Long-term test review: Mazda MX-5

Final report: Mazda's MX-5 roadster has proven why it’s a winner after a year on fleet

Overall Auto Express Rating

5.0 out of 5

The Mazda MX-5 proved why it’s an award winner. Its dynamics, affordability and looks make it an attractive proposition. We’re sad to see it go, but we’re about to get an equally appealing replacement from Mazda’s MX-5 family that promises more versatility from a folding top.

Mileage: 5,265Economy: 40.5mpg

It’s time to say goodbye to our Mazda MX-5 after 12 months of motoring – and what a year it’s been.

The Mazda is sublime, so it was no surprise that it took the Best Roadster crown at the Auto Express 2016 New Car Awards. This is a huge accolade, but the MX-5 went one step better, with its blend of attributes helping it secure one of the biggest prizes in motoring – the World Car of the Year title for 2016.

Our 1.5-litre model in SE-L Nav trim is the sweet spot of the range, with just the right level of equipment to make the MX-5 usable, balancing kit with cost. However, it’s the drivetrain and chassis that have really impressed us during the time we’ve spent with the car.

With a modest 129bhp, the entry-level 1.5 engine is more eager to rev than the 2.0-litre that’s also available. You have to work it, because its 150Nm of torque is produced high up the range at 4,800rpm, but it relishes revs and sounds great.

This is no real surprise; the fourth-generation MX-5 was designed around this smaller, raspy, naturally aspirated engine, and the way the powertrain works with the chassis makes this one of the most engaging sports cars on the market – at any price.

The six-speed gearbox is precise, perfectly weighted and provides a lovely connection to the car. The snappy throttle response means you can easily heel-and-toe ‘blip’ your downchanges, while the light clutch makes it as smooth as a supermini in traffic. Our model didn’t feature the firmer Bilstein dampers that only come on the 2.0-litre Sport Nav, but it doesn’t need them.

The MX-5’s softer set-up makes it more compliant over rough roads. But the more forgiving suspension does highlight a few flaws. There’s a noticeable amount of roll, and the open-top layout means there’s some scuttle shake from the chassis. The cabin is cramped, too, and storage isn’t great, with no glovebox and just a few cubbies. But these elements are secondary to the way the car drives, and the fun it delivers.

We enjoyed it at its best over summer, where the manual soft-top makes it simple to drop the roof at the first sign of some sun, but even the worst of the winter weather couldn’t dent our enthusiasm. Refinement is good with the top up, and when it’s down there’s not too much buffeting, thanks to a little wind deflector between the seats.

This MX-5 has moved the game on with its style and tech at such an affordable price. Our car cost £20,195, and while that’s only £800 less than a turbocharged Fiat 124 Spider, the extra would buy only a basic Fiat, which can’t match the Mazda’s kit or engine purity.

Mazda MX-5: third report

Mileage: 4,257Economy: 40.5mpg

Summer has drawn to a close, but my patience has paid off with some early autumnal sunshine allowing me to throw back the Mazda MX-5’s roof and catch some rays.

The Mazda and I have been out for quite a few trips recently to appreciate what it offers over some other sports cars, like the hard-top-only Toyota GT 86.

Best sports cars on sale

So I’ve been down to the coast for picnics on the beach, as well as out to the countryside for some amazing drives around the beautifully scenic and twisty roads of West Sussex.

I’ve even had to endure the perpetual traffic at the Dartford Crossing, but when the weather is on your side and the roof is down, I tend to be more relaxed about any congestion. As long as you’ve got your factor 30 on, it’s easy to relish the roof-down appeal of the MX-5, no matter how chaotic the surroundings.

The Mazda doesn’t have a clever electric folding roof like the MINI Convertible, but the folding canvas top is so simple it means there’s none of the compromise brought about by the complexity and weight an electric roof adds.

There’s just one catch to contend with above the rear view mirror on the header rail; it’s simple to unclip, then it’s just a case of pushing the roof frame back as it collapses behind the seats and locks into place. The process is just as easy in reverse, and means you can drop the top in an instant when the weather is fine. I’ve even found that with the heater turned up it’s perfectly pleasant to cruise around when the mercury is a little lower – although heated seats would be a nice addition to our car.

It’s not all been plain sailing for the MX-5, though, as the arrival of Fiat’s 124 Spider has caused a stir. Challenging Mazda’s long-term reign in the roadster class, Fiat has positioned its new car squarely between the 1.5-litre and 2.0-litre MX-5s with its 138bhp 1.4-litre turbo engine.

• Mazda MX-5 vs Fiat 124 Spider

Our recent twin test pitted the 124 Spider against the 2.0-litre 158bhp MX-5, and gave me the perfect opportunity to see if I was missing out with the less powerful Mazda.

A drive in both showed there are pros and cons: you immediately feel the extra power off the line, and the 2.0-litre is an entire second faster from 0-62mph, taking 7.3 seconds according to Mazda’s claims. With 50Nm more torque it also has better mid-range punch, which means overtaking in my car needs more planning.

However, they both get the same delightful six-speed gearbox. You have to work it harder in the 1.5 to keep the revvy 129bhp engine on the boil, but I like that it involves me heavily in the process of driving. Using a little grey matter to think about what gear I need to be in is engaging and entertaining.

The other big benefit it brings can be felt in your wallet. The hike in CO2 for the 2.0-litre over the 1.5 means you’ll be paying £55 a year more in road tax, at £185 in total.

You’ll also spend more time at the pumps, as the fuel economy of 36.0mpg isn’t as impressive as our car’s 40.5mpg. Factor in pricier insurance at £712 for the more powerful Mazda against £651 for our car, and the running costs add up.

On balance, I’m quite happy with our more efficient, lower-powered and cheaper 1.5 SE-L Nav – it’s all the car you’d want from a convertible, and great fun to drive.

Mazda MX-5: second report

Mileage: 3,133Economy: 41.4mpg

I’ll make no bones about the fact that we love the Mazda MX-5 at Auto Express. We even crowned it Best Roadster at our recent New Car Awards 2016. Yet as you can see, we’re not the only ones to have been showering the brilliant two-seater with plaudits. In the year since its launch the MX-5 has racked up over 30 different awards for Mazda’s trophy cabinet.

For instance, it has fought off tough opposition from the likes of the Audi A4 and Mercedes GLC to take the World Car of the Year title, as well as snatching the World Car Design of the Year gong from Jaguar’s XE. Impressively, this is the only car ever to win both honours in the same year.

So what’s it like living with the multi-award-winning roadster? Well, it’s been mostly a happy and carefree experience. For starters, the roof operation is by far and away the easiest you’ll find. Simply unlatch from the top of the windscreen, push back and you’re away. 

• Best convertible cars

Unfortunately, until the past couple of weeks, this summer hasn’t served up the best convertible weather, but as long as it hasn’t been raining the roof has remained down – although this has caused a few raised eyebrows from my fellow commuters when the temperature is low and the sky is full of menacing clouds.

However, sitting low in the cockpit shelters you from most of the buffeting and the tiny wind deflector does a decent job of keeping the cabin calm. Thankfully, there’s a great heating system so you won’t be cold for long. In fact, it gets a little too hot at times, but I’m certainly not complaining about that. And if you’re ever caught out and need to pop the roof back up, that’s also a doddle and can be done one-handed and quicker than any electric roof.

Yet it’s all about driving with the MX-5 – whatever road you’re on, this is still one of the most thrilling cars. Thanks to its compact dimensions, you can nip in and out of heavy traffic when you need to, and while vision is slightly restricted when the roof is up it’s definitely better than in the previous model.

On the motorway it’s a competent cruiser, and although there’s some roar from the tyres, refinement is generally good. But it’s on those twisty roads that it really opens up and puts a big smile on my face. For me the Mazda is as close as you can get to a go-kart for the road, as its pin-sharp steering allows you to guide it through corners with little more than a quick flick of the wrists. 

You have to work the gearbox hard to keep the fizzy 1.5-litre engine on the boil, but that’s all part of what makes this such an engaging and enjoyable car. Plus, I love the rasping exhaust note from the four-cylinder unit as it rips around to the red line.

Yet perhaps the biggest surprise is the Mazda’s usability. Unless I need to carry bulky stuff or my three grandchildren, the MX-5 can swallow quite a lot for a little two-seater. The boot is smaller than the previous version’s, but it’s a better shape so you can easily squeeze in a couple of small suitcases, while a week’s big shop is no problem. 

There’s also a glovebox between the driver and passenger seats which is great for housing all my bits and bobs; I can even keep the detachable cup-holders in there. I just have to make sure I leave enough room to carry off all the car’s awards and trophies.

Mazda MX-5: first report

Mileage: 1,712Economy: 41.5mpg

When our new Mazda MX-5 arrived on the Auto Express fleet, there was a predictable bun-fight as to who was going to run the highly acclaimed two-seater roadster. However, with most of my colleagues having small children to consider, it was soon whittled down to me – and I certainly wasn’t going to argue!

I was lucky enough to run the previous- generation 2.0-litre MX-5 when it was launched back in 2006 – and loved it – so I was immensely excited about getting behind the wheel of this latest incarnation.  But with its new smaller 1.5-litre engine, would it live up to my high expectations?

Off I went to be reacquainted with my local Mazda dealer  – TW Whites in Bookham, Surrey – where sales executive Tom Birdsall was available not only to answer any questions I had, but to hand over the keys to my precious new charge.

After a coffee and a look through the MX-5 brochure, Tom talked me through the extensive features of the car’s MZD Connect infotainment system. With its dash-mounted seven-inch tablet-style screen, there’s plenty going on for techie types. He eagerly showed me how I could connect to the Internet, Tweet and post on Facebook if I so desired. I’m more keen on doing that from the comfort and safety of my home, but it’s a neat little option.

What was useful was the ease with which my smartphone paired, while the sat-nav is simple to use. It’s all helped by the Multimedia Commander control wheel by the gearlever, which puts everything at your fingertips.

Mazda has now installed a new external boot release button, which Tom pointed out. It’s well hidden in the corner of the number plate recess, and I certainly wouldn’t have found it without his advice. With past experience of locking my keys in the boot of my previous MX-5, it’s certainly a welcome addition to the new model.

We’ve opted for mid-range SE-L Nav spec, which gets smart black cloth seats with red stitching, LED headlights, cruise control and steering wheel-mounted audio and Bluetooth controls as standard. We’ve also opted for the Ceramic metallic paint option, which I think looks really smart at £550, although it’s had the Marmite effect by dividing opinion among my colleagues.

But it’s when you get behind the wheel that the enjoyment really kicks in. Unlatch the manual hood – the windows now automatically drop slightly to ease operation, although annoyingly they don’t go back up – push the canvas roof back, click it into place and you’re ready for some wind-in-the-hair, open-top motoring.

Its now 27 years on from the original MX-5, and Mazda has thankfully remained faithful to the original ethos by keeping the latest model simple, yet providing fantastically fun motoring.

The familiar short-shift six-speed gearbox is still one of the best you’ll find, and coupled with the new 1.5-litre engine, it really is a perfect match. I’m not the only one to think so, either – everyone from the office who has driven the MX-5 has been bowled over by the little roadster. I’m now just hoping we get a great summer, because as long as it’s dry, the roof will be firmly down and I’ll once again be in convertible heaven...

*Insurance quote from AA (0800 107 0680) for a 42-year-old in Banbury, Oxon, with three points.

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