As tales of automotive evolution go, the Mazda MX-5 isn’t quite up there with the Porsche 911 and Chevrolet Corvette, but 29 years and almost 1.1 million sales prove, once again, that the best ideas tend to stick around. This is a mid-term refresh for the fourth-generation run of the much-iterated front-engined, rear-drive, petrol-only Japanese roadster and, although there are numerous tweaks and mods, the big news is 182bhp for the 2-litre version. That’s 24bhp more than before. And you thought the MX-5 was all about feel and finesse.
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Engine, transmission and 0-62 time
The range-topping 2-litre soft-top models weigh about a ton give or take and, this side of a Lotus Elise, that’s light. So, although 182bhp is far from startling by current hot hatch standards – no power-pumping, torque-swelling turbos in the MX-5 playbook – it’s enough to slice nearly a second from the 0-62mph time, now a more respectable-looking 6.5sec. There’s a little more breathing space at the top of the rev range, too, the limit raised from 7000 to 7500rpm, which should add a little subjective spice to the stronger urge. As before, the transmission of choice has to be the sweet-shifting six-speed manual – one of the MX-5’s finest assets – but there is an auto option for the RF hardtop if you insist.
Benefiting from Mazda’s ‘Skyactiv’ tech – which, rather than merely adhering to the usual ECU-remap tuning path takes a more nuanced, holistic approach – the 2-litre, four-cylinder motor has also had weight shaved from various components to promote pep and boost efficiency beyond that provided by stop/start and braking regen. Mazda claims at least 40mpg, however heavy your right foot.
Pure and simple might be the MX-5’s mantra, but, as time rolls on, sophistication that used to be thought of as fancy in executive saloons is creeping in. Thankfully, the entirely manual flip and stow-with-a-click soft-top remains the best around (the hardtop RF has a three-piece, powered affair that takes a yawning 13 seconds to fold away) but lane-departure warning and blind spot monitoring are something of a novelty. Likewise Apple CarPlay. Arguably more welcome is a steering wheel that now adjusts for reach as well as height, making a snug driving position a little more relaxed for the long of limb.
What’s it like to drive?
Good seats, great driving position, perfect control relationships and pedal placement, super-snappy gear change and an engine note that sounds better the harder you push it – all feel-good factors. And with its more muscular motor, the 2-litre model goes well, too. By MX-5 standards, anyway. Let’s get the reality check out of the way early: a well-driven modern hot hatch will still regard a brilliantly driven 182bhp MX-5 as an obstruction.
No matter, if the MX-5 has shown us anything over the years it’s that fun doesn’t have to equate to speed across the ground and the root-level rewards of a light sports car with the engine in the nose driving the rear wheels and a 50:50 weights distribution can be considerable. A little more grunt to loosen the purchase of the rear tyres does no harm at all.
True, the chassis isn't a standard-setter if your benchmark is something still lighter with the engine in the middle, like a Lotus Elise, but the Mazda’s balance is superb, its reflexes keen and its body movements well controlled, even if they don’t have the economy of motion of said Lotus. It feels eager to entertain and quick to forgive, however ambitious the liberty taken, and personally I simply couldn’t find the point where the Mazda cried ‘enough’. Although the helm doesn’t offer the last word in finely resolved feel, it’s meatily weighted, answers inputs alertly and accurately and filters out the rigours of bumpy and poorly surfaced roads with an impressive lack of fuss.
Price and rivals
Despite more power and the raft of refinements, the new 2-litre soft-top starts at £20,500 – a modest £300 more than the old 2-litre car, though the better-equipped versions push towards £23k. The most obvious roadster rival for similar money is Fiat’s 124 Spider, though the Mini Cooper Convertible is arguably a better match for driving jollies.