The Mazda MX-5 turned out to be one of my surprise packages of the year on the track.
If you’re looking for something to break records it’s not the car for you, but if you’re looking for a car that’s engaging, raw, and an absolute blast on the track, not much else can match it for this price.
Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, powered by a naturally-aspirated 2.0-litre engine, all packaged in a lightweight chassis. It even has a manual handbrake that works like it should.
It’s a car that you actually have to drive and that’s what makes it so good.
The best was way to describe the 2.0-litre naturally-aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine is, well, just fine.
With 135kW and 205Nm, it’s never going to blow your mind with its acceleration, but it’s more the joy of driving that makes the experience so good.
If it was all just about power, you wouldn’t get to appreciate what makes this car so much fun to drive.
The brakes worked really well, and life is made easy for them because the chassis is so lean.
Pedal feel was consistent and firm. I had very little drop off over consecutive laps and could really attack the corners.
Heel-toeing was a breeze too, made especially easy by the consistent pedal feel.
The chassis was really pointy and reactive from the front end, but not to the level where you would easily lose the rear.
This meant you can balance the car really well on the way into the corner, then just play with it however you want from there.
It really can be driven how you want, and it seemed right at home doing it. So many cars are one-dimensional in that respect and only respond to a certain driving style, but the MX-5 allows so much flexibility, while maintaining an honesty about what technique is required.
The fact the kerb weight is just 1035kg plays a huge role in the dynamics. With so little mass, and very little of that mass outside of the wheels, it’s so much easier for both the chassis and driver to control the energy.
The gearbox was amazing. It’s so easy to shift and it didn’t make any difference where you were in the rev range or if the car was loaded heavily in a corner – it just nailed every gear change.
The ratios are also really good and I never felt like I was shifting too much or too little.
The limited-slip differential was nice and smooth. Because you’re not dealing with a huge amount of grunt, it’s important to maintain that progression all the way through the driveline.
The cool thing is you can drive it super smooth and neat or very aggressively, with tonnes of oversteer.
My initial impression of the suspension was that it was very soft and lazy, but I quickly grew to appreciate it and trust the movement would be supported.
Although the low-speed area of the damper was very soft, it actually built up support the more you leant on it.
This is the opposite approach to a lot of the other cars we have tested – they give the feeling of support, but then have nothing to back it up and they fall over.
The way the dampers have been designed makes the car very easy to drive. It’s not edgy or nervous, yet it offers stability when required.
This is the epitome of progression and is perfectly tied to a chassis and steering package that compliments it.
As I noted earlier, the steering is so well linked to the rest of the car and its precision and feedback balance out the feeling of the laziness in the dampers.
You really feel the load build through the wheel and know exactly where the tyre is and how much more you can ask of it.
This level of reaction and response may almost have been too much if the dampers had been designed with an alternative philosophy.
For me it is up there with the Porsches for the best feedback out of the cars we have tested so far.
The Bridgestone Potenza S001 tyres are excellent on the MX-5, I had so little drop off and could do very consistent lap times.
The key here is once again the super-light chassis and the suspension, both are kind on the tyres.
Fortunately, there is very little need for assistance in this car – and it’s not something you want either.
I drove the whole time with traction control off and enjoyed every bit of it.
The bonus of having an actual handbrake that works as it should in my world meant for very quick 180s and a few 520s to get back to the camera guys.
The seating position is good, but I would have liked a deeper seat for track use. That said, it’s very comfortable and everything is well-positioned.
Visibility is very good, and you know exactly where the corners of the car are when you’re on track.
I think the lap time is a very unfair way to look at this car. I had one of the most enjoyable on-track experiences of the year in the MX-5, yet did the slowest lap time so far on the CarExpert leader board.
The best lap I managed was 63.22 seconds – I did this on the last of my four flying laps and was growing to enjoy the car more and more with every lap I did.
With so many cars focused on straight-line performance and fancy tech, it’s nice to find a package that is built with the joy of raw driving still at heart.
- Really focus on carrying corner speed to get the best lap time
- Don’t be afraid to attack and push the limits, it’s very forgiving
- Just enjoy the package for what it is
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