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2018 Mazda MX-5 1.5: Celebrating driver's cars

By Scott Newman, 25 Dec 2018 Features

2018 Mazda MX-5 review Celebrating drivers cars feature

The one car that doesn't need big power and big bucks to please

Only one car here has its own mantra. Jinba-ittai is the guiding development principle for the Mazda MX-5, but it could equally be the theme of this entire feature. It translates as “the feeling of oneness between driver and car”, which is exactly what each of these five cars is attempting to accomplish.

The MX-5 has the advantage of being designed with Jinba-ittai in mind from day one. The Lotus is equally focused, but Mazda has to achieve the same level of connection while appealing to a much wider market at a far lower price point. Doing so requires some clever engineering.

The primary goal for the fourth-gen MX-5 was to reduce weight. Over the years the MX-5 had grown in size and weight, each extra kilogram and centimetre dulling that feeling of oneness.

A reduction in size helped, but Mazda also adopted a ‘gram strategy’, ruthlessly cutting mass wherever possible: 20kg from the bodyshell, 14kg from the engine, 7kg from the gearbox, 10kg from the diff.

Such large gains quickly add up, but the engineering team, under the guidance of program manager Nobuhiro Yamamoto, went to extreme lengths, shrinking the radiator, redesigning body bracing and drilling holes wherever possible to remove material without sacrificing strength.

In total, Mazda boasts it reduced weight by 91kg, the lightest fourth-gen MX-5, the 1.5-litre manual we have here, weighing just 1009kg. The smaller engine makes that an unfair comparison, but even the relevant 2.0-litre successor is only 1033kg.

MOTOR feature: Top sports cars with soft suspension setups

This lightness is key to the success of Mazda’s latest MX-5; it’s responsible for the responsiveness, the feeling of control, the non-existent strain on consumables like tyres and brakes while allowing it to get away with a mere 1496cc.

Top 5: Bodyroll-loving sportscars

The recent update has gifted the MX-5 1.5 an extra 1W/2Nm. Unsurprisingly, they’re not noticeable, but the engine retains its sweet, free-revving nature, which is just as well. It’s a tractable enough unit for its size, but if you want to make decent progress lower gears and higher revs are the only option. The MX-5 1.5 is quicker than you think – our best effort is 0-100km/h in 7.5sec – but once into triple figures acceleration slows dramatically.

To be honest, now that the 2.0-litre has been injected with the same enthusiasm for rpm and 7500rpm redline it’s probably the pick, but for pure back-to-basics driving the 1.5 still has its appeal. It also has its critics, primarily due to the very soft suspension setup, and there is a disconnect between the engineering work done to create a rigid, responsive platform and that intended to provide enjoyment at road speeds.

The juxtaposition requires acclimatisation. In many ways the MX-5 is the antithesis of hot hatches like the Mercedes-AMG A45, which aim to flatter the driver and make going quickly as easy as possible. Drive the Mazda with aggression and it will behave in a manner that’s at best uncomfortable and at worst alarming.

The steering response is quick, but the soft suspension and chubby 195/50 tyres ensure there is a slight delay between input and action. Sharp movements with the brakes or steering simply upset the car and make it feel clumsy.

But this is the magic of the MX-5. By exacerbating these movements it is the perfect driver training machine. It gives you the tools to drive well – quick steering, progressive brakes, 50:50 balance and a responsive engine – but a setup that demands their effective use. Extracting its best requires concentration and precision, delicate steering and brake inputs, but its lack of grip and power makes its limits easily accessible.

Its performance shortfall is brought into stark relief when following the GT3 for group cornering shots. I can tell Louis is more or less idling the Porsche along, yet I’m driving almost flat-out to keep up. Not everyone is going to appreciate the MX-5’s character – to drive it quickly is to feel satisfaction rather than excitement – but the case can be made that it helps distil driving to its purest form better than any other car. 

Built for the drive on MOTOR's Celebrating Driver's Cars

FAST FACTS 
2018 Mazda MX-5 1.5

BODY: 2-door, 2-seat roadster
DRIVE: rear-wheel
ENGINE: 1496cc inline-4, DOHC, 16v
BORE/STROKE: 74.5mm x 85.8mm
COMPRESSION: 13.0:1
POWER: 97kW @ 7000rpm
TORQUE: 152Nm @ 4500rpm
WEIGHT: 1012kg
POWER-TO-WEIGHT: 96kW/tonne
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual
SUSPENSION: double-wishbone, coil springs, anti-roll bar (f); multi-links, anti-roll bar (r)
L/W/h: 3915/1735/1225mm
WHEELBASE: 2310mm
TRACKS: 1495/1505mm (f/r)
STEERING: electrically assisted rack-and-pinion
BRAKES: 258mm ventilated discs, 2-piston calipers (f); 255mm solid discs, single-piston calipers (r)
WHEELS: 16.0 x 6.5-inch (f/r)
TYRES: Yokohama Advan Sport; 195/50 R16 (f/r)
PRICE: $34,190

PROS: The best way to have fun without going very fast
CONS: Better at slow speeds; really not fast; pack a jacket
RATING: 4 out of 5 stars