Mazda MX-5 review
The Mazda MX-5 delivers superb handling, sleek looks and bulletproof reliability at an affordable price
The Mazda MX-5 is the biggest selling sports car in the world and now into its third – and most sophisticated – incarnation. Its success rests on a fairly simple recipe. First, there’s the look – it features the kind of classic sports car proportions that never go out of style, as evidenced by the fact that the design of the MX-5 has barely changed since it first launched in 1989. Second, the engineering – it marries a lightweight chassis with moderately powerful engines to create truly excellent handling. And third, the MX-5 – priced from £18,495 – has always been one of the most affordable sports cars on the market. It all adds up a stylish car that provides maximum driving thrills on a moderate budget. The MX-5 is available with either a fabric roof or a folding metal arrangement - dubbed Roadster Coupe or RC - the MX-5 is now also available with an automatic gearbox for the first time. With its affordable price and low running costs, the MX-5 really is the people’s sports car. A facelift towards the end of 2012 brought with it new front-end styling, an improved interior, added safety kit and some minor mechanical updates.
Our choice: MX-5 2.0i Sport Tech manual
The Mazda MX-5 has stood the test of time remarkably well. The simple design holds equal appeal for male or female buyers, with just enough aggression thanks to its wide wheelarches, twin exhaust pipes and wide grille. Standard models get 16-inch alloys but not much else, while more powerful Sport Tech versions get 17-inch alloys, Bilstein shock absorbers, stiffer front suspension and a limited slip differential for improved handling. The interior feels a bit cramped and dated these days, but is built to last. A facelift towards the end of 2012 brought a more aggressive grille and front bumper design, as well as the addition of standard-fit climate control. A glossy dark grey dashboard adds a more up market touch, too.
Two engines are available in the MX-5 – both petrols. The lesser 1.8-litre model produces only 125bhp and comes with a five-speed manual gearbox, while the 2.0-litre version makes 160bhp and gets a six-speed manual. The later takes 7.9 seconds to get from 0-62mph and now benefits from improved throttle response and uprated brakes to add greater stability when braking in corners. Neither model feels especially fast, but both rev keenly and enjoy being worked hard. The Powershift automatic is best avoided though – it’s noisy and not as much fun as manual versions. Comfort and refinement aren’t the Mazda's strongest areas, though, as even in the folding metal hard-top model the wind and road noise is quite intrusive. Quick steering and a nimble rear-wheel drive chassis mean it’s a hoot to drive on winding country roads.
The current version of the MX-5 hasn’t been crash tested by Euro NCAP, but as the 2002 model got a rating of four stars it should provide decent protection in the event of an accident. Side airbags are fitted as standard but entry-level models do without traction control, which means they can be a handful in slippery weather conditions. Towards the end of 2012, Mazda added a new active bonnet system. This pops up the trailing edge of the bonnet if a collision with a pedestrian is detected, increasing the deformable area between the panel and the engine. A reinforced windscreen and roll-hoops are present and correct to avoid the roof caving in if the car flips over. The Mazda’s simplicity also means it’s one of the most reliable cars money can buy, and the mechanicals should remain trouble free for 10 years or more.
Its small size means that the MX-5 is rather limited. It has few equals on a country road, but the 150-litre boot is very shallow and can just about fit a weekend’s luggage at a push. The two-seat cabin is similarly cramped, and taller drivers may find it a real squeeze – a problem compounded by a lack of reach adjustment on the steering wheel. There are a number of small cubbies dotted about the cabin but it will struggle to carry anything but the bare essentials. The metal hard-top doesn’t affect boot space but does add an extra element of security and refinement.
The MX-5 might seem like an indulgent choice at first but ownership should be relatively cheap. Insurance groups are low for a car of this type, but without any fuel-saving technology on board, neither version is very economical. The 1.8 should manage around 40mpg combined, while the 2.0-litre model will return roughly 36mpg and emits 181g/km of C02, making it quite expensive to tax. Parts should be affordable, though, and there are plenty of independent specialists around if you don’t want to pay main dealer prices.