Mazda MX-5 review – why less is more with Mazda's roadster

Will Beaumont
19 Jun 2018

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

Evo Rating: 
From £18,795
Great gearbox, low-speed fun factor
Cabin cramped for taller drivers, chassis may be limiting for keen drivers

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, all sold at a price to tempt a select few from their hot hatchbacks.

It took us a little time to appreciate the latest MX-5. It's rare that a modern performance-orientated car rolls so much in corners and we were initially disillusioned with its lack of focus in a market where even entry-level hot hatches are razor-sharp and blisteringly quick. That, of course, is deliberate on Mazda's part - the MX-5 is designed to bring driving pleasure to the masses, rather than chase laptimes.

> Toyota GT 86 v Mazda MX-5 RF

 Those body movements make you feel like you're cornering hard even when you're not. Drive flat-out and you'll be left wanting more control, but drive enthusiastically down a familiar stretch of road and you'll feel surprisingly involved in the experience. The responsive engines might not be the last word in visceral thrills - and they don't punch like one of Honda's old VTEC units - but the raspy exhaust, responses unsullied by turbocharging, plus a fantastically snappy gearshift have the ability to make even a drive to the shops more fun than many other cars.

And you can drop the roof on a sunny day, which adds an extra dimension that few others at the Mazda's price point can match. The latest addition to the range, the MX-5 RF with its electric folding targa-style roof, also adds the looks of a coupe but retains many of the roadster’s attributes and quirks.

The MX-5 has recently been updated with more colour and trim options and subtle tweaks to the steering and suspension, while a Z-Sport limited edition (300 units) currently tops the range, notable for its red soft-top and sand-coloured interior trim.

> 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

For 2018 a basic 1.5-litre MX-5 in SE trim starts at £18,795, £300 more than last year. There isn't currently anything similar available for this price, with Fiat's basic 124 Spider starting at over £21,000. Perhaps closest in spirit and in driving dynamics is the Mini Cooper Convertible, at £19,790, though there are a selection of roll-back fabric roof "convertibles" available for less, such as the Fiat 500C and Smart Fortwo Cabrio.

Perhaps a more pertinent comparison from an evo perspective is the selection of supermini-based hot hatchbacks available for similar money. Ford's last Fiesta ST was around that price point and the new 3-cylinder model should be likewise, while a shade over £20k will get you a Renault Sport Clio 200 and just over £21k (now 2-litre MX-5 money) secures a Peugeot 208 GTI.

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 – the latest generation of hot hatches make strong cases for themselves.

> Click here to read our Ford Fiesta ST review

Trim levels rise from SE through SE-L Nav and Sport Nav, the latter of which adds gunmetal-coloured wheels, adaptive lights, leather seats, body-coloured interior trim and other toys, such as a limited-slip differential and Bilstein dampers.

One limited edition model is currently available, dubbed Z-Sport. Based on the 2-litre Sport Nav, it can be identified by Machine Grey metallic paintwork and a cherry red fabric roof, as well as 17-inch BBS alloy wheels. Inside it gets sand-coloured leather trim for the seats, door cards and lower dash, with a numbered plaque to denote its place in the 300-unit run - pricing is £25,595.

Thanks to the lack of real 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 £18,795 the entry-level 1.5 SE feels like plenty of smiles-per-pound, even though it lacks the firmer dampers and limited-slip diff available further up the range.

The latest significant 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 Nav trim, pricing rises to £24,195. At this point, the range of possible rivals widens too – notably including the £26,855 Toyota GT86 and £26,495 Subaru BRZ. 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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