Mazda MX-5 Review
It’s been more than 30 years since Mazda first introduced the MX-5, and the little two-seat roadster almost immediately earned itself a place in automotive folklore. Inspired by classic British sports cars of the ‘60s and ‘70s, it mixed the dynamic capability of a true roadster with the reliability of a modern Japanese design and a modest price tag. The recipe has never really changed, and although the MX-5 now looks thoroughly up-to-date, it still retains the old-school engagement and charm that made it such a hit in the first place.
Select's rating score* - 4.3 / 5
If you’re a serious driver, the MX-5 is for you. A simple four-cylinder petrol engine sends its power to the rear wheels, and that’s about all there is to it. It weighs next to nothing, the steering is pin-sharp and although it isn’t especially fast in a straight line, it’s an absolute joy through the corners. You get a choice of roof, with the standard roadster joined by the RF (Retractable Fastback) folding hard-top, but both offer the same wind-in-the-hair feel. The lack of space is the only real criticism, but on a sunny Sunday with the roof down and a great country road laid out in front of you, few cars will put such a smile on your face.
The MX-5’s party piece is the way it drives, and apart from the steering, engine and gearbox – all of which are brilliant – there isn’t much else to pick up on. That said, one or two other details are worthy of a mention. The first is the intricate folding hard-top found on the RF models. It has its drawbacks, but it looks great and makes the car feel a little more usable. The electric folding mechanism is a work of art, too.
The infotainment system is well worth a look, too, because it’s among the best in the business. Not because of the way it looks – it’s actually a bit old-school in that respect – but the functionality is fantastic. The screen is touch-sensitive, but it’s the control wheel in the middle that’s the star of the show. Instead of staring at the screen to press buttons, you can operate most things with barely a glance, and that makes life much easier when you’re driving.
Special mention also goes to the Soul Red paint option, which will draw plenty of buyers by itself. It’s a gorgeous colour, with a lustre that almost single-handedly made red sexy again. Covering a quarter of all Mazda's sold in the UK, it has been a roaring success.
Although the MX-5 is very much aimed at those who enjoy driving, the engine range doesn’t sound especially exciting. As standard, you get a 1.5-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine that, unlike so many modern engines, is devoid of a turbocharger. That means you get a smoother, more predictable power delivery and the engine rewards you for wringing it out, but you get less outright performance.
That means the basic MX-5 comes with just 132hp, which doesn’t turn up in full until the rev counter reads 7,000rpm. If you can click through the glorious six-speed manual gearbox fast enough, you’ll manage 0-62mph in 8.3 seconds before reaching a top speed of 127mph. It’s hardly slow, but it isn’t as fast as you might expect from a 1,100kg sports car. And it’s worse if you go for the slightly heavier RF model, which sees the 0-62mph time grow by around half a second.
Alternatively, you can have the much more powerful 2.0-litre engine, which is also turbo-free. That means while VW can eke more than 300hp from a turbocharged 2.0-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine, the MX-5 makes do with 184hp. Again, all that power comes high in the rev range, which means you really have to work it to get anywhere near the rather brisk 0-62mph time of 6.5 seconds.
If that sounds too much like hard work, the 2.0-litre RF model is available with an automatic gearbox, but that slows the car down significantly and reduces the involvement that attracts so many MX-5 drivers to the car in the first place.
As well as gaining extra power, the 2.0-litre cars also benefit from sports suspension with Bilstein dampers. That reduces the amount of body roll in corners in exchange for a slight drop in ride comfort, but it makes the car feel sportier and more agile.
Not that the MX-5 doesn’t feel sporty or agile anyway. Even the 1.5-litre car has this glorious balance between the front and rear, making it feel as though the whole thing pivots around your hips. The steering is well weighted and offers more feel than most modern cars, while the manual gearbox, with its stubby little gear lever, is one of the best in the business. If you want to have fun on a racetrack or a good country road, this is the car to do it in.
But what if you’re just pootling around town? Well, the MX-5 is perfectly capable of that, too, albeit somewhat less accomplished. You feel very low on the road in one of these, which is great when you want to go through fast corners, but leaves you feeling slightly exposed when you’re sitting next to a double-decker bus at the traffic lights.
Still, it sits high enough from the road that sleeping policemen are unlikely to cause too much trouble and with the roof down, visibility is good. Unless, of course, you have the RF version with its rear superstructure that blocks your view. Or you have the roof up, in which case you only have a small, wiperless rear window behind you and very little vision over your shoulders.
Given its sports car status and the fact those naturally aspirated engines like to be pushed, the MX-5 is surprisingly economical. Official figures suggest you’ll get around 45mpg from the 1.5-litre car, while the 2.0-litre version will get you about 40mpg. The automatic gearbox cuts the economy to around 37mpg, but even that isn’t disastrous for a two-seat roadster.
And don’t think these figures are unachievable on the road. Non-turbo engines regularly get very close to their claimed economy figures, and the MX-5’s motors are no exception. You can fully expect to average more than 40mpg on a long run in the 1.5, and even the 2.0-litre car will comfortably manage the high 30s. As long as you aren’t driving like a total numpty, that is.
Better still, because the car is relatively simple and inexpensive, as well as being slower than you might think, it shouldn’t be too costly to insure.
It’s rare to find an MX-5 working as a company car, but if you do fancy one of these as corporate wheels, the tax situation isn’t too devastating. Because the cars are economical, the 1.5-litre versions emit 142g of carbon dioxide per kilometre, putting them in the 32-percent Benefit-in-Kind tax bracket for 2021/22. And the 2.0-litre model is only slightly higher, in the 35-percent bracket.
Just avoid the automatic RF model, because that is significantly more polluting and that puts it firmly in the top 37 percent tax bracket. Factor in the reduced economy, reduced performance and reduced engagement, and it becomes a fairly unappealing proposition.
The MX-5’s cabin fits the usual Mazda brief, with a clean, unfussy style that’s matched with classy materials and excellent build quality. Everything is well screwed down, and the plastics, fabrics and leathers are all very tactile. It’s the sort of fit and finish you expect from a Volkswagen Group car, and it’s certainly better than you get from the likes of Ford and Nissan.
Better still, the switchgear is all logical and sensibly arranged, while the instrument cluster displays are crystal clear. It all sounds like simple stuff – and it is – but it’s well executed, and that makes life so much easier when you’re on the road. It’s an underrated quality that Mazda has absolutely nailed – and not just with the MX-5.
A great example of this is the folding canvas roof, which doesn’t mess about with clever electric mechanisms and complicated contortionism. Simply unclip a latch, then fold the roof down by hand. It’s quick, simple and far less likely to go wrong. And it makes the car lighter. The only catch is if you’re on the move, it’s easy to pull a muscle in your shoulder clipping the roof down behind the seats.
The MX-5 is straight from the old school, and that usually means high-tech features are few and far between. The MX-5 has struck the balance perfectly, though, with a well-equipped central infotainment screen and almost nothing else.
That means you get satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard, along with the usual USB ports, digital radio and all the rest of it. The system isn’t the prettiest, but it’s second only to BMW’s iDrive in the way it works. Instead of stabbing at the touchscreen, the MX-5 gives you a control wheel in the centre console, and you can use that to navigate the menus. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you’re there you can carry out most tasks with only a cursory glance at the screen – it’s much safer than a touch system.
And if you combine it with the excellent Bose sound system, it’s a very powerful hi-fi. Wireless Apple CarPlay (and wired Android Auto) connectivity gives you access to streaming services, as well as the usual Bluetooth-related phone systems. And a fleet of speakers means the sound quality is good, albeit harder to hear when the roof is down.
In addition to that, some cars also get parking sensors and a reversing camera, but neither is especially crucial to MX-5 custodianship. The car is small, and visibility is good enough to park it without too many issues – particularly when the roof is down. It makes more sense in the RF model, but it’s still a bit of a take-it-or-leave-it feature.
Practicality & Boot Space
Nobody chooses a two-seat convertible for practicality reasons, but it’s handy to have at least some space for shopping or a weekend bag in your drop-top sports car. Sadly, the MX-5 struggles slightly on this front, with little in the way of cabin space and only marginally more room in the boot.
Officially, the luggage bay measures 130 litres, which makes it noticeably smaller than that of a Toyota Aygo. And the opening is a strange shape, which means access isn’t always particularly easy. It’s big enough for a small suitcase, an overnight bag or a weekly supermarket shop, but no more than that.
And you can’t even supplement the boot with space in the cabin. The door bins are pathetically small and the glovebox is a lockable storage bin between the seats. It’s quite big, but it’s awkward to get at and it’s a bit narrow. Even carrying a cup of coffee is difficult because the (detachable) cup holders are badly positioned and a bit flimsy.
Things are slightly better for the two people who can occupy the seats, but only slightly. If you’re particularly tall, the seat won’t go back far enough, and you might find your head wedged against the roof when it’s in place. This is worse for the RF, with its thicker folding hard-top, but neither car is especially generous when it comes to cabin space. As long as you’re under about 6ft2in, though, you should be comfy enough.
The MX-5 is relatively safe, having scored four stars in the Euro NCAP crash test, although some other drop-top sports cars outperform the little Mazda. The BMW Z4, for example, scored an incredible 97% for adult occupant protection as it coasted to a five-star rating.
But the Audi TT only managed four stars, and many of the MX-5’s rivals haven’t even been subjected to the crash test. In short, then, it’s on a par with its peers, many of which would suffer from a lack of electronic driver aids and other features that don’t always sit well in a driver-orientated sports car.
You do, however, get some gadgets to prevent accidents happening in the first place. SE-L-grade cars don’t get much, but Sport models and above get autonomous emergency braking, driver attention monitoring and lane departure warning. Move further up the range and you’ll also find blind-spot monitoring, which comes in handy when the roof is up.
The MX-5 range is pretty simple, with just four trim levels to choose from, two roof options and a relatively small stable of engines and gearboxes. Each trim is offered in soft- and folding hard-top (RF) guises, but aside from the density of the roof material, there’s little to choose between the two.
Choosing engines is fairly simple, because the two entry-level models are both fitted exclusively with the 1.5-litre motor, while the two high-end models are only available with the 2.0-litre engine. Both come with a manual gearbox as standard, but if you go for the 2.0-litre RF, you get to choose whether you have a manual or automatic gearbox.
All that leaves is the trim levels, which kick off with the SE-L – a model that comes with a decent amount of equipment despite its lowly position in the line-up. LED headlights, 16-inch black alloy wheels and glossy black door mirrors all adorn the exterior, while the cabin gets heated front seats, climate control and push-button ignition. You get a seven-inch infotainment screen, too, with satellite navigation and the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration systems included.
The Sport model is marked out by its bright-finish alloy wheels and leather upholstery, but it also comes with rear parking sensors, keyless entry and automatic lights and wipers. A Bose sound system is also included, along with some added safety tech.
Moving up to the GT Sport, meanwhile, gets you bigger 17-inch alloy wheels, a reversing camera and a host of sporty upgrades associated with the 2.0-litre engine. A limited-slip differential is fitted as standard, along with the sports suspension and a front strut brace that improves torsional rigidity. However, if you opt for the automatic gearbox, you’ll forego most of these features.
Finally, the range is crowned by the GT Sport Tech, which comes with BBS alloy wheels, glossy black door mirrors and pale leather. If you go for the RF model, the car is also marked out by a black roof panel.
Paint options are relatively limited, but the most notable colours are the fabulous Soul Red Crystal Metallic and the dark Deep Crystal Blue Mica. Both look great on the MX-5’s sculpted bodywork, but the red has been a massive hit. In fact, it’s so popular that around a quarter of all Mazda vehicles are specified in that colour.
Despite being such a popular and well-known vehicle, the MX-5 is short on direct rivals. Now Fiat has killed off the 124 Spider – a car with which the Mazda shared all but an engine, badge and bodywork – the MX-5 is one of very few ‘cheap’ sports cars.
Arguably the closest competitor is now the Audi TT Roadster, which is a handsome, luxurious and high-tech beast, but nowhere near as good to drive as the MX-5. Or you could consider the BMW Z4, which feels a bit like a big, luxurious MX-5, with more power and a similar level of handling prowess.
From there, the main drop-top alternatives include the Porsche 718 Boxster, which is much faster and even better to drive than the Mazda, but the badges and price tags are worlds apart. Or you could look at cars like the retro Morgan Plus Four, which is a very different proposition yet again.
If hard-tops are more your thing, there’s slightly more choice, with the Subaru BRZ and Toyota GT86 twins (although those two fabulous cars are not long for this world). Both are just as good to drive as the Mazda, but they aren’t blessed with such smart cabins or the joy of a removable roof.
Verdict & Next Steps
If you’re after the last word in driving pleasure, the MX-5 has to be high on your list. There’s a handful of two-seat convertibles that can excite like the MX-5, but they’re all from premium manufacturers who demand luxury levels of cash to get you behind the wheel. The MX-5 is much more ‘of the people’, and it’s carved out a niche as a result. If you want something fun that won’t break the bank, it’s pretty much the only roadster you can choose. But worry not, because despite a lack of competition, it’s still brilliant.
Where to next?
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*Score based on Select’s unique meta score analysis, taking into account the UK’s top five leading independent car website reviews of the Mazda MX-5
**Correct as of 06/04/2021. Based on 9 months initial payment, 5,000 miles over a 48 month lease. Initial payment equivalent to 9 monthly payments or £2558.39 Ts and Cs apply. Credit is subject to status.