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(Originally posted 21st February 2006)

I took the new ‘Third Generation’ MX-5 out for a test drive on Friday and thought I might share my observations. However, it should be noted that the weather in Worcester on Friday afternoon wasn’t best suited to rag-top motoring; the persistant rain and thoroughly soaked roads meant that the hood stayed firmly up, and I couldn’t test the handling in quite the manner I’d hoped. Anyway, more on that later; let’s get started…

The first thing that grabs you when you see the new MX-5 in the showroom is how much bigger it looks; the wheel arches in particular do add a certain aggressive edge to the shape of the new model. Personally I don’t think it’s quite as graceful as the previous versions, the nose in particular looks a little flat and uninspired, but overall it’s quite clearly an MX-5 and generally a good looking motor. In actual fact, it’s not much bigger in either length or breadth but hopefully the new shape will finally put paid to the ‘hairdresser’ overtones usually (and unfairly) associated with Mazda’s roadster.

The back end of the car doesn’t really look much different although the high brake light is now mounted just behind the hood rather than in the tail itself. I’m not a big fan of so-called Lexus lights, but Mazda seem to have deliberately created echoes of the original Mk.I clusters with an hourglass shape in the centre of the group. The silencer looks massive and sprouts two tail pipes, one either side, but bizarrely the retractable aerial of the later Mk.IIs has been replaced by a fixed, stubby little rubber version. The boot itself is much deeper than before as there’s no spare wheel; the opening though is probably a little smaller; battery is up front now.

As mentioned, the wheel arches dominate the side view, now coupled with 16″ alloys as standard. Side repeaters are inexplicably still orange; I’m sure their replacement will be the first modification for many a new owner. Door mirrors are smaller than before and the front quarterpanes are absolutely tiny; I find it hard to believe couldn’t have got rid of them completely. Door handles are pretty standard and pull out to open; the cute little chrome versions from the Mk.I have long since been resigned to history.

From the front, the car is quite clearly an MX-5, and the new light clusters are attractive enough, with the indicators moved from the inside of the cluster to ouside the main beam. The bonnet line still doesn’t look quite right to me, and the grille (yes; finally it comes from the factory with a grille) is fitted almost flush to the nose; there’s no recess to speak of; a shame as all the best British sports cars have a deep ‘mouth’. Front fogs are fitted as standard, and the limited edition version comes with a chrome surround to the windscreen; thankfully the standard car has this in the body colour.

The hood is yet another work of engineering art from Mazda. Rather than folding back on itself like previous versions it works a bit like a fabric version of a folding tin-top; the portion directly above the windscreen finishes right side up and on the top, covering all the catches and lugs; no need for a hood cover this time round; it really does look lovely. A single central catch locks the hood both up and down, but it still has to be operated manually; there’s no electric option which is surprising but not a problem.

I guess this takes us inside the car; as I said, the hood catch is centrally mounted. The cabin itself doesn’t really feel much larger than previous versions although it probably is; the seats are comfortable and the driving position feels fine (for now – more on that in a second). The dash is dominated by a lovely piano-black band that covers its entire width (it’s silver in the limited edition and look awful) and the overall layout is frighteningly familiar; four small round vents (left, two centre, right) and two large dials (plus three gauges) are pretty much as before. Their faces are thankfully now black again although they have a slightly tacky silver surround; a similar silver flash appears on the steering wheel and the internal door handle; both might look better were they not just painted plastic.

The centre console is much better than previous versions (finally looking like it was designed for the car rather than in quarter-DIN modules) and the compartment on the transmission tunnel slides back rather than hinging up to allow much better access to two cupholders. Another locking compartment sits between the seat backs (underneath the hood’s ‘down’ release) and there are two more hidden behind the seats. A tiny little windblocker folds up though I can’t imagine it’s really of any use, and behind the headrests are two non-protective ‘style’ hoops; these look very cheap and nasty and will disappoint anyone who likes the solid looking ‘TT’ versions often fitted to current models. Overall the interior is modern and pleasant if a little drab, with great big slabs of grey ABS all over the place, but really there’s not too much to moan about here.

Right, we’re ready to roll; except they’ve moved than handbrake! It’s now on the right hand side of the transmission tunnel which would probably be considered the ‘normal’ side for any other car, but is immediately wrong in a ’5. I guess you get used to it, but it feels like an unnecessary piece of fiddling; reducing practicality in order to not put off potential customers with it’s ‘unusual’ location. However, I’ve found another cup-holder; it’s built into the door bin and is rubbing on my knee! Quite why a two-seater sports car needs four cupholders (there’s a matching one in the passenger’s door) is beyond me, but over the next half hour it will go on to bother me more and more. Obviously this is all down to driving position and there’ll be plenty of people for whom it’s not an issue; for me though, it’s painfully uncomfortable and there’s doesn’t seem to be much I can do about it.

They still haven’t given us a start button, so a turn of the key fires up the 2.0 litre, 160bhp Duratec engine. In truth there’s only 150cc more than the previous model’s 1.8 but it sounds bigger and beefier; blipping the throttle is curiously satisfying but the guy from the showroom is watching, so a few quick adjustments (electric mirrors – nice) and out into the rain…

Everything feels very familiar; (handbrake excepted) this is quite clearly an MX-5. There’s perhaps a slight feeling of extra weight and solidity, but the gearshift, steering and driving position are all very similar; God’s in his heaven and all’s right in the world. I had the car out for a little over half an hour, on A and B roads just off the A38 in Worcester, and it was lovely!

Although the 2.0 generates a little bit more power than the old 1.8, it doesn’t feel significantly faster, presumably due to the extra weight. It does however feel a little more relaxed, as if there’s a bit more torque at your disposal; it makes a lovely little burble at 2500 revs and the redline is lower than before at 6750. Rain being the bane of all RWD sportscars, I couldn’t really fling the new MX-5 around the bends with quite as much vigour as I’d have liked, but that said, I did (deliberately) manage to get the traction control to kick in a few times. For the record, the 1.8 now comes with antilock brakes as standard, while the 2.0 also has traction and stability control too. Whether this is a good thing is a matter of opinion; I’m assuming it can be switched off but I forgot to ask; I can definitely confirm that it works though… ;)

As mentioned, I really didn’t get to push the MX-5 as hard as one would have liked, so forming a definitive opinion on the new model’s handling is a little tricky. In the wet it handles just as well as my Mk.II, although the traction control stopped any nasty sideways action. In the dry? Well, so far reviews from the motor press have been universally favourable, suggesting that it is the equal or better of it’s predecessors. This seems fair enough to me; Mazda certainly haven’t broken anything obvious; I think another test drive in the Spring might be in order.

In summary? Well the Third Generation MX-5 (as Mazda seem to be calling it at the moment) is a little bit bigger, a little bit faster and arguably a little bit better than its previous iterations; certainly Mazda haven’t ruined their baby in any obvious way. Personally, I think they’ve put too many little flourishes into the overall design (though not as many as the frightful job they did on the RX-8) and the result is not a model you can say definitely looks better than either of it’s ancestors. Maybe it will grow on me, but at the end of the day it’s a modern-looking motor car and looks sure to appeal to the majority of buyers; existing owners will I feel, probably think theirs looks better.

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