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In-depth reviews

Mazda MX-5 review - Engines, performance and drive

The MX-5's revvy Skyactiv-G engines are a joy, but we'd go for the extra power of the 2.0-litre

Overall Auto Express Rating

5.0 out of 5

Engines, performance and drive Rating

5.0 out of 5

Price
£27,975 to £34,740
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Driving feel is what the MX-5 is all about – it has built its reputation on serving up playful dynamics at an affordable price, and the latest version doesn’t disappoint.

With a kerbweight of between 975kg and 1,000kg depending on spec, the Mk4 is over 100kg lighter than the model it replaces, and only 50kg heavier than the original, launched more than 25 years ago. That means performance is strong, even with the relatively low-powered 130bhp 1.5-litre version.

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The engine revs eagerly all the way to 7,500rpm, so the driver is rewarded for holding on to a gear and powering out of a corner. However, it really does need to be worked to get the best out of it, so you’ll be changing gear a lot to keep the engine in its sweet spot. Luckily the six-speed box is about as good as manuals get, with a beautiful mechanical feeling and a short-throw shift action.

Switch the traction control off and you can break the rear tyres’ grip on the road, but the car always lets you know how close to the limit you are.

The suspension is supple, so the body rolls in bends, but that only adds to the sense of interaction between driver and car when you’re moving fast, and boosts comfort when you’re taking things easy. Of course, the steering remains one of the best aspects of the MX-5; it’s light but pinpoint accurate, while the stubby shifter pops satisfyingly from gear to gear.

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The MX-5 was built around the 1.5-litre engine – and on a twisty road, you can tell as it lets you safely explore its limits. On a route where you can rev the engine out, the 1.5-litre is an absolute joy and will allow you to sprint from 0-62mph in 8.3 seconds. However, if you need to overtake more frequently or prefer more mid-range punch, there’s the 2.0-litre engine.

This engine originally developed 158bhp and redline at 6,500rpm – enough for 0-62mph in 7.3 seconds – but since 2018 the 2.0-litre cars have delivered 181bhp, an extra 5Nm of torque and redline at 7,500rpm. This allows newer MX-5s to sprint to 62mph in 6.5 seconds – 0.8 seconds quicker than before. 

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The 2.0 car is slightly heavier than the 1.5, but only by 25kg. The added weight is in the nose and as a result the 2.0-litre doesn’t feel quite as quick to turn in, even though it's been given a strut brace to keep the suspension tied together (on higher models).  

All 2.0-litre models have a limited-slip differential, which helps improve traction out of corners. And with the stability control turned off on a track, this makes it a bit easier to get the tail out. The 2.0-litre also has bigger brakes, which deliver better stopping power, and benefits from sports suspension with Bilstein dampers and a front strut brace. These reduce body roll and aid turn-in, but there’s a mild trade-off in ride comfort. When combined, these upgrades make the 2.0-litre Exclusive Line and Homura cars feel like a mini Porsche Boxster.

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Although it’s quicker, more planted and arguably better equipped for track use, the 2.0-litre is actually no more fun to drive than the rev-happy and softer-sprung 1.5-litre model. Still, overall, the fact the 2.0-litre is as fun as the 1.5 – and easier to live with – means it would be our choice.

In the RF, even with the sportier Bilstein dampers and a strengthening strut brace fitted to the higher-spec models as standard, the chassis is softer compared with the Toyota GR86, with more roll in corners. There’s plenty of grip available, though, while the steering is nicely weighted and geared at just the right speed for the damping set-up. It makes the RF a fun and cohesive package, and with the 2.0-litre model’s limited-slip diff, the MX-5’s chassis offers just enough adjustability to change the car’s cornering line with the throttle. You can trim it with a lift or even a gentle brush of the brakes.

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The MX-5 RF's softer damping means its ride is pretty forgiving, however, it still crashes over bigger bumps, with rough roads deflecting the car off your chosen trajectory. With the roof up, the RF feels relatively solid; fold it down and the chassis vibrates and wobbles slightly like the soft-top. 

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The RF’s extra 40kg over the standard car isn’t noticeable on the road, though. It’s also slightly slower to 62mph than the regular fabric-roofed convertible with either engine fitted.

0-62mph acceleration and top speed 

The 1.5-litre engine makes 130bhp at 7,000rpm – that’s just 500rpm shy of the redline, which explains its rev-happy nature – and delivers maximum torque of 152Nm at 4500rpm. 0-62mph is taken care of in 8.3 seconds, while the top speed stands at 127mph.

The 2.0-litre unit has slightly more accessible and larger reserves of power and torque (181bhp at 7,000rpm and 205Nm at 4,000rpm), and will allow you to achieve 0-62mph in a lively 6.5 seconds, but isn’t quite as charismatic or ideally suited to the featherweight MX-5 as the 1.5. In fact, we found it to be a fairly quiet motor and easily drowned out by wind noise if you have the roof down. The 1.5 engine definitely sounds better, with a harder-edged note under full acceleration.

The hard-top RF is available with both engines, but being slightly heavier it takes 8.7 and 6.8 seconds to go from 0-62mph in 1.5 and 2.0-litre forms respectively. The automatic 2.0-litre RF is somewhere in the middle with a 7.9-second 0-62mph time.

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Which Is Best

Cheapest

  • Name
    1.5 SE 2dr
  • Gearbox type
    Manual
  • Price
    £18,735

Most Economical

  • Name
    1.5 SE 2dr
  • Gearbox type
    Manual
  • Price
    £18,735

Fastest

  • Name
    2.0 [184] Exclusive-Line 2dr
  • Gearbox type
    Manual
  • Price
    £31,700
News reporter

As our news reporter, Ellis is responsible for covering everything new and exciting in the motoring world, from quirky quadricycles to luxury MPVs. He was previously the content editor for DrivingElectric and won the Newspress Automotive Journalist Rising Star award in 2022.

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