As automakers weather the pandemic, some have emerged as winners, and some as losers. One surprising success story is plucky little Mazda, one of only three manufacturers to post sales increases in the U.S. market. In Canada, as of last month, Mazda sales were up more than 73 per cent from last year. And, though it’s still just a fraction of the total volume, sales of the Mazda MX-5 have more than doubled.
And why not? After over a year of constant bad news, buyers might well ask themselves what they’re waiting for. Summer is coming, the weather is improving, and rising vaccination rates seem to indicate that a road trip or two may be in the offing. A nimble little roadster seems just the ticket.
Over four generations, Mazda has sold more than a million MX-5s. The first, known internally at Mazda as the NA chassis and to everyone else as the Miata, was a happy return to British-style top-down motoring – without the British-style intermittent breakdowns. The second generation, the NB chassis Miata, was even sportier. The third-generation NC added comfort and the convenience of an optional power-folding roof.
It’s hard to beat any MX-5 in terms of thrills per dollar. Having said that, the current ND chassis car, launched in 2019, is the best of the breed. As compact as the original NA, it’s among the smallest cars on the road. It has the sporty handling of an NB, but with modern technology. Thanks to an increase in power in 2019, 181 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque from a 2.0-litre four-cylinder, it’s got as much punch as the bigger NC. Basically, the current car is a sort of an MX-5 greatest hits album. Here’s a look at which trim should provide the soundtrack to your summer.
I’ll start with a gentle recommendation to buy the manual gearbox. There’s nothing wrong with the six-speed automatic gearbox, which is functional and quick shifting. While other manufacturers stretch to eight or even 10 gears in a quest for fuel economy, Mazda’s six-speed keeps it simple. It’s fine.
However, the six-speed manual feels special, and presumably you’re buying an MX-5 because that’s the sort of thing you’re after. It has a quick, precise action, with a light, low-effort clutch pedal. Mazda’s engineers spent a great deal of time getting the feel of the shifter right here, as it’s basically a handshake moment. It’s quite literally worth learning to drive a manual to experience the car properly.
From here, two paths emerge: the Soft Top and the RF. The latter stands for Retractable Fastback, and it has a very elegant powered-roof mechanism worth further discussion. First though, the classic folding roof MX-5.
There are three trims, with the basic GS model starting at $33,200. In past generations, Mazda has offered some variations on engine or transmissions with some basic models getting only a five-speed manual, but the basic car now has almost all the mechanical goodies.
If you’re buying an MX-5 primarily for performance, the mid-grade GS-P gets worthy upgrades such as Bilstein dampers, some structural stiffness upgrades and a limited-slip differential. This last is exactly what it sounds like, a mechanism that prevents an outside wheel from spinning too much, allowing the driver to apply more power when exiting a corner.
There’s also an optional $4,400 sport package. It’s pricey, but the forged BBS wheels, upgraded Brembo front brakes, and grippy Recaro seats would cost more if purchased individually. It’s worth noting that the same package costs more in the United States because there’s an additional appearance package. In Canada, the sportiest MX-5 is all functional.
Certainly, there are cars that are faster in a straight line. There are also cars capable of greater lateral grip, and you won’t soon be challenging the lap times of a modern Porsche 911 at the track. However, the little MX-5 soft top is just such a ball of energy to drive, you won’t care. The fact that it’s not blazingly fast is a feature, as you can wring out the engine on an on-ramp without worrying that you’re flouting the law.
Then, show the MX-5 a corner, and it really comes alive. Mazda has baked in a surprising amount of roll into the suspension set up, but that just provides more information to the driver about the physics of what’s happening. After a week or so behind the wheel, you’ll have a better understanding of weight transfer, and what happens when a car flits through a corner.
Best of all is the top, which must be the fastest folding convertible on the planet. Just reach up, flick the release lever, and fold the soft top behind you. I had my kid time me, and I was repeatedly able to fold the roof in under three seconds.
That quick-folding roof means you’ll be spending more time with the top down. Rain just stopped at a traffic light? Down it goes. Just need to pop out for milk and bread? Errands are best done topless. Maybe invest in a hat and some sunscreen.
The RF is a slightly different animal. All the same packages are available, including the upgraded wheels and brakes. However, the RF is designed for people who will most often drive with the roof up, treating their MX-5 like a small coupe.
It’s still an excellent experience. There is a small weight penalty of just over 50 kilograms, but the added weight is essentially imperceptible. The RF is very slightly quieter in terms of road noise, but that too is a minor difference.
Arguably, the RF is the prettier version. If you have to park your MX-5 on the street, having a metal roof is the more secure option. Further, when you do lower the top, there’s a bit more turbulence. Lowering the top is more of an event, and while the power top is nowhere near as quick as the soft top – it takes about thirteen seconds – neither is it sluggish.
The more noticeable difference with this GT-trim RF was in its interior trim niceties, such as speakers mounted in the headrests. The car’s more supple suspension was preferable on a bumpy backroad to the sporty soft top’s firmer Bilsteins. If anything, the GT model was more fun and playful. An MX-5 doesn’t need to be too serious.
Having said that, living with an MX-5 does require something of an attitude adjustment. This is a really tiny car, and offers little in the way of storage. The trunk has 130 litres of cargo space, but if you’re a golfer, you’ll probably throw your clubs in the passenger seat. The cup holders are functional, but only just.
The bigger quibble, and perhaps the bigger concern for Mazda as a whole, is the infotainment system. Once fairly easy to use, Mazda’s systems seem to have become a bit sluggish as software demands more of them. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are present on all MX-5 trims, but plug in your phone and the system will take its sweet time booting up.
In all other respects, the MX-5 is a car that rewards on any drive, short or long. It’s little wonder that Canadians who have been cooped up for over a year are splashing out on something fun. The good news is that they’re going to find that this little car is just as wonderful as they’d hoped.