Review and photos by Greg Wilson

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Test Drive: 2006 Mazda MX 5 GT car test drives mazda
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The concept of a small, lightweight sports car is perhaps best epitomized by Colin Chapman’s 1962 Lotus Elan, the little 2-seat roadster that inspired the styling for the original 1990 Mazda Miata. With a fibreglass body and a steel ‘X’ backbone chassis, the 100 horsepower Elan weighed just 1300 pounds and could do 0 to 60 mph in just 7.5 seconds, not far off the new 170 hp 2006 Mazda MX-5.

But if you were to subject the Lotus Elan to the NHTSA 35 mph frontal crash test or the IIHS 40 mph frontal offset crash test, as is the common practice today, it would probably fold up into an unrecognizable lump of steel and fibreglass, and the driver and passenger would surely be killed.

Today’s sports cars must meet safety standards which might have scared Colin Chapman out of the car business. Which is why it was such a challenge for Mazda’s engineers to design a new 2006 MX-5 Miata that was safer and roomier than the previous model without adding weight and without sacrificing performance. The new MX-5 would need a stronger steel unit body frame and body structure, deformable ‘crush’ zones, improved side impact protection, extra strong windshield frame for protection in a rollover, and more airbags – all of which added weight. As well, to improve performance, the new MX-5 required a bigger, more powerful engine, a stronger transmission, stronger drivetrain, and bigger brakes. In addition, current trends mandated larger wheels and tires, a 6-disc CD changer, more speakers, automatic climate control, and better sound insulation, all of which added weight.

Test Drive: 2006 Mazda MX 5 GT car test drives mazda
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Mazda’s engineers tackled this problem by analyzing every part of the car to see where they could trim weight without sacrificing structural integrity. The new 2.0 litre twin cam 16 valve four cylinder aluminum engine for example, which now offers 170 horsepower compared to 142 hp in the previous 1.8 litre engine, is 19 kilograms lighter. The MX-5′s bodyshell, while larger and stronger than before, now uses 58% high tensile and ultra high tensile steel and weighs 13 kg less. Other weight saving examples include a new aluminum trunklid which weighs 2.5 kg less, and seats that are 2.5 kg lighter. Even the rearview mirror was scrutinized, and weighs 89 grams less than the previous mirror.

The result was that, though the car is larger, roomier, stronger, and faster, it weighs only 10 kg more than the previous model.


Most say ‘yes’ to styling

Test Drive: 2006 Mazda MX 5 GT car test drives mazda

Test Drive: 2006 Mazda MX 5 GT car test drives mazda

Test Drive: 2006 Mazda MX 5 GT car test drives mazda
Click image to enlarge

Parked in your driveway, the 2006 MX-5 doesn’t appear to be any larger than the 2005 model, and it’s still a relatively small car. The wheelbase was lengthened by 65 mm to 2,330 mm, but overall, the MX-5 is only 40 mm longer. Width has been increased by 40 mm, and height by 15 mm. Most observers seem to like the new MX-5′s styling. While there’s a familial resemblance to the previous Miata, the new MX-5 has a more substantial, more muscular presence. In my opinion, it’s a handsome sports car, but not a pretty sports car – a result of its larger wheels and tires, wider track, strong fender bulges, wider waist, and new dual exhausts. But once again, Mazda stylists weren’t able to figure out where to put a North American front license plate. The MX-5 looks great without it, but where I live, that’s illegal.

Inside, styling efforts are less successful, in my opinion. The steering wheel is kind of chunky, and the centre instrument panel, which has some unusual and hard-to-read pushbuttons for the radio, intrudes rudely into the passenger compartment. But there is certainly more space for the driver and passenger: the longer wheelbase and wider cabin contribute to more legroom and hiproom, and the steering wheel now tilts and telescopes. Mazda claims there’s enough room for drivers up to 6′ 1″. Perhaps so, but the driver will find the thick windshield header too low for unobstructed forward vision.

The 2006 MX-5 has more useful storage areas in the cabin including a large glovebox, a bin between and behind the seats with room for up to 10 CDs, two more bins behind the seats, door pockets with bottle holders, two cupholders between the seats with a sliding cover, an open storage slot at the bottom of the centre stack, an open bin to the left of the driver, a passenger seatback pocket, and a net on the drivetrain tunnel.

Test Drive: 2006 Mazda MX 5 GT car test drives mazda
Click image to enlarge

The trunk is slightly bigger than the previous model’s, but that’s because the spare tire has been replaced by a puncture repair kit. Now, I can understand how this saves weight and space, but personally I’d much prefer to have a spare tire and less trunk space. There’s no guarantee a puncture repair kit will work in an emergency, and if you’re not in a major urban centre, finding a P205/45R17 performance radial tire will be difficult.


Pricing and trim levels

Now called just “MX-5″ instead of “MX-5 Miata”, 2006 models come in three trim levels, GX ($27,995), GS ($30,995) and GT ($33,995) – as well as a limited edition 3rd Generation Limited model ($34,495).

Test Drive: 2006 Mazda MX 5 GT car test drives mazda

Test Drive: 2006 Mazda MX 5 GT car test drives mazda

Test Drive: 2006 Mazda MX 5 GT car test drives mazda
Click image to enlarge

The GX model is the same price as last year, but includes more standard features, except the temporary spare tire. These include a five-speed manual transmission, 16-inch tires and alloy wheels, black vinyl top with glass window and rear defogger, cloth upholstery, power windows, power mirrors, power locks with keyless entry, two-speed fixed intermittent wipers, fog lights, CD player with wheel-mounted controls, mesh windblocker, cruise control, leather-wrapped tilt wheel and shifter knob, and lockable glovebox. A six-speed automatic transmission is available as an option for $1,200, and air conditioning is another $1,000.

The sporty GS model features most of the above plus a standard 6-speed manual transmission, 17-inch tires and alloy wheels, strut tower bar support, a sport-tuned suspension with Bilstein shocks, limited-slip differential, dynamic stability control and traction control. Air conditioning is $1,000 extra but an automatic transmission is not available in the GS.

The GT, this week’s test car, adds a beige or black cloth convertible top instead of vinyl one, leather seats with seat heaters, air conditioning, side airbags, Xenon headlights, Bose premium audio system with seven speakers, intelligent key system with keyless ignition and an alarm. However, the GT deletes some of the performance features found in the GS, including the stiffer suspension with Bilstein shocks, dynamic stability control, and limited slip differential. A unique six-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifter is a $1,255 option on the GT only.

All models are available with an optional removeable hardtop for $1,815.

The limited production MX-5 3rd Generation Limited model – only 150 are allocated for Canada – comes in one colour: Velocity Red Mica, and includes unique silver trim, silver-finished 17-inch alloy wheels, stainless steel scuff plates, silver interior accents, and exclusive heated red leather seats. Each car has a numbered plate on the transmission tunnel.


Driving impressions

My MX-5 GT test car came in a grey metallic paint which complimented the copper-coloured leather seats and console, and tan cloth convertible top.

Test Drive: 2006 Mazda MX 5 GT car test drives mazda
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It’s a low car, and getting in to it is more like falling in, but once you’re there, the seats are comfortable and supportive. With the high centre console on one side and the door on the other, the driver feels snug, yet there is more room than in the previous MX-5. Most controls fall easily to hand, and the large dials for the radio volume and the heater are easy to operate – however, I didn’t like the small buttons for the radio’s Seek and Scan functions.

The shifter is easy to reach, and the handbrake is out of the way on the far side of the centre console. The three-spoke steering wheel has a thick rim, and new volume and cruise buttons on the spokes, but I just didn’t like the look of the wheel. And though it’s height adjustable, I couldn’t find a position where I could see all the gauges and feel comfortable with the steering wheel position, in part because the seat is not height-adjustable. There is plenty of legroom, and a nice dead pedal to rest the left foot.

Test Drive: 2006 Mazda MX 5 GT car test drives mazda

Test Drive: 2006 Mazda MX 5 GT car test drives mazda

Test Drive: 2006 Mazda MX 5 GT car test drives mazda

Test Drive: 2006 Mazda MX 5 GT car test drives mazda
Click image to enlarge

The manually-operated convertible top – a power top is not offered – can be put up and down from the cabin without getting out, but it has to be locked into place when lowered, and I found this difficult to do from the driver’s seat. Now, there’s one latch on the windshield header instead of two, and it’s a simple matter to release it and pull back on the top. When the top is down, it sits flush with the rear deck, and doesn’t require a tonneau cover. It looks okay, but there are gaps on either side of the lowered top where dust and dirt will accumulate. The problem will be cleaning it.

The twin roll hoops, which are not designed to carry the car’s weight in a rollover, look good, but the right one obscures vision when lane changing, and when the top is up, it’s worse. But I don’t know of a sports car that’s solved this problem.

At highway speeds, wind buffeting with the top down is minimal, and there’s a small pivoting windblocker between the seats that seems to help reduced buffeting a bit. With the top up, the cabin is secure from rain and wind, but outside traffic noises can be heard.

The new 2.0 litre four-cylinder engine, with new variable valve timing and much more power and torque than the previous motor, offers quick throttle response off the line, and a raspy exhaust note. The six-speed manual transmission has short, easy shifts and clutch action is easy, but 1st to 2nd feels stiffer than other gears. 0 to 100 km/h takes just 7.1 seconds, according to acceleration tests conducted by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) – that’s more than a second faster than last year’s MX-5, and about the same as last year’s Mazdaspeed MX-5 with its turbocharged 170 horse engine. However, the new MX-5 has no turbo lag. By the way, in the same AJAC tests, the new Pontiac Solstice took 7.8 seconds.

Test Drive: 2006 Mazda MX 5 GT car test drives mazda
Click image to enlarge

As with previous MX-5′s, the engine revs over 3000 rpm at a steady 100 km/h in top gear – however, the engine does so very willingly.

Though not as nervous as the previous MX-5, the 2006 model has very sensitive steering. This is great for whipping around slow-moving traffic and driving on tight, twisty roads, but on the freeway, the steering requires constant corrections because any small adjustment sends the car off course. This makes freeway cruising less relaxing than it could be. In addition, I found the rpm sensing variable-assist steering a bit heavy when parallel parking.

With a perfect 50/50 front/rear weight distribution (when the driver is in the car), a fully independent suspension, and Michelin Pilot Preceda 205/45R-17 summer tires, my 2006 MX-5 proved to be a wonderfully fleet-footed, stable and confident car in the corners, and a real joy to drive. Mazda moved the engine back by 134 mm to help improve weight distribution. Wet weather handling has improved, but it’s too bad the GX and the GT are not available with the optional stability and traction control system.

Test Drive: 2006 Mazda MX 5 GT car test drives mazda
Click image to enlarge

Perhaps the biggest improvement is in the ride, which is now very comfortable and smooth compared to the choppy ride of its predecessor.

The four disc brakes with ABS are fabulous, bringing the car from 100 km/h to 0 in just 40.2 metres, according to braking tests conducted by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) (the Solstice took 41.4 metres). However, it’s unfortunate that the base GX model is not offered with ABS.


Safety and reliability

Crash tests on the new MX-5 haven’t been carried out yet, but the previous generation 2005 model received four stars for the driver and five stars for the passenger in a 35 mph frontal crash test. In a side impact test without side airbags, the 2005 MX-5 received three stars.

Consumer Reports has not rated the new 2006 MX-5 yet, but previous models were rated a “Good Bet” with reliability that’s “better than average”.


Verdict

Even more fun to drive but now with more power and ride comfort, the redesigned 2006 Mazda MX-5 offers more interior room, but the steering is very sensitive and heavy when parking – and the spare tire has been replaced by a can of puncture sealer.


Technical Data: 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata GT

Base price $33,995
Options none
Freight $1,195
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $35,190 Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives
Type 2-door, 2-passenger convertible sports car
Layout Front engine/rear-wheel-drive
Engine 2.0-litre inline 4, DOHC, 16 valves
Horsepower 170 @ 6700 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) 140 @ 5000 rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual (6-speed automatic optional)
Tires P205/45R17 performance
Curb weight 1134 kg (2442 lbs)
Wheelbase 2330 mm (91.7 in.)
Length 3990 mm (157.0 in.)
Width 1720 mm (67.7 in.)
Height 1245 mm (49.0 in.)
Ground clearance 118 mm (4.6 in.)
Cargo capacity 150 litres (5.2 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 9.7 L/100 km (30 mpg Imperial)
  Hwy: 7.2 L/100 km (39 mpg Imperial)
Fuel type Premium unleaded
Warranty 3 yrs/ 80,000 km
Powertrain Warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km
Assembly location Hiroshima, Japan

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