Mazda MX-5 Review
The Mazda MX-5 has become a sanctuary for anyone that savours cheap and simple, but hugely rewarding motoring.
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While previous generations of the Mazda MX-5 had numerous alternatives to worry about, this latest car really is in a class of one, undercutting sports cars such as the upcoming BMW Z4, Audi TT Roadster and Mercedes SLC on price.
It’s available with a cloth roof that folds down manually, or with a metal roof that does so electrically – which is called the Mazda MX-5 RF. Here we’re focusing on the former.
This is the smallest Mazda MX-5 ever built – it’s 100kgs lighter than the car it replaces. Mazda’s attention to detail (when it comes to weight) makes its presence felt both on the straights and in the corners. It means the MX-5 doesn’t need super-stiff suspension to contain its lean in corners, making it more comfortable on the UK’s bumpy broken roads.
That’s also helped by its 132hp 1.5-litre engine that’s slightly smaller than the entry-level engine in the old car – allowing Mazda to sit it further behind the front wheels.
The Mazda MX-5 is a brilliant sports car. The fact it's the best-selling sports car only reinforces that claim
The larger 184hp 2.0-litre petrol offers more power and torque, but doesn’t weigh a huge amount more. Both are non-turbocharged so need to be revved hard for maximum performance, but that’s no hardship in a car that’s so enjoyable to drive quickly.
Despite its very reasonable price, the Mazda MX-5 comes well equipped – even base models get LED headlights, 16-inch alloy wheels, air-conditioning, electric windows, remote central locking, heated wing mirrors, traction control, stability control and a multitude of airbags.
This kind of simple driving enjoyment that the Mazda MX-5 provides is hard to match at any price, but the fact that it should be reliable and economical too only makes it more tempting. Assuming you only need two seats, and luggage space isn’t a priority, it seems rather difficult to find any weaknesses.
The Mazda MX-5 is much more practical than you would expect of a sports car, with a reasonable boot and space for two adults – but don’t go expecting miracles
Sports cars tend to focus on the driver, and the MX-5 is no exception, but Mazda's engineers have managed to make the car work remarkably well for a couple
The Mazda MX-5 is a strict two-seater, but even tall adults will find plenty of room in the front for their legs and space above their heads with the MX-5’s roof closed. Shoulder room is more modest but there’s enough to feel comfortable.
Importantly, the driver gets a great driving position, now improved by Mazda’s recent addition of steering wheel adjustment towards and away from the driver as well as up and down. The Mazda MX-5’s seats are relatively thin to save weight but are widely adjustable and hold you in place well through corners. It’s a shame that lumbar adjustment doesn’t feature, mind you.
This is not one of the Mazda MX-5’s strong points, although there’s just about enough. There are no door bins at all, so you can’t chuck your wallet and keys there, while the cubby under a flap in front of the armrest is a very small size.
The open cubby in front of the gearlever at the base of the dash is small, too, as is the glovebox, leaving a large cubby behind a door situated between the two passengers at the back of the cabin as the only really useable space. In there you’ll fit your wallet, keys, mobile phone and more.
In terms of cupholders, entry-level models come with one and all others models get two, located just above the large cubby between the seats.
Clearly, the Mazda MX-5 isn’t the best choice if you are regularly shifting lots of stuff, but you’ve probably worked that out about all two-seat open-top sports cars by now.
The MX-5’s boot is generous enough, with 130 litres of space beneath a flip-up boot lid at the rear of the car. Inside you’ll fit two carry on cases plus some extra soft items such as coats, but not a lot more. Certainly not a set of golf clubs or a pushchair.
Of course, you’ll also have to lift those bags over the car’s rear lip, which isn’t great if they’re particularly heavy. The good news is that this space doesn’t alter when you put the roof down, as the roof tucks neatly behind the seats.
The fourth generation MX-5 has undergone extensive mechanical changes to make it the finest handling version yet
There's no point beating around the bush – the MX-5 is the best car to drive for the money
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.
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.
As you’d expect, in a small, two-seater sports car, the driving environment is very focussed on the driver.