Mazda MX-5 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

Evo rating
from £18,995
  • Sparkling new 2-litre engine, fab transmission and so much fun at road speeds
  • Chassis’ limitations aren’t hard to find, tight cabin

The Mazda MX-5. An industry stalwart and one of those cars so iconic it defines the small roadster itself, as it has done for 30 years. 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 is instead a shining beacon of affordable fun, with low running costs and, finally, 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).

Subscribe to evo magazine

Subscribe today to have every issue of evo delivered straight to you. You'll SAVE 39% on the shop price, and get evo for its original cover price for a whole year!

> Toyota GT 86 v Mazda MX-5 RF

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.

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. Helping this are the recent updates found under the bonnet, the 2-litre engine having received a thorough overhaul, adding 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 6.9sec 0-62mph dash for the updated 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.

Prices, specs and rivals

For 2018 a basic 1.5-litre MX-5 in SE trim starts at £18,995. 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 brilliant Fiesta ST starts at over £20k, now that price-leading three-door ST-1 models have been discontinued, pricing it more in-line with the more powerful 2-litre models.

> Click here to read our Ford Fiesta ST review

Whether 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.

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

Whereas many before would have said to stick to the basic engine and spec trims, the new 2-litre version, which is available on SE-L Nav trims and up, has undergone a substantial update, and now finally gives the ND-generation MX-5 the powertrain it deserves.

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

By the time you opt for the 2-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.

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.

More on MX-5

Mazda MX-5 convertible

Mazda MX-5 30th Anniversary Edition revealed

Mazda is celebrating 30 years of the MX-5 with this brightly coloured special edition
5 Mar 2019
Mazda MX-5 convertible

Mazda MX-5 - Ten of the best from 30 years of Mazda’s sports car

Mazda is celebrating 30 years of the MX-5 - here’s our pick of previous limited editions
11 Feb 2019
Mazda MX-5 convertible

New 2018 Mazda MX-5 2.0 convertible review – more power and polish doesn’t diminish the fun

The world’s most popular roadster gets more speed and tech but stays true to its roots
4 Sep 2018
Mazda MX-5 convertible

New engines and subtle enhancements for 2019 Mazda MX-5

New Mazda MX-5 receives more power and enhanced safety for 2019 model year
1 Aug 2018
Mazda MX-5 convertible

Entry-level Mazda MX-5 gets BBR turbo treatment

BBR tunes the 1.5-litre Mazda MX-5 boosting power to 210bhp
11 Dec 2017
Mazda MX-5 convertible

Mazda MX-5 Z-Sport limited edition revealed

Mazda announces a limited edition MX-5 with a suite of aesthetic tweaks and minor chassis revisions
8 Dec 2017
Mazda MX-5 convertible

BBR Mazda MX-5 Stage 1 Turbo review

Upgrade to 248bhp gives 2-litre version of likeable little roadster a welcome – and well judged – shot in the arm
5 Nov 2017
Mazda MX-5 convertible

Mazda MX-5 revised for Tokyo motor show

Mildly updated MX-5 with chassis revisions revealed at Tokyo show
25 Oct 2017
Mazda MX-5 convertible

Rocketeer Mazda MX-5 V6 review – big engine and big character for Mazda's small roadster

A 3-litre Jaguar V6 gives a new lease of life to Mazda's iconic little roadster
6 Oct 2017
Mazda MX-5 convertible

Mazda will now restore your Mk1 MX-5 - in Japan

Full in-house restoration service is now available to the 23,000 Mk1 MX-5 owners in Japan
4 Aug 2017
Mazda MX-5 convertible

Mazda MX-5 boosted by BBR turbo conversion

A twin-scroll turbocharger helps increase the four-cylinder sports car's output by 90bhp
24 Apr 2017
Mazda MX-5 convertible

Hardcore special edition Mazda MX-5s possible

Roadster and RF likely to form the basis of driver-focused special edition MX-5s
19 Jan 2017
Mazda MX-5 convertible

Mazda MX-5 RF review - Targa roof adds refinement, but not at the cost of fun

New folding metal roof and coupe looks don't detract from the MX-5's charms
16 Jan 2017
Mazda MX-5 convertible

Mazda MX-5 BBR Super 200 review - better than the standard car?

Tuner's modifications turn the Mazda roadster into a genuine Elise alternative
13 Dec 2016
Mazda MX-5 convertible

BBR Super 175 - Third-gen MX-5 1.8 gets welcome power boost

Oft-overlooked 1.8-litre MX-5 now makes almost 100bhp per litre
5 Dec 2016
Mazda MX-5 convertible

Mazda MX-5 Speedster Evolution and RF Kuro debut at SEMA

Pair of concepts feature inspiration from the Global Cup car, with low weight and uprated suspension
1 Nov 2016
Mazda MX-5 convertible

Mazda MX-5 RF preview - new video shows how roof works

Japanese Mazda video shows new roof mechanism in detail
18 Oct 2016
Mazda MX-5 convertible

Concept cars - the Mazda Ibuki

As Mazda reveals pricing for the new MX-5 RF, we revisit a previous MX-5 concept
15 Oct 2016
Mazda MX-5 convertible

BBR launches latest tuning package for the Mazda MX-5

Tuning upgrades improve performance, with handling and braking packages also available
7 Sep 2016
Mazda MX-5 convertible

Just looking - Mazda MX-5 Eunos S-special

Thankfully not all early MX-5s are this expensive just yet, but few are quite as tidy either
18 Jun 2016
Mazda MX-5 convertible

Mazda MX-5 Icon special edition to make Goodwood debut

The latest of many MX-5 special editions features contrasting paint schemes and extra kit, but no mechanical alterations
15 Jun 2016
Mazda MX-5 convertible

Mazda MX-5 programme chief Nobuhiro Yamamoto on Mazda's evergreen sports car

The Mazda MX-5's programme manager tells evo what we can (and can't) expect from MX-5s in future
17 May 2016
Mazda MX-5 convertible

Mazda MX-5 crowned World Car of the Year 2016

Fourth generation car wins at New York motor show
24 Mar 2016
Mazda MX-5 convertible

Dreaming of the summer: Mazda MX-5 generations driven at Goodwood

We take a spin back in time with the first three generations of Mazda MX-5
20 Dec 2015