Test 1: the B-Road Face-off
Yes, the MX-5 has drained the bargain roadster gene pool, then concreted over it. RIP MR2, less so MG TF. But the entry-level drivers’ cars are still to be found, albeit in different, less comparable forms. Take the almost identically priced Ford Fiesta ST: to hot hatches what the Mazda MX-5 is to sports cars. Not in having a long and cherished lineage (there’ve been one or two dud hot Fiestas) but because it is, right now, the default. Cheap enough to be attainable, practical enough to be usable, and laugh-out-loud good to drive. And, ultimately, not that challenging. You could outgrow both, but in the process, you’d feel you’d wrung 100 per cent out of them every time a white circle bisected by a black diagonal streak shrunk into the rear-view mirror.
Photography: Lee Brimble
This feature was originally published in the December 2015 issue of Top Gear magazine.
The Fiesta remains a bargain. This one is a top-of-the-range ST-3, heaping keyless entry, automatic lights and wipers plus controls of the cruise and climate variety into the dated, fussy cabin – and it’s still under twenty grand, but for a handful of options. We’re missing the £599 Mountune tune-up to 212bhp and 215lb ft, which is good news for this 2.0-litre, most powerful version of the new MX-5.
You have to applaud Mazda for sticking to natural aspiration, and a fanatical attention to weight-saving that brings this MX-5 in 163kg lighter than the Ford, precisely none of which keeps it on the Fiesta’s coat-tails. Dashing up and down the B4560 while snapper Lee bags pictures, I’m scrambling to stay in shot with the Ford. Deep reserves of torque from that earnest-sounding burblebox up front and the Fiesta’s lighter gearchange just unlock more point-to-point pace. It still feels like lots of power in a little car (ignore the 179bhp claim – it overboosts to 197bhp). Naughty. Exactly the character you want from a fast Ford.
However, the Fiesta really demands you assume its attack-attack attitude and forgive the foibles. For one thing, the way you sit feels entirely wrong after the inherent rightness of the Mazda’s arse-on-axle, straight-leg recline. The Recaros couldn’t be grippier if they were upholstered in flypaper, but sitting high betrays the fact you’re not in a dedicated driver’s car here. It’s an unavoidable compromise.
Worse is the ride. You’re usually so occupied chucking the Fiesta around like an Eighties hatch, the rock-hard ride is a footnote, a means to an end you tolerate. Here, the MX-5 opens your eyes to the boons of a more pliable, breathable chassis, and avoids interfering with the wheel or pummelling your back like an over-excited sparring partner.
Few ‘sporty’ cars are as good to drive when you’re not driving it quickly as the MX-5. Just let the ball-topped gearlever roll around in the palm of your hand, clicking in three gearchanges where maybe only two were strictly necessary. It says “I’ve been set up to actually work on a road, like suspension used to before it became a marketing tool”. And being rear-wheel drive, there’s more to explore in a sensible comfort zone.
Yes, the Fiesta is keener to flaunt its rear than Mrs Kanye West, and adjusting your lines with a trailbrake and excitable turn-in is addictive. But it’s quite a passive way to feel a car move around beneath you – those cheeky little sidesteps are over as quick as they’ve begun, and because the car will naturally self-correct as it accelerates from the turn, you’ve ultimately got less to do.
Get the MX-5 loaded up, and you can actually extend and alter its squiggliness. Savour it. And all without going antisocially quickly. You’re aware the ST is the more serious bit of kit, which is odd given in most company it’s the playful tearaway. Maybe it’s that alarming-looking but entirely manageable body lean, or the fact the roof comes off, but the MX-5 really doesn’t take itself that seriously. It won’t punish your mistakes, and I love the accessibility that offers.
Ultimately, the Fiesta is the car that dumps a higher concentration of dopamine in your bloodstream. In a straight line, out of every turn, it demolishes the Mazda, and though it feels livelier under braking (handy for turn-in), it shrugs off its extra flab and stops convincingly too. I’ll never stop respecting the fact Ford gave it a bodykit-by-numbers suit, a new steering wheel and seats, then locked the marketing chaps in a cupboard and set about the engine, gearshift quality, brakes and handling.
In a nutshell, that’s why the Fiesta is here representing the small hot-hatch breed, and the newer, pokier Clio RS Trophy is not. There’s no denying, though, that the Mazda’s greater dexterity on rough surfaces (which, let’s face it, goes hand in hand with most B-roads) helps find a few priceless chinks in the armour of a world-class hot hatch. Ask yourself: how much are you going to use the back seats?
Test 2: the cars about town
Optimistic, aren’t we? Brits, I mean. Buy more cabriolets than any other country in Europe, we do, despite something like 120 rainy days a year. And we like our purchases to succeed as trinkets too. Apparently when Vauxhall sold the folding tin-top Tigra, dealers considered offering stick-on fabric segments for the metal roof, as owners complained it wasn’t obvious enough to onlookers the roof was retractable.
It nicely distills the point that most people couldn’t give a monkey’s which wheels are being driven or whether or not the air being inducted into the engine is at atmospheric pressure. They want a hotly desirable object, and that’s a game Audi has become highly skilled at playing. Look at that TT. It’s a delivery vehicle for the very latest in trendy LED signatures, with an image to die for.
Or is it? Midway through shooting the TT’s interior, it’s seized upon by a curious group of girls midway through a night out in Cardiff town. Straw-poll time. Our impromptu judging panel recoils with upturned noses when they discover the Audi is thirty-three grand. They prefer the daintier Mazda, which stars in more selfies as a result. But the waiters who inquisitively scuttle out of the Indian restaurant opposite for a look gravitate to the Audi, “because it’s smart and expensive”.
Let’s rattle off some point-scoring. The TT’s heater is only just adequate for topless British motoring, while the Mazda’s will roast your knuckles and soften the soles of your shoes. The Audi’s £325 heated seats are feeble, but this MX-5 didn’t have them at all. This is a sin. Heated seats are a folly in every car except a cabrio, and I’d rather bum-warmers as standard in the MX-5 than cruise, climate or traction control. Mind you, the Mazda at least offers a comfortable chair. I’ve racked up considerable mileage in several TTs this year and, just like the others, this one’s lumbar-lacking suede jobs knackered my back.
Then again, an S line TT on (£450) 19-inchers has all the give of Boris Johnson on a primary school rugby field. And for what purpose? Did an engineer discover at the eleventh hour that the MMI switches possessed a greater tactility and precision than his woolly gearshift and hyper-quick steering, and so demand that Vorsprung durch Schportiness was injected by filling the dampers with sand?
Send the Audi on the offensive, and it begins to undo the MX-5, which is noisier than wing-walking whatever you do with the roof. The Audi’s triple-layer soft-top is beautifully insulated, and even without deploying the elegant (£425) wind deflector, it’s less turbulent inside. More headroom too – I wanted to avoid hairdresser gags until the MX-5 flattened my Simon from The Inbetweeners do.
The MX-5’s roof is a device to stop you getting wet, but that’s about it. Life in here is altogether more intimate. You raise your hand in a gesture of thanks to another driver for giving way (it happens), and your nails brush the windscreen. Its entirely manual toupee is easier to lift than Donald Trump’s. Hopping in from the TT is like taking off a puffer jacket and slipping on some thermals. Less isolating but less cumbersome.
Thing is, the TT is a two-seater with a removable roof, which does not a sports car make. Take its unusually flat Golf GTI powertrain, for example. The zesty exhaust parp is the opposite of the car’s styling – the good stuff is saved for the outside. It’s quick – quick enough to cause the heaviest, widest-tyred car in this group traction headaches – but does a topless TT really need 227bhp? If I were a betting chap, I’d wager the sub-200bhp, sub-£30k 1.8-litre TT is just as appropriate. And won’t land you on a speed-awareness course before topping second gear.
Cynics will argue the MX-5 is for those who can’t afford a TT. Perhaps. The Audi’s technology and ambience annihilate the Mazda’s. But it also beckons those who can’t – or daren’t – appreciate the MX-5. Only the Mazda is a legitimate sports car.
Test 3: track antics
Why is it you look at these two and just assume the GT86 is the more serious, proper driver’s car? Because it has a hard-top? Because of Toyota’s back catalogue of rear-drive coupes? Pity the MX-5 at your peril. Yes, the Mazda is 39bhp down, but the torque gap is an inconsequential 4lb ft, and the MX-5 is 275kg (!) lighter. The Mazda also rides on proper rubber, its Bridgestone Potenzas clawing more grip just about everywhere than the Toyobaru’s infamous Michelin Primacys.
Yeah, the Prius tyre. As a result, the MX-5 lapped the tremendous little Llandow Circuit half a second faster than the GT86. Not that this test is about data – raw speed was at the bottom of the priority list when these two were being developed. But it just goes to show the zeitgeist’s supposedly girlier MX-5 is no fairy cake.
In fact, at times, it’s a bit of a hooligan. The sheer amount of bodyroll looks comical, but on board you’ve got to trust it’ll stick and stay on the ball, because the shorter wheelbase and less forgiving tyre breakaway mean when the lolloping body transfers its momentum into a slide, it goes quickly, and the altogether faster steering doesn’t go out of its way to warn you. While the MX-5 lacks the Toyota’s sense of the centre of gravity being somewhere around the floormats, its stickier tyres nail its front end more convincingly to the road. In the Toyota, leaning on the front hard through the fast right-handers at Llandow is a bit of a guessing game, because the fronts want to scrub wide.
That slight vagueness is a pay-off for Toyota’s philosophy of reducing the car’s grip, and remains at odds with a keener, wrist-roll turn-in and none of the Mazda’s spinnaker body roll. The MX-5 never, ever understeers, but it, not the GT86, is the keenest to slide at the rear. So much for the Toyota being the modern-day oversteer hero, the car to bring those delightfully naughty squiggles back to the people. I like that, because I’m no drift hero but like to at least feel that I can agitate a car a tad. Ollie Marriage takes the GT86 back to Llandow’s pits having performed the smoky drift shots and notes both of these supposedly underpowered rear-drivers will slide far further on the throttle than he’d predicted.
This one is by far the sweetest ’86 I’ve yet driven. Be wary of cars that haven’t done enough miles to give their best. For me, the D-4S boxer still sounds like a bear complaining into a filing cabinet, but at least the drone tapers into a decent zing of response as the central tachometer revolves past 5,500rpm. There’s a much greater appetite for revs in the Toyota’s purer sports-car engine than there is from the Mazda’s workaday hatchback motor. Sharper throttle response makes it the easier machine to heel and toe in – handy, since the GT86’s long-throw, mechanical gearchange lacks the sweet, magnetic intuition of the MX-5’s shift.
Awfully tough to split, these two. I like lots about the Toyota – throttle response, balance and its Porsche-like electric steering in particular. The Mazda is more wayward, easier to get your kicks from.
That the new MX-5 is the best one Mazda has ever made is not shocking, but the fact it can compete so strongly in all these disciplines – racetrack, town and country – is damned impressive. It’s so gratifying at regular speeds, you could use it every day and have such a satisfying time doing so, you’d scarcely miss the fact that the same money could buy you more power. Of course the Audi costs half as much again as the Mazda – it is undeniably of higher material and technological breed. The Ford is a showcase for the boons of turbos. The MX-5 is closest in spirit to its Japanese compatriot, but edges it for laughs. Time for the snootier factions of cardom to stop laughing at the MX-5, and smile with it.