.

Yet it is instantly recognisable as an MX-5, despite its slightly continental countenance with slim LED headlights that give a modern twist to this classic model.

The car has shrunk substantially and is now even shorter than what it was a quarter of a century ago. As such, it is not a car for big-frame individuals with prosperous waistlines.

But if you are compact, you will appreciate the MX-5's stature the moment you get behind the wheel.

  • SPECS/MAZDA MX-5

    Price: $163,888 with COE

    Engine: 1,998cc 16-valve inline-4

    Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual override

    Power: 158bhp at 6,000rpm

    Torque: 200Nmat 4,600rpm

    0-100kmh: 8seconds

    Top speed: 198kmh

    Fuel consumption: 6.7 litres/ 100km

    Agent: Trans Eurokars Mazda

Mazda has gone with a neat manual soft top that can be opened and closed with one hand in almost one single movement. The car's dimensions help in this respect.

The manual roof - as well as the car's size - contributes to the MX-5 weighing just a tad over a tonne.

So you have a modern roadster that is light as well as compact, which in itself is rather remarkable given how big and bloated cars in general have become.

Again, this becomes apparent behind the wheel. The moment you set off, the MX-5's incredible lightness of being comes to the fore.

Powered by a high-compression 2-litre engine that makes 158bhp and 200Nm of torque, it is as breezy as a turbo, but appears a lot more linear and natural.

Instead of insane acceleration, it delivers a relaxed sportiness that comes from a responsive and seemingly endless throttle, enhanced by a taut and tarmac-adhering chassis.

The car comes across as balanced, centred and highly communicative. You sit closer to the road than before, with the engine pushed farther back to give the soft-top a perfect 50:50 weight distribution between front and rear.

Its dual-pinion electrically assisted steering mimics the mechanical jobs of days gone by. The chassis snaps into action with every twirl of the wheel, which is quick and sharp, but stops short of being twitchy.

It is such a wonderfully sorted car that even wind noise - evident from 90kmh with the roof up - becomes part of the charm. Modern cars are so well insulated, you sometimes feel you are engaged in a video game instead of driving.

Drop the canopy and the engine's sonorous symphony comes to the fore. It is the best-sounding four-cylinder in a long while.

The MX-5 is one of the most comfortable topless cars around to drive. The air-conditioning remains cold, speakers in the headrests allow you to enjoy your music without being a hooligan and, somehow, your hair is not as ruffled.

With the roof down, the car is way more entertaining. And you do not even have to go fast. You can cruise leisurely with elbow on the door - which can be managed without having to raise the seat.

It is almost like driving a custom- made car - one that brings back the joy you experienced when you first got behind the wheel.

The new MX-5 is not completely old school, though. It has stop-start function, keyless access and ignition, and drive selection in the automatic version. The latter comes with a self-blipping feature in Sport mode.

You can of course be a purist and go for the manual, with limited slip differential. It costs $3,000 less than the automatic.

If the automatic is already so fun and loveable, you can imagine what the manual promises.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2015, with the headline 'Getting high on MX-5'. Print Edition | Subscribe