"Few cars can rival the Mazda MX-5 for driver appeal. It offers wind-in-the-hair thrills and excellent reliability with reasonable prices."
Very few cars would still be popular without changing their basic look for nearly 24 years, but the Mazda MX-5 is the exception. Classic in style, it's a low-weight sports car with mid-range engines and incredibly responsive handling. But, most importantly, it brings some real driver fun and excitement to drivers who might not otherwise be able to afford it. The current third-generation model was updated at the end of 2012, so sports a refreshed front with a new bumper and grille, while more safety equipment was added and some mechanical improvements made. It has larger dimensions than in the past, and is also safer and more powerful than its predecessors. You get more equipment and accessories for your money too, and considering its size, there's quite a decent amount of storage – but be realistic about how much luggage you’ll ever be able to get inside a car like this. The MX-5 comes in six specifications – the entry-level SE, then Sport Tech, Sport Tech Nav, Powershift, Venture and top-of-the-range Sport Graphite.
MPG, running costs & CO2 emissions
This is a sports car that won’t hold you to ransom. The most economical engine is the 1.8-litre, which can return just shy of 40mpg in combined fuel economy and emits 167g/km of CO2. Meanwhile, the 2.0-litre Sport Tech returns 36.2mpg in fuel economy, while emitting 181g/km of CO2. The 2.0-litre Powershift, which includes an automatic gearbox, is worse still, returning 35.3mpg and emitting 188g/km of CO2 – common for automatic cars. Insurance groups are much lower than any other convertible sports car, while any replacement parts should be affordable thanks to good availability
Interior & comfort
The MX-5 will never win any prizes for comfort, but it's nowhere near as bad as you’d expect an affordable sports car to be. Lumps and bumps on the UK's rough roads are ironed out relatively easily, with hardly any vibration (which is a common trait of convertibles with less-rigid bodies) detectable inside the car. If you go for the Sport Tech, the larger alloy wheels and stiffer suspension do reduce the comfort further, but this isn't a car you buy to cover long distances in. The seats have tall backs that give plenty of cover from the outside elements and help reduce wind noise to as much as you’d expect when driving with the roof down. Interestingly, with the roof in place, the road and wind noise becomes a bit too loud – especially when driving at motorway speeds.
Practicality & boot space
The MX-5 is small, there's absolutely no way around that. It's designed for style and performance, so it's just not practical. The 150 litres of boot space will hold a couple of backpacks or some shopping but not much more, but luckily the folding fabric hood doesn’t eat into when folded away. The roof is very straightforward to fold down – by releasing a pair of clips then dropping it back. Naturally, the folding hard-top Roadster Coupe model is more secure than the soft-top, and, being electric, it folds away in just under of 12 seconds.
Inside you get a decent range of cubbies and storage compartments, plus four cup-holders – loads considering that it's a two seater. Even then, though, the interior is something of a squeeze, with tall drivers very likely to have difficulty getting inside comfortably. And once in, there's no reach adjustment for the steering wheel, which is far from ideal.
Reliability & safety
Have been on sale for nearly a decade, it's slightly frustrating that the MX-5 still hasn’t been submitted for the Euro NCAP crash safety tests. But Mazda has form with this, with the old model gaining a decent four stars when it was tested way back in 2002 – so it's a safe bet that the newer model will do better. But there are a few stumbling blocks – the entry-level 1.8-litre model doesn't come with electronic stability control (ESP) as standard, which is often the reason for some small city cars dropping a star. All other models in the range do come with it as standard, however, as well as side, driver and passenger airbags, a reinforced windscreen frame and roll-over hoops. There's also an active bonnet system that pops up the edge of the bonnet if a collision with a pedestrian is detected, increasing the crumple zone between the bonnet and the engine to minimise injury to the pedestrian and damage to the car.
The MX-5 should also prove to be pretty reliable, with Mazda making lots of improvements across all its cars. It climbed a huge 13 places up the 2013 Driver Power customer satisfaction survey's manufacturers rankings, to storm into the top 10 and place fourth out of 32 – behind Lexus, Skoda and Jaguar. That's due to a level of consistent durability that most of its main rivals simply cannot match. The third-generation MX-5 itself – which wasn’t rated in the 2012 Driver Power – managed to come 47th in the top 100 cars list, and placing a decent 12th for reliability.
Engines, drive & performance
Fun – pure and simple. The third-generation MX-5 may now be getting a bit long in the tooth but its lasted this long because its pinpoint steering and nimble agility on the road make it an unabashed joy to drive. The 1.8-litre and 2.0-litre engines produce 124bhp and 158bhp, respectively, which is just enough performance to make the Mazda quite the pacy little sports car. The 1.8-litre model is paired with a five-speed gearbox, while the 2.0-litre gets a six-speed, with both proving to have a short, accurate action that makes shifting through the gears very simple indeed. You can get a six-speed automatic gearbox, which comes fitted with steering wheel-mounted paddles, but we’d suggest giving it a wide berth because it really isn’t as responsive as the manual and significantly reduces the sheer glee of the car. The 2012 update modified the accelerator, making it respond more when you really put your foot down, while the upgraded brakes make the MX-5 more stable under braking – which you’ll need to handle those new bursts of speed.
Price, value for money & options
The MX-5's trump card is that it's inexpensive – you won’t find a more affordable convertible sports car for the money. Its resale values are also strong given its enduring popularity in the used car market. The Roadster Coupe models are more desirable, but they do carry a sizeable extra cost when you actually buy one. Now even the 1.8-litre entry-level SE car comes fitted with climate control as standard, so the whole range now feels better value, and the SE much less bare than previously. The Sport Tech Nav spec adds a TomTom sat-nav system with touchscreen, and Bluetooth and iPod connectivity as standard.