Parkers overall rating: 4.4 out of 5 4.4
  • Just two engines to choose from
  • 2.0-litre model is the one to go for
  • 1.5-litre is at least more economical

If performance from your Mazda MX-5 is a priority, then it’s the 2.0-litre engine that you should buy since it’s quicker than the characterful 1.5-litre engine – the only other option.

Improved 2.0-litre engine performance

Mazda launched a new version of the 2.0-litre engine in 2019 with 184hp and 205Nm of pulling power. Modifications to the intake and the exhaust systems resulted in a much more powerful and punchy engine than before. It also revs to the same 7,500rpm limit as the 1.5-litre car.

This means the 2.0-litre combines considerably greater speed - 0-62mph now takes just 6.5 seconds - with the eagerness and character of the 1.5, giving you the best of both worlds.

To get this engine, you'll have to opt for at least the Sport Tech model. It's close to £5,000 more, but we feel the premium is well worth it. This is by far the best engine choice in the MX-5 now. Plus, the more expensive the trim level, the more kit. For instance, Sport Tech models not only get the 2.0-litre rather than the 1.5, but they also get things like a reversing camera and a BOSE sound system.

Sprightly 1.5-litre engine

The thing about the 1.5-litre engine in the Mazda MX-5 is that it revs to 7,500rpm before hitting its limiter. Those are heady heights by most standards, and indicative of a motor that enjoys being worked hard. On the downside, you have to work it hard to make smart progress; the 1.5 only provides its full 132hp at 7,000rpm, alongside just 150Nm of torque - though usefully the muscle arrives lower down the rev-range.

The 1.5 remains brisk at best, and is never likely to be mistaken for genuinely rapid, with 0-62mph taking 8.3 seconds regardless of vintage, with top speed a steady 127mph. A fairly rorty exhaust note, and a characterful rise in engine noise as you rev it harder, mean you rarely lament its lack of straight-line performance, however. And the way this engine revs right out beyond that 7,000rpm point with fluidity and eagerness means making the most of it is an absolute pleasure.

Original 2.0-litre engine lacked zing

The older 2.0-litre engine made do with 160hp and 200Nm of torque - both maximums arriving earlier than they do in the 1.5. The 0-62mph dash is completed in 7.3 seconds, and the top speed is 133mph.

It's a poor relation to the newer 2.0-litre engine. It's not only slower, but the revs are pinned back at a mere 6,800rpm, which can feel rather flat when really driven with abandon.

Great manual gearbox

Both engines are fitted with a deliciously slick six-speed manual gearbox that continues Mazda’s great tradition of installing transmissions that operate with a beautifully mechanical precision. Snicking up and down the ’box, making use of the expertly placed and weighted pedals for, is a delight that simply adds to the overall experience of driving this roadster.

Ride and handling

  • Balanced handling encourages you to press on
  • Smaller engine keen but ultimately slower
  • Sport suspension delivers most focused drive

From the moment you drive off in the Mazda MX-5 you’ll know you're in a keenly balanced, rear-wheel drive sports car. The steering, while sharp and relatively lightweight, is fluid and beautifully linear. This MX-5 feels darty and agile, something that's emphasised by a seating position placed so close to the rear axle, as the car seems to pivot around your hip-point.

Standard versus Sport suspension

As discussed in the Comfort section of this review, the MX-5's standard suspension is surprisingly soft for a sporty car. This is great for comfort, but can present a challenge during faster driving. Generally speaking, the MX-5 is very communicative of its intentions. But the softness at the rear means it generates quite a bit of body roll, and sometimes, if you aren't definite with your inputs, this can lead to the back of the car snapping out of line and attempting to overtake the front.

This isn't really anything to worry about as long as you haven't turned off the electronic stability control - and may in fact be considered a positive attribute by more enthusiastic drivers - but it can be slightly unnerving if you aren't expecting it. Some adjustments to your driving style may be necessary to make the most of the standard car as a result, especially if you're coming from a front-wheel drive hatchback.

The Sport suspension setup features more aggressive Bilstein dampers. These deliver a much firmer ride but also far flatter cornering thanks to much-reduced levels of body roll. This allows you to travel faster, and with greater confidence. Quick drivers will likely prefer this approach, though the appeal of mastering the standard suspension shouldn't be underestimated.

All 2.0-litre MX-5s also feature a mechanical limited-slip differential, which further improves handling predictability and grip. As a result of this, while 1.5-litre models always feel 'fun' it's 2.0-litre Sport variants that seem most like a 'proper' sports car.

Mazda MX-5 convertible models tested

MX-5 Z-Sport on track (June 2018)

Mazda MX-5 on track

It’s a strange fact of life that good road cars aren’t always fun to drive on a track. The opposite is often true too, with more circuit-focused models feeling half-asleep anywhere else.

The exception that proves this rule is the Mazda MX-5 – a car we rate very highly for the way it handles a twisty B-road, that is equally (if not more) impressive on a race track - particularly if you’re a novice driver.

What makes the Mazda MX-5 a good cheap track car?

In a word, simplicity. There are very few driving aids to disguise the unskilled – there’s no torque vectoring all-wheel drive or multi-stage traction control to interpret your imprecise inputs and translate them into the ideal driving line. Just your right foot and four small patches of rubber.

In addition to that, the 160hp output from the 2.0-litre petrol engine in this limited-run Z-Sport model might be sufficient to haul you along at a modest rate, but you certainly won’t be making up time on the straights.

To set a fast lap time then this car needs to be driven extremely smoothly with plenty of speed carried through the corners – two fundamental track-driving skills possessed by successful circuit drivers from karting to F1.

Sounds like hard work…

In truth getting the most from this Mazda doesn’t feel like work – with every lap of Silverstone’s Stowe circuit (and we did very, very many) a faster line or later braking point would be discovered, only to find ourselves losing time somewhere else. A frustrating but extremely addictive process.

Helping accelerate our development were the MX-5’s transparent limits. It’s obvious when you’ve got a corner entry wrong because the car will roll so hard it’ll feel like you’re going to fall out, and the standard mechanical limited slip differential allows the rear end to break away gradually in response to an early stab of the gas, so you can catch it and learn for next time.

When it all started to come together (about two laps before the end of the day) the feeling of satisfaction was incredible – planning two or three corners ahead to ensure a good position on track, allowing the suspension to settle between bends, and applying the power at the right time to get maximum speed on the long straight.

At that point the MX-5 didn’t feel roly-poly or lacking in power – but as sharp and precise as a proper race car. As such, we didn’t exit the track until the Mazda was running on fumes.

What’s special about this special edition then?

Mechanically, not much at all – it’s based on the 2.0-litre Sport Nav, so you get the aforementioned limited slip differential, Bilstein dampers and a strut brace.

On top of that there’s a red roof (the first offered in the current MX-5) plus BBS alloy wheels and Sand leather seats. The Z-Sport is limited to 300 models but the good news is you can have just as much fun on track in the standard 2.0-litre car.

If you’re graduating from a go-kart or always fancied yourself as a circuit hot-shoe, the Mazda MX-5 is the ultimate first track car. You can only really gather pace by driving it properly, so any mistakes you make will likely be at low speed where you’ve got plenty of time to react.

Vitally it’s a car that will require the development of essential track driving skills to get the best from – lessons you’ll remember even long after you’ve moved onto something faster.


BBR MX-5 ND Stage One Turbo (July 2017)

Mazda MX-5 BBR Turbo, white

Is there a turbocharged MX-5? Tuning company BBR has worked its magic on the fourth generation MX-5, offering an extra 90hp courtesy of a big turbo for just £4,995. Plus you can have a three year warranty.

If you want the ultimate in MX-5 performance this is a great upgrade as we explain in our review