Mazda MX-5 2023 review – Japan’s iconic roadster is better than ever
The Mazda MX-5 is better than ever, a distillation of the sports car that has matured into a brilliant little roadster
Mazda's MX-5 is an industry stalwart and one of those cars so iconic it defines the small roadster itself. One might be forgiven for thinking that something with an ethos this old might feel out of touch with our modern world of electrification and SUVs, but the MX-5 instead remains a shining beacon of affordable fun, with low running costs and, in recent years, some real class to its powertrains and design.
This ‘ND’ generation is the fourth since the car’s first introduction in 1989, and despite the changing ecosystem around it, the MX-5 steadfastly remains a two-seater, rear-wheel-drive roadster with a longitudinally mounted, naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine (although an RF model with a folding hardtop is also available).
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 lap times.
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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 feel completely involved in the experience. The MX-5's willing naturally-aspirated engines are central to this, with the 2-litre engine having received a thorough overhaul since the ND's launch to add power – and more importantly revs – to the package. The raspy exhaust, and responses unsullied by turbocharging, plus a fantastically snappy gear shift all combine to make even a drive to the shops an experience worth savouring.
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. For those who insist on a tin-top there is also the MX-5 RF with its electric folding targa-style roof, which adds the looks of a coupe but retains many of the roadster’s attributes and quirks.
Mazda MX-5: in detail
- > Performance and 0-60mph time - Light weight and rear-wheel-drive traction help the modest power output translate into a reasonable 6.5sec 0-62mph dash for the 2-litre car.
- > Engine and gearbox - 1.5- and 2-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.
- > Ride and handling - Sure to impress casual drivers, but may leave some wanting more. Plenty of body roll and some body shake, too.
- > MPG and running costs - Small engines and low weight mean decent economy – up to 47mpg. Even 2-litre models do over 40mpg.
- > Interior and tech - Taller drivers may find the cabin cramped, but for shorter drivers it’ll fit like a glove.
- > Design - Classic sports car proportions, modern Japanese design. Perfect.
Used and nearly new Mazda MX-5 ND
If you’re looking for a small, affordable sporting soft-top your choices are pretty restricted these days, but the MX-5 ticks all of these boxes and makes a great used purchase. It’s reliable and cheap to run yet can be hugely entertaining, too. Despite having been around since 2015 the shape still looks fresh and there are plenty of examples to choose from on the used market. If you’re after a no frills model then the 1.5-litre models in SE trim make an excellent case for themselves, but for a little bit more performance a post-September 2018 2-litre would be the one to go for. Special-edition models are particularly desirable and hold their value very well.
Mazda MX-5 ND history
Launched in 2015 the ND generation of MX-5 was available with a brace of Skyactiv engines in 1.5- and 2-litre capacities. While the 2-litre version was undoubtedly the quicker of the two, the 1.5 was the more engaging drive due to the free-revving nature of its engine. In the latter part of 2018 heavily revised engines came on stream, and the 2-litre now developed more power and was much sweeter than its earlier incarnation. The larger-engined models also receive a limited-slip differential and Sport models are the most driver focused thanks to Bilstein dampers, although the raspier and more compliant 1.5-litre version plays to the car's natural strengths well.
Mazda MX-5 (Mk2, NB, 1998-2005; Mk3, NC, 2005-2014)
The second generation of MX-5, the NB, built on the successful recipe of the original NA model, and while it had grown and added weight it was still just as much fun as its predecessor. There was a choice of 1.6- or 1.8-litre engines, and the latter did a good job of hiding the MX-5’s additional bulk. The pop-up headlights had been dropped, but the MX-5 retained excellent proportions and was surprisingly practical for a small roadster. The gearbox – either a five-speed or optional six-speed manual – retained its delightful change quality, and the handling was involving and dynamic.
The Mk3 MX-5, the NC, wasn’t quite as resolved as the cars that came before it thanks to its additional weight and a change of suspension that didn’t bring out the best from the car, making the handling a little too snappy at times. Engines were either a 1.8- or 2-litre, with the latter giving decent performance, but the adoption of electric power steering robbed the MX-5 of its steering feel and feedback. A facelift in 2009 did improve matters, though, with suspension tweaks improving the car’s balance and feedback.
Older Mazda MX-5 models
The original, and some would say the best, made its motor show debut in 1989 before going on sale in the UK in 1990. Powered by a 1.6-litre four-cylinder mated to a perfectly weighted five-speed manual gearbox, it was a driver’s delight. It wasn’t hugely quick – 0-62mph took a smidgen over nine seconds and it ran out of puff at 114mph – but it was wonderfully balanced, with deft handling, and couldn’t help but put a smile on your face.
Prices, specs and rivals
The MX-5 hasn't seen many mechanical upgrades in the last couple of years, instead adjustments to the range structures and pricing have been the only real changes. Costing from £25,825 is MX-5 Prime-Line, sitting at the bottom of the range with 16-inch wheels, cloth seats and the 130bhp 1.5-litre four-cylinder – despite its basic trim level, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, as are a pair of handy driver's headrest speakers for hands-free calls.
Step up to the Exclusive-line trim for £28,125 and it'll keep its 1.5-litre unit, but gain an uprated nine-speaker Bose sound system, leather seats, silver 16-inch wheels and more driver assistance systems. The 2-litre models cost from £30,410, here also specified in Exclusive-Line trim – all 2-litre cars come with a standard limited-slip differential.
Next up is the MX-5 Kizuna edition, which is limited to just 250 units for £30,265 apiece. Fitted with the 1.5-litre motor, the Kizuna can be specified with either grey or blue exterior paint and comes with a blue soft top, adaptive headlights and cream nappa leather upholstery. It's one of the more tenuous MX-5 special editions, commanding £2150 more than the exclusive line for these minor changes.
At the top of the range is the £32,410 2-litre Homura version, featuring the same leather trim as the Kizuna with stainless steel scuff plates, forged BBS wheels and uprated front Brembo brake calipers from the previous 30th anniversary model. The MX-5's sport suspension kit and Bilstein dampers are also included.