Passing judgment on the MX-5's performance to some degree depends on the person seeking your council. On one hand the MX-5 has developed a "chick car" rep thanks to a shape that isn't seeping with testosterone and a willingness to drop its top at the first sight of sun. On the other hand it has a cult following of autocrossers that take Mazda's Zoom-Zoom philosophy to heart.
To which faction does our MX-5 pledge its allegiance? Read on to find out...
The MX-5's engine bay now hides a larger displacement 2.0L four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing beneath its aluminum hood. The 2.0L generates 170 horsepower and 140 ft-lbs. or torque, an increase of 32 hp and 15 ft-lbs of torque over the 1.8L engine it replaces. That extra power felt more than enough to overcome the relatively small weight difference between the MX-5 and Miata, anywhere from 44 to 100 lbs. depending on the model. Despite being more powerful than the outgoing engine, the new 2.0L shares many of its predecessor's traits including the high volume at which it operates. Unlike many four-cylinders, however, that are charged with being raucous, buzzy and thrashy, the MX-5's symphonic cacophony sounds purposefully tuned to delight the ear of an autocrosser.
Coupled with the car's short-throw six-speed shifter and finely calibrated clutch pedal, the MX-5 allows the driver to make use of every rev within the engine's powerband. The six-speed's gears are closely spaced to induce as much acceleration as possible below a highway cruising speed of around 70 mph, at which point the engine is turning over at just above 3,000 rpm and begins to grate on your senses. The clutch pedal is also firm, which allows a higher than normal degree of control over the application of power while cornering.
While the 2.0L isn't powerful enough to embarrass many cars off the line, it offers the majority of its torque by 2500 rpm and keeps pulling all the way up near its 7,000 rpm redline. Mazda engineers have never designed the Miata for the dragstrip, and instead have focused on designing a balanced roadster that builds speed and maintains it with little drama. The 2.0L engine plays its part, but an ensemble cast of hardware including a stiff yet light chassis, unwavering suspension and grippy 205/45 R17 tires on 10-spoke alloy wheels makes driving an MX-5 fast look easy.
The MX-5's standard suspension consisting of a double-wishbone front and multilink rear setup with front and rear stabilizer bars is likely stiff enough for most yet compliant enough for that chick car crowd just looking to cruise around with the top down. Our tester, however, was fitted with the optional Suspension package ($500) that adds a limited slip differential, "sport tuned" suspension with what feels like higher spring rates and Bilstein shocks. The Grand Touring model, along with the Sport model, also receives a front strut tower bar standard. This extra gear is stuff the autocross crowd can appreciate and tightens up the MX-5 in turns significantly. In fact, we found the optional Suspension package made our tester a bit too stiff since our time with the MX-5 was waterlogged by rain and its duties confined to daily errands.
Our appreciation for the optional suspension components would've likely been higher were we able to take advantage of it, but unfortunately the unyielding ride was compounded by the car's unsupportive seats during our short trips. In any case, those interested in the MX-5 for its performance prowess will likely get the Sport model for which the Suspension package is also available and the strut tower bar also standard. It starts at $23,995, some $1,500 less than the Grand Touring, and lacks only the cloth top, leather upholstery and Bose audio system from the more expensive model.
The fat-rimmed three-spoke steering wheel is standard on all models, but the Grand Touring gets audio and cruise controls built in. The wheel tilts but is not telescoping, which is an omission that should have been considered since the seats only go back so far. Nevertheless, the MX-5's steering wheel acts just like an IV injecting road feel straight into your arms when a set of twisties is taken. Likewise, it takes your commands and executes them with the precision of a pairing knife. As a daily driver this directness makes taking the back roads a blast. After all, to demonstrate the handling talents of the MX-5 any curve will do. The highway, however, is not an environment where the MX-5 excels, as tiny turns of the wheel become big changes in direction and keeping the car on the straight and narrow requires more attention than average autos. That, however, is the asking price for driving a true sports car, and there are plenty out there willing to pay it.
Finally, we'd be remiss not mentioning the MX-5's brakes, which are 11.4-inch ventilated discs in front and 11.0-inch solid discs in the rear. Both are larger than the previous generation's and when combined with larger tires, a tighter suspension and a relatively low increase in the car's overall weight make for shorter more controlled stops. We could easily have forgotten the MX-5's anchors as they performed flawlessly and were more than a match for the car's inertia.
Hopefully after reading this review you already know for which faction we think Mazda engineers developed the all-new MX-5. The chick car crowd may yet end up buying the roadster in droves as its face still wears a friendly expression and convertibles have always been popular with the "looks matter" crowd, but Mazda's engineering department is no doubt filled with the same autocrossers, track junkies and tuner folk for which the MX-5 was truly designed. It's a thrilling machine on public roads right out of the box, and we imagine many new MX-5 owners have already begun making it better with aftermarket parts.