Proof that a great handling car needn’t be expensive
- Fun to drive
- Sweet 1.5-litre engine
- Slick gear change
- Sharp, modern design
- Lacks storage space
- Cabin is very snug
- Fiddly steering-wheel buttons
- Boot on the small side
It’s easy to 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, more than 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.
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.
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, take a look at the electrically folding hardtop fitted to the Mazda MX-5 RF.
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.
The Parkers Verdict
The MX-5 is an affordable way to own a fun, convertible sports car. Using it as your main car might present issues with the cramped cabin and small boot, but you can easily forget this once you get behind the wheel. It’s really enjoyable to drive on any road – you don’t even need to be driving quickly to do so, nor do you have to have the most expensive or fastest model. Read the full Parkers Mazda MX-5 review to see if it’s the roadster for you.