The fourth generation MX-5 has undergone extensive mechanical changes to make it the finest handling version yet
With the Mazda MX-5, handling is meant to be the star of the show, with outright performance a lower priority.
Mazda offers two engines. Entry-level cars are fitted with a four cylinder, 132hp 1.5-litre unit, while a 184hp 2.0-litre engine powers the top-of-the-range models. The smaller 1.5 is the one preferred by Mazda’s engineers, as they claim its lower mass makes it even more enjoyable to drive.
The 1.5’s power output may sound pretty modest for a modern sports car, but in a car which weighs around 1000kg, it still offers sprightly performance. The 0-62mph dash takes 8.3 seconds, and the engine is more than willing to rev hard and access its maximum shove.
There's no point beating around the bush – the MX-5 is the best car to drive for the money
The 2.0-litre unit features Mazda’s Skyactiv technology – it is lighter than its predecessor, but has the same power output and better fuel economy. You really notice its extra power and torque out on the road (it’s nearly two seconds quicker to 62mph than the 1.5), and it’ll pull itself more readily from slower corners in higher gears, feeling noticeably stronger up at high revs – where it’s equally happy to be.
Whichever engine you go for, the MX-5’s manual gearshift is brilliant, offering short, light and positive shifts. Mazda’s metal-roofed RF model gets the option of an automatic gearbox, but this cloth-roofed car doesn’t, which is no great shame as you’ll want to be as involved in the driving as possible when it’s this good.
Both engines are impressively frugal given the MX-5’s sporting intent – the 1.5 offering an official combined figure of around 45mpg and the 2.0 not much worse at 41mpg. In both cars, achieving an mpg figure in the high 30s is easy stuff in the real world if driven sensibly.
In order to improve the Mazda MX-5’s weight distribution and lower the centre of gravity, the latest car’s engines sit lower and further back than in the old model for better balance.
Extensive use of aluminium – particularly in the suspension and front wings – has not only reduced overall weight, but as with repositioning the engines, focussed the majority of mass towards the centre of the car.
Although the steering is now an electrically assisted setup the MX-5’s system is really good. It’s quick but feels naturally weighted, and communicates the necessary information to give the driver confidence on challenging country roads.
Unlike the 1.5, the 2.0 model comes a limited slip differential for better deployment of power through corners, while Sport Nav+ models get stiffer sports suspension As such, the 1.5 rolls a little more as it barrels through bends, but never to the extent that it detriments the driving experience.
The 2.0-litre cars are slightly more efficient at getting its power down to the road out of slow bends, while Sport Nav+ models stay a little more upright through tight bends, but don’t suffer an overly-harsh ride. In fact, although the 1.5 is ultimately the softer, more comfortable choice, both models are exceptionally comfortable across potted Tarmac given how agile they are to drive.
Roof-up, the Mazda MX-5 is decently quiet on the move. Get up to motorway speeds and there’s some tyre roar to contend with, but nothing frustrating, while with it down the two passengers onboard are well sheltered from buffeting, even at 70mph. Putting the roof down requires unclipping it at the top of the windscreen and simply pushing it back behind you until it locks down with a click.
In terms of safety, the Mazda MX-5 score four stars from five in Euro NCAP’s crash tests which isn’t bad for a small car. That said, the tests were carried out in 2015 and have become from stringent these days.
It’s disappointing, too, that automatic city braking only comes as standard from Sport Nav+ trim an up, while a safety pack has to be added to get blind spot monitoring, adaptive headlights and rear cross traffic alert. This pack comes as standard on GT Sport Nav+ cars, but once again isn’t available on the two lower trim levels at all.