Mazda MX-5 roadster review
"The MX-5 combines usability, driving fun and dependability to make it one of the most engaging convertibles on the road"
- Sharp, distinctive styling
- Fantastic fun to drive
- Usable every day
- Roof limits visibility
- Not the most practical car
- Cabin can be noisy
Verdict - Is the Mazda MX-5 a good car?
The Mazda MX-5 is one of the best all-around sports cars on sale, in an increasingly small cohort. When it comes to enjoying a challenging road, the MX-5 has few peers, but its price has crept up over the years. While the MX-5 was once seen as a bargain sports car, top models now command a price tag of around £36,000 – and more for the RF – putting it up against some much faster hot hatches. Still, on the right day, and along the right road, the MX-5 will put a bigger smile on your face than almost any other car.
Mazda MX-5 models, specs and alternatives
The Mazda MX-5 was amongst the first cars from a mainstream brand to rekindle interest in the lightweight roadster, a type of car once considered a British speciality. First appearing in the UK at the very end of the eighties, with a two-seat roadster layout, modest power and incredible agility, it embodied everything that made models like the Lotus Elan so addictive to drive.
Importantly, the MX-5 was also easy to live with and didn’t threaten to leave you stranded by the side of the road every time you dared to get it out of the garage. It doesn’t require expensive parts or service bills, and should be inexpensive to buy and run for a sports car. The latest MX-5 hasn’t deviated far from that concept: it’s still light, rear-wheel drive and a fantastic driver’s car.
Although the 2.0-litre version is more powerful than before, the magic is found in its impeccable balance and steering that puts you at the centre of the action. The MX-5 is frequently updated, with recent introductions including fuel-saving technology and a simplified trim range culminating in the luxurious Homura model.
The MX-5’s closest rival is a used Fiat 124 Spider, which shares the Mazda’s structure, but uses different engines. As pure driver’s cars go, the Lotus Elise could be called a rival, but it costs a lot more to buy and is also no longer in production. When it comes to fun, the Toyota GR86 is similarly simple, light and engaging to drive, but being a coupe it misses out on the open-air fun of the MX-5. The MINI Convertible is another small, fun drop-top that's Britain’s most popular convertible, but it feels very different to drive thanks to its front-wheel drive layout and upright seating position. The Porsche 718 Boxster offers similar open-air thrills but it's far more expensive, costing over £49,000, not to mention far more powerful. A small hot hatchback like a Ford Fiesta ST or Suzuki Swift Sport might arguably be more closely matched to the MX-5. For a more grown-up feel, you could also go for a BMW 2 Series Coupe, which is our reigning Best Sports Car for 2023.
The RF model stretches the MX-5’s appeal still further. Those initials stand for Retractable Fastback, because it has a coupe-style metal roof, the top section of which can disappear into the bodywork at the touch of a button. It promises to deliver both the quietness, security and practicality of a coupe and the roof-down exhilaration of a roadster – for a small premium over the equivalent soft-top. We've reviewed that model separately.
This most recent evolution of the MX-5 is smaller and lighter than the one before. This makes it incredibly nimble - narrow tyres provide respectable grip, but not too much, so confident drivers can enjoy pushing the car without going too fast. It’s a car that loves to be driven around its limit, with just enough power to keep driving entertaining but safe.
Frenetic fun aside, the MX-5 is a great car to cruise around in: very compact dimensions make it easy to park and thread through narrow city streets. The steering is accurate and tells you all you need to know about how much grip the car has, while the clutch and gearshift allow fast, satisfying shifts.
The car’s light weight also means the suspension doesn’t have to work so hard, and it's softer than you might expect, making the MX-5 forgiving over bumps. However, its small size and fabric roof do make it quite noisy on the motorway, where the RF works better.
The MX-5 range features three trim levels, which are all well-equipped and changed in late 2022 as part of a shake-up by Mazda. The entry-level model is called Prime-Line (previously SE-L), followed by Exclusive-Line and the top-of-the-range Homura (which replaced the GT Sport Tech trim). Spring 2023 saw the arrival of a special edition Kizuna model, limited to just 250 models in the UK. This version is based on Exclusive-Line specification with the 130bhp 1.5-litre engine, but with a special coloured hood, alloy wheels and a light-coloured interior. The more powerful 2.0-litre engine is reserved for the two higher trims, but we still like the 1.5-litre models for their purity.
The only factor that limits the MX5’s appeal is its poor practicality. There are only two seats and the boot holds 130 litres of luggage – even less than the MINI Convertible. There’s not a lot of storage inside the car, either, while a few design oversights such as poorly sited cupholders can be irritating. We were disappointed by the quality of some of the interior surfaces, and the cabin is starting to show its age, too. There's no conventional glovebox but you get a lockable cubby between the front seats instead. This will limit the MX-5 to weekends away for all but the most dedicated enthusiasts and those who pack lightly.
Raising and lowering the manually-operated soft-top is an easy process and it doesn’t eat into boot space when it’s down, while the RF’s roof is fully automatic. Rear visibility is slightly reduced on both versions when the roof is raised, but the soft-top is made from thick material and does a reasonable job of keeping the worst wind noise out of the interior.