Mazda MX-5 roadster
"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
The Mazda MX-5 was among 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.
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 was updated again in 2020 with fuel-saving technology and a simplified trim range culminating in the luxurious GT Sport Tech model.
The MX-5’s closest rival is the Fiat 124 Spider, which shares the Mazda’s structure, but uses different engines. It’s no longer available to buy brand new but it's still possible to find nearly new examples with low mileages. As pure driver’s cars go, the Lotus Elise could be called a rival, but it costs a lot more to buy. When it comes to fun, the Subaru BRZ and Toyota GT 86 twins are similarly simple, light and engaging to drive, but both are coupes and miss out on the open-air fun of the MX-5. The MINI Convertible is another small, fun drop-top that's very popular, 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 £45,000.
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 around £2,000 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 does make it quite noisy on the motorway, where the RF works better.
As of mid 2020, the MX-5 range features four trim levels, which are all well equipped. The entry-level model is called the SE-L, followed by Sport, Sport Tech and the new top-of-the-range GT Sport Tech model. 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. There's also an R-Sport special edition, limited to just 150 cars, adding some exclusive features to the 1.5-litre model. This is sure to prove desirable, for its neat 16-inch Rays alloy wheels alone.
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, 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.
The MX-5 can post some impressive fuel economy figures for a sports car. A 1.5 or a 2.0-litre petrol engine can be chosen both with a six-speed manual gearbox. Fuel consumption is 44.8 and 40.9mpg respectively for the two engine choices, with both cars costing £150 in VED (road tax) annually. 2020 MX-5s come with Mazda's fuel-saving ‘i-ELOOP’ technology, which includes new stop-start and energy recovery systems, harvesting a small amount of energy under braking.
The 2.0-litre engine produces 181bhp, covering the 0-62mph sprint in 6.5 seconds, while the 130bhp 1.5-litre car takes 8.3 seconds. Although these figures are impressive, straight-line performance isn’t really what the MX-5 is about – if all you’re after is speed, then a Volkswagen Golf GTI or any other hot hatchback will serve you just as well. 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 £30,000, putting it up against some much faster hot hatches.