The 2016 Mazda MX-5 GS is a solid choice for drivers who want to have fun with a vehicle that pays respect to the whole driving experience.
For 2016, Mazda has completely revamped the two-seat MX-5 roadster with a new design from the ground up. Taking advantage of the SkyActiv design philosophy, they’re touting the new car as a return to the basics of light weight, nimble handling, and fuel efficiency. This is achieved through focusing on small details and giving more thought to material selection. With every little bit counting, Mazda managed to shave over one hundred kilograms from the outgoing model. After previously trying and loving the top-dog GT trim this past summer, Mazda Canada sent over a mid-level 2016 Mazda MX-5 GS in Soul Red Mica for a winter review. Would this new “ND” generation of MX-5 be able to trump the NA, NB, and NC models that came before it, especially with (mainly) top-up winter motoring?
For the sports car enthusiast, the 2016 MX-5 has a laundry list of features that will make any gearhead smile. There’s the perfect 50:50 weight distribution for balanced handling, the well-placed pedals for seamless heel-toe rev matching, and a powertrain that wilfully listens to your every command. There’s a double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension to keep things precise, planted, and responsive. Chassis rigidity has been enhanced, and modern safety features such as blind spot monitoring and lane departure warning have been added as standard equipment on the GT trim. On the mechanical side, GS and GT models get a limited slip differential, strut tower bar, and upgraded Bilstein shock absorbers (manual transmission only).
One of the largest changes for the latest MX-5 is the deletion of the power retracting hard top, which was standard in all but the base GX trim (see review here) on the outgoing model. Instead, all 2016 models come equipped with a manual soft top that helps to keep the Mazda’s curb weight down. Thankfully, the effort required to open and close the top has been significantly decreased. With the flip of a latch, opening and closing is a one-handed operation that’s as light as a feather. When driving in colder weather, having the top up did cut down on some of the MX-5’s cheerful personality.
The base GX and middle GS trim levels lack an extra layer of cloth liner on the top, which results in increased wind noise on the highway, as well as decreased insulation to keep the heat inside. During a jaunt down Ontario’s Highway 401 between Toronto and London, it became quite clear that the extra liner would have come in handy. While it doesn’t completely ruin the driving experience, it may make some owners think twice about winter driving the latest MX-5.
Providing motive power for the 2016 Mazda MX-5 is the SkyActiv-G, a 2.0-litre inline four-cylinder that also sees duty in the Mazda3. Producing 155 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 148 lb-ft of torque at 4,600 rpm, the engine winds up to its 6,800rpm redline with minimal fuss. The compression ratio is a relatively astronomical 13.0:1, which might explain the premium fuel (91 octane or better) requirement. Interestingly enough, the SkyActiv-G found in the 3 has the same 13.0:1 compression, produces two more lb-ft of torque at a lower 4,000rpm peak, and does it all with regular 87 octane fuel.
Response and power curve tuning is likely to blame for the premium fuel requirement, and the liveliness of the MX-5 is worth much more than a 250 kilogram (550 lb) weight advantage can provide on its own. This new engine also boasts improved fuel economy over the outgoing model. City fuel economy is rated at 8.8 L/100km, and highway consumption is rated at 6.9L/100km. With a significant amount of highway driving over 1,100 km of testing, the observed test economy of 6.6L/100km beat out Mazda’s numbers despite the colder winter weather.
Paired to the SkyActiv-G engine is a six-speed manual transmission. Shifter feel is second to none, with short throws that provide excellent feedback to the driver. The connection is direct and the synchronizers at each gate can be felt with every gear change. Clutch engagement is light but precise, if not a little numb – par for the course for the entire Mazda lineup. Novices to driving manual will have a shallower learning curve when piloting the MX-5, thanks to its very forgiving nature. Those who are more seasoned will immediately find themselves shifting like a superstar. As previously mentioned, executing perfect heel-toe, rev-matched downshifts is a cinch, and half the fun of the plucky little roadster is going through the blips and motions during every day driving. Overall, it’s a very satisfying experience that many more expensive, faster cars can barely match, if they do at all.
With a sexy engine and a slick transmission, the handling of the latest Mazda MX-5 did not disappoint. The minimal weight and small overall size allowed for lightning-quick reflexes when it came to directional changes. There was actually a significant amount of body roll, but this should not be immediately correlated with poor suspension tuning that’s too soft. The grip is there, and the roll allows the car to remain compliant and predictable over undulations and bumps in the road surface. In other words, drivers can chuck the MX-5 into corners almost as aggressively as they please, and the car will respond in a way that inspires confidence.
The only downside with the new ND’s handling was steering feel, which can be blamed on a new electric power steering system. The outgoing NC model (see review here) used a hydraulically assisted rack, which had heavier weighting and superior feedback when the going gets curvy. Let’s hope that Mazda can nail down the steering feel of the ND in the years to come; they certainly aren’t new to the electric assist game. The dearly departed, rotary-powered RX-8 of the 2000s used such a system and still possessed good steering feel. All this aside, it’s a sure bet that while there are many cars out there that are faster on paper, not many will put a grin on your face as well as the MX-5 can.
Moving inside the cabin, the MX-5 in GS trim comes well equipped with a full assortment of creature comforts and gadgets. The ubiquitous seven-inch touchscreen HMI Commander system makes another appearance and is fairly intuitive to use, with navigation coming standard on the GS and GT. The volume knob and command dial are at the bottom of the centre console, and in the tight confines of the MX-5, some drivers may find themselves accidentally elbowing them when shifting gears. Climate control is of the manual variety – GT models get automatic control.
All trim levels get standard push-button start, but the proximity key doesn’t extend to the door locks and handles. Where most vehicles allow drivers to leave keys in their pockets, the MX-5 still requires taking the keyless remote out to unlock the doors. Bluetooth phone pairing and streaming audio worked well, and with speakers in the driver’s headrest, having conversations at speed is surprisingly clear. Two other oddities; first, there is no glove compartment. Secondly, the location of the 12-volt power adapter is hidden away from plain sight. The accessory plug can be found at the very front of the passenger’s footwell.
All in all, it’s fairly plain to see that the 2016 Mazda MX-5 GS is a solid choice for drivers who want to have fun with a vehicle that pays respect to the whole driving experience. Powertrain and handling interfaces have been painstakingly executed by Mazda engineers, and with the exception of the over-assisted and numb steering, the ND MX-5 is a great improvement in every area. A few creature comforts (such as the power retracting hard top) have been cut out in the name of weight savings, but the method behind the madness has created just about the most fun you can have with a new car today. For year-round motoring, the GT’s extra cloth liner in the soft top would be beneficial to cut down on heat loss and road noise. That said, with an as-tested price of $35,600, it’s definitely worth considering against a well optioned-out Subaru BRZ or Scion FR-S, with the edge going to the Mazda. Automakers everywhere could learn a thing or two from this approach to vehicle design!