Mazda MX-5 2.0 Powershift
The face-lift model still boasts character
- Auto gearbox doesn't spoil the driving experience
- Paddle-shift setup is more natural to use than it looks
- Boot space constant roof up or down
- Excellent handling qualities
- Cabin space is tight
- Interior quality still slightly lacking in places
- Manual hood easy to drop, more difficult to raise
- Roadster Coupe variant offers greater refinement
A mid-cycle facelift for the third generation of the ever-green Mazda MX-5 two-seater has seen the addition of an automatic gearbox option in the UK for the first time. Complete with wheel-mounted paddles, the six-speed transmission allows auto-drivers to sample the MX-5's much-vaunted 'drivers' car' appeal.
Having always been lauded as a 'drivers' car', it is a brave step for Mazda to offer the MX-5 roadster with an automatic gearbox in the UK. Traditionally a market for manuals, even some super-car manufacturers have struggled to convince the sports car purchasing public that there is a place for automatic gearboxes in genuine sports road cars.
Although some markets have been able to purchase Mazda's iconic two-seater roadster with an automatic gearbox for some time, Mazda waited until it had a set-up the company believed was able to do the model justice before making it available in the UK. The six-speed 'Powershift' sequential automatic is able to operate as a fully automatic unit or as a sequential manual using either the central gear selector or the four paddles - up and down are present on each side to suit all tastes - incorporated into and behind the steering wheel.
Available only with the 2.0-litre petrol unit, opting for the six-speed automatic transmission does come with some drawbacks. Firstly it is not available with either the limited-slip differential or the up-rated Bilstein suspension present on the six-speed manual 2.0-litre Sport models. Secondly, there are marginal fuel efficiency and performance penalties to pay.
Equipment levels remain impressive however, with the Powershift equipped model benefitting from the same trim and equipment as the Sport level manual versions in both soft-top and Roadster form. Lighter and therefore faster and more fuel efficient, the soft-top features a manually operated canvas roof so is a little less refined than the hard-top. It is an improvement over the pre-facelift model however, with improved sound-proofing and better isolation of road noise.
Our verdict on the Mazda MX-5 2.0 Powershift
Although the automatic gearbox cannot live up to the extremely high standards set by the manual transmission, the 'Powershift' equipped MX-5 remains a massively entertaining car to drive. It allows auto drivers to sample the model's precision handling and fun nature for the first time and the easy to operate paddle-shift system makes it a little more involving. The soft-top model is less refined than the Roadster Coupe, but a well built and highly entertaining model none-the-less.
All generations of MX-5 have boasted excellent reliability and the simplicity and lightness of the folding roof mechanism should mean there are few problems. Running costs for the soft-top are reasonable but the automatic gearbox is marginally thirstier than the manual options. Insurance ratings are middling and no higher for the soft-top than the Roadster Coupe and, of course, the soft-top is cheaper to buy.
Space and practicality
The fold-flat canvas roof fails to take up any boot-space because, meaning it is limited but still decent for a car of this nature. A small 'parcel shelf' behind the seats will do for a jacket or with the roof up and there's a compact glovebox and two cup holders. Door pockets are restricted to small nets, however, so trinkets will need to go in the small cubby holes behind the seats.
Controls and display
The simple but attractive instrument binnacle has been revised, now offering easier to read graphics spaced further apart. There's also a wider red band on the rev counter for the two-litre model and the single LCD display features red backlighting. The changes work well, and the displays communicate information quickly to the driver with minimal fuss. The small trip computer screen can be obscured by the steering wheel hub, depending on the chosen driving position.
Tall drivers fare better than they do in some rivals, largely thanks to the low seating position, but the MX-5 is still very cramped meaning it won't be a car for everyone. Noise levels are naturally higher than in the Roadster Coupe but still well suppressed compared with previous soft-tops. The ride very comfortable for a sports car, largely because the harsher Bilstein dampers are not available with the automatic gearbox. With the roof down, the small deflector does an excellent job of reducing buffeting and the redesigned Recaro seats are exceptionally supportive.
Central locking, alarm and immobiliser are all standard features but the soft-top can be penetrated by little more than a sharp knife. There's additional covered storage behind the seats for smaller items.
The MX-5 benefits from two-chamber side airbags as well as front driver and passenger airbags. Traction control and stability control are also standard equipment. A tyre pressure monitoring system is available, and an external temperature gauge warns drivers of potentially icy conditions outside. The model's responsive and predictable nature also helps make it a safe car on the road.
The soft-top version is lighter than the Roadster Coupe variant, making it marginally quicker away from the lights. Pin sharp handling and near perfect balance and poise, despite not feeding through the limited-slip differential available on the manual, make it a delight to drive. The steering offers precision and plenty of feedback while requiring minimal input and the car feels light and responsive on the road. The 2.0-litre engine is punchy, rev-happy and well suited to the automatic box. Gear changes are sharp and jerk-free in fully auto mode, while the paddle-shift option proves simple to operate once familiar and will suit most tastes. Using the paddles to down-shift on the brakes can result in a little jerkiness, but the auto box detracts from the experience considerably less than you might think.
Family car appeal
With just two seats, the MX-5 Roadster Coupe doesn't have a family function. The passenger airbag can be switched off to accommodate a child seat, but this is likely to be out of necessity rather than choice.
First car appeal
It's unusual to be able to recommend a sports car as a first car, but the MX-5 just about passes muster. It's not so powerful that novice drivers will come unstuck unless they are particularly reckless, yet the excellent traction control system will stay discreetly out of the way until it is truly needed. With much more feel and sense of balance than a hatchback, this is a good place to pick up lifelong driving skills. The less powerful 1.8-litre version might be a smarter choice, however.
Quality and image
The MX-5 has suffered from a reputation as a 'hairdresser's car' in the past, but the latest version has gone a little way to bolstering the image. Revisions to the exterior styling also improve the unisex appeal. Some interior plastics are a little cheap, but build quality is high and the MX-5 shows all the signs of being a very well thought through vehicle. The soft-top is a more cost-conscious choice than the Roadster Coupe, but its image doesn't suffer as the decreased weight sharpens the model's responses.
The MX-5 retains its traditional low-slung stance, so some drivers will have trouble getting settled in the seats. The boot lip is high too, which rather restricts access to what is otherwise a decently-sized effort. The roof is a manual affair that latches in place both up and down. Easy to drop, it still requires you to shift in the seats in order to raise it again.
Stereo and ICE (In car entertainment)
Using the latest version of Mazda's factory installed head unit tidies the centre console a little and a seven-speaker Bose sound system improves sound quality, aided by the slightly quieter cabin. Audio controls are mounted on the steering wheel for greater comfort and an auxiliary input is present for using MP3 players. Bluetooth phone preparation is also available for extra convenience.
Colours and trim
There's a choice of seven body colours to pick from in the refreshed MX-5 line-up, but the canvas roof option remains black for simplicity. Regardless, it looks very stylish. Inside there's a change of colour from piano black to dark silver for the coloured element of the dash. Elsewhere, black plastic remains, although there are new coordinated silver rings for the centre stack, knobs and doors. 17-inch alloy wheels, front fog lights and heated, leather seats accompany the Powershift automatic transmission option.
The revised MX-5 retains the same compact shape that makes it very easy to judge the car's dimensions. Visibility directly through the portal-like rear window is fine, although there is a large blind spot over the shoulder. Roof down, it's as easy to drive backwards as it is forwards.
Puncture repair kit fitted as standard.
Petrol engine options - 1.8-litre (124bhp); 2.0-litre (158bhp). Transmission options: five-speed manual gearbox, six-speed manual gearbox, six-speed Powershift automatic gearbox with paddle shift. Trim levels: SE, Sport Tech, Powershift, SE Roadster Coupe, Sport Tech Roadster Coupe, Powershift Roadster Coupe.
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