December 26, 2016
by David Bredan
Welcome to another installment in our series of Car & Watch reviews [Ed. note – look for aBlogtoWatch Auto, with more focused car content, in the future.], and in fact the first where we pick a watch and car with no official partnership between their respective manufacturers. Don’t let that bother you one bit, though: as you shall see, the new-for-2016 Mazda MX-5 ND (also sold as the Miata in the US) and the Citizen Eco-Drive Satellite Wave F900 have a lot in common. Let us begin by providing some context, and then we’ll quickly take the driver’s seat in the new MX-5 and put on the F900 to find out how each fares in a real-life review.
There really is no need to stamp MX-5 branding all over the GPS-equipped, solar-charged, titanium-clad Citizen Eco-Drive Satellite Wave F900 to make it feel like the two were made to go perfectly with one another. To be more to-the-point, we’ll say that if you can appreciate the car, we feel you’ll find the watch to your liking just as well – and this is exactly why we matched these two for this review.
Finding the link between the MX-5 and the F900 was quite simple, actually: they are both high-end, extremely well-made products with highly competitive and affordable pricing, recently released as the front-bearers within their own (very specific) product categories, designed and manufactured in-house by established Japanese companies who have a history of understanding what people want from such a product.
Yet another link: when you think about it, both the Citizen F900 and the Mazda MX-5 ND would have been impossible to be made by companies other than ones that have been tirelessly dedicated to continually improving their designs and technologies. The Mazda MX-5’s global success remains utterly unrivaled since its launch in 1989 and the Citizen Satellite Wave technology (and the Citizen F900 watch itself) also has an extremely limited number of competitors, with no risk for either the car or the watch to see newcomers suddenly enter a segment with as high a barrier for entry as for affordable but true two-seater roadsters or GPS-equipped timepieces.
What makes “a true two-seater roadster?” The basic equation is simple enough: engine in the front, two seats in the middle, driven wheels at the back, soft, foldable roof on top. It all started with the famous British roadsters (MG MGA, Austin-Healey 100, Triumph Spitfire, Lotus) almost half a century ago. They were lightweight and extremely involving and fun to drive – but, history tells us, the British motor industry, for reasons we need not discuss here, was doomed, and with it so were these famed drop-top cars.
Worry not though if you seek some cheap driving pleasure: largely in line with modern Japanese (and, in fact, Asian) manufacturing mentality, in the late 1980s, when the idea came to Mazda to create a small and affordable drop-top roadster, the engineers at the company have fortunately not shied away from taking some clues from said British predecessors: beyond the concept itself, the terrific manual gearbox feel of the original NA from 1989 was, well, heavily inspired by that of the Lotus Elan, for example.
This latest version, called the ND, marks just the fourth major generation of the Mazda MX-5 (aka Mazda Miata in the US) in over 26 years. That is a very slowly expanding product family, even by watch industry standards – but Mazda had its solid reasons not to rush with yet newer revisions of their legendary roadster. It took Mazda over 26 years to produce one million MX-5s, making it far and away the best-selling sports car ever produced.
The MX-5 magic recipe? For 26 years, it’s been well-known to all, and yet none could imitate it with success… Key ingredients are: light weight, ample power, great gearbox and suspension, easy maintenance, lovable but cool design, and affordable pricing. As such, the new Mazda MX-5 ND is lighter than ever (!), weighing in at just 2,332lbs or about 1,058kg (this, of course, varies depending on trim level).
Yes, the cheap-n-cheerful spec 1989 NA weighed less, but the ND does weigh the same at a comparable spec level – airbags, stronger structuring, etc, not to mention it comes with modern day luxuries like parking radar, GPS navigation, and so on that add weight and had not been available for the NA.
The version we had in for review was the Mazda MX-5 ND 2.0 Revolution, a top-spec model with all the goodies. For your information, in the US the Mazda MX-5 is available only with this 2-liter engine, developing 155 horsepower – European versions manage 160-hp, and I’m not sure why, but the considerably better fuel quality/higher octane rating standard on the Old Continent might have something to do with it. In Europe, you can also opt for a 130-hp, 1.5-liter engine to save some on the MSRP as well as insurance fees.
Needless to say, all engines have been updated to meet the latest regulations, and even if you rev seven bells out of these small and light motors, fuel consumption will remain relatively low – with frequent “fun-times” included, I got 9l/100km (31MPG), and I bet you can get much better mileage if you are more careful with the go-pedal.
Equipped with Bilstein suspension parts, an LSD (no, not that LSD, but by car enthusiast standards something far more enjoyable and health-friendly: a limited slip differential), this 2.0-liter version wants to provide everything you can possibly need for some excellent canyon carving. The ESP stability program intrudes ferociously at the tiniest bit of slip when it’s turned on, but at the press of a button you can switch it off and – boy, oh boy – the super lightweight roadster’s rear comes alive. Weight distribution is spot on between the front and rear, and if you stamp on the throttle in second or third (first is quite short and best for quick turnarounds or for some “elevenses”), the curvy little back will step out in no time.
I have owned the previous version, the MX-5 NC 2.0, and I couldn’t help but compare this new version to its predecessor. By many, the NC was mocked because it was heavier (although also more powerful) than the NB, but I am quite sure it will soon begin to enjoy the glorified status the NB received after it had been replaced. My key criticism over the ND – which, interestingly, I haven’t read or heard in any of the literally dozens of reviews I have checked since the ND has been released – is in its comparable lack in communicating to the driver. The NC felt alive, and not just that, but also wonderfully confidence-inspiring. It was my first rear wheel drive sports car, and just after the first days I began my time of spending months playing around with its tail-happy handling.
By contrast, the ND’s electrical steering feels numb, giving incomparably less feedback as to what the front wheels (and, in fact, the rear ones too) are doing. The NC’s hydraulic steering was a tool that I could use to communicate with the car; the new steering, on the other hand, feels like an obstacle that stands between me and what the car is doing as it misbehaves. Needless to say, under normal driving conditions there is nothing to be held against the new steering.
The bottom line is that I was feeling much less comfortable pushing the ND beyond its limits – and it truly isn’t a question of familiarity, as the predecessor felt great pretty much immediately upon first drive. It is more about a new disconnect that had not been present in previous versions (I have also driven NAs quite a bit). Come to think of it, though, while all “professional car reviews” touted the new ND for its lightness and balance, I don’t recall anyone praising its steering feel… I, however, prefer not to keep quiet about it and say that if you want modern equipment and safety with basically identical performance, I would recommend picking up a full-spec NC2.
All this said, the new Mazda MX-5 ND is a truly magnificent car in most all other departments. The six-speed manual gearbox is an absolute joy to use every single time – but you also have the option to go with a six-speed automatic (read Car & Driver’s neat rundown on that here). The suspension handled road bumps with dignity, but to be fair, also with a lot of vibrations and shaking directed towards the chassis – get the non-Bilstein ones for less optimal performance but greater comfort.
The interior quality is stellar, the full leather seats and panels are wonderfully executed, with genuinely high-quality materials and workmanship everywhere you look and touch. One notable gripe I do have with the interior concerns the small and practical compartments I so enjoyed using in the NC: gone are the door pockets and cupholders in both doors (big no-no), the large compartment in the lower center console, the glovebox (I mean… was that really necessary?) and the only remaining cupholders have been moved all the way back to in between the two seats, making it impossible to get and put back drinks comfortably.
Quality of execution, then, has improved, but practicality – where every little compartment makes a big difference in such a small car – has been significantly compromised. Not even the great-sounding Bose sound system could make me forget how annoying the lack of useful space and the removal of the comfortably placed cupholders is.