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Staying True to a Heritage - Then Making it Better

The first thing that came into my mind when I was tossed the keys to the latest Mazda MX-5 was a Disney ditty - “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah.”

It seemed to perfectly express the way the littlest Mazda does its thing. It weighs just over a tonne and packages a lively four-cylinder engine with a slick six-speed gearbox, highly tuned suspension, grippy bucket seats and pin-sharp steering. And that was the old version.

The new one is livelier, slicker, better tuned, grippier and sharper. So it fairly zips around corners and treats twisting, hilly roads like a compendium of the best Royal Show rides all rolled into one.

Mazda had planned a launch event that spared me hours of talk, and instead allowed a couple of hundred kilometres zipping around the sugar cane roads east of Coolangatta airport, looping down to Byron Bay (this was back in the dark ages when we were allowed out!). Perfect for experiencing the extra driving enjoyment Mazda boffins have injected into this superb chassis.

Since its debut in 1989 at the Chicago Motor Show, the MX-5 development team has stayed true to its primary objective; to build a sports car that oozes fun. They have studiously avoided following the European route of loading it with more and more power until its character is completely obscured.

As a result, owners have not had to suffer seeing their favourite toy become mundane because of high-end supercar versions that surely must have been a temptation for the engineers.

Instead the MX-5 has retained its appeal - and resale value - as a genuine sports car, which ticks the widest range of driver satisfaction hot buttons, instead of just brutal urge.

On the outside, September’s MX-5 is the same shape as August’s. You’ll have to look deeper to confirm which model you’re are looking at.

The only exterior clue is the black metallic painted wheels across the range. However, when you crouch down and then unfold yourself into the cockpit, the biggest change is the steering wheel. After decades of asking, it now telescopes 30mm - the equivalent of two seat adjustment clicks - instead of just tilting.

To examine other key changes, you’ll have to be a nanodrone, jump in the sump and travel around inside the vastly improved 2.0-litre engine. There’s a host of new tricks aimed at making the engine more responsive and fuel-efficient.

In a nutshell, some key components are lighter and designed to function with less resistance. The entire air/fuel process has been optimised, from larger intakes - the equivalent of a 2.5-litre engine - to an expanded exhaust system. In between, the pistons and conrods have been lightened and the injection system boosted to generate faster combustion - more bang than burn.

The result is a 17kW boost in power, from 118kW to 135kW, an increase of nearly 15 per cent, and a less significant increase in torque, up from 200Nm to 205Nm. Maximum power is delivered at 7,000rpm instead of 6,000 and the engine now revs freely to a 7,500 limit.

This engine is designed to rev high and sparkle, not lug down low. Expect the torque to fire you out of a corner and you’ll be disappointed. Keep the revs up and you’ll have a smile on your dial.

Linked to all these changes is the exhaust note. The exhaust valve’s opening angle and lift height have been increased, and larger valve and port diameters along with a boost to the exhaust manifold’s internal diameter reduce pumping losses by 30 per cent over the previous model.

This and other moves combine to add a zip-a-dee-zing to the tail pipe. MX-5 now sounds like a sports car, as well as looking and driving like one.

It’s still a small car - echoes of Lotus. If you’re over 190cms you’ll feel cramped. And you should be good friends with your passenger. But the car does cosset you with tight bucket seats and an inviting array of primary controls that love to be stirred, not shaken.

The six-speed gearbox is firm, but can still be worked over with just wrist movements. The gate is easy and has a short throw. Ratios are spaced to encourage revving the engine and the pedal set-up enables the clumsiest wanna-be to master heel-and-toe, a skill being steadily relegated to the past by European sports jobs that assume you’re an idiot and blip the throttle for you.

I didn’t bother with the automatic.

In my experience, much more powerful German sports cars, particularly those with AWD, tend to maul a good road into submission with brute force. That’s good fun too, but the MX-5’s dynamics work with the road to reward the driver with an all-round experience.

Given that it’s a flyweight, I expected it to be skittish on broken road surfaces, particularly when combined with twisty bits. Wrong. The front wheel arches stayed obediently on target and the Mazda’s cute little back end followed without hesitation, no matter what the underfunded Queensland Roads Authorities served up.

I drove both the soft-top and retractable hard-top for similar distances. The soft version generated a lot more wind noise, particularly at the back of the side window. But Mazda has a good record with convertibles. The fit is tight, the materials don’t tear easily and leaks are rare.

But if you like the sun inside, in either car it’s a process Mazda has mastered with typical Japanese quality and thoroughness. The RF foldout in particular doubles as a party trick.

Mazda has planted a big package of safety features in the cab, fed by cameras, radars and sensors on and around the car. Added to this version, and included on all models are Smart City Brake Support, Forward and Reverse, Traffic Sign Recognition, Driver Attention Alert, Reverse Camera and Reverse Parking Sensors.

The only thing missing from the infotainment package was Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but they're here now.

This bundle of automotive fun is likely to inspire many MX-Fivers to whistle a jaunty tune of anticipation as they head for their car and the commute home.

It might even be similar to the one repeating in my head as I wheeled the car back to Coolangatta airport - “My oh my, what a wonderful day.”

Models: Mazda MX-5 - 1.5 Roadster; 2.0 Roadster GT; 2.0 RF; 2.0 RF GT

Prices: $34,190; $41,960; $39,400; $45,960. Auto +$2,000; Black roof on RF GT, +$1,000

Engines: 1.5-litre SKYACTIVE-G four cylinder or 2.0-litre SKYACTIVE-G four cylinder

Outputs: 97kW and 152Nm; 135kW and 205Nm

Transmissions: 6-speed manual or 6-speed auto

Thirst - l/100kms: 6.2 to 7.2

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