What is the Mazda MX-5?
The Mazda MX-5 is a two-seater convertible sports car. In fact, now on its fourth generation (known among enthusiasts as the MX-5 ND), it’s the world’s bestselling roadster, ever.
The recipe here is simple: attractive looks, low weight, low simplicity and a great driving experience – all for an affordable price.
The MX-5 is so popular because it’s a great product, and because it’s easy to justify buying one in terms of value and cost.
No wonder it’s built up such a huge following since the first one was launched back in 1990 in the UK, and has always made life very difficult for rivals – to the extent that direct competitors are few and far between.
- Top speed: 124-136mph
- 0-62mph: 6.5-8.7 seconds
- Fuel economy: 37.2-44.8mpg
- Emissions: 143-157g/km CO2
- Boot space: 127-130 litres
Which versions of the Mazda MX-5 are available?
The Mk4 Mazda MX-5 comes in two versions – a classic soft-top convertible with a manual fabric roof (2015-on), and a more unusual RF model (2017-on), which features a retractable hard-top with raised rear buttresses.
While the two are fundamentally similar, the different roof designs do lend each version a slightly different character – for example, the RF is the closest thing yet to an MX-5 coupe in the UK.
Both versions are available with a choice of 1.5-litre and 2.0-litre petrol engines.
Initially, the less powerful 1.5-litre engine was the pick of the range but, following an overhaul in 2018, the 2.0-litre is now not only far more powerful – 184hp versus 132hp – it also revs just as keenly as its smaller cousin, a combination that serves to make it a very satisfying drive.
There is a good range of trim levels available on either body style, and standard equipment is fair to generous on all variants.
Mazda is fond of MX-5 special editions, and so are we, as they often feature unique paint colours and items of kit – the Recaro and 30th Anniversary editions being excellent examples.
Note that there are differences in the suspension between models, with MX-5s that have Sport in their trim title getting a sharper and firmer set-up; 2.0-litre engines also get a limited-slip rear differential to help with traction and control during harder driving, and this isn’t available on the 1.5.
The MX-5 RF, meanwhile, is billed as a bit more of a grand tourer (despite having a smaller boot), and is the only MX-5 available with an automatic gearbox option.
Mazda MX-5 styling and engineering
The fourth generation took the MX-5 back to its roots, with an intense focus on making the car as lightweight and compact as possible.
As a result, it’s shorter than even the original Mk1 MX-5 (though also slightly wider) and substantially lighter than the Mk3 model that proceeded it.
This is great news for efficiency as well as handling and performance – but can make the Mk4 feel a little cramped inside for larger adults; tall people may find themselves looking over the windscreen, rather than through it.
Storage space is also limited. There’s no glovebox at all and the boot is tiny.
Cosy accommodation aside, the MX-5’s cabin is well made and attractive, while Mazda’s MZD Connect infotainment system is powerful and easy to use, its simple nature suiting the reduced superfluousness of the rest of the car.
This MX-5 has a particularly purposeful and dramatic appearance – though some diehard MX-5 fans have grumbled it departs too far from previous generations. Ignore them.
The fabric roof of the soft-top model is exceptionally easy to fold away and put back up, taking literally a couple of seconds.
Meanwhile, the complex automated action of the RF’s retractable hard-top is like engineering elevated to art.
Is the Mazda MX-5 good to drive?
Being entertaining on the road is the whole point of this rear-wheel drive sports car, and while the Mk4 MX-5 has always delivered, things took a significant step forward when the 184hp 2.0-litre engine arrived.
With the introduction of this model in autumn 2018, the MX-5 finally had an engine that actually made it fast in a straight line as well as the turns.
Capable of 0-62mph 6.5 seconds and revving as high as the smaller 1.5-litre engine for the first time, this is an all-round excellent motor – it even returns good fuel economy in the real world.
Handling-wise, the MX-5 is always keen to corner, but you may be surprised by the amount of body roll in the non-Sport suspension versions. This can make it a little unpredictable at the limit – though the electronic stability control system is effective and well-judged.
Sport models, which have as upgraded suspension, are sharper and grippier, and more controlled. But they are also far firmer, making the MX-5 noticeably less comfortable on a longer drive.
How much does the Mazda MX-5 cost?
One of the keys to the MX-5’s tremendous success is that has always been very affordable – and the current car is no different.
List prices and finance costs are highly competitive, and though the similar Fiat 124 is sometimes also worth considering for its finance deals, it’s not as nice to drive as the Mazda.
Want to find out what other buyers think? Read our comprehensive Mazda MX-5 owner’s reviews.
Mazda MX-5 Model History
Third-generation Mazda MX-5 (2005-2015)
As the fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 is known as the ND, so the third-generation model is the NC.
This is a substantially chunkier car than the MX-5s sold either side of it, and one that initially came under fire for its slightly lacklustre handling. Adjustments were made, and this did improve over time, with later versions sharpened up considerably.
Though it never quite captured the lightness of being present in the previous two generations, the Mk3 is undoubtedly the most practical MX-5 Mazda has ever created, with a larger boot and more spacious cabin.
It was also the first MX-5 to be offered with a power-folding hard-top roof; when this Roadster Coupe version was introduced in 2006 it quickly proved popular with UK buyers, thanks to its added security and insignificant weight penalty.
Offered with a choice of 1.8-litre and 2.0-litre petrol engines, the NC spawned various special editions over its lifetime, and benefitted from major makeovers in 2008 and 2013.
Second-generation Mazda MX-5 (1998-2005)
The Mk2 Mazda MX-5 – known as the NB by enthusiasts – is really a heavily re-developed version of the original model.
Not only were the looks modernised, deleting the pop-up headlights of the classic MX-5 Mk1 and thoroughly overhauling the interior, there were changes under the skin to the suspension and structural reinforcement to the chassis – all done in the name of improving refinement.
As a result, a properly maintained one of these (ideally with the suspension bushes renewed) arguably represents the very best MX-5 driving experience, but perhaps only if you don’t value the classic car feel of the first generation.
As with the first-gen model, 1.6-litre and 1.8-litre engines were offered, though later 1.8-litre VVT models boast variable valve timing and greater performance. These were introduced as part of a major facelift in 2001 – identified as the Mk2.5 – which also brought a more aggressive exterior appearance.
When buying a Mk2 now you would be well-advised to have it checked thoroughly for rust, which can be even worse here than in the Mk1 – and even less visible to the casual observer.
As with the Mk1, there are a large number of grey-market Mk2 MX-5 imports in the UK that have been independently brought over from Japan; this is not really a big deal as an ownership proposition, but it’s worth understanding what you’re looking at.
First-generation Mazda MX-5 (1990-1998)
It’s difficult to understate the amount of effort Mazda put in when developing the original MX-5.
Known as the NA model universally, but labelled the Eunos Roadster in Japan and the Mazda Miata in the USA, the Mk1 MX-5 was a very deliberate effort to recapture the spirit of classic compact open-top sports cars of the 1950s and 1960s – especially those build by British companies.
Even things like the exhaust note and the noise made by the gearbox were designed to closely replicate this golden age of roadsters, while handling was emphasised over out-right performance – and grip.
The result was an instant success. Clearly the winning combination of evocative classic motoring cues and outstanding Japanese engineering reliability ticked a lot of boxes for a lot of buyers – as they continue to do.
While a lot of them are rather tired at this point (the earliest examples are 30 years old after all), the revvy 1.6-litre and torquier 1.8-litre engines punt the Mk1 MX-5’s lightweight body along with plenty of spirit, while the racing car-style double wishbone suspension achieves brilliant control.
And they are generally highly reliable.
However, there are a lot of very rusty ones around, and many have been subject to abuse and questionable modifications – having become very cheap for a lengthy period of time.
Now, though, values are on the up, as collectors in the UK and abroad begin to realise that good examples of the NA are becoming less and less easy to find; Mazda has even started its own restoration programme in Japan, and begun remanufacturing a number of original parts.
This page isn’t intended as a buyer’s guide, but if looking at UK cars, be aware that later 1.6-litre engines aren’t as powerful as the earlier ones, a change that came in 1994 when the 1.8-litre engine was added to the range; this power reduction wasn’t made on Japanese cars – of which there are lots now in the UK thanks to independent grey market imports.
Also avoid later de-contented models without power-steering. The steering rack on these cars is slower than the assisted one the MX-5 was designed to use from the beginning, making them clumsier and less engaging to drive.