Mazda's latest MX-5 is smaller, lighter and the best ever

The upcoming Mazda MX-5 is designed with the driver in mind. -- PHOTO: MAZDA MOTOR
The upcoming Mazda MX-5 is designed with the driver in mind. -- PHOTO: MAZDA MOTOR
The upcoming Mazda MX-5 is designed with the driver in mind. -- PHOTO: MAZDA MOTOR
The upcoming Mazda MX-5 is designed with the driver in mind. -- PHOTO: MAZDA MOTOR
The upcoming Mazda MX-5 is designed with the driver in mind. -- PHOTO: MAZDA MOTOR
The upcoming Mazda MX-5 is designed with the driver in mind. -- PHOTO: MAZDA MOTOR

The upcoming fourth- generation Mazda MX-5 is designed to be driver-centric and it is, in more ways than one.

Looking at the car side-on, you will see that the driver is sitting at its exact mid-point. This is deliberate, to benefit weight distribution and so that the driver feels at the centre of the action during cornering.

Every aspect of the new model is also designed around the user to enhance the whole driving experience rather than just show off what the car can do. And the extent to which Mazda engineers have pursued this goal is almost obsessive.

The stick shift, for instance, has been engineered to encourage the driver to change gear, by making the lever feel like it is being sucked into its slot after the driver has started the initial movement.

The clutch action has been tuned to match this, with the engineers analysing the degree of effort needed to dip and raise the clutch pedal and the resistance of the biting point to ensure the perfect degree of pedal "feel".

Mazda has gone to great pains to ensure that the steering wheel, instrument binnacle and pedals are all perfectly aligned with the driver's seat - which is not always the case with other cars.

Indeed, even the seating position is ideal - low-slung, very comfortable and snug without feeling confined.

The seats themselves have a new support design which employs resin netting rather than steel springs. This has allowed Mazda to tailor the tension of each part of the backrest.

It also makes the seats thinner, which in turn lets them be mounted lower to the benefit of the car's centre of gravity.

Visibility is great, helped by windscreen pillars which have been moved backwards and made thinner so they cause almost no obstruction.

The soft top is now even easier to operate, with helper springs incorporated to ease its upward closing motion. Mazda has also tailored a top-down airflow by angling the windscreen to channel a pleasant breeze to the torso while avoiding blustery winds to the face.

By the standards of today's bloated cars, the new MX-5 is tiny. It is 10cm shorter and 1cm lower than its Mk3 predecessor and is even slightly shorter than the original MX-5 of 1989. But, remarkably, it is so well-proportioned that it does not look dinky unless parked next to something else.

Despite the car's small size, there is a deep, usable boot that is big enough to swallow two cabin bags. The cabin, however, has less stowage. Apart from three reasonably sized cubbies behind the seats and a small lidded compartment behind the gear lever, there is no storage space in the form of a glovebox or door pockets.

By an almost fanatical programme of weight reduction, the new car has shed more than 100kg from its predecessor, quite a feat considering that the Mk3 was already a lightweight. Among other things, this has involved more widespread use of aluminium in the body (instead of steel), cut-outs in non- structural and non-visible parts of the chassis as well as the side window glass, and a new lightweight and compact six-speed gearbox. The aforementioned resin-sprung seats are also considerably lighter than before.

All these have allowed the new car to ride on narrower tyres with a smaller diameter, saving yet more weight.

The roadster's centre of gravity has also been lowered and concentrated more centrally, for better handling. This has been done by massively reducing the front and rear overhangs, positioning the engine 15mm backwards and 13mm lower, and seating the occupants lower and closer to the car's centre-line.

Looks-wise, the car is a dramatic departure from the three previous generations. Where those had straight, simple waistlines, the new car boasts voluptuous curves that rise over the wheel arches but tuck down in between and also dip at both extremities.

It is also visually more aggressive than its meekly styled forebears. The nose is very low, with hints of the Maserati Gran Turismo in the squinting, faired back headlamps and gaping grille. There are also echoes of the old BMW Z3 in the wide rear haunches and pinched-in tail. In the metal, the car looks mean, squat and very purposeful.

The MX-5 is still several months away from final sign-off, so the event I attended in Barcelona was a "sneak preview" and the examples that I drove were pre-production prototypes. But they felt like the finished articles, not works in progress.

There will be two engine variants available: a 129bhp 1.5-litre and a 155bhp 2-litre. Only the 1.5 was on hand for the test-drive. The engine is a heavily developed version of the unit from the Mazda3 but feels nothing like it. There is ample low- and mid-range punch and beautifully linear power delivery. Mazda is not prepared to quote any performance figures yet but despite the car's modest output, it feels very brisk, probably capable of 100kmh in about eight seconds.

The engine spins very sweetly to a 7,500rpm redline, but urge does taper off at high revs. So it is best to change up and stroke the car along rather than try to wring it out. The six-speed gearbox is a joy to use, with a short, very positive throw and well-spaced gear ratios.

Handling is sublime too. The steering is quick-geared and quite light, and turn- in is very keen although not quite razor-sharp. Aim the car into a bend and it does not have that unyielding resistance to roll that most sporting cars exhibit these days. Instead, there is a small amount of lean, just enough for you to feel what the car is doing and to confidently explore the grip limits which, you will find, are surprisingly high despite the fairly narrow (195-section) tyres.

And thanks to that degree of suspension compliance, the ride is wonderful, shrugging off sharp bumps with ease and always feeling composed.

So the new MX-5's sporting credentials are spot-on - sharp handling, strong grip and keen performance - yet it is not an extreme, hardcore device. Instead, it is accessible, friendly and easy to exploit, qualities which have always been essential to an MX-5's DNA. This latest model is far and away the best MX-5 ever, and is likely to become the best-loved one too.

stlife@sph.com.sg

The writer is a regular contributor to Torque, a motoring monthly published by SPH Magazines.