IT TAKES A LOCAL TO SNAP ME OUT OF MY blissful ignorance. Partly because the thrashing of a Nissan Patrol’s 44-inch tyres is difficult to ignore when it’s occurring at eye level, but mostly for the look its occupants give as they pass. Incredulity would cover it, but pity is an appropriate surrogate. Either way, the drawn-out passing manoeuvre and perplexed looks are enough to remind me that what I’m doing isn’t, by Icelandic standards, normal. Driving certain cars endows one with something approximating celebrity. Continue reading “An Unforgettable Journey With Mazda MX-5”
What it is: A compression-ignition middle finger to the masses of virtually identical life-ends-with-children mobiles. Should also come with the bonus of meaningful steering feel and impressive road manners.
This lithe and lovable MX-5 roadster has long been the ‘affordable’ Porsche Boxster option, but the newly launched RF version, which adds a retractable folding hard top and a tougher new look, means it’s now the Porsche Cayman you absolutely can afford. It also spells an end to the ‘hairdresser’ Jokes.
Strong demands for Mazda’s SUV will make a rotary-engined coupe more likely
The success of the all-new CX-5 SUV is crucial if Mazda is to put into production a rotary-powered sports car inspired by the RX Vision concept of 2015.
Spot the difference. It isn’t easy, because the new Mazda3 is uncannily like the old one. The grille badge has moved fractionally downwards for a cleaner edge to the front bonnet line, the circular central beams in the headlights are now chopped off across the top and the rear lights are slightly revised. It’s all very detailed stuff, so that even an existing Mazda3 owner might not instantly notice the changes. Step aboard, though, and there is a bit more of an obvious revision. The cabin has undergone an overhaul to improve both the design and quality of materials used. Then when you press the keyless-start button, the diesel engine fires up with just slightly less clatter than before. Low speed engine refinement is a little better too. That apart, the car behaves much as it did before this latest update, with one important addition.
The Mazda3 has now been equipped with G-Vectoring control, a system that monitors steering and throttle positions, and sharpens cornering precision by varying the amount of torque delivered to individual wheels. You don’t notice it happening, but feel the benefit in a meaty stance on the bends. The ride quality is well judged for its unruffled comfort over surface undulations, gear change action is creamy, and there is a pleasing weight and feel to the steering. There is a purposeful poise to the way this latest car drives. Cabin changes include a new electric parking brake in place of the previous mechanical one, freeing up space on the centre console. There is a new leather-covered steering wheel, bigger door bins, and a general upgrading of the internal surfaces and switchgear, while heated seats are available for the first time. There have been detail improvements in the trim panels and door bezels, with an all-round impression that the interior has moved up a grade. Unseen, more attention has been paid to the quantity and quality of noise suppressant materials, and you notice the difference in better refinement and being more isolated from noise intrusion.
Equipment levels are pretty generous across the range. Even the base level SE version comes with air conditioning, 16-inch alloy wheels, an auto-dimming rear mirror, seven-inch touchscreen, hill hold assist and DAB radio. SE Nav adds a navigation system, while mid-range SE-L Nav trim includes dual-zone climate control, rear parking sensors, privacy glass, cruise control, heated front seats, autonomous emergency braking and a rain sensor. The flagship of the line-up, Sport Nav specification, adds keyless entry, 18-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights, front parking sensors and heated front seats, as well as a reversing camera, automatic headlights, traffic sign recognition and an uprated Bose branded audio system. Although outwardly the Mazda3 has only undergone a very minor update, there are more significant changes when you dig a bit deeper. Prices have increased by between £200 and £800, depending on model, but despite the additional cost, the enhancements add up to a worthwhile improvement in a car that looks good and drives well.
Who’s the Daddy?
Mazda MX-5: Of affordable open-topped motoring…? Unarguably, four generations of MX-5. One SLC or His ‘n’ Hers Mazdas for the same dosh? Only someone with an embonpoint the colour and texture of a button-back Chesterfield would ponder.
Mercedes-Benz SLC 300: Also known as the SLK with a new hooter and a new name. The former has been around since Moses used one to transport the Ten Commandments back from the top of Mt Sinai, so now longer in the tooth than a walrus.
Wind in the Hair or Wig in the Willows?
Mazda MX-5: Simple throw-back manual lid, but requires glenohumeral origami to press rigid centre section into locked position. Ditto for roof retrieval. Not as blustery open as the Audi, but noisier when shut.
Mercedes-Benz SLC 300: All the elegance and advantage of the only all-metal roof here. But it is also a colossal boot space thief, and can only be operated from a standstill, even though, bizarrely, you can move off mid-fold.
Shoehorn Squeeze or Horn of Plenty?
Mazda MX-5: Pretty and petite couture may cause cramping in taller specimens. Cabin nicely finished and seats comfy, but even this somewhat hastily constructed driver yearns for a couple of extra inches seat travel. A minor ergonomic itch.
Mercedes-Benz SLC 300: Standard Mercedes fare which, whisper who dares, is starting to look a little dated now. Seats comfortable (natch), and a fine driving position, though the taller occupant may find cabin length a tad restrictive.
Kitchen Sink or Kitsch Missing Link?
Mazda MX-5: Paint the only extra on this price tag. All other toys, including multimedia with DAB radio and navigation, decent connectivity, air-conditioning and even headrest-mounted speakers, thrown in. Optional, kitten-heeled pouting passenger: POA.
Mercedes-Benz SLC 300: Over £10,000 worth of extras bolted to the list price here. The usual raft of ASSISTS – all of which must be turned off before setting out – and TRONICS including SCARFTRONIC, which is pleasingly seductive.
Time is a jet Plane; it Moves too Fast…
Mazda MX-5: This entire machine was meticulously engineered around the lesser, 1.5-litre engine; the 2.0-litre unit simply hoicked out of another model. And it shows. Latter unit promotes fractionally more pace but notably less grace.
Mercedes-Benz SLC 300: Engine not a patch on the V6. Doesn’t sound great and you need to select Sport+ to even vaguely wake the somnambulant gearbox, whereupon power delivery lacks linearity. Tries too hard to sound faster than it is.
Seat of the Pant or Pants with a Seat?
Mazda MX-5: SThe former. In spades. Old-fashioned driving in a good, Lotus Elan way, not a bad, SLC way. Lightweight, beautifully balanced, deliciously poised and pointy. Agile handling as precise as the rifle-bolt gearchange.
Mercedes-Benz SLC 300: Not much poise or body control; underlying softness with constant nuggety interruptions. Lid off, flops around like a freshly-landed halibut. Lid on, creaks like a galleon in a gale. Steering remote, and far more grip than handling.
Mazda MX-5 2.0 SE-L Nav
Engine: 1998cc turbo 4-cyl
Power: 147bhp @ 4600rpm
Torque: 280lb ft @ 1950-4500rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Top speed: 133mph
On sale: Now
Mercedes-Benz SLC 300 AMG Line
Engine: 1991cc turbo 4-cyl
Power: 242bhp @ 5500rpm
Torque: 273lb ft @ 1300-4000rpm
Transmission: nine-speed automatic with manual override, rear-wheel drive
Top speed: 155mph
On sale: Now
A very fine thing indeed, and enormous fun. Spend even less and opt for the beautifully sorted 1.5. Welcome back to teeth, flies. 4/5
Mercedes-Benz SLC 300:
Looks quite pretty, feels pretty dated. The car you buy for the mistress you don’t really like very much. 3/5
This isn’t a new car, or even a facelift, but an ‘update’. Before you nod off, however, there are still plenty of reasons to pay attention.
The current 6’s good bits remain – sharp styling, neat handling plus competitive prices – but the company has tweaked the twin-turbo diesel engines for added refinement, crammed in additional soundproofing and introduced G-Vectoring Control.
Unlike typical perform a nee-oriented torque vectoring systems, G-Vectoring Control software metes out engine power precisely, cutting torque very slightly when entering corners to transfer more weight onto the front tyres, boosting grip. Mazda claims this standard-fit system is the only one to consider steering angle, making for slicker transitions between acceleration, braking and cornering – and means that fewer steering corrections are needed.
It’s impossible to tell when G-Vectoring Control is working, though the steering in our SE-L Nav test car did feel nicely precise. Unlike many traction and stability control systems, you won’t find yourself fighting this.
Diesel rumble is minimised by counterbalancing pins in each piston and engine timing that varies to cut noise, making this one of the most hushed cabins in the class. Claimed economy of 68.9mpg and £20 annual tax are nice sweeteners, too. Meanwhile, the 148bhp engine pulls hard, feeling more muscular than its 9.1sec 0-62mph time might suggest.
The 6 remains an appealing, well-priced Octavia rival and compares well with the Germans if you prize value over having the touchy-feeliest interior. Mazda’s pretty compelling PCP deals only adds to the appeal.
Mazda 6 2.2d 150 SE-L Nav
Engine: 2191cc 16v turbodiesel, 4-cyl
Power: 148bhp @ 4500rpm
Torque: 280lb ft @ 1800-2600rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Top speed: 130mph
On sale: Autumn
Unsung hero grows still more likeable, but remains forgettable
Let’s play a round of Family Fortunes (humour me for a moment). Name a medium-sized family hatchback.
It’s a pretty safe bet that top 3, in no particular order, are going to be Golf, Focus and Astra. The Mazda 3, meanwhile, would probably be one of those “ohh yeah, that one” answers left on the board after each extended family member’s been through every possible permutation.
It’s a leftfield, outsider kind of hatch, but that’s no a bad thing. We liked the cut of its long-bonneted jib enough to place it ahead of the Golfocustra trio in our 2014 hatchback giant test. Can a booster shot of updates for 2017 push it from the wings back out onto centre-stage?
Not when they’re this subtle. Less a facelift, more Spot the Difference, level: Expert, revisions include new LED lamps that look a bit like the 3’s had its face painted as a Golden Eagle, gently redrawn bumpers and another proper handbrake bumped off by an electric parking brake to free space for XL cupholders.
Mildly retuned suspension keeps the 3 on pole as arguably the best-handling mainstream midi-hatch out there, as does an engine range that nonchalantly ignores the downsizing trend in favour of large- capacity driveability and responsiveness. Improved interior trim can’t quite shake off an overriding feel of cheapness (the cabin plastics even smell curiously oily), and while sat-nav’s standard-fit, it’s so wilfully awkward you’d be better with a standard-fit mapbook. Exemplary dynamics aside, the 3 stands a little too still to be noticed in a busy market but it remains a well-rounded, likeable car – whatever the survey says.
Engine: 1998 cc 16v 4-cyl
Power: 118bhp @ 6000rpm
Torque: 155lb ft @ 4000rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual (auto available), front-wheel drive
Top speed: 121mph
On sale: Now
An easily overlooked choice; the Zeppo Marx of medium family hatches
Mazda’s second-generation CX-5 has been revealed in Los Angeles as the company looks to continue its global momentum, spurred on by the popularity of SUVs. Mazda says the all-new CX-5, on sale from the middle of next year, will kick-start a fresh era for its line-up, where passenger enjoyment is as important as driving pleasure and simplistic Japanese design helps it to stand out among rivals. In Europe, the new CX-5 enters a congested segment dominated by models such as the Nissan Qashqai and Kja Sportage. Its design takes heavy inspiration from the larger, US-focused CX-9.
The CX-5’s sleek headlights are split by a wide-mouth grille and sit above a cleanly designed bumper, but bulky wheel arches and tall doors give the car the more rugged look of a proper SUV. The wheelbase is unchanged in the new car, at 2700mm long, but shorter overhangs have cut the overall length by 5mm. Compared with the outgoing CX-5, the new model sits lower and is 10mm wider at the front, creating a more sporting stance.
This is combined with improved visibility for front occupants, with a wider field of view for front-seat occupants thanks to the A-pillars having been moved back by 35mm. The cabin has been designed with a driver-centric focus and uses familiar Mazda features such as a three-spoke steering wheel and clutter-free dashboard design topped by a 7.0in display. This is accompanied by a 4.6in high-resolution TFT display in the instrument panel and head-up display on the windscreen.
Mazda’s MZD connected technology enables users to link the infotainment system with their smartphones and other mobile devices. Handsfree phone operation, Harman cloud-based technology and SD-card-based sat-nav are all included. The CX-5 also gets a 10-speaker Bose sound system with ambient noise technology that improves audio quality while on the move. In the pursuit of a more comfortable driving experience, the base of the centre console has been raised compared with its predecessor, lifting the automatic gear selector by 60mm and manual gear lever by 40mm.
The 2017 car also introduces a new two-step reclining mechanism on its rear bench and uses more shapely cushions for its seats in a bid to provide better support. The CX-5 retains the engine line-up of its predecessor, which in the UK is made up of a 2.2-litre Skyactiv-D diesel and 2.0-litre Skyactiv-G petrol motor.
Specifications have yet to be confirmed, but the outgoing diesel CX-5 has 163bhp and combined fuel economy of 61.4mpg, while the petrol model’s figures are 173bhpand47.1mpg. In the US, the CX-5 will also be available with a 2.5-litre petrol engine carried over from the outgoing car. This unit is not expected to be sold in the UK.
Six-speed manual and six-speed automatic gearboxes are offered. Drive is sent to the front wheels as standard, with Mazda’s i-Active all-wheel drive system available as an option. The CX-5 will also have Mazda’s new comfort improving technology called G-Vectoring Control (GVC). This system adjusts engine torque in response to steering angle to optimise the vertical load on each wheel, reducing the amount of movement experienced in the cabin and lessening the need for the driver to make steering corrections.
The CX-5 gets MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension, with enlarged diameters for the front damper pistons to help reduce body roll and give a smoother ride. The body structure is 16% stiffer than the old CX-5’s, partly due to the use of more rigid steel in the A-pillars and side sills. Mazda also says improvements to the structure and aerodynamics have reduced road noise by an average of 1.3dB at 62mph.
Safety features include both passive and active systems, combined within Mazda’s i-Activsense technology. It incorporates driver assist features such as radar cruise control, which can bring the CX-5 to a complete stop, and traffic sign recognition. Prices are expected to rise slightly from the current CX-5 starting price of £23,195.
Honda Civic Sport
Model tested: Honda Civic 1.4 Sport
Price: £18,360 Engine: 1.4-litre 4cyl, 98bhp
The new Honda Civic Sport aims to inject some much-needed showroom appeal into the soon-to-be-replaced family hatchback. It’s essentially an entry-level model, bur thanks to a host of cosmetic upgrades and some additional equipment, it looks and feels anything but. There’s also a new engine option in the form of the brand’s tried-and-tested 1.4-litre, and it’s this unit that we test here.
It‘s been around for five years now, but the ninth-generation Civic has lost none of its visual presence. The British-built hatch stands out from the crowd with its aggressive nose treatment, double-decked tailgate and hidden rear door handles. It’s not as handsome or well proportioned as the sleek Mazda but there’s no denying it makes an impact.
The Sport model is given an extra dose of visual appeal courtesy of some design flourishes that are influenced by the Type R hot hatch. At the front is a racy mesh grille, while there’s a subtle tailgate spoiler at the rear. The makeover is completed by a set of black-painted 17-inch alloy wheels.
Honda has attempted to be equally bold with the Civic’s interior, although the results are something of a mixed bag. The wraparound dashboard has a futuristic look, but there’s a bit of a scatter-gun approach to the layout.
For instance, the rev counter sits ahead of the driver and is flanked by temperature and fuel gauges, while the digital speedo sits in a deeply recessed binnacle above these dials. To the left of this is a large trip computer screen. It’s packed with information, but it’s fiddly to use and hobbled by low-resolution graphics. The same criticism can be levelled at the centrally mounted infotainment system, which also suffers from an aftermarket look and feel.
Still, the interior appears solidly screwed together from decent-quality materials, including the soft leather that‘s used for the steering wheel. There are some hard plastics used lower down in the cabin, but it doesn’t detract from the overall feeling of quality. There’s loads of standard kit, too.
It lacks the Mazda’s sat-nav, but in all other respects, the Civic is much more lavishly appointed. Climate and cruise control are included, as are a reversing camera and parking sensors. You can also specify some neat personalisation options, such as a racy £495 Rally Red Pack that adds red accents to the door mirrors, front grille and rear bumper.
The sporty upgrades mean the Honda looks the part, but at the track, the newcomer struggles to impress.
While its 98bhp l.4-litre four-cylinder engine matches the Mazda’s slightly larger unit for power, its 127Nm torque figure is 23Nm down on its rival’s. Plus, the Honda’s maximum muscle is delivered at 4,800rpm, which is 800rpm higher up the rev range.
As a result, the Civic trailed the 3 in almost all of our performance assessments. It completed the 0–60 mph sprint in a time of 11.4 seconds, which was a full second slower than the Mazda.
Only in sixth was the Civic able to turn the tables, thanks largely to a much shorter top gear that sees the engine spinning at 3,20orpm at 70mph. Yet away from the track, the Honda doesn’t feel quite as sluggish as the figures suggest. It revs willingly and relatively smoothly, only sounding a little strained as it closes in on the 6,500rpm red line.
Accessing the Sport’s limited performance potential is made easier by the slick and precise six-speed gearbox, which is matched to a light and progressive clutch. Yet head down a back road and it’s immediately obvious that the Honda isn’t as much fun to drive as its rival here. There’s decent grip and body movements are well controlled, but the steering is slower and lacks feedback. Overall, it’s safe and composed; it’s just missing the involvement of the 3.
On the plus side, according to our noise meter figures, the Civic is quieter than the Mazda, while the suspension is reasonably supple. Potholes send a shudder through the car, but in most other respects the ride is well cushioned.
You can be reasonably confident of a good customer service experience as a Civic owner, with the firm’s garages finishing eighth out of 31 in a dealer poll.
The Honda scores well for safety, with all models getting six airbags, stability control and autonomous emergency braking. Also included are a speed limiter and emergency stop signalling, which automatically flashes the hazard lights under heavy braking.
Running costs 4.1/5
It’s clear that Honda is sending the Civic out on a value-for-money high. At £18.360, our 1.4 Sport costs £700 more than the Mazda, but you get a lot more standard equipment. In fact, to match the Honda’s impressive kit tally you’ll have to trade up to an SE-L Nav-spec 3, which means a larger 2.0-litre engine and a heftier £19,495 price tag.
Private buyers will be heartened by the Civic’s strong residuals, too, with our experts calculating 47.0 per cent residuals after three years. We also recorded a decent 36.8mpg return at the pumps.
It’s not all good news, though. The Honda’s relatively high C02 emissions of 131g/km mean annual tax will set you back £130, which is £100 more than Mazda owners will spend. Business users will also be out of pocket, with lower-rate earners paying around £150 more in Benefit in Kind over a year.
This generation of Civic has always scored strongly in the practicality stakes, and our Sport model is no exception. Like all examples, it gets a vast and well shaped 477-litre boot, which benefits from a wide opening and low load lip. There’s also a deep underfloor storage compartment, while folding the rear seats flat liberates 1378 litres of capacity.
The Civic features the brand’s Magic Seat arrangement, too. This set-up allows you to fold the seatbases up, leaving a large load through space that’s perfect for items such as bicycles. Elsewhere, the Honda serves up generous head and legroom in the rear, while there’s loads of handy storage, including a large glovebox and decent door bins.
This mildly updated Mazda 3 hatchback is a rival for almost everything in the C-segment. Mazda names the Kia Cee’d and Hyundai i30 as the cars against which it most wants to compete but, in truth, the 3 is taking on everything from Ford’s Focus to Skoda’s Octavia. So far, the 3 has been well received. We like its interior space, economical diesel engines and agile handling, but with the car having been on sale since 2013 and the next-generation 3 not due until 2018, updates were needed to keep it competitive. Changes to the styling are minor and include a new grille, different LED headlights and a revised rear bumper, but it’s in the chassis where most of the work has been done. Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control (GVC) system is new to the 3 here.
It delivers minute and imperceptible variations in engine torque to the front wheels, allowing the 3 to corner with more stability and reducing the need for mid-corner steering inputs from the driver. It’s also claimed to improve comfort for passengers by reducing mid-corner lateral forces. Various interior upgrades are also new, such as the plastic trim around the window switches, larger door bins, a full-colour head-up display on Sport Nav models and a new leather steering wheel. Mazda has also done away with its mechanical handbrake in favour of an electric version. On the move, the beauty of this 2.2-litre diesel engine’s 280lb ft peak torque arriving at just l800rpm is that it rarely feels out of puff.
In fact, it feels plenty faster than its 148bhp peak power output would have you believe. That’s partly due to a new turbo lag reduction system called Transient Control, which means there’s less waiting for the turbo to spool up and give that delightful surge from low in the rev range. Mazda admits that selling its GVC system to customers will be tricky, because if it’s working as it should, you won’t be able to detect it. That said, the 3 feels keener to turn in to bends than before and, once settled, sticks to its line. On Scotland’s undulating Highland roads, it felt generally composed, engaging and grippy, although at speed the inconsistently weighted steering let it down. It also rode well on most surfaces, and only on really broken roads did we feel it shudder through the cabin. We couldn’t detect any of the improved passenger comfort Mazda talks about, though.
Elsewhere, little has changed. This diesel engine’s official combined fuel economy figure of 68.9mpg is among the class’s best and CO2 emissions of 107g/km mean you’ll pay just £20 in road tax as a private buyer. Old problems remain, though. Most of the 3’s rivals offer better insulation from wind and tyre noise, and although the engine is quieter in this facelifted car (a new system dubbed Natural Sound Smoother aims to improve low-speed engine refinement), it’s still fairly vocal. The interior a mixed bag, too. There’s plenty of space both front and rear and a fairly large boot, but some of Mazda’s material choices remain questionable. Although the top of the dashboard gets plush leather, it quickly reverts to harsh plastics lower down and that new black plastic trim shows fingerprints very easily.
The car’s infotainment system is unchanged but remains easy to use and graphically rich. If you’re looking for a fine driver’s choice in the family hatchback market, this updated 3 should be on your shortlist.
The changes made with this facelift are minor, so current owners needn’t rush to upgrade, but if you’re not tempted by some of this segment’s big sellers, such as the Focus, Vauxhall Astra and Volkswagen Golf, then the 3 offers a rewarding and economical drive -especially in diesel form. We’d be tempted by a lesser spec than this range-topping Sport Nav, though.
Mid-range SE-L Nav models get rear parking sensors, heated seats, dual-zone climate control, automatic emergency braking and cruise control and cost £950 less.
I can still remember the last time I drove a third- generation, ‘FD’ RX-7. But that’s because it was also the first time. It was way back in 1993, when the car was new and causing a stir. There was a real buzz about it, and I’m not just talking about its audible rev limiter. Even those who would not normally be drawn to Japanese performance cars found the fast and voluptuous rotary- powered Mazda very hard to ignore.
The same was true of Toyota’s bewinged twin-turbo Toyota Supra and Nissan’s slightly more discreet, but no less appealing, 300ZX. That this was also the heyday for Honda’s NSX makes it clear how strong the Japanese brands were in the early to mid ’90s. Factor in BMW’s equally fresh E36 M3 and Porsche’s 968 and you’ll appreciate this was something of a golden era for fans of fast, front-engined and relatively affordable rear-drive coupes.
As you’d expect from Mazda, the RX-7 was the oddball of the bunch, courtesy of its twin-turbo 13B-REW Wankel engine. With twin rotor chambers (each displacing 654cc) and turbo equivalency applied, the RX-7 was deemed to have a 2.6-litre motor. The unit’s compact size and light weight made it easy to package behind the front axle line and low in the chassis for a 50:50 weight distribution and low centre of gravity.
The engine was unusual for its use of twin sequential turbos. Indeed, it was amongst the first of its kind. The concept was simple, the first turbo boosting from 2000rpm, with exhaust gases then fed directly from it into the second, identically sized, turbo to further reduce lag. It was an effective, if complex system that relied on precise electronic control of boost pressures to work seamlessly.
In Japan it was tuned to deliver 190kW, but elsewhere it developed a slightly softer 177kW at 6500rpm, with 295Nm at 5000rpm. That still put it on a par with the four-cylinder 968, but some way short of the more potent six- cylinder M3, Supra and 300ZX. Nevertheless, the 1284kg RX-7 remained an appealing and rapid machine, capable of hitting l00km/h from a standstill in 5.4 seconds and touching 251 km/h flat-out. That was quick in the early ’90s, kids.
Very few of these curvy coupes were officially imported to either Australia or the UK, and this is one of the latter. Of course, many more subsequently arrived from Japan in the late-’90s, courtesy of the grey-import scheme, but the FD RX-7 remains a rare sight on our roads, especially in unmolested condition. The Fast and Furious movie franchise has plenty to answer for.
Like all cars of this era, the RX-7 seems so small and compact. It might be small, but its curves (evolved from a concept penned by Mazda’s US design studio) ensure it has plenty of presence. It’s funny, though, how your mind plays tricks; cars that you thought looked low and wide and had big wheels don’t actually look that spectacular these days. No wonder, when a quick glance at the pretty five-spoke rims shows they’re only 16 inches in diameter and wrapped in 225/50 rubber. No matter, for the innate rightness of the shape and the courage of the design mean the FD’s looks remain surprisingly avant-garde.
There wasn’t really anything like it before, and there hasn’t been anything quite like it since. The smoked, one-piece, full-width tail light still makes a dramatic statement, while the pop-up headlights are proper ’90s nostalgia. They were actually a necessity due to the low-line nature of the RX-7’s nose.
The door handle is positioned unusually high, up above the waistline and nestled against the B-pillar. You open the door expecting the glass to be frameless, but instead you find a heavy black surround framing the side-glass lenses like a pair of thick-rimmed spectacles. The interior mirrors the exterior with its organic curves, but advances in materials mean the RX-7’s black- plastic cockpit has dated badly. It doesn’t feel that great quality-wise, but it’s a comfortable place to be thanks to squidgy seats that yield nicely, allowing you to sink into them for support.
“Remind you’re driving something special”
You don’t sit as low as you might expect, and the steering wheel is quite big in diameter with proud stitching that also features on the handbrake and gearknob. Equipment levels are pretty basic by today’s standards – leather upholstery, a pair of plastic luggage bins instead of rear seats, air conditioning, electric windows, powered mirrors and a stereo are all there is to shout about. The instruments are simple but really quite handsome, with a bold typeface, a speedo that reads to 290km/h and a tacho that reads around to 9000rpm, even though the redline itself starts at an altogether more modest 7000rpm. Gauges for oil pressure, oil temperature and fuel level sit to the left of the tacho to complete a proudly analogue binnacle.
The view through the windscreen is dominated by curves, the rising line of each extremity swooping up towards you while each door mirror captures a reflection of the long arc of the door tops that flow into the rear wheelarches. Everywhere you look, sections of the RX-7’s fulsome shape swell into view to remind you you’re driving something special.
The engine starts with a characteristic chunter before settling into a rapid idle, rotary tips whizzing around at a busy and rorty 2500rpm for a minute or two before the revs eventually settle down. The clutch is modestly weighty; the throttle has a nice measured resistance. The stubby gearlever hints at a snappy, short-throw gearshift that’s clean and accurate, but the first few kilometres reveal the five-speed transmission is blessed with a good rather than brilliant shift.
The steering weight is more substantial than I was expecting, and that’s a welcome surprise, for it confirms the sense that the RX-7 is a communicative car with well-matched control efforts and carefully measured responses. The cast-aluminium pedals look attractive, feel good under your feet and are widely spaced across the footwell. The relationship between brake and throttle was clearly signed off by someone who enjoyed heel-and-toe work, and the exhaust is soon popping and crackling nicely with each easily blipped downshift.
Of course, the 13B motor was what made the RX-7 unique amongst its contemporary rivals, and it’s what continues to add curiosity value today. The engineering differences between rotary and conventional internal combustion engines might be large, but the tangible differences from behind the wheel are surprisingly subtle. Yes, of course that has something to do with the motor not being in a screaming state of tune, unlike in the legendary Mazda race cars, but it also shows that while rotary engines are still seen as eccentric, they are impressively straightforward in the way they go about their business.
“The engine has finely serrated smoothness that confunds your senses and encourages you to work it hard”
This car has an aftermarket exhaust, which is a bit more vocal than an OE system, but strip away the snorty soundtrack and you find an engine blessed with refinement and good manners. Rise through the revs and it has a finely serrated smoothness that confounds your senses and encourages you to work it hard. It’s a genuinely enjoyable engine; torquey with little lag, it delivers a solid shove from 3000rpm through to 6000rpm. Beyond that it runs out of puff a bit, yet still pulls meaningfully to the redline – signalled by the infamous buzzer as a reminder to take another gear. If you’re remotely intrigued by a car’s oily bits, the RX-7’s motor is special. It doesn’t dominate the whole character of the car, but it asserts itself nicely and sets the tone for a driving experience that’s outside the norm but delivers the goods.
This particular car has clearly lived a life, one in which it has covered more than 140,000km. That said, while the dampers and bushes aren’t in their first flushes of youth, and despite the front axle running on a different brand of tyre to the rear, it still manages to feel tidy. It rides with pliancy, masking minor surface imperfections and absorbing potholes without too much fuss, though there are a few creaks from the interior plastics! More impressive is the way the innate balance of this front-mid- engined, rear-drive chassis shines through, and how you rapidly build a clear picture of the sharpness and agility for which the third-gen RX-7 was rightly praised when new.
Funnily enough, of the memories I have of my first drive in an FD RX-7 back in 1993, the most lasting impression is of a car that demanded respect – something the 22-year-old me had just enough of to keep the Mazda out of the weeds. One moment in particular sticks in my mind. The road was damp and chased across hilly terrain. Travelling at enthusiastic but not silly speed, the RX-7 squeezed into a gently curving compression. As the suspension got towards the bottom of its travel, the vertical and lateral loads pushed the tail out of line with little warning. It was one of those moments caught by luck and youthful, sparky synapses rather than sage car control, not least because these were the days when I was testing my own limits as much as those of the car. It certainly taught me a lesson.
My driving skills – and judgement – have come a long way in the last 20 years, but I still can’t help but feel a little wary of this old Mazda for the first few kilometres. The nicely weighted steering is complemented by a calm rate of response that’s typical for fast cars of this era (just under three turns lock to lock) and which makes it easy to confidently place the RX-7 in corners with intuitive precision. You need only encourage it into long curves with a small squeeze of steering input, then relax the lock as the corner opens out. It finds a very satisfying and easily sustained flow.
The balance is beautifully neutral, with just enough bite from the front tyres to generate decent grip and response but not enough to induce oversteer. Likewise, the rear end has strong traction – not a surprise given the rear tyres aren’t exactly over-burdened with torque. In short, the perfect weight distribution and sweet ratio of grunt to grip ensures a harmony that lets the chassis work unhindered by dynamic imbalance. That it’s not fighting with an engine that’s too potent underlines the fact that sometimes less really is more.
Carry meaningful speed into a second- or third-gear corner, chase the throttle from apex to exit, and you feel the car and its Torsen limited-slip diff load up nicely, sitting down on the outside rear as the loads increase and those sequential turbos start to blow. It’s at this point I feel something of the RX-7 I recall, for when pushed hard it rapidly makes the transition from just on the limit to some way over it. It’s fun and harmless enough in the dry, but I can clearly see how I nearly came unstuck all those years ago.
The brakes are up to the job of fast road driving, with progressive response, but they don’t have the capabilities of those on today’s high-performance cars, so you have to be a little sympathetic. You’d toast them on track, but then cars of this age weren’t developed with as much in reserve as today’s performance models.
It’s been great to be reacquainted with the FD RX-7. Two decades of rampant engineering progress and sky-rocketing performance mean Mazda’s flagship sports car is no longer the force it was back in 1993, but it remains a thoroughly charming, fascinating, intriguing and usefully rapid car. It does things differently – as you’d hope – but it does them well. Well enough to remain the high point for Mazda’s rotary efforts. Here’s hoping last year’s glorious RX-Vision concept makes the leap to production and rekindles some of this RX-7’s abundant magic.
Mazda RX-7 FD
Engine: Twin-chamber rotary, 1308cc, twin-turbo
Power: 177kW @ 6500rpm
Torque: 295Nm @ 5000rpm
Transmission: Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential
Front suspension: Double wishbones, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension: Double wishbones, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes: Ventilated discs, 294mm front and rear, ABS
Wheels: 16 x 8.0-inch front and rear
Tyres: 255/50 R16 front and rear
0-100km/h: 5.4sec (claimed)
Top speed: 251km/h (claimed)
On sale: 1992-1995
If you’re feeling a little confused, don’t worry. Only last year the Mazda 6 received some styling and chassis changes to bring it up to date, but now, for 2016 (or the 2017 model year), there are yet more revisions to keep it relevant. The changes apply to both the saloon and the Tourer we’re driving here, although, visually, from the outside, there have been no changes at all. Inside, the dimensions of both models remain exactly the same as before, too, but there have been material upgrades and a more generous level of standard equipment has been applied to the higher SE-L Navand Sport Nav trims. The city braking technology now recognises pedestrians, too.
All 6s now come with something called G-Vectoring Control, or GVC. Not to be confused with torque vectoring, GVC doesn’t brake the wheels. Instead, the engine senses steering inputs when turning in to corners and very slightly reduces its torque output, which in turn shifts the weight forward slightly and aids front tyre effectiveness. However, its benefits extend beyond that, also providing greater high-speed stability and increasing driver and passenger comfort. GVC has been designed to be imperceptible, which is lucky, because we couldn’t detect a thing. Apparently, we’re talking about differences of 0.01-0.05g when entering corners. It isn’t intended to make the car handle better on the limit, just to make the process of cornering easier and more stable.
Either way, the 6 remains one of the better-handling cars in the class, benefiting from quite light but linear, precise steering and an eagerness to turn that’s not always demonstrated by its rivals. It also takes a lot for the front wheels to begin to protest and give up grip and, for what is quite a large car, its body stays propped up nicely. Ultimately, a Ford Mondeo Estate is more rounded, but the 6 isn’t far behind. The lesser 148bhp 2.2-litre diesel seems to make the most sense.
Work has been done to reduce lag and improve torque delivery, and it’s happy to pull from 1800rpm and doesn’t suffer from an overly narrow powerband. In an effort to improve refinement, the pistons have been revised and the injector timing has been fiddled with. There are also upgraded door seals and sound-deadening materials throughout, and the results are obvious: the engine is smoother and quieter under load than before, although it’s still not class-leading in this respect, even if the fluid feel of its manual gearbox just might be.
The ride is commendable, too. Our test car had 17in alloy wheels, which picked up on some of the sharper ruts of our Spanish test route but got better with speed. We also tried 19in wheels, which add more fidget without much dynamic gain, so we’d say the 17s are the way to go. With no dimension changes of which to speak, interior space remains very good in the front, with the driver benefiting from the same good seat and wheel adjustment. Two adults can sit comfortably in the rear, although a Skoda Superb Estate does a better job of that, and the Tourer’s 522-litre boot has the low loading lip, flat floor and levers to fold the rear seatbacks that you’d expect but not the Skoda’s outright space.
All 6s now come with upgraded interior trims. Together with Mazda’s continued competence at creating slick, substantial switchgear and one of the class’s best infotainment systems for ease of use, this makes the 6’s cabin an even nicer place in which to spend time than it was before. The facelift is a light one, and although much has been made about the new GVC technology, there’s very little difference between this and the previous car. The diesels are certainly more refined and the cabin is also now slightly more upmarket, while Mazda isn’t charging a penny more than it did for the old car. It’s a better car than before, then, and offers a more stylish approach than many of its estate rivals. The fact remains, though, that it still isn’t the best. A Mondeo Estate is even better to drive and a Superb Estate manages to be classier, more spacious, more practical, similarly refined and good to drive for less money.
We’ll make no bones about the fact that we love the Mazda MX-5. Yet as you can see, were not the only ones to have been showering the brilliant two-seater with plaudits. In the year since its launch the MX-5 has racked up over 30 different awards for Mazda’s trophy cabinet.
For instance, it has fought off tough opposition from the likes of the Audi A4 and Mercedes GLC to take the World Car of the Year title, as well as snatching the World Car Design of the Year gong from Jaguar’s XE. Impressively, this is the only car ever to win both honours in the same year.
So what’s it like living with the multi- award-winning roadster? Well, it’s been mostly a happy and carefree experience. For starters, the roof operation is by far and away the easiest you’ll find. Simply unlatch from the top of the windscreen, push back and you’re away.
Unfortunately, until the past couple of weeks, this summer hasn’t served up the best convertible weather, but as long as it hasn’t been raining the roof has remained down – although this has caused a few raised eyebrows from my fellow commuters when the temperature is low and the sky is full of menacing clouds.
However, sitting low in the cockpit shelters you from most of the buffeting and the tiny wind deflector does a decent job of keeping the cabin calm. Thankfully, there’s a great heating system so you won’t be cold for long. In fact, it gets a little too hot at times, but we’re certainly not complaining about that. And if you’re ever caught out and need to pop the roof backup, that’s also a doddle and can be done one-handed and quicker than any electric roof.
Yet it’s all about driving with the MX-5 – whatever road you’re on, this is still one of the most thrilling cars. Thanks to its compact dimensions, you can nip in and out of heavy traffic when you need to, and while vision is slightly restricted when the roof is up it’s definitely better than in the previous model.
On the motorway it’s a competent cruiser, and although there’s some roar from the tyres, refinement is generally good. But it’s on those twisty roads that it really opens up and puts a big smile on my face. For me the Mazda is as close as you can get to a go-kart for the road, as its pin-sharp steering allows you to guide it through corners with little more than a quick flick of the wrists.
You have to work the gearbox hard to keep the fizzy 1.5-litre engine on the boil, but that’s all part of what makes this such an engaging and enjoyable car. Plus, we love the rasping exhaust note from the four-cylinder unit as it rips around to the red line.
Yet perhaps the biggest surprise is the Mazda’s usability. Unless we need to cany bulky stuff or my three grandchildren, the MX-5 can swallow quite a lot for a little two- seater. The boot is smaller than the previous version’s, but it’s a better shape so you can easily squeeze in a couple of small suitcases, while a week’s big shop is no problem.
There’s also a glovebox between the driver and passenger seats which is great for housing all my bits and bobs; we can even keep the detachable cup-holders in there. We just have to make sure we leave enough room to carry off all the car’s awards and trophies.
Clever SkyActiv tech ensures Mazda blends nippy pace with decent efficiency, and while you have to shift up and down box a lot, slick changes make this fun.
The low-slung driving position is generally comfortable, but taller drivers find the lack of adjustment on the steering wheel frustrating.
Mazda MX-5 1.5 SkyActiv 129bhp Se-L Nav
On fleet since: March 2016
Price new: £20,195
Engine/power: 1.5-litre 4cyl/129bhp
Options: Metallic paint (£550)
Insurance: Group/quote 26/£651
Mileage/mpg: 3,133/41.4 mpg
Costs: None so far
Any problems: None so far
*Insurance quote from AA for a 42-year-old living in Banbury, Oxfordshire, with three penalty points.
Small but perfectly formed is the best way to describe our MX-5. Its striking proportions look great from any angle, plus it’s a real blast to drive on twisting back roads. Yet it’s the Mazda’s surprising usability that has really impressed, allowing it to blend effortlessly into my daily routine.
When Mazda tinkers with the MX-5 it certainly doesn’t go unnoticed. The new “Retractable Fastback”, or MX-5 RF for short, caused quite a stir when it was revealed at the New York Motor Show back in March. Rather than think of the RF as a hard-roofed drop-top like the previous MX-5 Roadster Coupe, consider it instead predominantly as a coupe but with an occasional supply of fresh air. This is our first taste of the RF as we get an exclusive preview from the passenger seat.
The RX7 arrived in American showrooms in 1978 and sales promptly went crazy. Even importing 4,000 a month, Mazda could not cope with demand and waiting lists were huge. For a while, RX7s changed hands on the black market for as much as $3,000 above retail price. By the time production ceased in 1985, nearly 500,000 had found grateful owners, making the RX7 the best-selling rotary car of all time.
The RX7 sold on its clean European looks and Swiss-watch smoothness. Inspired by the woefully unreliable NSU Ro80, Mazda’s engineers were not worried about the NSU’s ghost haunting the RX7. By 1978 they had completely mastered rotary-engine technology and sold almost a million rotary-engined cars and trucks. These days the RX7 is becoming an emergent classic—the first car to makeFelix Wankel’s rotary design actually work and one of the more desirable and better made sports cars of the 1970s.
The RX7’s slippery, wind-evading shape cleaved the air well, with a drag coefficient of only 0.36 and a top speed of 125 mph (210 km/h). Smooth aerodynamics helped the RX7 feel stable and composed with minimal body roll.
Rear suspension was in the best European sports car tradition—wishbones and a Watt’s linkage.
Fine handling was due to near equal weight distribution and the low center of gravity.
Front discs were ventilated; rear stopping power was by traditional drums.
The RX7’s low hood line could not have been achieved with anything but the compact rotary engine, which weighed only 312 lb (142 kg).
The body design was perfect from the start, and in its seven-year production run few changes were made to the slim and balanced shape.
The RX7 was originally planned as a two-seater, but Mazda was forced to include a small rear seat in the model. The reasoning behind this was that Japanese law stated all cars had to have more than two seats to encourage car sharing.
Cockpit and dashboard are tastefully orthodox, with a handsome three-spoke wheel and five-gauge instrument binnacle; the two large dials are a speedometer and tachometer.
Original design plans for the RX7 favored a one-piece rear tailgate like the Porsche 944, but economics dictated that an all-glass hatch was incorporated instead.
The US could enjoy a brisk 135 mph (217 km/h) turbocharged model after 1984.
Pop-up headlights helped reduce wind resistance and add glamour. But, unlike those on the Lotus Esprit and Triumph TR7, the Mazda’s always worked.
For a Japanese design, the RX7 was atypically European, with none of the garish over-adornment associated with other cars from Japan. Occasional rear seats and liftback rear window helped in the practicality department.
The twin-rotor Wankel engine gave 135 bhp in later models. Reliable, compact, and easy to tune, there was even a small electric winch on the bulkhead to reel in the choke if owners forgot to push it back in.
The Wankel-designed rotary engine had two weak points—low speed pull and fuel economy.
S P E C I F I C A T I O N S
MODEL Maxda RX7 (1978–85)
PRODUCTION 474,565 (377,878 exported to US)
BODY STYLE All-steel coupe.
CONSTRUCTION One-piece monocoque bodyshell.
ENGINE Twin rotor, 1146cc.
POWER OUTPUT 135 bhp at 6000 rpm.
TRANSMISSION Five-speed all synchromesh/automatic option.
SUSPENSION Independent front. Live rear axle with trailing arms and Watt’s linkage.
BRAKES Front: ventilated discs; Rear: drums.
MAXIMUM SPEED 125 mph (210 km/h)
0–60 MPH (0–96 KM/H) 8.9 sec
0–100 MPH (0–161 KM/H) 24 sec
A.F.C. 21.3 mpg (7.5 km/l)
Despite its not inconsiderable advantages, the Wankel engine never really caught on — except in the hearts and minds of Mazda’s management. Mazda took the rotary concept and developed it brilliantly, ironing out snags and creating an innovative engine.
The oil crisis of the early 1970s nearly put Mazda out of business. The Wankel rotary engine which had been such a success in the Cosmo may have been renowned for its smoothness but certainly wasn’t for its fuel economy.
The one manufacturer to make a real go of the rotary engine originally designed by Felix Wankel was Mazda, and the Japanese company’s first rotary-engined car was the Cosmo 110S, a GT car intended to headline the company’s drive into mass-market car production.