Mazda MX-5 review
The iconic Mazda MX-5 has always been about driving thrills on a budget, and the new MX-5 model continues the trend
The fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 has some big boots to fill. Unprecedented success over the last 25 years has elevated Mazda's roadster to become the world’s best-selling two-seater sports car. We especially love them here in the UK, with around half of all Mazda MX-5s sold in Europe going to British buyers.
Smaller, over 100kg lighter and more efficient than its predecessor, the new Mazda MX-5 has gone back to its roots in a bid to offer genuine lightweight sports car thrills for buyers whose pockets aren’t deep enough for a Porsche Boxster.
A removable fabric roof stows manually behind the driver and passenger, while the boot and cabin offer more space, despite the car’s smaller footprint on the road. Buyers can choose between 1.5-litre or 2.0-litre petrol engines connected to a six-speed manual gearbox and sending power to the rear wheels. The 2.0-litre version gets some extra kit including Bilstien dampers and a limited-slip differential.
The sharp new design is an interpretation of the latest Kodo design language, while the interior is brought right up to date with Mazda’s latest MZD Connect infotainment system.
Our choice: Mazda MX-5 1.5 SkyActiv-G
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 make the car 10mm lower overall with a 15mm shorter wheelbase and overhangs reduced by 45mm at each end, giving it a more muscular and squat stance on the road.
Slim LED headlights and a gaping front grille give it a slightly more aggressive character than previous versions, while round taillights give it a striking light signature in the dark. Roof 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. On high-spec models the dash is dominated by an iPad-like screen, controlled by 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 driver’s seat has actually moved 15mm closer to the centerline of the car, putting you closer to the car’s centre of gravity.
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 around 1,000kg, depending on spec, it’s over 100kg lighter than the outgoing car and only 50kg heavier than the original MX-5 first launched 25 years ago. That means even with the relatively low-powered 129bhp 1.5 SkyActiv petrol engine performance is strong.
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 onto a gear and powering out of a corner. However, the engine 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 it’s about as good a six-speed manual as you can get.
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 there’s body roll in the bends, but that only adds to the interactivity 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. The MX-5 lets you safely explore its limits. On a twisty road 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 mid-range punch there’s the 2.0 SkyActiv engine.
This has 158bhp an can get from 0-62mph in a respectable 7.3mph which is a whole second quicker than the 1.5-litre. It doesn’t rev as high, though - redlining 1,000rpm lower, at 6,500. The car is slightly heavier too, but only by around 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 corner-exiting traction. And with the stability control turned off, it makes it a bit easier to get the tail out. The 2.0-litre also has bigger brakes which deliver better stopping power and, in the case of the sport model, benefits from Bilstien 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.
Plus, it only costs £850 more than the 1.5-litre Sport. Seems like a no brainer then? Not necessarily. While it may be quicker, more planted and better-equppied to do skids, the 2.0-litre is not actually any more fun than driving the rev-happy softer sprung 1.5-litre model.
The new Mazda MX-5 hasn’t been on sale long enough to identify any reliability issues, but with such a simple mechanical layout (there’s no adaptive dampers, sport buttons or twin-clutch gearboxes here) the MX-5 should provide trouble-free motoring. It’s worth noting however, that if you plan to drive it hard – on road or on track – then perishables such as brakes discs, brake pads and tyres will need replacing more frequently.
Euro NCAP haven’t had a chance to crash test it 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.
The MX-5 is never going to make the perfect family car, but Mazda has definitely made the most of its modest dimensions. Boot space is yet to be announced but on visual inspection it’s a deep cavity that can easily swallow two or more large weekend bags. You might even squeeze a set of golf clubs in there.
The roof is stowed in a slot behind the rollover hoops, so it doesn’t eat into the boot, and 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 and 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, if you can put up with the lack of luggage space.
Mazda likes to think of itself as an honest car company, more interested in giving customers real-world fuel savings than focusing on spectacular results in the official EU economy cycle.
That’s why its strategy is based around high-compression naturally-aspirated petrol engines rather than following the turbocharged, downsizing trend. Both engines offered here use direct injection, but its the smaller 1.5 SKYACTIV unit that delivers the best fuel economy – expected to be in the region of 50mpg with CO2 emissions of 130g/km, although official figures are yet to be confirmed.
Despite its exotic bodyshape, the MX-5 shouldn’t be any 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 for the MX-5, in the near future at least.