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

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).

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> 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.

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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. 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.

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> 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.

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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.

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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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