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First look: Mazda's new MX-5

Unbeatable: Mazda promises unrivalled driving thrills from the more powerful, stronger and more sophisticated new MX-5 roadster when it goes on sale here around October.

Mazda unveils its redesigned MX-5 ahead of its global public debut in Melbourne

1 Mar 2005

THE Melbourne international motor show is playing co-host to the world reveal of the new Mazda MX-5 at the same time as it is launched in Geneva this week.

In fact, by a quirk of international time difference, the public attending the Melbourne show on the opening afternoon on Thursday inspect the iconic roadster three hours before punters in Switzerland.

The Melbourne show gets the prestigious honour of showing off the first full redo of MX-5 since its 1989 launch because a production-spec - but handbuilt - car has been in Victoria for three weeks shooting global advertising and marketing footage and stills.

Mazda is promising a whole new level of driving thrills from the new MX-5, which is more powerful, stronger and far more sophisticated than the car it replaces, yet virtually no heavier or larger.

"You get the MX-5 on a tight country road there is nothing that is going to beat it," predicted Mazda global R&D chief Joe Bakaj. "And you get it on a tight country road in the wet then I wouldn’t put up anything against it, it’s quick." Aussie fans will get their first chance to put Mr Bakaj’s promise to the test around October when the MX-5 is expected on sale here as a single fully equipped model starting in the low $40K bracket.

That car will be powered by a beefed up version of the familiar aluminium-alloy 2.0-litre MZR four-cylinder engine that punches out 118kW at a heady 6700rpm and 188Nm at 5000rpm, mated to either a short-throw six-speed manual or automatic gearbox with steering wheel change paddles.

The current car’s iron-block 1.8 produces 106kW at 6500rpm and 165Nm at 4500rpm, and offers a choice of six-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmissions.

The current SE turbo will be discontinued and there is no sign of an MZR 2.3 or a rotary-powered version as has been speculated, although much that underpins the new MX-5 is borrowed from the RX-8.

There will be an MZR 1.8 version and a five-speed manual gearbox, but neither will come to Australia.

Whoever finds themselves watching the MX-5 disappear into the distance on Mr Bakaj’s country road will have no doubt what it is they are up against.

The styling overhaul of MX-5, the first since the car’s only significant update in 1998, has stuck closely to the lightweight two-door, two-seat, rear-wheel drive philosophy that has attracted more than 700,000 buyers globally.

Mazda wanted this car to be virtually indistinguishable from its predecessors at 100 metres, the changes only becoming apparent as you get closer.

Then the more aggressive shark nose with large honeycomb lower intake, punched out guards that evoke RX-8, the sculpted high-tech headlight array and the straighter lines that dispense with the Coke bottle contours become obvious.

Inside, there is a more dramatic change, with an appreciable uplift in quality and thematic grace as well as more imaginative trim combinations. More practical are the extra hip, shoulder, and elbow room, the introduction of an adjustable steering wheel, two volume side airbags, extra ventilation and more storage space. The roof is a manual Z-folding soft-top with a glass rear window, although there will be an optional hard top as well.

"What we wanted it to be was an MX-5 that moved into the 21st century," explained Mazda global design chief Moray Callum, himself a three-time MX-5 owner. "I think the end result is something that has actually grown up from the original car.

"The nice thing that has changed is the proportion. The wheelbase is a little bit longer, so it looks a little more sophisticated, a little more rear-wheel drive now which is good.

"It is something we wanted to enhance because there is obviously not a lot of rear-wheel cars of that size out there." Much of this MX-5’s rear-wheel drive architecture is donated by the award winning RX-8 coupe, including the core backbone unibody, double wishbone front suspension, multi-link rear-end (replacing double wishbones on the old car), six-speed manual gearbox, differential and dashboard structure.

Improvements in body strength are staggering as a result, Mazda claiming a 47 per cent improvement in torsional rigidity and a 22 per cent increase in bending rigidity. It promises scuttle shake will be a thing of the past.

An intense focus on diet has produced a car with base kerb weight Mazda claims is within 10kg of its predecessor at 1123kg. A key to this is been the use of aluminium to reduce unsprung weight. The car also employs ultra-high tension steel.

The engine is set back 135mm, sitting behind the front axle to ensure a perfect 50:50 weight distribution. The rear suspension is bolted directly to the unibody eschewing both subframe and rubber isolation, while a major effort to move weight inboard and lower the car’s centre of gravity should prove to be a further handling aid.

"That’s going to give the car a lower yaw moment of inertia which means turn-in is going to be better," explained Mr Bakaj. "We have also got a lot more wheel travel than we have on the current car, about 100mm of wheel travel extra, a very rigid body and an engine with a fantastic torque.

"The torque curve was nearly flat, but the really important curve was the acceleration in third gear, and that was almost a straight line, and that’s how the car feels on the road.

22 center image "If you are stuck behind three cars on a winding road you can just leave it in third gear and just go whack, and you know it will continue to accelerate all the way past the third car, it will continue all the way to 7000rpm. You are not going to get halfway past and drop off, this thing just keeps going." The keys to the extra 14kW and 7Nm the MX-5’s engine produces compared to the standard MZR 2.0 in the Mazda3 and the way it delivers it, can be found in the top-end. Variable induction system, variable valve timing and the re-profiling of the double overhead camshafts all contribute, along with a low back-pressure exhaust, high-volume muffler and a dual tail pipe.

A lighter flywheel, electronic throttle and stiff driveshaft are designed to make response as quick as possible. Mazda expects a 0-100km/h dash time in the low seven seconds bracket for the 2.0, more than one second quicker than the current car.

The other set of significant numbers are the various body measurements that show how little the MX-5 has grown length and height plus 20mm and width plus 40mm.

More significantly in terms of dynamic behaviour, the wheelbase grows 65mm, the front track by 75mm and the rear track by 55mm. The front disc brakes are 20mm larger in diameter and the single-piston calipers 25 per cent stiffer. Rack and pinion steering and 205/45 rubber on 17x7-inch alloy rims are also part of the package.

Mazda has tested the MX-5 extensively against upmarket opposition like the Porsche Boxster, Audi TT and Honda S2000 in Japan, Europe and the USA.

But Mr Bakaj stressed this did not mean Mazda planned to move MX-5 into that more expensive market segment.

"We have no aspirations of moving up into BMW Z4 territory, or SLK territory, or Boxster territory," he said. "Those guys can continue to fight it out amongst themselves. We are very happy where we are at the moment, which is affordable, lightweight sports car.

"It’s fun to drive. You don’t have to be doing 150mph to have fun in an MX-5 - you can have fun at 60mph and that’s what the new car is going to deliver on."

MX-5 design influenced by horses

It wouldn’t be the launch of a Japanese sporting car without some sort of reference to the influence of flora or fauna on design. In the case of MX-5 it was horses.

The philosophy the MX-5 engineering team led by Takao Kijima adopted was ‘Jinba Ittai’, which loosely translates to English as ‘rider and horse as one’.

Pronounced gin-buy ee-tie, it summed up the relationship Mazda wanted to achieve between the driver and a Mazda MX-5.

As serious and esoteric as all that sounds, Mazda also wanted to ensure the fun that MX-5’s character has always possessed.

In the end, after reviewing the first car introduced in 1989 and the 1998’s substantial update, Kijima and co settled on six key factors they had to get right to ensure ‘oneness’: - styling (inside and outside)
- touching (every aspect concerned with the tactile sense)
- listening (dominated by the engine’s voice but also wind effects)
- cornering (handling dynamics)
- driving (everything from ride quality to acceleration response)
- braking Mazda formed these guiding principles into what it called a fishbone chart. Horses? Fish? Like we said, no escaping the nature studies!

Mazda Australia boss Doug Dickson on the MX-5

When do you get it? At this stage all we can say is that by 2006 we will definitely have it.

And the price? It is obviously too early to tell, but to be successful the car still has to be affordable, so we are not expecting major movement away from the current pricing that we have. But I can’t be more specific than that.

What about the model range? Normally we don’t go for a lot of models because it’s not high volume, and the people who do buy the car expect it to be reasonably well equipped. So it would be not less well equipped than the current model and in the current model we haven’t left much out. I think it is fairly well equipped.

What would your sales expectation be in the first year? It’s difficult to tell because we have never been able to satisfy demand in the first year. We have always been held back by production. If it is successful in Australia, no doubt it will be successful around the world and if that’s the case then we go back on allocation. We represent five per cent of Mazda sales, but I wouldn’t have any idea what five per cent of production will be.

But I see no reason why we couldn’t support the sort of volumes we have achieved in the past.

Mazda MX-5 vital statistics

Overall length: 3995mm
Overall width: 1720mm
Overall height: 1245mm
Wheelbase: 2330mm
Front track: 1490mm
Rear track: 1495mm
Seating capacity: 2 persons
Engine type: MZR 2.0-litre DOHC 16-valve inline four
Maximum output (target): 118kW @ 6700rpm
Maximum torque (target): 188Nm @ 5000rpm
Bore x stroke: 87.5 x 83.1mm
Transmissions: six-speed manual or six-speed auto
Steering type: rack and pinion
Front suspension: double wishbone
Rear suspension: multi-link
Front/rear brakes: ventilated disc/solid disc
Front/rear tyres: 204/45 R17
Front/rear wheels: 17 x 7.0-inch

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