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In-depth reviews

Mazda MX-5 review – the benchmark affordable sports car

"The MX-5 combines usability, driving fun and dependability to make it one of the most engaging convertibles on the road"

Carbuyer Rating

4.2 out of 5

Owners Rating

5.0 out of 5

Read owner reviews

Pros

  • Sharp, distinctive styling
  • Fantastic fun to drive
  • Usable every day

Cons

  • Roof limits visibility
  • Not the most practical car
  • Interior is showing its age

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 originally dreamt up as Japan’s answer to the lightweight British sports car, complete with a basic convertible canvas roof for open-top thrills. However, Mazda’s edge over sports car rivals was an extra dose of affordability, reliability and day-to-day usability – this ethos has served the small roadster well, and 35 years later the Mazda MX-5 is a household name.

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While the model that came before this fourth-generation iteration (dubbed the NC) was somewhat criticised by purists for being rather big and heavy in comparison to the original, this time the ND model is smaller and lighter with the goal of reviving the feel of the Mk1.

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The latest Mazda MX-5 has been around since 2014, but it’s undergone a number of subtle revisions and improvements over the years. The latest update brought another mild tweak in the form of slightly revised tail-lights and headlights with new integrated daytime running lights. Importantly, under the skin there were some changes, too, including improved throttle response and sound from the larger 2.0-litre engine for a more enjoyable drive. The steering was also recalibrated and cars now get a limited-slip differential as standard, helping with traction and putting power down more effectively. Though there was previously an automatic version, this is no longer available for the UK market.

If you want to stand out from the crowd even more, there’s an additional model in the latest MX-5 lineup called the RF. 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.

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The MX-5’s appeal has never been so much about high power figures or quick sprint times, but fun at moderate speeds, and this is especially true of the latest model. It’s 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 gear shift 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. Inevitably the fabric roof means that in standard guise the MX-5 isn’t the quietest car to ride in at motorway speeds, but it’s not as bad as you might expect, and the MX-5 RF is more suited to this type of use.

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The latest version of the MX-5 comes offered in three trims: Prime-Line, Exclusive-Line and Homura. The more powerful 2.0-litre engine is reserved for the two higher trims and does feel peppier and more fun, but we still like the 1.5-litre models for their purity.

The only factor that limits the MX-5’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 aside from a lockable cubby between the front seats, while a few design oversights such as poorly sited cupholders can be irritating. 

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Okay, so the interior won’t win any awards in terms of innovative design, but as a driving-focused model first and foremost, Mazda knows its market well and we like the use of quality leather on Exclusive-Line models and above, though some cheaper materials are present on entry-level cars. Though arguably old-fashioned, its traditional analogue dials might equally feel like a welcome feature to purists.

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.

Testament to the MX-5’s longevity is how its rivals are so few and far between. Originally this generation of Mazda’s sports car was launched alongside the Fiat and Abarth 124 Spider, both of which shared many underpinnings with the MX-5 albeit with different engines, but these were later discontinued. It was also a close competitor to the Toyota GT86 and its successor, the Toyota GR86, both of which are also off sale. There’s not much out there that quite compares with the MX-5 in terms of price, but if you have a much larger budget upwards of £53,800 and want an engaging sports car with a more luxurious feel, then you might consider the Porsche 718 Boxster

The BMW 2 Series is another alternative, and while some versions can be had for less than the Boxster, you won’t get the open-top driving experience, it still starts from £10k more than the MX-5 and you can only spec expensive top-spec M2 models with an optional manual transmission.

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Charlie writes and edits news, review and advice articles for Carbuyer, as well as publishing content to its social media platforms. He has also been a regular contributor to its sister titles Auto Express, DrivingElectric and evo. As well as being consumed by everything automotive, Charlie is a speaker of five languages and once lived in Chile, Siberia and the Czech Republic, returning to the UK to write about his life-long passion: cars.

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