Mazda MX-5 review, price and specs

Available with soft and hard tops and 1.8 and 2.0 engines, we review the third-generation Mazda MX-5 range

Evo rating
Price
from £22,595
  • In a class of its own
  • Replacement due soon

What is it?

The Mazda MX-5. Not the all-new one, which has seen its lightweight Skyactiv chassis previewed recently, but quite probably the last round of updates for the car it will replace. Prices start at £18,495.

Technical highlights?

There are a few choices to make when speccing a Mazda MX-5. You can choose between 1.8- and a 2.0-litre engine naturally aspirated petrol engines, while there are soft-top and hard-top ‘Roadster Coupe’ options, though you can’t quite have your cake and eat it – as the third-generation car enters the late stages of its life, the more powerful engine can only be matched with a folding metal roof. If this is the only combination you’ll consider there are several used examples to choose from, though the prevalence of second-hand Roadster Coupes perhaps vindicates Mazda’s decision.

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The 1.8-litre engine produces 124bhp and 123lb ft, enough for a 9.9sec 0-60 time and a 123mph top speed. Fuel consumption and CO2 emissions are a claimed 39.8mpg and 167g/km respectively. The 2.0-litre’s peaks are 158bhp and 139lb ft, resulting in a 2.0sec-quicker 0-60 time (7.9sec) and a higher top speed of 136mph. Its consumption and emissions are up around 10 per cent, at 36.2mpg and 181g/km.

The smaller engine gets a five-speed manual gearbox, the larger mated to a six-speed manual as standard, with a 'Powershift' automatic optional. Both get stability control as standard, but only the 2.0-litre comes with a limited-slip differential.

What’s it like to drive?

Since the mk3 received its 2009 facelift, the MX-5 has been the class leader for affordable, habitable rear-drive fun. While the gearchange is sweet and super slick, the rest of the controls don’t quite match, and your first impressions may be of a car that can’t truly satisfy. In many ways it feels all at sea, rocking and rolling under braking and through corners, understeering on turn in, slip-sliding at the rear if you nail the throttle early. Its steering is too light and has very little feel, the brakes could be more reassuring…

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And yet it serves up all the engagement and entertainment for which you could wish. There are serious barriers to revealing the MX-5’s intrinsic chassis balance – the oddly disconnected steering and poor low-speed body control highest on the list – but once you’ve got it all loaded up, the disparate ingredients finally meld into something that is joyously transparent. If any car should be labelled ‘My First Rear-Wheel-Drive Car’ it’s the MX-5. Short of a Caterham on Chinese remoulds, it’ll educate on the dos and don’ts of car control like nothing else. The MX-5 is terrific fun if you push beyond its initial awkwardness and drive the wheels off it.

As far as engine choice goes, we’d give the 2.0-litre the nod; it has more power, a standard diff and an extra gear ratio to add to the MX-5’s usability. It’s a little charmless, though, and needs revving hard to give its all, though there’s certainly a change in character at the top end that makes maximum revs worth chasing. In truth though, nearly all of the MX-5’s most fun traits can be found in the 1.8, too, and in normal road driving – where the tail-happy benefits of the diff aren’t as accessible as on a trackday – it will please most drivers. The soft-top is also the sweeter handler too, with its lower centre of gravity notable (even though the hard-top only adds a sliver of extra weight, its at the car’s highest point), though it takes back-to-back drives to really split the cars apart in this regard.

How does it compare?

The MX-5 practically sits in a class of its own, and its closest competitors aren’t direct rivals. If you want a rear-drive sports car at this price, most comparable is the slightly flawed but very fun Toyota GT86 and its Subaru BRZ twin (£24,995, 197bhp), while the Ford Fiesta ST (£17,250, 179bhp) boasts one of the highest entertainment-per-pound ratios in any performance car genre, though its frantic front-drive hot hatch nature differs from the MX-5’s calmer, open-air experience.

If it’s a convertible you seek, the only truly satisfying alternative at this price point is a Caterham. The Seven 160 costs £17,995 and comes with a tiddly 660cc three-cylinder turbo engine with 80bhp, while a more traditional four-cylinder Roadsport 125 has 125bhp and kicks off at £22,995. Both are a much more committed experience than the Mazda, but as a weekend or track toy a Seven is hard to beat.

Anything else I need to know?

As we’ve mentioned, the mk3 MX-5 isn’t long for this world, and you can read all the latest information on the new fourth-generation MX-5 here.

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There are also numerous MX-5 tuning packages to choose from, perhaps the best coming from BBR. Read about the MX-5 BBR GT270 turbo here.

Specifications

EngineIn-line 4-cyl, 1999cc, 16v
Max power158bhp @ 7000rpm
Max torque139Ib ft @ 5000rpm
0-607.9sec (claimed)
Top speed136mph (claimed)
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