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Parkers overall rating: 4.4 out of 5 4.4
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Proof that a great handling car needn’t be expensive

PROS

  • Driver involvement
  • Sweet 1.5-litre engine
  • Gearchange
  • Styling

CONS

  • Lacks storage space
  • Cabin is very snug
  • Fiddly steering wheel buttons

Verdict

It’s easy underestimate how important the Mazda MX-5 roadster is to the Japanese firm, but now in its fourth generation since global sales began in 1989, over a million have been sold. Quite an achievement considering it can hardly be described as mainstream.

In fact, roadsters are so uncommon these days that the MX-5 has few direct rivals. Most obvious are the Fiat 124 Spider and its high-performance Abarth 124 Spider cousin, both of which were developed in conjunction with the MX-5.

Then there’s the Audi TT Roadster, BMW Z4 Roadster and Mercedes-Benz SLC, all of which are larger, more powerful and significantly pricier.

Plus it’s hard to ignore the fun-focused Toyota GT86 as well as the rapid Ford Fiesta ST.

We ran one as a long-termer - read more about it here

Two free-revving engines

Mazda’s succeeded in producing a focused roadster by steering clear of adding the superfluous with the MX-5 and that’s especially true of versions fitted with the 1.5-litre SkyActiv-G engine.

Mazda engineers specifically designed the whole car around this unit (demand from America being a primary reason for the inclusion of a 2.0-litre engine also) and within 30 seconds of driving it you can see why.

This comparatively small engine spins incredibly freely, surpassing 7,000rpm before nudging its limiter, and sounds fantastically enthusiastic. It adds up to an experience that is entirely in-keeping with the intended sensations of this lightweight roadster. Mazda calls it ‘joy of the moment, joy of life’. We call it fun.

What of the 2.0-litre alternative? It has an extra 29hp and 50Nm of torque over the 1.5-litre, improving the former’s 8.3-second 0-62mph time by 1.0 second.

Truth be told, the increase in torque is particularly noticeable, and often welcome, but it lacks the purity of the smaller unit and feels coarser in comparison. We can totally understand why you’d plump for the 2.0-litre, but the 1.5’s the best engine fitted to this two-seater.

Fabric roof, operated by hand

This is a sophisticated car, but one without added complexity. Which is why you need to manually operate the folding fabric roof, the only electrical intervention present comes from the windows which lower slightly as you unlatch the roof from the top of the windscreen rail.

It’ll fold back neatly into its dedicated spot behind the seats in one movement, requiring little more than a swing of your arm, and doesn’t eat into any available boot space either. Often closing such roofs, twisting round and backwards with your arm to reach before lifting awkwardly, can wrench your shoulder but this effort is so light there’s little chance of such injury.

For those who prefer an automated – and more secure – approach should take a look at the electrically-folding hardtop fitted to the Mazda MX-5 RF, available from 2017.

Mazda’s featherweight strategy, which sees the 1.5-litre car weigh just 940kg without a driver, is fanatical. Even the 2.0-litre tips the scales at just 25kg more.

There’s extended use of aluminium to make the whole thing lighter, and components that won’t have their integrity or strength affected sport weight-saving holes with pride. Even the welded and riveted parts are formed in a ‘wave’ shape to fractionally reduce materials used and lower the weight.

Familiar but progressive design

People buy roadsters with their hearts, and so the attention to detail spent over how the MX-5 looks is almost as great as the time invested ensuring it drove properly. It follows the firm’s familiar Kodo Soul of Motion design ethos, and it works best here on this stubby tailed roadster.

The surfacing is expressive, the body-colour wrapping over the tops of the doors and into the cabin, and even standing still the MX-5 looks lithe, alert and ready to go.

It has a shorter wheelbase than ever before, but the placement of the cabin means there’s more room between the pedals and the front wheels so there’s no compromise in the driving position – providing you’re not too tall.

Same goes for the bonnet, which hooks low over the front wheels, necessitating slim LED lights to maintain the correct proportions as well as giving it quite an aggressive ‘face’.

The cabin is the shortest in MX-5 history and though it can feel slightly snug at times, it’s also the best so far. There’s no soft-touch plastic, but the simple detailing and layout reinforce this car’s fun focus, and it feels entirely robust.

Mazda MX-5 roadster model history

  • August 2015 – Fourth-generation MX-5 roadster launched in SE, SE-L, SE-L Nav, Sport and Sport Nav trims. All versions are available with a 1.5-litre 131hp engine, while the 160hp 2.0-litre alternative comes with all specifications barring the entry-level SE.
  • November 2015 – The first limited edition based on the fourth-generation MX-5 is the Sport Recaro. Using the Sport Nav with a 160hp 2.0-litre petrol engine as a starting point, the Sport Recaro is finished in Soul Red or Ceramic White with a gloss black bodykit. The interior is swathed in Alcantara faux suede, including – as its name suggests – Recaro seats.
  • August 2016 – Based on the SE-L Nav 131hp model and limited to 600 units is the Icon special edition. Finished in Mica Grey or Crystal White pearlescent paint, the Icon also has Soul Red flashes on its door mirrors, rear spoiler, sides and front splitter. Leather seats, automatic lights and wipers and rear parking sensors complete the picture.
  • October 2016 – SE-L and Sport trims dropped from the range, leaving their sat-nav equipped SE-L Nav and Sport Nav counterparts in place.
  • February 2017 – Arctic limited edition on sale, powered by the 131hp 1.5-litre engine. Restricted to 400 cars, the exterior’s defined by the Blue Reflex metallic paints with silver accents, while the interior features full black leather trim. Other special features include automatic lights and wipers, rear parking sensors and heated seats.

Read the full Mazda MX-5 roadster review to find out why when the roof’s down, the sun’s reflecting in your shades and the wind’s in your hair, it’s like no other car at this price point.

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