Mazda MX-5 review
The new MX-5 RF hardtop is in the headlines, but the Mazda MX-5 roadster is legendary for providing thrills on a budget
The latest model to join the MX-5 line up is the Targa-roofed RF model, as seen at the 2016 New York Motor Show. UK buyers won't be offered the new 'retractable fastback' until 2017, but fortunately the fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 reviewed here in classic roadster guise has plenty of thrills to offer.
Famously the planet’s best-selling two-seat sports car, the Mazda MX-5 has earned iconic status in its 25 year history thanks largely to its legendary fun factor and cost-effective pricing. The UK has a long history of affordable two-seat roadsters like the MGB and Triumph Spitfire, and as a result the MX-5 is more popular here than in other European markets. Indeed around half of the cars sold in Europe find homes with buyers here.
The MX-5 is now in its fourth generation, and is smaller, more than 100kg lighter and more efficient than its predecessor. The manufacturer says the new Mazda MX-5 has returned to its original formula and offers a genuine sports car thrill for buyers who can't afford a Porsche Boxster.
Thanks to a platform sharing venture the Mazda MX-5 also now has a sister car in the shape of the Fiat 124 Spider which shares the MX-5's mechanicals. Other new options in the roadster market are more expensive, but because of the model's enthusiast appeal potential owners are likely to be more open than usual to the used alternatives.
Buyers can choose between 1.5 and 2.0-litre petrol engines connected to a six-speed manual gearbox, with power sent to the rear wheels. The 2.0-litre version gets some extra equipment including Bilstein dampers, to help reduce body roll, and a limited-slip differential, which boosts traction out of corners.
A removable fabric roof stows manually behind the driver and passenger, while the boot and cabin offer more practicality and space than before, despite the car’s smaller footprint on the road.
The sharp new look is an interpretation of the latest 'Kodo' design language from Mazda, while the interior is brought right up to date with the company's MZD Connect infotainment system. The end result is a brilliant, lightweight sports car that really connects the driver with the road.
At the moment there’s just one bodystyle for the fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 and it’s a two-seat roadster. The previous model did flirt with a hard-top roof in the Roadster Coupe model and this folding hard-top version is set to return, but in essence, an MX-5 has always had a manual folding fabric top to allow for open-air driving thrills.
In the UK, there are five trim levels: SE, SE-L, SE-L Nav, Sport and Sport Nav (with Nav versions obviously including integrated sat-nav). All five are available with the entry-level 1.5-litre engine, while only the top four can be specified with the more powerful 2.0-litre MX-5. Both engines are four-cylinder 16-valve units, with Mazda resisting the temptation to turbocharge either version.
The Japanese car maker calls these hi-tech direct-injection engines SkyActiv-G, with the ‘G’ standing for gasoline; in other Mazdas, SkyActiv-D diesels are available. As a result, the 2.0-litre engine can be considered the performance version of the MX-5, as it also benefits from a limited-slip differential, front strut brace and (in Sport trim) sports suspension. For now, there’s no dedicated performance model, and Mazda says that an even quicker MX-5 is not in the pipeline.
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The 1.5 and 2.0-litre MX-5s are equipped with an identical six-speed manual transmission. This has a ‘direct drive’ top gear for comfortable cruising, and is an absolute delight to use in either model.
Over its quarter of a century and more in production, the MX-5 has seen a number of competitors of varying sizes and prices come and go – cars like the MGF and MG TF, Honda S2000, Toyota MR2 and Suzuki Cappuccino. But now, the Mazda is in the enviable position of having no direct competition in the small, affordable roadster class.
Apart from the MX-5's sister car, Fiat's 124 Spider, the closest models that could be considered rivals also come from Japan, in the shape of the jointly developed Toyota GT86 and Subaru BRZ, which are lightweight, rear-wheel-drive coupes with a similarly keen price.
There’s also the Nissan 370Z Roadster, but this is much heavier, more powerful and more expensive than the MX-5, competing in a class with the Porsche Boxster, Mercedes SLK, Audi TT Roadster and ageing BMW Z4.
For the moment, the MX-5 is the sportiest car Mazda makes, as there’s no current ‘RX’ performance flagship. At the top of its range, the company is focusing on SUVs, like the CX-3 crossover and CX-5, but the MX-5 sits comfortably near the summit of the Japanese firm’s product line-up in terms of desirability.
Since the Mk1 MX-5 appeared back in 1989 – taking inspiration from classic lightweight British sports cars of the sixties like the Lotus Elan – more than 950,000 have been sold worldwide, making it the most successful two-seat sports car of all-time. The one millionth MX-5 will be one of these Mk4 cars, expected to leave the factory some time in 2017.
Engines, performance and drive
To state the obvious, driving feel is what the MX-5 is all about – it has built its reputation on serving up playful dynamics at an affordable price, and the new version doesn’t disappoint.
With a kerbweight of between 975kg and 1,000kg, depending on spec, the latest roadster is over 100kg lighter than the model it replaces and only 50kg heavier than the original, launched more than 25 years ago. That means performance is strong, even with the relatively low-powered 129bhp 1.5-litre version.
The engine has been completely reworked to make it smoother, and it revs eagerly all the way to 7,500rpm, so the driver is rewarded for holding on to a gear and powering out of a corner. However, it really does need to be worked to get the best out of it, so you’ll be changing gear a lot to keep the engine in its sweet spot. Luckily the six-speed is about as good as manual boxes get, with a beautiful, mechanical-feeling and short-throw shift action.
Switch the traction control off and you can break the rear tyres’ grip on the road, but the car always lets you know how close to the limit you are.
The suspension is supple, so the body rolls in bends, but that only adds to the sense of interaction between driver and car when you’re moving fast and boosts comfort when you’re taking things easy. The steering is light but pinpoint accurate, while the stubby gearlever pops satisfyingly from gear to gear.
The MX-5 was built around the 1.5-litre engine – and on a twisty road, you can tell as it lets you safely explore its limits. On a route where you can rev the engine out, the 1.5-litre is an absolute joy. However, if you need to overtake more frequently or prefer more mid-range punch, there’s the 2.0-litre engine.
This has 158bhp and takes the car from 0-62mph a whole second faster than the 1.5-litre, in a respectable 7.3 seconds. It doesn’t rev as high, though – redlining 1,000rpm lower, at 6,500rpm. The car is slightly heavier, too, but only by 25kg. The added weight is in the nose and as a result the 2.0-litre doesn’t feel quite as quick to turn in, even with its standard front strut brace.
All 2.0-litre models have a limited-slip differential, which helps improve traction out of corners. And with the stability control turned off on a track, this makes it a bit easier to get the tail out. The 2.0-litre also has bigger brakes, which deliver better stopping power, while Sport versions benefit from Bilstein dampers. These reduce body roll, but there’s a mild trade-off in ride comfort. When combined, these upgrades make the 2.0-litre Sport feel like a mini Porsche Boxster.
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Plus, it only costs £850 more than the 1.5-litre Sport. Seems like a no brainer then? Not necessarily. Although it’s quicker, more planted and arguably better equipped for track use, the 2.0-litre is actually no more fun to drive than the rev-happy and softer-sprung 1.5-litre model.
The 1,496cc engine makes 128bhp at 7,000rpm – that’s just 500rpm shy of the redline, which explains its rev-happy nature – and delivers maximum torque of 150Nm at 4,800rpm.
The SkyActiv-G unit, displacing 1,998cc, has slightly more accessible and larger reserves of power and torque (158bhp at 6,000rpm and 200Nm at 4,600rpm), but isn’t quite as charismatic or ideally suited to the featherweight MX-5 as the 1.5; the 128bhp engine definitely sounds better, with a hard-edged note under full acceleration.
Both units have a double overhead cam configuration with a high compression ratio. This is one of the chief ways that Mazda can claim such good fuel economy figures from normally aspirated engines.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
Mazda claims it prefers not to focus on achieving spectacular results in the official EU economy cycle; instead, it says it’s more interested in giving customers real-world fuel savings.
That’s why its strategy is based around high-compression naturally aspirated petrol engines rather than following the turbocharged, downsizing trend. Both the engines offered in the MX-5 use direct injection technology, but the smaller 1.5-litre SkyActiv unit delivers better economy – it claims 47.1mpg with CO2 emissions of 139g/km.
In left-hand-drive cars, the 2.0-litre can be had with Mazda’s i-stop and E-Loop fuel-saving technology. These features add 15kg to the kerbweight, yet help the car claim 42.8mpg and 154g/km. But they’re not yet available on UK models, so the best any right-hand-drive 2.0-litre MX-5 can achieve is 40.9mpg economy and 161g/km of CO2.
However, considering its low weight and relatively low-power engines, the MX-5 isn’t all that cheap for road tax. Neither model dips into Band D – the final VED segment that qualifies for the free ‘showroom tax’ for the first 12 months of ownership – and the 2.0-litre sits in Band G, which means an annual road tax bill of £180.
On the plus side, its Benefit-in-Kind tax rates for business users are competitive, ranging from as little as £67 per month for lower-rate taxpayers (on the 1.5i SE) to £208 per month for the 2.0i Sport Nav for those paying tax at the higher rate.
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Despite its exotic body shape, the MX-5 should be no more expensive to run than, say, a Mazda 3 hatchback – both use a variety of common components, so replacement parts should be easy to track down and relatively affordable.
If you’re planning to wait for a more powerful turbocharged MX-5 or a more efficient diesel version, don’t hold your breath – Mazda’s engineers have ruled out both, in the near future at least.
Insurance groups have still to be confirmed at the time of writing and the Euro NCAP test has not yet been carried out, but we expect the Mazda to score highly on both fronts, given the SkyActiv ethos is incorporated into the body structure to make the car incredibly safe in the event of a crash.
Front and side airbags, Dynamic Stability Control and traction control are all available across the line-up. Only the range-topping 2.0i Sport Nav can be specified with the £350 Safety Pack option, which brings High-Beam Control and Blind-Spot Monitoring with Rear Cross-Traffic Alert – this could have a beneficial effect on insurance premiums.
The Mk4 MX-5 is still very new to showrooms, so it’s too early to say how its values will hold up. But with even early Mk1 cars fetching decent prices, plus the allure of open-top motoring proving strong in the UK – despite our changeable weather, we’re the largest market for convertibles in Europe – the MX-5 should hold its values well.
Expect higher-spec models, especially ones fitted with integrated sat-nav, to maintain their prices better than base trims.
Interior, design and technology
The new MX-5’s design is more about perfect proportions than endless slashes, creases and vents in the bodywork. Mazda’s designers have worked hard to introduce a more muscular and squat stance on the road, making the car 10mm lower overall with a 15mm shorter wheelbase and overhangs reduced by 45mm at each end.
Slim LED headlights and a gaping front grille give it a slightly more aggressive character than previous versions, while round tail-lamps provide a striking light signature in the dark. Whether the roof is up or down, the MX-5 has a classic silhouette, with the driver and passenger’s heads towards the rear of the car and a long bonnet stretching out in front of them.
On the inside, the door tops are coloured to match the exterior paint, adding a flash of colour to the cabin and, according to Mazda, visually connecting the driver to what’s going on outside. They are also sculpted in such a way that airflow with the hood down is directed to keep the passengers cool while minimising buffeting to their hairstyles.
On high-spec models, the dash is dominated by an iPad-like screen, controlled through a rotary dial on the centre console. Underneath that there are three circular dials for the climate control. The instrument panel (with the tachometer front and centre) and air vents are designed to be perfectly symmetrical around the driver, for a cockpit-style feel, while the seats have been moved 15mm closer to the centre line of the car and 20mm lower in the chassis, putting you closer to the Mazda’s centre of gravity. Apart from a few questionable plastics here and there, and the simplicity of its design, the MX-5 cabin is a pleasant place to be.
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SE models come with 16-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights, air-conditioning and electric windows, as well as a leather steering wheel and gearknob, heated power door mirrors and remote central locking. Move up to SE-L, and you also get LED daytime running lights, climate control, that body-colour interior trim, cruise control and the seven-inch colour touchscreen with MZD Connect. Sport spec brings a gunmetal finish for the 16-inch wheels, while adding piano black door mirrors, rear parking sensors and the light-sensitive Adaptive Front Lighting System. It also comes with heated leather seats, rain-sensing wipers, keyless entry, a Lane Departure Warning System and a Premium Bose sound set-up.
All 2.0-litre models feature a limited-slip differential and front strut brace. In SE-L spec you get 17-inch gunmetal alloys and the black door mirrors. Go for Sport trim, and the wheels come in a bright finish, the door mirrors are body-coloured and there’s also sports suspension with Bilstein dampers.
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The options list is pared back, just like the whole of the MX-5 package, with only four cost extras to pick from. There’s a choice of five mica/metallic/pearlescent paints (£540), the signature launch colour of Soul Red metallic (£660), a tan leather trim upgrade (£200, and only available on Sport Nav models) and the Safety Pack (£350 and only offered on 2.0-litre Sport Nav cars). We think the MX-5 looks great in Soul Red, but if you don’t want to spend any money on paint at all, your Mazda roadster will come in Arctic White.
Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
Mazda’s new-generation control interface tech comes in the form of MZD Connect, which is available from the SE-L trim upwards. It features a seven-inch screen mounted on top of the dash and is excellent in its operation – intuitive to control via the console-mounted rotary dial (it also has voice recognition) and offering crisp, clear graphical displays, it’s one of our favourite in-car infotainment systems. Adding the integrated sat-nav to the MX-5 SE-L or Sport costs £600, and the price includes three years of European map updates.
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Base SE models get a single CD player with an AM/FM radio, USB and auxiliary inputs, and MP3/WMA compatibility, all of which plays through a four-speaker stereo system. SE-L adds DAB radio, but the Sport comes with a superb Bose Premium nine-speaker system. This features four 5cm UltraNearField speakers in the seat headrests, two 2.5cm tweeters in the A-pillars, a pair of 16.5cm wide-range speakers in the doors and a 13cm subwoofer in a six-litre bass enclosure, cleverly situated under the footwell so as not to steal cabin room. The seven-channel digital amp is also well positioned, underneath the soft-top storage space.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
While the MX-5 will never be the perfect family car, Mazda has definitely made the most of its modest dimensions.
The lightweight fabric hood can be folded back easily from the driver’s seat with one hand. Small cubbies between the seats and on the centre console are useful for your phone or small change, but there’s no glovebox.
A bonnet lowered by 28mm over the previous car’s, plus thinner A-pillars moved back by 70mm, mean forward visibility has been improved significantly. But what really makes the MX-5 surprisingly practical is its light steering feel, soft suspension and impressive refinement with the roof up in top gear.
It all adds up to a car that you could easily use every day, unless you need to carry large, bulky items on a regular basis.
The Mazda MX-5 is compact, at less than four metres long (3,915mm), just 1,735mm wide including the door mirrors and 1,225mm high (1,230mm with the 2.0-litre’s 17-inch wheels). The overhangs are shorter than before and the wheelbase is trimmed to 2,310mm, which requires inventive packaging within, yet also provides the squared-off stance of the MX-5.
Leg room, head room and passenger space
Now that the seats have been moved closer together, with two six-foot adults on board the driver will occasionally brush their passenger’s thigh inadvertently when changing gear. But otherwise, the MX-5 is very comfy inside for a small car. Head room stands at 950mm, there’s over a metre of leg room (1,096mm), and you get 1,325mm of shoulder room and 1,320mm of hip room across the cabin. While it’s nothing like as spacious as any of the premium German opposition, for something markedly cheaper than those vehicles it still feels an appealing, premium product.
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Boot space is reduced over the old model by 20 litres to 130 litres overall, but cleverly the load area has been reshaped so that it can swallow two carry-on suitcases – something that the old model could not achieve. The boot opening is 821mm above the ground, while the fabric hood stows away in a slot behind the rollover hoops, so it doesn’t eat into the limited luggage capacity.
Reliability and Safety
The new Mazda MX-5 hasn’t been on sale for long enough to identify any reliability issues, but with such a simple mechanical layout (there are no adaptive dampers, sport buttons or twin-clutch gearboxes here), the car should provide trouble-free motoring. It’s worth noting, however, that if you plan to drive it hard – on road or track – then perishables such as brake discs, brake pads and tyres will need replacing more frequently.
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Euro NCAP hasn’t crash tested the MX-5 yet, either, but the suite of i-Activesense active safety systems is impressive, using radars and sensors to warn the driver of potential dangers, such as a static car in front or if you’re swerving out of your lane. There are side airbags with a head protection function and an active pop-up bonnet, making it one of the safest cars around for pedestrian protection.
Mazda offers a standard three-year, 60,000-mile warranty on the MX-5. These days, with some companies offering four, five or seven years of cover, this is about average. Like many three-year policies, the roadster’s warranty can be extended for a variable cost, but this additional peace of mind is provided by a third party and a car will need to have less than 100,000 miles on the clock to qualify for an upgrade.
Prices are not yet fixed for the new MX-5’s servicing, but Mazda tends to operate a 12-month or 12,500-mile service interval, whichever comes sooner. It also pledges to match any service price quoted by an independent garage on a like-for-like service basis. Costing as little as £499 – but likely to be more money for a specialist sports car like the MX-5 – a three-year/37,500-mile service inclusive package can be specified, which can be paid in a lump sum or monthly direct debit instalments. It covers parts and warranty costs for the first three services.
Mazda also has a neat system called Digital Servicing Record. This sees all Mazda main dealer servicing records held electronically, and means you’ll never have to hunt in vain for the service book again when the time comes to take your car for routine maintenance.