A joy to drive, cheap to run, simple to live with
Cramped for tall people, a GT86 is gnarlier, not very upmarket
What is it?
The MX-5 is among the most recognisable sports cars on the planet, inspired by one of the best, the Lotus Elan of the 1960s. Back in 1989, Mazda sought to replicate the impeccable steering feel, driving purity and featherweight build of the Lotus in its own convertible format and the Japanese carmaker has been churning them out to applause ever since.
So it’s just a copy?
Not at all. The MX-5 is now in its fourth generation and no mere British sports car knock-off, it’s an icon in its own right. Mazda sailed past a million sold back in 2016, earning a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records and it’s only continued since then.
Others have tried to get close to the MX-5 formula, most have failed. It’s a winning effort honed over decades – the car only powers its rear wheels with naturally aspirated petrol engines, no all-wheel drive or turbos here. And those engines are cleverer than ever, benefiting from all the nuanced tech that comes from Mazda’s ‘SkyActiv’ engine development.
The engines must be getting on a bit?
While they remain 1.5- and 2.0-litre engines, over the years they've been tweaked and improved and they're better than ever. Both engines now feature extensive stop-start technology that recoups energy under braking to help power the ancillary electronics to save fuel. The 1.5 unit produces 130bhp and 112lb ft and 0-62mph in 8.3 seconds, while the 2.0 is good for 182bhp, 151lb ft and the same sprint in a heady 6.5s.
What if I don’t fancy a convertible?
You’d be missing out on the full MX-5 experience to shrug off the manual folding soft top (it’s great, you can put the roof up and down from the driver’s seat with one hand) in favour of something heavier and electronically assisted. Mazda has however made a minor concession to modern tastes (no, not an electric SUV) and offers the MX-5 these days with an electric folding hardtop.
That model is badged RF for ‘retracting fastback’. Yeah, it does sound cooler when you don’t know what it means. It adds an extra 30/40kg, and with it a few tenths to the car's acceleration stats. Unique to the RF is an automatic gearbox option that costs another £2k and is slower again. We’re going to ignore it, and you should too, because the standard six-speed manual is such a delight.
Indeed the whole driving experience is a lovely antidote to the anaesthetised, overly assisted, electronically supervised drive you’ll often find in other supposedly sporty cars. The entry level MX-5 weighs but a smidge over 1,000kg and it’s because Mazda has remained laser focused on the car’s mission, avoiding the temptation to add ‘just one more thing’ after another and ending up with a block of lard.
Would it work as an only car?
If you’re happy only ever being able to give one friend a lift then sure, why not? The base spec car comes reasonably equipped – all models get heated seats, LED headlights, smartphone connectivity, climate control, native sat nav and cruise control as standard.
The 130-litre boot is rather tiny on paper, but you can stuff enough in there for a weekend away as long as there are no black tie events involved. If you’re swapping into the MX-5 from a plusher car you’ll find the interior plastics are on the durable side and that the car lacks some of the nice details. But you don’t get an MX-5 for the luxurious cabin.
Prices start at £25,825 for the 1.5-litre and £30,410 for the 2.0-litre engine car, with the hard top RF an extra £2–3k depending on spec. But it's still very much a bargain by today’s standards.
What else should I consider?
The MX-5 is pretty much peerless for the price because sports car sales have dwindled vastly in recent years. Only the Toyota GR86 really comes close and the UK allocation for that sold out entirely in an hour and a half. So allow us to throw some names at you: Alpine A110, Lotus Emira, BMW Z4, Toyota Supra, Mini Convertible, Audi TT RS, Caterham Seven, Porsche Cayman. Lots to choose from, if the depths of your pockets allow.
What's the verdict?
The Mazda MX-5 isn’t the world’s best-selling roadster by accident – its recipe of simple mechanicals and accessible fun mean it’s a car with low running costs and broad appeal. And there's nothing else left in the segment that does so much for so little.
Mazda has successfully resisted messing with the formula and created a car that just wants to put a smile on your face at sensible speeds. A day with the roof down in one of these will do your soul the world of good.