New Mazda MX-5 1.5 2018 review

The Mazda MX-5 impressed us in its 2.0-litre guise, but can it impress us again with its smaller 1.5-litre engine?

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4.5 out of 5

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While there’s now a sizeable gap in power and outright performance between the entry-level 1.5-litre MX-5 and the 2.0-litre model, the 130bhp car isn’t without its charms. It feels a little lighter on its toes, rides well and is still a hoot to drive. However, it’s really not that much cheaper than the freer revving, revitalised 2.0-litre model, leaving the temptation to step up to the new 181bhp car too great to resist.

We’ve already given Mazda a big thumbs up for the latest round of revisions applied to the MX-5. Fun, small, rear-wheel-drive cars like this are in short supply in an affordable performance market solidly held by hot hatchbacks, and with the flagship 2.0-litre MX-5 now boasting 181bhp, Mazda’s roadster now finally has the punch its sweet chassis has long cried out for.

Of course, while the freer revving, more powerful 2.0-litre has grabbed the headlines, the entry-level 1.5-litre MX-5 still soldiers on, and gets its very own set of revisions for 2019.

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It’s nowhere near as extensive an overhaul as the 2.0-litre unit received with no noteworthy mechanical changes. Mazda claims the engine boasts improved combustion and reduced internal friction, which results in some extremely modest power improvements. Overall power climbs just 1bhp to 130bhp, and there’s an additional Nm of torque too, taking that figure up to 152Nm at 4,500rpm.

As such, the range-wide revisions to specification and standard kit are of more note. Sport Nav+ cars like the one we drove get a whole heap of new driver assistance and safety features as standard, including emergency braking support, lane departure warning, traffic sign recognition and a driver attention warning setup. Blind spot monitoring, a reversing camera and adaptive LED headlights make the options list. Elsewhere, a welcome addition across the line-up is a new steering column with reach adjustment.

Something often overlooked about the MX-5 is the overall quality of the cabin. It’s tight in there and taller drivers will probably want a slightly lower seating position, but the dashboard is laid out exceptionally neatly, and the fit, finish and materials used feel very high quality for what is a small and affordable car. Higher spec models finished with leather upholstery venture towards proper premium territory.

While it would be easy to gloss over the hardly-changed 1.5-litre car in favour of what is a much more compelling 2.0-litre package, the less powerful car’s flame hasn’t been completely extinguished. Here’s why.

First of all, though the 2.0-litre MX-5 now has the grunt we’ve longed for and is probably still our pick, nothing hides the fact that the smaller 1.5-litre unit is the engine that this car was designed around.

As such, this purer choice feels more than the sum of its parts. Off the line to 62mph in 8.3 seconds is acceptable – it’s not the hot hatch rivalling pace of the 2.0-litre car, but it’s delivered so satisfyingly, with a somewhat raspy exhaust note climbing up to 7,000rpm and a wonderfully slick shift if you stick with the six-speed manual gearbox.

Importantly though, opting for the smaller engine saves a bit of weight, and this does throw up a few tangible differences in the way the 1.5-litre car drives compared to the 2.0-litre.

With scant power and torque on offer, carrying momentum becomes the name of the game, encouraged by the flyweight 1,061kg mass. Turn the traction control off and there’s still enough right at the top end of the powerband to get the back end stepping out a little, in a highly manageable, user friendly way. 

It rides well too. With less weight to crash around on our pothole specked roads and smaller 16-inch wheels, the 1.5-litre MX-5 is surprisingly comfortable. To top it off, it shouldn’t be too expensive to run either, with 44.8mpg claimed under new WLTP emissions tests. As a trade off, the steering feels just a lick too light, and the wheel of the heavier 2.0-litre car is a little more pleasing to twist.

It’d be very easy to drive the 130bhp car and decide that it’s all the MX-5 you’ll ever need, but Mazda probably knows this, hence the revised model’s enticing pricing structure. Despite getting a heady boost in power, the 2.0-litre MX-5 is still only £1,500 more on list price compared to its humbler stablemate. Over a few years on a PCP deal, that’s likely to translate into a very small increase in monthly payments, making the 181bhp car affordable to almost any prospective MX-5 buyer.

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