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Mazda MX-5 review – why Mazda's roadster stays true to the original's principles

Will Beaumont
23 Feb 2017
Verdict:

Kept within their comfort zone, both roadster and RF are enjoyable to drive

Evo Rating: 
Price: 
£18,495
For 
Great gearbox, low-speed fun factor
Against 
Cabin cramped for taller drivers, chassis may be limiting for keen drivers
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The MX-5 recipe is a tantalising one: a small, lightweight, rear-wheel drive car powered by a naturally aspirated engine and equipped with a manual gearbox. Sadly, the reality isn’t quite as promising. Its naturally aspirated engine certainly does its job, but it’s far from memorable; its modest power – combined with suspension determined to convert all of your inputs into pitch or roll – means there are few opportunities to revel in its rear-wheel drive layout; and the lightweight body that keeps its kerb weight to around a ton (even for the RF) is susceptible to tremors on rough roads, meaning you can’t help but long for a more rigid structure.

But there are still many things to like about the MX-5. Changing gear is a joy; the action is weighty but rather than feeling obtrusive it feels robust and solid, taunting you to make harder and quicker changes every time you swap cogs. It’s complemented by perfectly spaced pedals and an engine that responds eagerly to a swift prod of the throttle, making heel-and-toeing wonderfully natural.

Its indistinct chassis might not be suited to being thrashed, but the MX-5 is eminently dependable when feeling your way down an unknown road. It responds intuitively to your inputs and can be manipulated with ease.

The latest addition to the range, the MX-5 RF with its folding targa-style roof, has the looks of a coupe but retains many of the roadster’s attributes and quirks.

> Performance and 0-60mph time - Light weight and rear-wheel drive traction helps the modest power output translate into a reasonable 7.3sec 0-62mph dash for the 2.0-litre car. Read more about the Mazda MX-5's performance.

> Engine and gearbox - 1.5 and 2.0-litre engine options, both four cylinder and naturally aspirated, provide the power, while both come standard with one of the best six-speed manuals on the market. Read more about the Mazda MX-5's drivetrain.

> Ride and handling - Sure to impress casual drivers but may leave some wanting more. Plenty of body roll and some body shake, too. Read more about the Mazda MX-5's ride and handling.

> MPG and running costs - Small engines and low weight means decent economy – up to 47mpg. Even 2.0-litre models do over 40mpg. Read more about the Mazda MX-5's running costs.

> Interior and tech - Taller drivers may find the cabin cramped, but for shorter drivers it’ll fit like a glove. Read more about the Mazda MX-5's interior.

> Design - Classic sports car proportions, but the details divide opinion. Fits neatly into Mazda’s range of saloons, hatches and crossovers. Read more about the Mazda MX-5's design.

Prices, specs and rivals

A basic 1.5-litre MX-5 in SE trim starts at £18,495. That’s supermini-sized hot hatchback money right now – Ford’s excellent Fiesta ST spans this price range and several more start at a similar point.

Whether as a driving enthusiast you see any crossover between these models depends on your personal outlook. Few with their hearts set on a two-seater roadster will see tarted-up hatchbacks as worthy alternatives, but in purely evo terms – those of driving thrills, interaction and performance – cars like the Fiesta ST and Peugeot 208 GTi make a strong case for themselves.

> Click here to read our Ford Fiesta ST review

Trim levels rise from SE through SE-L and SE-L Nav, while Sport and Sport Nav models add gunmetal-coloured wheels, adaptive lights, leather seats, body-coloured interior trim and other toys over and above the regular SE.

With the Sport Recaro disappearing from the range, the current top of the range MX-5 is the Sport Nav. It gets the same limited-slip differential and uses Bilstein dampers, but lacks the Recaro model's Alcantara-trimmed (Recaro, natch) sports seats and new wheels.

Thanks to the lack of performance focus at the top of the range, there is a strong argument to suggest the sweetest new MX-5 is the cheapest one, to major on the simple pleasures of a roadster. At £18,495 the entry-level 1.5 SE feels like plenty of smiles-per-pound. 

The latest addition to the MX-5 line-up is the RF, a folding hard-top version. Rather than having a full convertible like the roadster, the RF’s roof is more like a targa. The centre section folds away below to two buttresses behind the passenger compartment.

By the time you opt for the 2.0-litre engine and Sport trim, pricing rises to £22,795. At this point, the range of possible rivals widens too – notably including the £22,700 Toyota GT86 Primo and £22,495 Subaru BRZ SE. Each has more power than the Mazda – though little extra performance to show for it – and a sharper chassis that may appeal if you’re willing to sacrifice the Mazda’s open top.

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