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14 June 2024 · Mazda Stories

Mazda MX-5 Manual Joy

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There are moments, hopefully long ones - days even - where you feel happy, but happiness and joy are two different things. Genuine, worth-jumping-for joy is something more elating, and more fleeting.

You know you are really in the zone when you can describe a moment as being one of “pure” joy, when everything is as it should be, or would be in an entirely ideal world, and the muscles in your face are working so enthusiastically on smiling that it almost hurts.

I’m sure I’m not alone in finding that I experience a lot of these moments when driving, but for me, personally, as what you might call an old school-ist, those pure joy in motion moments most often occur when the car I’m driving is, and was born to be, a manual one, like Mazda’s legendary, joy-on-wheels roadster, the MX-5.

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Driving the latest iteration of the fourth-generation through the Adelaide Hills recently I found myself lit from within to the point of mirthing out loud as I poured through a downhill section of switchbacks on a perfectly sunny yet autumn-air-sharp afternoon.

There was eucalyptus and light sea breeze in the air, flooding my senses in a way you can only experience by driving with the roof down in a convertible car like this, and the sounds of fluttering leaves, growling exhaust and chirping birds in my ears. And then, full-throated, right above me, a kookaburra let loose with a crackling cackle that made me feel not only thrilled to be alive but blessed to be Australian, and to be here in this stunning corner of it.

What made the moment even more magical, however, was the purity of the two downshifts I was making with the MX-5’s slick six-speed manual gearbox, concurrently with this cornucopia of Australian delights.

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Approaching a sharp left at the bottom of the hill, I’d snipped the wonderfully seamless mechanical shift lever from fourth back to third, and then again to second, while simultaneously braking with the inside of my right foot and using the outside of it to blip the throttle, on each shift, just enough to perfectly match the revs as the punchy, shouty little engine engaged each gear again.

The frictionless feel of the MX-5’s gearbox is one highlight, but another, at least for those of us who still love the technique, is the way the pedals are set up perfectly for this heel-and-toe manoeuvre (and can I just take a moment to applaud Mazda for not fitting this car with the rev-matching tech that takes this fun away on so many other modern cars).

Getting all of these things right, the timing, the hands and the feet, feels like nailing a dance move, possibly the Moonwalk, or perfectly connecting with a golf shot, or even sinking the black with a satisfying smack from the far end of a snooker table.

There’s a rightness to it, a purity and a joy, that no automatic or dual-clutch gearbox with flappy paddles can ever match, or will ever replace. And yet… those gearboxes are replacing manuals, and at a rate of pace that’s alarming if you still love to use a clutch, or even know how to use one.

More than 90 per cent of Australian youths going for their driver’s licence now choose to do so in an automatic vehicle. The shift to not shifting is so profound that it can be a struggle to find a driving school that even offers lessons in a manual car any more. The demand is simply not there to justify it.

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Which is what makes this Mazda MX-5 not just delightful, but important, and possibly - although let us pray not - something of a collector’s item.

At this stage, Australian buyers still recognise the purity and the passion you feel when driving an MX-5 with a manual gearbox, or at least the majority still do. The most recent breakdown had 65 per cent of all new Mazda MX-5s purchased being optioned with the six-speed manual, and 35 per cent going for the admittedly excellent, and effortless, six-speed automatic gearbox.

The other place where this car’s manual gearbox delivers the purest of joy feelings is on a race track and this new version - the most significant update to the fourth-generation MX-5 - was launched at The Bend Motorsport Park in South Australia, the second-longest permanent race circuit in the world (a certain Nurburgring you may have heard of is the longest).

The newly updated MX-5 has some visual changes inside and out, including new LED lights at the rear, a shift of the Daytime Running Lights (DRLs) into the headlight assembly at the front, an improved infotainment system with a bigger screen, and the addition of wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Speaking of tech upgrades, the MX-5 is also the first car in the Mazda fleet to come with the incredible suite of services available through the MyMazda App and Mazda Connected Services.

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Other changes have been made purely to increase driver joy, like revising the air intake for even more rorty induction noise, tuning the accelerator response in the manual for more rapid deceleration when you step off the throttle, which is particularly handy on a race circuit, and the addition of a newly developed Asymmetric Limited Slip Differential (LSD), a change, again, made only for the manual variant.

Of particular note at our track drive was the new DSC-Track mode, available on the sportiest GT RS models only. The combination of this new and exciting Track setting for the Dynamic Stability Control - which allows the car to oversteer more, for more slidey circuit fun, but will still nip the brakes to get you back in line once you pass a certain threshold of sideways angle - and the new LSD mean you can fully experience what makes rear-drive sports cars so much fun.

That ability to throw your car into a turn with the front wheels, feel the back stepping out just enough to be exciting - a sensation, particularly in something as small and sharp as an MX-5, that feels like your hips have suddenly discovered how to dance like Shakira - and then scooping it all up to tear down the next straight.

Adding to all that fun for us was that magical manual gearbox, which slots and smacks effortlessly through high-speed shifts as you rip up the fastest parts of the circuit, and allows you to really test out your heel-and-toe skills when you have to break hard and drop through the cogs for a hairpin.

After a few laps it’s hard to know if your jaw is hurting from concentrating so hard on learning the track, and pushing yourself to go faster, or from just grinning so fiercely. Driving a circuit as impressive as this, in a manual car, would be joy enough, but being able to do so with the roof down and the wind roaring its approval adds even more chest-filling happiness to the experience.

This Mazda MX-5 might be the last one ever to be offered with a manual gearbox, or it might not. No-one is saying for sure, yet, but we should all hope not. And, just in case, it might be a wise idea to rush out and buy one, immediately, because this, truly, is the best MX-5 ever made, and it could well become a collectable car.

Having pure joy parked in your garage, on tap any time you need it, would be a fine thing indeed.