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Mazda MX-5 1.5 SkyActiv-G 2015 review

First verdict on all-new version of the iconic Mazda MX-5

Overall Auto Express Rating

5.0 out of 5

While other manufacturers are shying away from the dwindling two-seater ‘affordable’ sports car segment, Mazda has stuck to its guns. But instead of reinventing the Mazda MX-5 it has added a fresh design and technology while preserving what made the previous three generations so popular – and that’s genuine open-top, sports car thrills for buyers on a budget. For that reason, even on this early taster drive it’s clear this is shaping up to be the best MX-5 yet.

Most manufacturers, when faced with spiralling equipment levels and stringent crash regulations, concede defeat and let their cars expand generation by generation. But Mazda, a company that’s always done things a little differently, has managed to reverse the hands of time with its fourth-generation Mazda MX-5.

Not only does it is the most compact MX-5 to date, it also weighs 100kg less than the third-gen model and just 50kg more than the 1989 original. And that bodes extremely well for our first opportunity behind the wheel.

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Mazda MX-5 2015: price, release date and specs

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Compared to its immediate predecessor it’s 10mm lower overall with a 15mm shorter wheelbase and overhangs reduced by 45mm at each end. To accommodate this the engine has moved 15mm further back in the chassis and is mounted 13mm lower, which drops the centre of gravity.

However, by mounting the seats 20mm lower, raising the steering wheel and with some clever packaging there’s actually more legroom and headroom, plus a bigger boot.

Not content with simply making the MX-5 smaller, Mazda has used aluminium wherever possible – including the front fenders, front suspension knuckle and roof structure, helping to strip the kerbweight down to around 1,000kg, depending on spec.

Two non-turbocharged, longitudinally mounted SkyActiv petrol engines are available - a 155bhp 2.0-litre and a 129bhp 1.5-litre unit – both offered with a six-speed manual gearbox.

Ordinarily we’d lunge for the more powerful model, but Mazda’s top engineers insist it’s the more modest engine that brings out the MX-5’s best.

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We tried a less-powerful version of the 1.5 SkyActiv in a pre-production Mazda 2 late last year and were disappointed by its lack of refinement and dull responses, but thanks to a counter-balanced crankshaft and tweaked intake and exhausts systems it’s been transformed into a much smoother powertrain, with an appetite for revs.

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With no turbo lag, throttle response is crisp, and there’s something hilariously old school about the way it rewards you for revving it to the 7,500rpm redline. The acceleration doesn’t pin you to your seat, but there’s enough to haul you smartly out of corners and, if you carry enough speed on entry, even un-stick the skinny rear tyres.

Refreshingly, Mazda hasn’t gone chasing ever-higher cornering speeds by fitting rock-hard springs and dampers - due to the lower weight the redesigned suspension is a fraction softer than before. As a result on turn-in it leans on its outside wheels, but that’s no bad thing – it simply feels like more feedback about what the car’s doing beneath you, and how close you are to the limits of grip.

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Mazda MX-5 25th Anniversary Special

The electromechanical steering feels overly light at first, but string a few corners together and it soon wins you over. There’s a direct correlation between your hand movements and the front wheels, allowing you to place it precisely on the road. You’ll even find information about the road surface filtering through to your palms.

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Light steering and a supple ride has other benefits, too. If you can live with the lack of luggage space, then this is a car you easily drive every day, stretching its legs when the road opens up, or cruising in comfort when it’s time to behave. What’s so intoxicating about the MX-5, though, is that you don’t need to be breaking the speed limit to have fun; a quick burst of acceleration here, or a sharp change of direction there, is enough to get your juices flowing.

An important part of that is the gearshift. The stubby lever pops delightfully around its gait, and with the pedals perfectly positioned for heel and toe downshifts you’ll never get tired of blipping the throttle as you pile into a hairpin, dropping a couple of gears and powering out the other side leaving a rasping exhaust note in your wake.

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Mazda MX-5: the ultimate road test

To our eyes the shorter overhangs and lower roofline have improved the proportions no end, while the overall design is sharper around the front grille and taillights, but refreshingly simple up close. In keeping with that, the roof stows manually in a slot behind the rollover hoops, leaving enough room for the narrow but deep boot. Exact boot size is yet to be confirmed by Mazda, but we’d say there’s easily more space than a Jaguar F-Type Roadster back there.

The interior design borrows elements from the rest of the Mazda range, with an iPad-like screen dominating the dash on higher-spec models and a trio of circular air-con controls below. UK trim and equipment levels are yet to be finalised, but despite some lower-quality plastics lower down build and material quality has taken a big leap. The bonnet has been lowered by 28mm and the A-pillars moved back by 70mm to improve visibility, too.

We love that the cabin isn’t cluttered with a rash of buttons for various chassis controls. If you’re feeling frisky you can always switch the ESP off completely, but there’s no sport button, no adaptive suspension, no eco-mode and no switchable exhaust. Frankly, who needs them when a car feels this right, straight out the box.

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