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Review: 2012 Mazda MX-5

The sharp handling and the simplicity of its design explain why it’s heading for its millionth unit sold.

Published January 9, 2013

One million units. That’s the next production milestone for the Mazda MX-5, now that the 900,000th car left the factory in February 2011.

Introduced in Canada as the Miata in 1989 (as a 1990 model), the MX-5 has seen several upgrades over the years, though the rear-drive, two-seat convertible format hasn’t changed. The current generation, introduced in 2006, gained its now familiar Mazda smile in 2009.

The last time I’d driven a Miata was about a decade ago. The details of that experience are long gone but I do remember it was fun to drive. That hasn’t changed and the 2012 MX-5 GT still had me smiling.

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MX-5 pricing starts at just over $29,000. Upgrade to the top-of-the-line GT model and the price jumps to $41,145, plus an additional $200 for the pearl white paint of my test car.

There’s a lot to like about this Japanese open-top roadster, but for me it’s not the price-boosting frilly bits; it’s the top-down, breeze-in-your-hair experience, the sharp handling, and the simplicity of its design, though all of that is available in less expensive variations of the car.

The GT has several options I would spring for: the firmer suspension, limited-slip differential, the rather rudimentary-looking but functional strut-tower bar, and especially the power folding roof. These are all standard on the GT, but they’re available on the GS too, which costs $4,200 less.

The GT adds leather seats, leatherlike trim, HID headlights and a premium sound system with Bluetooth, satellite radio and CD changer.

Under the hood is a torquey, 167-horsepower, 2.0L in-line four that produces a fair amount of its power in the mid-range. The MX-5 engine makes 12 hp more than the 2.0L SkyActiv engine introduced in the 2012 Mazda3. Although peak torque is down by 8 lb.-ft., at 140 on the MX-5 it feels stronger, especially when taking off from a stop.

A six-speed manual box is standard on all but the base GX model, which gets a five-speed. One of the things the Miata has long been praised for is its smooth-shifting manual transmission, so it came as no surprised that gear changes were crisp with short, precise shifter throws.

A six-speed automatic is available for a $1,200 premium, though I couldn’t see spending the extra cash for a gearbox that essentially dulls the driving experience. Call me old-fashioned — or cheap.

It didn’t take long behind the wheel of the MX-5 with the top down before I was singing along to Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” as I entered Quebec’s Mont Tremblant village. Unlike the car’s sound system, which automatically lowered the volume as I slowed down entering town, I just kept wailing along, garnering more than a few curious glares.

There’s enough headroom with the top up — a couple of inches between the headliner and my head. But, with it down, the top of my head protruded above the windshield, exposing it to the windblast. I kept a cap in the glove box for those warm, sunny days.

The MX-5 wasn’t too voracious on fuel, and a 70/30 per cent mix of highway and city driving netted me an average of 7.7L/100 km (37 mpg).

But it’s not all praise for this amiable Japanese roadster. With the hard top up there’s a fair amount of road noise that infiltrates the cockpit. In fact, the interior is a bit quieter with the top down at lower speeds — the tire noise has a chance to dissipate into the open air, whereas it just resonates off the top when it’s up.

I prefer the power-operated hard top to the soft top available on the lower trim levels, but you must keep your finger on the power button while retracting or putting the top back up or it’ll stop midway. It takes about 14 seconds for the top to complete its cycle either way: a one-touch operation would let me get back to sipping my coffee sooner.

The MX-5 is a small car. Although I never felt cramped, the cockpit is narrow. Six-footers like me are a better fit in the driver’s seat — and that’s not just an excuse to win an argument with the spouse as to who will be driving. There’s not enough room on the floor pan on the passenger side to place size 10 feet beneath the dashboard without tilting them sideways. But these are minor inconveniences in a car that will most likely occupy a second spot in a household garage.

There are a couple of new cars on the market that will vie for possible MX-5 buyers: the Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ. The MX-5 is a joy on winding roads with precise, tight steering. Suspension compliance is remarkably smooth, plusher than the track-ready suspension on the BRZ/FR-S twins, and this despite being the firmer Bilstein setup that’s standard on the GT.

The BRZ/FR-S coupes are affordable and also fun to drive, but the MX-5 still has that one distinguishing feature that has been its main attraction since the roadster’s introduction: the retractable top. Despite its higher retail price, the MX-5’s resale value has also been historically high, something the FR-S and BRZ have yet to prove.

The MX-5 is due for a makeover in the next couple of years, and it’ll probably benefit from Mazda’s SkyActiv technology, which will be a welcome improvement. The Mazda3 SkyActiv betters the MX-5’s fuel consumption by about 2.0L/100 km, despite it being a larger, heavier car.

In the meantime, until those other Japanese sports coupes go topless, there’s little doubt the MX-5 will forge on towards million-unit mark.

2012 Mazda MX-5 GT

PRICE: $41,800 (as tested)

ENGINE: 2.0L, 16-valve L 4-cylinder

POWER/TORQUE: 167 hp/140 lb.-ft.

TRANSMISSION: Six-speed manual or six-speed automatic

FUEL CONSUMPTION L/100 km (measured): 7.7L/37 mpg

COMPETITION: Subaru BRZ, Scion FR-S

WHAT’S BEST: Top-down cruising, crisp handling

WHAT’S WORST: Limited elbow room, limited leg room on passenger side

WHAT’S INTERESTING: Almost one million served

The vehicle tested by freelance writer Costa Mouzouris was provided by the manufacturer. Email: wheels@thestar.ca

Vehicle Image
    • Price: $36,999

    MSRP

    • Price: $67,600
    • Price: $61,699
    • Price: $75,600
    • Engine: 3.8 V6 G
    • Horsepower: Not defined
    • Transmission: MT
    • Drive Type: RWD
    • Cylinder: 6
    • Transmission Speed: 6

    Performance

    • Engine: 2.5 I5 G
    • Horsepower: Not defined
    • Transmission: MT
    • Drive Type: AWD
    • Cylinder: 5
    • Transmission Speed: 6
    • Engine: 5.8 V8 G
    • Horsepower: Not defined
    • Transmission: MT
    • Drive Type: RWD
    • Cylinder: 8
    • Transmission Speed: 6
    • Engine: 3.4 H6 G
    • Horsepower: Not defined
    • Transmission: -
    • Drive Type: RWD
    • Cylinder: 6
    • Transmission Speed: 6
    • City: 11.5
    • Highway: 7.3
    • Fuel Type: Gas
    • Fuel Tank Low/High: 17/17

    Fuel Economy

    • City: 12.3
    • Highway: 8.1
    • Fuel Type: Gas
    • Fuel Tank Low/High: 16/16
    • City: -
    • Highway: -
    • Fuel Type: Gas
    • Fuel Tank Low/High: 16/16
    • City: 10.4
    • Highway: 6.7
    • Fuel Type: Gas
    • Fuel Tank Low/High: 14/14
    • Airbags: Yes
    • ABS Brakes: Yes
    • Traction Control: Yes
    • Stability Control: Yes
    • Safety Rating: -
    • Child Sensor: Yes
    • Park Distance Control: Yes

    Safety

    • Airbags: Yes
    • ABS Brakes: Yes
    • Traction Control: Yes
    • Stability Control: Yes
    • Safety Rating: -
    • Child Sensor: Yes
    • Park Distance Control: Yes
    • Airbags: Yes
    • ABS Brakes: Yes
    • Traction Control: Yes
    • Stability Control: Yes
    • Safety Rating: -
    • Child Sensor: Yes
    • Park Distance Control: Yes
    • Airbags: Yes
    • ABS Brakes: Yes
    • Traction Control: Yes
    • Stability Control: Yes
    • Safety Rating: -
    • Child Sensor: Yes
    • Park Distance Control: Yes
    • Sunroof: Yes
    • Air Conditioning: Yes
    • Power Windows: Yes
    • Power Door Locks: Yes
    • Leather Seats: Yes
    • Power Seats: Yes
    • Music System: Yes
    • Navigation System: Yes
    • Cruise: Yes
    • Keyless Entry: Yes
    • Rain Sensing Vipers: No
    • Heated Seats: Yes
    • Climate Control: Yes
    • Steering Wheel Controls: Yes
    • Power Mirrors: Yes

    Comfort & Convenience

    • Sunroof: No
    • Air Conditioning: Yes
    • Power Windows: Yes
    • Power Door Locks: Yes
    • Leather Seats: Yes
    • Power Seats: Yes
    • Music System: Yes
    • Navigation System: No
    • Cruise: Yes
    • Keyless Entry: Yes
    • Rain Sensing Vipers: Yes
    • Heated Seats: Yes
    • Climate Control: Yes
    • Steering Wheel Controls: Yes
    • Power Mirrors: Yes
    • Sunroof: No
    • Air Conditioning: Yes
    • Power Windows: Yes
    • Power Door Locks: Yes
    • Leather Seats: No
    • Power Seats: Yes
    • Music System: Yes
    • Navigation System: No
    • Cruise: Yes
    • Keyless Entry: Yes
    • Rain Sensing Vipers: No
    • Heated Seats: No
    • Climate Control: No
    • Steering Wheel Controls: Yes
    • Power Mirrors: Yes
    • Sunroof: No
    • Air Conditioning: No
    • Power Windows: Yes
    • Power Door Locks: Yes
    • Leather Seats: No
    • Power Seats: No
    • Music System: No
    • Navigation System: No
    • Cruise: Yes
    • Keyless Entry: Yes
    • Rain Sensing Vipers: No
    • Heated Seats: No
    • Climate Control: No
    • Steering Wheel Controls: No
    • Power Mirrors: Yes
    • Max. Seating: 4
    • Number of Doors: 2
    • Seats: 4
    • Power Adjustable Seats: Yes
    • Specialty Seats: Yes
    • Interior: Yes
    • Leather Seats: Yes
    • Power Seats: Yes
    • Heated Seats: Yes

    Interior

    • Max. Seating: 4
    • Number of Doors: 2
    • Seats: 4
    • Power Adjustable Seats: Yes
    • Specialty Seats: Yes
    • Interior: Yes
    • Leather Seats: Yes
    • Power Seats: Yes
    • Heated Seats: Yes
    • Max. Seating: 4
    • Number of Doors: 2
    • Seats: 4
    • Power Adjustable Seats: Yes
    • Specialty Seats: Yes
    • Interior: Yes
    • Leather Seats: Yes
    • Power Seats: Yes
    • Heated Seats: Yes
    • Max. Seating: 2
    • Number of Doors: 2
    • Seats: 2
    • Power Adjustable Seats: No
    • Specialty Seats: Yes
    • Interior: Yes
    • Leather Seats: Yes
    • Power Seats: Yes
    • Heated Seats: Yes
    • Awards: -

    Awards

    • Awards: -
    • Awards: -
    • Awards: -

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