2016 Mazda MX-5 long-term car review

Our Car of the Year joins the long-term fleet for a six-month stint

2016 Mazda MX-5 long-term car review

Introduction: Love at first drive

Another case of wheels within Wheels.
By: Damion Smy

IT STARTED at the pub. “Damo, do you want to drive my new long-termer?” Wheels skipper Butler offered. “It has two seats,” he says, swilling another mouthful of beer with a cheeky grin. Surely this is a stitch-up: Why is the boss giving away a sports car? It better not be a Hyundai iLoad...

There was no catch. A stunning Sunset Red Mazda MX-5, sultry lines and all, was mine for a few weeks. And it could easily be yours because this $31,990 base car – the 90kW 1.5-litre, six-speed manual – has no options beyond the deep rich paintwork (an extra $250). Utterly affordable.

Within metres of having collected the COTY champ from Mazda, I thought, “What a fool; who gives up a car this good?”, as the lightness, tactility of the steering and instant response of the Mazda MX-5 became immediately apparent. “Surely Butler has some kind of hyper-ship, maybe an aircraft carrier or a spy plane, because it doesn’t get much better than this,” I pondered as I drove away.

As soon as the roof was lowered on that bright summer morning, the MX-5 immersed me in my surroundings like no other car. A Porsche Boxster? It’s a brilliant machine, but not as small and connected to the environment around you. That’s a big call, but looking down the glossy bonnet with its flicked-up edges, enjoying the smell of the ocean as I wafted along the beachside past Luna Park, there was no place I’d rather have been. This car makes you feel grateful to be alive – seriously – and what’s more it’s not an uber-priced pose-pouch.

Mazda -MX5-spare -tyre
Our lovely new MX-5 prepares to get back on the road with its long-awaited replacement Yokohama.

Then it was suddenly all over. Early on Boxing Day, the MX-5 and I had our first tiff. The tyre-pressure warning light popped on, like a thief in the night, and it stole summer. How? Well, there’s no spare wheel. Not even a space-saver. Just a can of goo. And, being only a few kays from home, I was reluctant to use the sticky stuff. Bad call.

Turns out that a 16-inch 195/50 Yokohama is a rare thing, especially over the New Year break. The right-rear was completely flat by daylight, the car undriveable. Luckily I had my trusty Ford Focus long-termer, whose spacesaver spare was placed under the MX-5’s sill as I used the scissor jack to take the wheel off.

The tyre shop deemed it unrepairable. Mazda roadside assistance offered to carry the car to a holding yard (umm, no) as they “don’t do tyre repairs”. The local dealer only had tyres for the previous model. Gulp. So there it was; all that Kodo design, all that garb about horse and man as one, stranded. Sure, a spare adds weight, but when your sports car is sitting, paralysed, you don’t care about the Jinba Ittai philosophy and the extra mass diluting your experience, because right there and then I wasn’t experiencing the MX-5 at all.

The perfect storm of a puncture, public holidays and a unicorn of a tyre conspired against the car. If I owned it, and it was my only car, it would have ruined my holiday.

Weeks later, with the MX-5 back on its feet, it was only seconds before I once again succumbed to its charms. Like Homer Simpson hugging the TV, I thought, “How can I stay mad at you?” It delivers so much driving pleasure, I found myself deliberately driving to suburbs I’d never been to for groceries, just to have another chance to duck through traffic, tackle a few more corners and breathe in the summer air. Finally, the MX-5 and I became one.

Then, at the pub, Butler asked for it back.

Pay your money, take your choice

Mazda -MX5-Sky Activ -engineThere was huge debate at COTY 2016 as to which MX-5 is better, the 90kW 1.5-litre or the 118kW 2.0-litre. The 2.0-litre models start at $34,490 and come with 17-inch Bridgestone-shod alloys compared to the Yokohama Unicorn 16-inch boots on the base car. Then there are the GT models, offered with both engines, starting at $37,990 for the 1.5 and $39,990 for the 2.0. They add leather, climate control and 7.0-inch MZR centre-screen with sat-nav. So far, none of those features have been missed; this entry-level car wants for nothing, and feels in no way like a cut-price stripper model. And, because it’s a manual, it gets a limited-slip diff as standard while the auto doesn’t.

Mazda MX-5 1.5 Roadster
Price as tested: $32,240
Part 1: 1032km @ 5.9L/100km
Overall: 1032km @ 5.9L/100km
Odometer: 6961km
Date acquired: December 2015

Update 1: Bringing down the roof

Wheels explores the joy of going topless, though raising the roof also raises some interesting questions.
By: Glenn Butler

Mazda MX 5 Top Side Roof Down Jpg

WHAT’S the protocol with leaving the roof open when parked?

When parking at a coffee shop, can I get my morning take-away and expect my work bag will still be on the passenger seat when I come back?

What about when I go to the barber’s for my monthly mop lop? Okay, in this instance, I’m not naïve. But what if there’s nothing in the cabin? Can I leave the roof down and expect to not find a cigarette butt or litter in the cabin (both of which have happened)?

These are the weighty first-world conundrums I tackled after taking over our long-term Mazda MX-5 Roadster 1.5. It was also a month of compulsory roof-down motoring. Every single trip the lid was off, unless it was raining.

Putting the roof down is a cinch: undo latch, hurl roof back, push down until it clicks. And to re-roof the roadster, a latch between the seats pops the light cloth lid up from its hideaway so it’s easy to reach. No longer do you need Mel Gibson’s ability to dislocate your own shoulder.

Glenn -Butler -driving -Mazda -MX-5-with -petI like driving roof-down. You feel a little exposed but it does make a journey more fun, even in peak hour. I feel incredibly small in the Mazda MX-5, though, staring into the alloys of the SUV alongside.

My dog likes travelling roofless as well. She gets that wind-on-her-tongue feeling without having to hang out the window. Her fur, however, swirls around everywhere in the cabin, and it’s a bugger to vacuum out.

I put the roof up for one particular drive, despite the clear blue sky and warm late summer sun. A weekend away with friends up the King Valley involved a 3km dirt private roadway to the property, and no amount of journalistic curiosity could convince me to drive that stretch roof-down.

I may have driven that dirt road a little faster than I should have, but the MX-5 made me do it. It’s such a sweet, chuckable little roadster that drifts with balletic precision and wondrous ease. The anaemic little 1.5 had no troubles kicking the butt out under power – with the ESC off, obviously.

So. Much. Fun. Every one of the five times I tackled ‘my’ special stage.

Getting the dirt out, however, is not so much fun. It didn’t get into the cabin too badly, but there was a light covering over the dash and in the vents. And while it didn’t get past the boot’s dust sealing at all, it’s pure hell getting a rag in and around the hinges. Still, fun has a price, right?

Mazda MX-5 1.5 Roadster
Price as tested: $32,240
Part 2: 1752km @ 8.1L/100km
Overall: 2784km @ 7.3L/100km
Odometer: 8713km
Date acquired: December 2015

Update 2: Hard-earned rewards

It’s beer o’clock for our 1.5-litre Mazda MX-5.
By: Glenn Butler

Mazda MX 5 At Brewery Jpg

YES, that is a brewery in the photo. No, Wheels is not advocating drinking and driving; we’re all mature enough to know right from wrong, right?

That’s the Red Hill Brewery on the Mornington Peninsula, which also happens to have fantastic roads ideally suited to the Mazda MX-5. So when the time came for one last fang in the 1.5 before swapping into the 2.0,

I gravitated to my favourite set of roads.

My first half dozen COTYs etched these roads into my memory, sharing laps with Carey, Ponchard, Bulmer, Robbo and other judges evaluating that year’s contenders on the lumpen curves of Arthurs Seat and long undulations out to Flinders.

Custom decreed that each judge drive the loop in every car. With weekend visits in other test cars, or my motorbike, I’ve done it at least 200 times. I know every bump, and I lament their passing when road gangs iron them out in the name of progress.

Last week I climbed Arthurs Seat with 5.2 litres of V10 Lamborghini Huracan Spyder around me, and I’d like to apologise to the residents for the banshee wail that followed us up the hill that evening. No shortage of poke there. In fact, that roofless, ruthless Italian possessed more than enough of everything to humble the mighty Arthurs Seat.

Mazda -MX-5-boot
The MX-5’s boot can handle five cases. The editor’s wallet not so much.

A week earlier was my visit to the brewery, which I’d reached via Arthurs Seat. I won’t pretend the $32K Mazda felt just like the $500K Lamborghini, but comparing the two was illuminating. Both carve up corners like a master chef, one wielding its light, lithe chassis with scalpel-like precision, the other leveraging massive rubber and all-wheel drive to bludgeon the bends. The 455kW Lambo’s biggest advantage is the way it devours straights with a hunger the 96kW Mazda cannot hope to match. The MX-5 requires effort and focus to retain every possible increment of hard-earned velocity. Picking the best line is crucial, steering as little as possible lest an overly greedy turn-in bleed speed.

There was a great sense of elation when I peaked in the Lamborghini – how could there not be in such a thunderous and theatrical Italian steed – but the Mazda gave me a greater sense of accomplishment, more satisfaction. Dare I say it… like a hard-earned beer. A few minutes later I had one, a clean and cold Red Hill Pilsner, to accompany the action replay running through my mind.

I gained three things from that drive: a load of Red Hill beers; a better appreciation of the MX-5’s ability to use its dynamic prowess to overcome a lack of horsepower; and a hunger to come back as soon as possible in the 2.0-litre MX-5.


My Samsung Galaxy S6 refused to connect with the MX-5 via Bluetooth. Initialising the handshake via the phone, or via the car, made no difference. They wouldn’t play nice together. Until Mazda Australia told me to stop using the dials and use the infotainment system’s voice commands instead. Success! Turns out the non-satnav-equipped system uses older software that has this glitch. The new version, as fitted on next month’s Mazda MX-5 2.0-litre GT, will not have the same problem, Mazda assures me.

Read part two of our Mazda MX-5 long-term car review.

Mazda MX-5 1.5 Roadster
Price as tested: $32,240
Part 3: 885km @ 8.2L/100km
Overall: 3669km @ 7.5L/100km
Odometer: 9598km
Date acquired: December 2015

Update 3: Posh Spice

Does stepping up to a GT raise the temperature?
By: Glenn Butler

Mazda MX 5 Rear Top Jpg

FOR the second half of the MX-5’s six-month stay in our garage I’ve moved from a 1.5-litre manual base model to the top-spec Mazda MX-5 2.0-litre GT auto. That’s a step up in many areas, and a step down in a couple as well, surprisingly.

I thought having extended exposure to both drivetrains would help me choose a favourite, but four weeks into big-bore heaven and I’m even more confused.

Part of this is the fault of the automatic transmission. This six-speed Aisin unit makes day-to-day driving easier, no question, and it’s a smooth, competent cog-swapper. But it doesn’t suit the intent or character of this car, even with paddles to manually manipulate. The Mazda MX-5 is a driver’s car, and paying an extra $2000 to be less involved doesn’t gel with the purist’s perspective.

I can see why some might consider $2K a fair tariff to free up your left arm and leg, but I never found using the manual to be tiring, even in peak-hour traffic. And that’s on top of having to row it more enthusiastically to make the most of the 1.5’s torque deficit. So for me it’s a step backwards. It’s also detrimental to the MX-5’s mechanical soundtrack, although to be fair, even with a manual gearbox the 2.0-litre doesn’t sound as zippy as the little 1.5.

Will I change my mind when we tackle a Sunday drive together? I was totally convinced by the 911 GT3 RS’s paddle-shifting ways, but then in that car a driver needs all attention on the rapidly approaching horizon. The MX-5’s fun happens at a slower, more easily digestible pace. And while my top-spec test car is a claimed 48 kegs heavier than the base manual, I suspect the 2.0-litre’s extra power and torque (up 23 and 33 percent respectively) will easily overcome that five percent weight handicap. And slightly bigger brakes and tyres will also help in that regard. But by opting for the auto,

I lose the manual’s limited slip diff… hmm…

But that’s for next month.

Now, what about the bells and whistles that additional $9560 has bought me? Putting all the mechanical differences aside, the step up from 2.0-litre Roadster to 2.0 Roadster GT is actually $5060, which is partly justified by the more upmarket infotainment and sat-nav system (see breakout).

The added seat heaters in the meantime are making Melbourne’s single-digit winter mornings much more tolerable. But no amount of investigative spirit will make me go topless on those mornings; I’m hoarding every degree I can get.

Equipment upgrade a mixed bag

There are two MX-5 equipment levels: Roadster and Roadster GT. The GT’s infotainment screen is a boon, and is generally easy to use – although it insists on sucking in my smartphone’s contact list every time (is 853 names too many for it to remember?). The beefier Bose sound system is well worth having, as is climate control. As for functions like auto headlights and wipers, auto-dimming mirror and heated wing mirrors, they’re nice to have but weren’t conspicuous by their absence on the cheaper model.

Read part three of our Mazda MX-5 long-term car review.

Mazda MX-5 2.0 Roadster GT
Price as tested: $41,710
Part 4: 1116km @ 8.2L/100km
Overall: 1116km @ 8.2L/100km
Odometer: 4960km
Date acquired: May 2016

Update 4: Sunday Service

Tackling the tarmac in our long-term Mazda MX-5 GT while the rest of the world sleeps
By: Glenn Butler

Mazda MX 5 GT Driving Through Fog Jpg

MY FIRST thought as I shake off the fog of sleep is to slap the alarm and stay in bed. What kind of idiot rises voluntarily at 5.30 on a wintry Sunday morning? Instead, I swing quickly out of bed, knowing that to pause is to fail. Don some clothes, slam down an espresso, grab the Mazda key and go. Six minutes since the alarm; a new personal record. Out the door and into…

It’s blacker than black. Darker than 5.36am on a winter morning should be. The Mazda MX-5 is the barest hint of a silhouette in my driveway. The night is still and there’s a fog so thick that the lone street lamp outside my house struggles to penetrate. Also, it’s wet. Am I mad? If it’s foggy and wet at sea level, what are the Dandenongs going to be like? At least it’s not raining. Anyway, I’m here now.

Slide in, then lean out to close the door. I can’t reach the handle without my head hitting the roof rail, so the window’s leading edge is my regular ‘door-pull’. Is this a design flaw in the car? Didn’t think my arms were abnormally short.

Mazda -MX-5-GT-roadster -interiorKey placed in the rubber-lined cubby ahead of the gearshift – not exactly secure, but effective – engine thumbed to life. The two-litre doesn’t have a great singing voice. Not at idle, not at revs, not ever. But it moves the MX-5 with vigour, and the almost deserted streets quickly take us to Healesville.

Somewhere along the way, and for reasons best known to meteorologists, the fog leaves off. Perhaps it prefers leafy bayside suburbs to rolling hills. The wet road shines in headlights that make mossy patches look like super-smooth hotmix. Treachery by deception?

Weirdly, the conditions make the drive. The grip is tenuous and the MX-5’s speed is far from electrifying, but the combination has my eyes on stalks, my nerves on high alert. I sense-feel every little shimmy and slip, and respond before each becomes a problem.

It’s an intense collaboration. It feels like I’m hardwired into the tyre tread, front row at each combustion cycle, hand-holding the brakes, feeding the steering rack. It’s a slow-speed, low-grip, sensory immersion in a world that ceases at the edge of the headlight beam.

Mazda -MX-5-GT-roadster -rearIt becomes a challenge. How long can I keep the MX-5 just over the edge of adhesion and yet still below the ESC threshold? It’s a game drivers play on racetracks around the world every weekend, often without ESC ready to assist. The fastest lap is when a car is straddling the limit all the time. On this drive, the speed limit is never in danger, and the MX-5 auto’s missing LSD tempers the pendulum somewhat. But that, and the slower pace, give my mortal reactions a chance, and it’s still an addictive game of degrees and centimetres.

Another lap, then another. On our third trip round the mountain, the sun crests the horizon and shatters the dream like my alarm had two hours earlier. Time to return home. Another hour later, I’m at a café, still energised, smiling quietly, watching the rest of the world in bleary-eyed pursuit of bacon and eggs.

Sundays are like that. But some Sundays are better than others, if you can just get up a little earlier.

Sales soar, then time flies

The life of a test car is never pretty. This MX-5 has spent more than its fair share of time in the Tullamarine long-term car park as its ‘owner’ ventured beyond borders and over waters. It’s most recent sojourn on Level 3, Section G was while I was in Japan for an Infiniti conference. I was surprised how few MX-5s I saw on Tokyo’s roads, though Mazda claims 826 of these COTY-winning roadsters are sold there each month. Australia’s running rate is about 120 a month, though it falls away as the car ages.

Read part four of our Mazda MX-5 long-term car review.

Mazda MX-5 2.0 Roadster GT
Price as tested: $41,710
Part 5: 1004km @ 7.6L/100km
Overall: 2120km @ 7.9L/100km
Odometer: 4960km
Date acquired: May 2016


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