The world’s best sports car?

WHEN I tested Mazda's fourth-generation MX-5 in mid-2017, not long after its launch, I gave it five stars. It's still the only car to achieve the maximum road test score. At the time, motoring editor Richard Blackburn queried my generosity. There's no such thing as the perfect car, he argued, and the Mazda has a few faults.

Mazda MX-5: A joy to drive and the price is right
Mazda MX-5: A joy to drive and the price is right

True, but five stars doesn't mean perfection. In a market where every class has fragmented into ever smaller, more specialised niches to meet the diverse requirements of customers, a car that scores highly in our road tests is one that nails its brief and delivers exactly what its owners expect of it. At the right price, of course.

The MX-5 over-delivers on its promise - the joy of driving, pure and simple - and the price is certainly right.

 

VALUE

It's just been updated for 2019 to upgrade safety, fix a few ergonomic flaws, improve engine responsiveness and add a bit more top end kick.

The 2.0-litre engine, available from $41,960 in the six-speed manual GT soft-top, has been reworked with lighter, lower-friction internals, better breathing at high revs, more efficient combustion, sharper acceleration and a higher redline - now 7500rpm, an increase of 700rpm.

Power is up by 17kW to 135kW. That doesn't sound like much of a gain but in a car that weighs a svelte 1035kg it has a noticeable effect, particularly on top end acceleration.

MX-5: For 2019 update, the starting price is about $40K
MX-5: For 2019 update, the starting price is about $40K

Torque also rises, by 5Nm to 205Nm but, of greater consequence, it's now on tap 600rpm lower in the rev range, at 4000rpm, giving the 2.0-litre an effective 3000rpm zone between peak torque and maximum power, 1600rpm wider than previously. This translates to stronger, more tractable midrange performance.

The six-speed automatic, with sportier shift mapping and a lower final drive ratio on 2.0-litre models, adds $2000. RF variants, with the 2.0-litre and folding hardtop, start at $39,400. We're testing the RF GT manual, at $45,960.

Mazda's infotainment, dubbed MZD Connect, has a rotary controller/cursor (plus touchscreen functionality) and includes navigation, responsive voice control and seamless Bluetooth. Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity is a $495 option.

GT specification includes 17-inch alloys with 205/45 Bridgestone Potenza tyres, adaptive LED headlights, keyless entry and start, leather upholstery, heated seats and Bose audio, with speakers in the driver's headrest. The power folding roof can be had in black for $1000.

 

COMFORT

The MX-5's steering wheel now has reach adjustment, so tall drivers can tailor their seating position with greater precision and comfort. The narrow, supportive driver's seat is pretty firm; height and lumbar are fixed, but you can adjust the cushion angle.

When Mazda does an update, it goes through every aspect of a car with forensic attention to detail. This MX-5's doors are easier to open and close in narrow spaces. Seat recline levers are more securely anchored. Even the cupholders are stronger and easier to remove.

Prime position: Update brings small but significant comfort and convenience tweaks
Prime position: Update brings small but significant comfort and convenience tweaks

Suspension is unchanged, so the ride remains remarkably comfortable and compliant for a roadster, with a trace of front end shake only on very rough roads.

Roof up, the RF is as quiet as a coupe, albeit with intrusive tyre noise on coarse bitumen. Roof down, it's calm in the cabin, but at 100km/h the wind generates a racket in the corners of the roof buttresses, immediately behind your head.

 

SAFETY

To the standard blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert, Mazda added a rear camera, rear parking sensors, autonomous emergency braking (up to 80km/h, and from 2-8 km/h in reverse), fatigue alert and speed sign recognition.

 

DRIVING

Mazda doesn't quote a 0-100km/h acceleration time. It's far from the most relevant number on the MX-5's spec sheet anyway but 135kW is serious power in such a machine. With the 2.0-litre's more tractable and responsive delivery, it would easily knock a couple of tenths off the pre-update's time of about 7.5 seconds.

Just enough power: MX-5 is more about responsive handling than velocity
Just enough power: MX-5 is more about responsive handling than velocity

Previous MX-5s always felt as if they could use a bit more power. The new 2.0 has enough.

Handling remains other-worldly. Mazda's "car and driver as one" spiel sounds like just another car company marketing blah-blah but it's true. I've ridden motorcycles on which you feel less connected and in control than the MX-5. You steer it by thought, not physical effort.

 

HEART SAYS

I want four things from a car: blue skies, a sunny day, the wind in my hair and the one I love beside me. Well, OK, three out of four.

HEAD SAYS

The MX-5 has the performance to complement its superlative rear-drive chassis. The Porsche Boxster, at almost three times the price, is the only other roadster that nears driving enjoyment.

 

ALTERNATIVES

ABARTH 124 SPIDER FROM $41,990

Fiat's sharp model-share version of the MX-5, with a 125kW/250Nm 1.4-litre turbo. Fiat claims 6.8 seconds for 0-100km/h. Must have been a strong tailwind that day.

MINI CONVERTIBLE FROM $40,900

The Mini's fun and you can take a couple of
rear passengers. Power from a 100kW/220Nm 1.5-litre turbo triple or, in Cooper S, a 2.0-litre turbo four producing 141kW/280Nm.

 

VERDICT

5 stars

What else can I say? Sure, no car is perfect but from the MX-5's driver's seat, especially when you chuck it into a corner, that place called Perfection is very, very close.

 

MAZDA MX-5 RF GT

No title, From: Supplied
No title, From: Supplied

PRICE $45,960

WARRANTY/SERVICING 5 yrs/unlimited km; $1609 for 5 yrs/50,000km

ENGINE 2.0-litre 4-cyl, 135kW/205Nm

SAFETY 5 stars, 4 airbags, AEB (forward and reverse), blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert

THIRST 6.9L/100km

SPARE None; repair kit

BOOT 127L