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First drive: Mazda MX-5 GT RS 2021 launch review
Tim Nicholson takes to the racetrack in the new Mazda MX-5 GT RS.
The Mazda MX-5 sports car is a true automotive icon and the fourth-generation model launched in 2015 returned the nameplate back to its lightweight, stripped-back roots. To keep interest fresh, Mazda has introduced a new variant – the GT RS – aimed at enthusiasts looking for an even more focused drive than the standard MX-5, thanks to the addition of performance-enhancing parts.
The RS was developed exclusively for the Australian market and is a permanent variant in the MX-5 line-up. It’s available in Roadster (convertible) and RF guise – the latter stands for Retractable Fastback which just means it has a retractable metal roof. The new RS is paired exclusively with the two-litre ‘GT’ engine and a six-speed manual gearbox. The rest of the MX-5 range benefits from an equipment upgrade as part of a model-year update.
What do you get for the price?
Mazda has added wireless Apple CarPlay across the range, while white nappa leather trim is available in the top-spec MX-5 GT RF Black Roof. A new ‘deep crystal blue’ body colour is available, and some variants gain black exterior mirror caps. The MX-5 Roadster is offered with the entry-level 1.5-litre engine or more powerful two-litre engine, and a choice of six-speed manual or automatic transmissions. The RF is only available with the two-litre engine. The updates come with a minor price increase of $200 per variant. Pricing starts at $36,090 before on-road costs for the manual 1.5-litre Roadster and tops out at $51,120 for the RF GT Black Roof.
But the big news is the MX-5 GT RS. Mazda has added a Brembo brake package at the front with an opposed four-piston aluminium caliper setup and 280 x 22-millimetre front ventilated disc brakes. The RS also gains specially designed 17-inch forged alloy wheels from premium wheel manufacturer BBS, Bilstein suspension dampers for added grip and feedback, and a solid alloy strut tower brace for improved rigidity and steering response.
Pricing for the Roadster GT RS is $47,020 and the RF GT RS is $51,100. This represents a $3000 premium over the regular Roadster and RF GT manual.
There are few sports cars that offer as much bang for your buck as the MX-5. The closest competitor is the Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ coupe twins, but there’s no convertible version. If you want a drop top, Europeans like the Audi A3 and BMW 2 Series start north of $50,000, while the Ford Mustang and Nissan 370Z are more than $60k. The Mini Convertible is closest in price, starting at $43,200 but rising steeply from there.
How safe is it?
The MX-5 has a five-star ANCAP crash safety rating that was awarded in 2015. Standard safety gear includes autonomous emergency braking (front), blind-spot monitor, lane-departure warning, rear cross-traffic alert and traffic-sign recognition.
What’s it like inside?
The new white nappa leather in the flagship version looks pretty cool in the flesh – if white leather is your thing. If not, the regular black cloth or leather seats still look great and they’re supportive and comfortable.
Mazda has kept the MX-5’s cabin minimal to keep weight, and price, down. Everything works as it should and the air-conditioning controls are easy to reach. If you want high luxury, this is not your car. But the MX-5 excels at simple functionality.
Each variant has a seven-inch infotainment screen accessed via a controller in the centre console. Mazda’s MZD Connect system is one of the best among the mainstream brands, but newer Mazda models like the CX-30 use the latest version which is even better.
Bigger folk might find the cabin a little snug and getting in and out takes some getting used to as it’s low to the ground. But it’s all part of the sports-car vibe. The height and reach-adjustable steering column is welcome, as is the inclusion of wireless Apple CarPlay. Android Auto is still wired.
What’s under the bonnet?
The MX-5 Roadster is offered with a 97kW/152Nm 1.5-litre naturally aspirated petrol engine and a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. A more potent 135kW/205Nm two-litre unit – designated by the GT badge – drives the rear wheels via the manual or auto and is available in Roadster and RF body styles. The new GT RS uses the two-litre and the manual exclusively. The double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension setup of the MX-5 is enhanced by the Bilstein dampers on the RS.
Is it efficient?
Fuel use on the combined cycle in the 1.5-litre is 6.2 litres per 100 kilometres for the manual and 6.4 litres for the auto, while the two-litre engine drinks 6.8 (manual) and seven litres (auto). The RS has increased fuel use marginally, by 0.1 litres for the manual and 0.2 litres for the auto. CO2 emissions range from 144g/km for the manual 1.5-litre Roadster to 168g/km for the RF GT auto.
How does it drive?
Before Mazda introduced the RS, the MX-5 was already one of the most engaging driver’s cars on the market. The additions to the RS have only enhanced that. Full disclosure – our RS drive was confined to a track, specifically, the State Motorcycle Sports Complex at Broadford.
We drove the standard GT manual back-to-back with the RS, which highlighted their differences. The regular MX-5 is still a free-revving, corner-hugging fun machine, but everything feels sharpened in the RS. The high-performance brake pads make for noticeably stronger brake-pedal feedback and better braking performance. The fancy Bilstein dampers even out the car when cornering. There was a little more lateral movement in the regular GT than the RS. The tighter chassis improves overall performance too. You feel more confident diving into corners in the RS. The slick-shifting six-speed manual is a perfect match for the two-litre engine and taut chassis.
Our brief road drive in the regular MX-5 GT served as a reminder of how capable and joyful a drive it is. Even fitted with the automatic transmission, you can’t help but have fun. Yes, it’s a bit noisy and there’s very little storage space in the cabin, but it’s a small price to pay.
Should I buy one?
Mazda Australia should be commended for developing a performance-focused variant specifically designed for its local customers. The results are truly impressive.
Many people will buy an MX-5 as a second car given its practical limitations. The MX-5 GT RS is ideal for track days or an engaging country drive and the $3000 premium over the standard GT is well worth it.