Mazda MX-5 Mk3 review

Our Rating: 
2012 model
By Auto Express Test TeamComments

The Mazda MX-5 delivers superb handling, sleek looks and bulletproof reliability at an affordable price

Brilliant chassis, stylish looks, low purchase price
Cramped interior, not very efficient, small boot

The Mazda MX-5 is the world's most popular two-seat sports car. Ever since it's launch 25 years ago, its balanced blend of performance, excellent value and handsome looks has ensured it's lasting success. Even though the current third-generation model is nine years old now it's still one of the best of its kind with rivals ranging from the MINI Roadster to the Audi TT and Peugeot RCZ

The classic roadster shape of the original MX-5 has been retained, but Mazda has ensured its latest design philosophy shines through. The latest iteration received a facelift that brought in a new front bumper and redesigned grille. The MX-5 is available in traditional soft-top guise or as a hard-top Roadster Coupe. The folding metal roof of the Roadster Coupe, is well integrated within the MX-5’s compact frame and manages to keep the rain out without adding too much weight. 

The MX-5 is offered in three main specification levels - the entry level SE, the Sport Tech and the recently-introduced 25th Anniversary Edition. The MX-5 is available with a choice of 1.8-litre or 2.0-litre petrol engines. Neither unit delivers a huge hit of performance but they’re enough to let drivers get the most out of the MX-5’s balanced and involving rear-wheel-drive chassis. The 25th Anniversary Edition was intoruced to celebrate the car's milestone, with production limited to just 1,000 models. It's based on top-spec Sport Tech Nav but is fitted with eye-catching desing tweaks and extra kit inside. 

For the more enthusiastic driver, there is also an MX-5 GT, which has been tweaked by Mazda's racing partner Jota and a BBR version.

While it may be getting on a bit now, the Mazda MX-5 remains one of the best drivers' cars on the market, with superb handling and spirited drive - with a new model due in 2015.  

Our choice: MX-5 2.0i Sport Tech manual

Engines, performance and drive


Like the previous two generations of the Mazda MX-5, the newest generation continues to provide great driver enjoyment thanks to its sharp handling and quick steering.

The 124bhp 1.8-litre MX-5 is mated to a five-speed manual gearbox, whereas the 158bhp 2.0-litre petrol variants can either be specced in six-speed manual or automatic guise - the latter coming with steering wheel mounted paddles.

Mazda MX-5 rear tracking

The 25th Anniversary Limited Edition model is fitted with the most powerful 158bhp 2.0-litre engine and six-speed manual gearbox. It's the best combination available in the MX-5 with enough grunt and a short and sharp gearchange. It may not be the most powerful roadster available but it's lightweight and rear-drive setup makes it one of the most driver focused. Delicate steering and a raspy exhaust note add to the occasion, but you have to work the engine to get the best out of it. All of the power is at the top of the rev range but its free-revving natyre means the power is always accessible.  

MPG, CO2 and running costs


Given its moderately sized engines, the Mazda MX-5 is reasonable in terms of its returned fuel economy.

While it doesn't offer much in terms of fuel-saving technology as other cars in the Mazda range, the 1.8-litre MX-5 returns a combined cycle of 39.8mpg and CO2 emissions of 167g/km, whereas the 2.0-litre has a combined economy of 36.2mpg, and CO2 emissions of 181g/km.

The Mazda MX-5 fitted with the Powershift automatic gearbox is somewhat disappointing in its combined cycle and CO2 emissions, with 35.3mpg and 188g/km respectively.

Another advantage that the MX-5 has in terms of running costs is that resale values are relatively strong. Reasonable prices from new and the MX-5’s popularity as a used car mean you’ll never loose a fortune on an MX-5. Parts should also be quite affordable.

Interior, design and technology


First launched in 2005, the newest generation Mazda MX-5 received a facelift in 2008 to incorporate a restyled front end that took design cues from other models in the Mazda range. The changes included a larger grille, as well as new head and fog lights. The interior also received an upgrade, with Mazda giving the MX-5 redesigned graphics for the instruments.

Mazda has also been generous when it comes to providing the MX-5 with standard equipment, as all versions get climate control, electric windows and remote central locking with boot release. Plus, all models apart from the SE get cruise control as standard.

On the outside, Mazda has been equally as generous with the exterior of the MX-5. The entry level SE gets 16-inch alloy wheels as standard, while higher trim levels get 17-inch alloys.

Practicality, comfort and boot space


Given its sporting credentials, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Mazda didn't aim for practicality when it was designing the MX-5. While the 150-litre boot is only good for a few bags of shopping or a couple of rucksacks, Mazda gives the MX-5 a decent amount of storage in the cabin thanks to various cubby holes and compartments.

Mazda MX-5 interior

You only get four cup-holders but remember this is two-seater sports car, so it's more than enough. Taller drivers may also find getting behind the wheel a bit of a squeeze as the steering wheel doesn't adjust for reach.

Reliability and Safety


The latest-generation Mazda MX-5 hasn't been subjected to the rigours of the Euro NCAP crash safety tests. Having said that, the old model was tested back in 2002, and received a four-star rating. It gave a well-balanced performance, but questions were raised concerning passenger safety, especially from frontal impacts.

The entry-level model doesn't come with electronic stability control (ESP) as standard, either.

Mazda came 8th out of 33 manufacturers in our 2014 Driver Power survey, beating the likes of BMW, Audi, VW and Mercedes. The MX-5 itself ranked at a disappointing 96th place, however, a big step down from the 4th place it made in 2013. 

Disqus - noscript

Came back from France in August from a wine tasting trip. Two people, luggage and 69 bottles of wine. The handling wasn't compromised and the roof was down for the whole trip. A delightful holiday

"cramped interior"

You say 'cramped', I say 'snug'. It's what most people expect and like in a sports car.

BTW, isn't the new version the fourth? I still like the first (pop-up headlight) one the best...

Did you do any shampoo and sets or blue rinses whilst you were there?

Ha ha!
Cramped interior - HELLO! It's a 2 seat sports car.
Not efficient - HELLO! It's a 2 seat sports car.
Small boot - HELLO! It's a 2 seat sports car.

If you need the above fixing, get a Golf bluemotion and bore yourself to sleep.

Still the third generation. This is just a mid-life facelift. It's not a new version from the bottom up.

UM, The guy jabbering on in the video with the blue MX-5 with Power Retractable Hardtop is completely wrong about it (Hard Top) eating into boot space, it does NOT, it is no different to the soft top space as boot room is identical....also the interior plastics are firm and thick for longevity reasons, interiors get very hot when roof is down with direct sunlight on them, hence the harder wearing plastics....Mazda thinks about what they make.

Your absolutely right about the P.R.H.T not eating into bootspace, and the bloke in the video is 100% wrong! My mother used to own an mk3 MX with powered top and I can also confirm that the powered top when stowed, sits in its own compartment separate from the boot, same as the canvas top. It is actually one of the most impressive powered hard top systems you will find on any car... regardless of price.

Do you know anything about cars? Clearly not.

Yes, I do. I know that hairdressers like the MX-5.

You idiot...:)

Are you suggesting that hairdressers don't like MX-5s? Otherwise, qualify your your assertion.

BTW, I am both a hair stylist and MX-5 owner.

LOL. You need to get a life mate! Your an attention seeker that posts the same hairdresser jibes on every MX5 article on A.E.

Correct! But irrelevant. The fact still remains that MX5s are beloved of stylists.

MX5 drivers are well aware that their car has an effeminate image, that's why Mazda marketing used a man with heavy beard growth in their latest TV ad.

But poking fun at them because the car is a bit girly is just trolling.

Fact is though, Evoques, Jukes, SLK's and Boxters are also 'beloved of stylists' Toyota Landcruisers and Nissan Patrols are beloved of the UN... but who cares? So what?

I've owned a 2002 and a 2009 MX-5 and firmly believe that the older car was the better of the two. They were both fun to drive and actually very comfortable too. I added a chrome Mazda boot rack to mine and easily carried a mountain bike around too, so they can be practical as well.
It's not all good news though, and lets start with a 1.8 engine that produces only 124bhp but still costs nearly £200 a year to tax because it's so inefficient. The engines are from the stone age and Mazda are doing the MX-5 no favours with them. I'm not necessarily saying they have to be super powerful, but definitely more efficient. 33mpg was my average. The other factor that lead to the sale of mine, and it may surprise a few people, build quality, fine on the 2002 car, awful on the 2009 car, squeaks and rattles galore on a car with barely over 20,000 miles on it. If you're buying a second hand one, turn off the stereo, vary your speed and listen carefully for little buzzes and vibrations; they will annoy you.

In the modern day, the nearest you can get to a Lotus Elan, and I know what of I speak as I have owned both as well as having worked for Lotus in the 60s. I had the 2 litre 6 speed model, which on a round trip London, Louth in Lincolnshire, Harrogate and back comfortably achieved 39 MPG. Turn off the traction control and prepare for hilarity, it will spin its wheels in 3rd gear in the wet, in such trim it is nearly as over-steery as a VW Beetle. I am 6' and 16 stone and could have done with another couple of inches of arm-reach, but otherwise there was as much room as I needed. There are lockable cupboards behind the seats and a smaller one between them. Reasonable service costs, nothing went wrong in the 3 years I owned a S/H one. The 1.8 is more chuckable as it has more squidgy tyres, they not being such low profile. Unfortunately, with my wife being ill, we couldn't justify 2 cars, so the less practical had to go.

So do publishers, authors, designers, photographers. No worries: great little car.

This was a good car, but please bring a new generation.

Last updated: 29 Aug, 2014