Somehow, over the years, cars seem to have lost their joy. Today’s hordes of bulky crossovers and over-engineered sedans offer up loads of comfort, abundant technology, and ever-increasing levels of performance, but seldom any driver engagement or fun – unless you think clicking shift paddles and listening to fake engine noise counts as fun.
Thankfully, the folks at Mazda having been busy scooping up all the lost joy and bottling it in the cellar of their engineering department. And for 2016, they’ve distilled it into concentrated format and released it in the form of the all-new fourth generation MX-5. If you think cars are just appliances for getting from A to B, or that “They don’t make them like they used to anymore,” it’s only because you haven’t yet driven Mazda’s little joy buzzer of a roadster. This is a car that can make driving across a parking lot fun.
The MX-5 has been fulfilling the same basic mission of bringing rear-wheel-drive roadster joy to the masses since its introduction as a 1990 model (initially called the Miata here in North America), and while you couldn’t really accuse the second- and third-generation versions of bulking up or going overboard with options and technology, for this fourth-generation redesign Mazda has applied its SkyActiv technology and Kodo “Soul of Motion” design language to lighten the MX-5, resharpen its focus, and give it a new sense of style.
Gone is the cartoonish grinning grille, replaced by a more purposeful-looking and steeply sloped front end featuring squinty LED headlights and swooping fender arches. At the back, round taillights cut by blade-like extensions echo the headlights. Styling is always subjective, but to my eye the overall look nails it, with just the right blend of athleticism and approachability, and my Blue Mica–painted test car certainly drew lots of positive comment.
Under the restyled skin the engineers have shaved off an impressive 100 kg or so of weight, stiffened up the structure, ditched the optional power hardtop, and tweaked the chassis for improved seat-of-the-pants feel. The manually operated soft top features a rigid forward header panel and single central twist-latch, and it operates quickly and easily with one hand. I’ve got an injured rotator cuff thanks to a skiing wipeout last season, so I needed to take a little care when twisting and reaching behind me to operate the top, but even so I was able to stow and deploy it in a couple of seconds flat, even when moving along in slow traffic (the owner’s manual says to stop the car and operate the top while standing beside it, so don’t tell Mazda I did this!).
Head-to-head-to-head: 2016 Mazda MX-5 vs 2015 Scion FR-S vs 2015 Ford Mustang
Power for the new MX-5 comes from a retuned version of the same 2.0L SkyActiv four-cylinder engine that’s found in the Mazda3. Here it produces 155 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque when running on the recommended (but not required) premium fuel. That’s a little less horsepower than the old engine but a good dollop more torque: With only 1,078 kg of weight to propel (in GT trim) and with the torque coming on strong early in the powerband, the engine feels plenty peppy and it whips the MX-5 forward with a lusty growl (a lot of that is induction noise rather than exhaust noise, but none of it is faked). Zero to 100 km/h takes about 6.5 seconds, which is quick enough to be fun yet not so ridiculously fast as to deny you the pleasure of properly burying the accelerator pedal on occasion.