BARCELONA, SPAIN — Five lugs good, four lugs better! The first two generations of Mazda MX-5 (nee Miata) made do with four wheel lugs in classic small-car fashion, but the bulkier third-generation car and its seventeen-inch rolling stock required the addition of a fifth. When early photos of the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata showed a return to wheels with just four lugs, the theories among the Miata fan base ranged from "that's some sort of base model" to "it's just for the auto-show displays."
Not so. There will be two major variants of the MX-5—one with a 1.5-liter engine that will be Japan's only choice and one with a 2.0 that will be an option in Europe and the sole available engine in the states—and both are four-bolt cars. Hitoshi Takamatsu, the Deputy Program Manager tasked with the chassis and running gear of the 2016 MX-5, is quick to emphasize that the weight savings from doing so amount to more than just a few steel lugs. Virtually every part of the running gear is lighter. The transmission loses about 15 pounds. The differential sheds 22 pounds as part of a comprehensive program of lightweight material choices that accounts for 30 percent of the over 200 pounds the "ND" has managed to lose compared to its predecessor.
The thousand-kilogram (2205 lb) curb weight of the new MX-5—a figure that will increase for the U.S. market by the additional heft of the 2.0-liter but will decrease by a minor amount courtesy of a missing pop-up hood mechanism that lets the dramatically sloped nose meet European pedestrian safety regulations—is such a staggering achievement that it's going to dominate the discussion about the new car for months to come. Think of it as the MalcolmX-5: lighter by any means necessary. The seats: a composite "web" replaces springs, for a savings of seventeen pounds. The roll hoops and supporting structure are aluminum, and Mazda's added three different kinds of high-tensile steel in the A-pillars and sills to cut weight and improve crash safety.
Even the styling saves weight: the rear corners of the car are "chopped" off to narrow the rear bumper beam and support structure. Masashi Nakayama, the MX-5 designer, is careful to point out that the new standard LED headlamps were chosen because they permit a much more compact front end, which further reduces weight and leads to this surprising fact: this 2016-model MX-5 is shorter than the 1990 original.
This new Mazda, therefore, amounts to a master class in how to do what nearly every other manufacturer in the business seems quite unable to accomplish: cut the size and weight of your product while improving crash safety and structural rigidity. (It should be noted that Mazda declined to provide specifics about chassis rigidity compared to the previous car, but even our pre-production test cars acted as if they had a roof when they hit bumps. The company expects top scores in both NHTSA and Euro NCAP crash testing.) When pressed to name the primary obstacles overcome by the design and engineering teams, Kiyoshi Fujiwara, Mazda's Managing Executive Officer, chuckles nervously before answering: "Weight, of course—and the business case!" It's obvious that both goals were accomplished admirably; the MX-5 is light, but more important, it's here. The phrase "MX-5 Forever" popped up a few times during the media briefing, along with the occasional reminder that Mazda is unique in its twenty-five-year commitment to the affordable-roadster segment.
As impressive as the MX-5's crash diet is, the way in which the proportions of the car have been completely re-imagined is arguably more so. The A-pillar has been moved back 70 mm (2.8 in) and the driver has been lowered 20 mm (0.8 in), 15 mm from the aforementioned "web" seat design and 5 mm from new brackets. The fenders are high and sharp above the wheels, giving the driver the same kind of view enjoyed by anybody who still owns a Seventies-era Corvette. While the quoted weight balance remains 50/50, there's an important change: the engine now sits entirely behind the front axle. That's right. The MX-5 is now a front-mid-engined car. Yet the wheelbase is shorter than in the third generation. As with the McLaren 650S, the driver and passenger have been moved closer together to reduce the polar moment of inertia. The single cupholder, a casualty of that decision, sits uneasily in the passenger footwell.
The result of all these changes is an MX-5 that respects its predecessors yet owes little to them. While that first-gen Miata took styling and conceptual inspiration from the Lotus Elan, this new car is sort of a mini-Viper in proportion and mechanical layout. The second and third generations addressed driver space by expanding and growing heavier; this one manages to both wrap around the driver more tightly yet leave enough room for a six-foot-two American driver. It's fearless in styling and execution, wearing its Japanese identity on its sleeve in a way the first three cars could never quite bring themselves to do.
Our preview drive day starts with a thirty-mile stint behind the wheel of a mechanically flawless 1.6-liter first-gen car. It's refreshing to be confronted again with the original Miata's singular excellence, and it's brave of Mazda to let us drive it right before the new one, but it's also a subtle way to align our expectations for the event.
Come May, we'll have the chance to try the 2.0-liter 2016 Mazda MX-5 on American soil, but for this Barcelona global preview we're provided with right-hand-drive 1.5-liter models in Japanese specification. This SKYACTIV engine is thoroughly revised for longitudinal-mount duty, including equal-length exhaust headers and a steel crank, but with just 131 horsepower it's not going to raise any eyebrows at a dragstrip. The MX-5's thousand-kilo (2205 lb) mass allows it to be slightly quicker than the first-generation car, but we'll have to wait to drive the 2.0-liter, with its 155 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque, to see how it stacks up when confronted with an American on-ramp and a highly motivated Yukon XL driver in the other lane.
After two hours on the winding mountain roads above Barcelona, however, it's plain that not even a Euro-fashionable diesel engine ("There are no plans for that," Mazda told us, "the additional weight would unbalance the car") could ruin the joy of driving this thoroughly brilliant roadster. Start with the steering. It's a rather unconventional EPAS arrangement where the motor is mounted below the rack instead of on the steering shaft. That increases weight a bit but it's lower in the car, so it's worth the tradeoff. The angle of the universal joint connecting the wheel to the rack has also been sharply reduced, for more consistent feel. While the resulting feedback isn't the equal of that found in the first-gen car, and the anti-kickback geometry is perhaps a bit too aggressive, there's still plenty of information available about the available traction. There's a pronounced but progressive lessening of the effort as the front tires scrub into understeer...
...of which there is less than in pretty much any other production car money can buy. Should this suspension tuning survive its journey to the United States, it will be a revelation for the average Miata owner. Even the original Miata wasn't as defiantly neutral as this MX-5—and it turns in with enough bite to step the back out in steady-state cornering. It's enough to make you whoop with joy. A street car, in factory tuning, that really handles and treats its drivers like adults.
The transmission is so sure and precise that even in right-hand-driveform we never missed a shift or chose a gear we didn't want. Ratios are closeand even sixth will allow the center-mounted tach to buzz up past three grandat moderate speeds, but the payoff is steady progress on the mountain roads andplenty of chances to run the 1.5-liter up to its very smooth 7500-rpm redline.
We found it impossible to create fade in the brakes—another payoff of the relentless focus on cutting mass. Engagement into ABS was predictable and manageable. Out of consideration for the cyclists and fellow motorists on these narrow Spanish two-lanes, we didn't step the tail out very often, but on a roundabout it proved to be easy to toss, and easy to catch. This is where the very consistent steering effort really pays off, because you can get a solid sense of when you've regained the back through your hands. In transitions, such as fast lane changes, the MX-5 is absolutely unflappable once you learn that you'll get exactly what you ask for in terms of steering angle, and a very quick, low-inertia change. If you don't like it, try a GTI. It truly is a bit shocking for a generation raised on cars with the engine ahead of the front wheels.
This is a very fast car on twisty roads. Even the famously enthusiastic Spanish drivers in their hot hatches and entry-luxury sedans might as well be bolted to the ground by comparison. The MX-5 is deceivingly quick; more than once we started to gripe about lack of grip and then noticed that the speedometer was indicating perhaps a third more pace than we'd thought we had. As a pure driving proposition, it's entirely superior to nearly every other sporting vehicle on the market. You'll become a better driver from learning how to hustle it, too; it teaches with subtle feedback in the hands and seat of the pants and it rewards at all speeds.
With that said, the additional shove from the 2.0-liter will only improve the felicity with which the MX-5 shreds back roads. There's enough grip here to handle quite a bit more power. It will make a hell of a race car, which is why drivers are lining up to participate in the global MX-5 Cup program.
Is it the best Miata ever? Clearly—but that's like calling What's Going On "a really great Marvin Gaye record." It's more than a great Miata. It's a wake-up call to the people who build cars around the world, a flag thrust defiantly in the faces of the people who consider porcine heft business as usual and power-to-weight ratios a problem best solved by hiking both to irresponsible levels. But it's also a wake-up call to drivers around the world. As the purest mass-market car in decades, this MX-5 is a chance for customers to reward that purity. Were this car half as good as it is, it would be good enough—but instead, it's truly great. They built it; will you come?