There’s a simple appeal about the Mazda MX-5. For 30 years, it’s been the world’s most popular roadster thanks to its loveable charm and unpretentious image. It’s an unaggressive sports car that’s easy to live with. It also helps that it’s nippy, fun to drive, economical and reliable.
The MX-5 formula has stayed very simple for 30 years - a two-door, two-seat convertible with a simple petrol engine driving the rear wheels in the classic sports car way.
The design has changed with the times. Original cars had pop-up headlights and came with a fabric soft top and an optional hardtop that had to be stored and lifted onto the vehicle when needed.
In 2015 came a big change – the MX-5 body was sharpened up with the flared lines of the Mazda family and it suddenly looked right for the new motoring era. It looked more expensive too, with LED headlights and smart alloy wheels, which are bigger on the larger-engine models.
Buyers could choose versions with the classic fabric roof that folds with one arm movement, or a powered folding metal roof that looks like a hardtop coupe when in place. A 2018 facelift tinkered with the specs but it’s hard to spot the differences externally.
What's it like to drive?
It’s a sports car that suits driving enthusiasts because of its perfectly balanced, precise handling and traditional rear-wheel-drive character. It’s an old-fashioned concept – a lightweight sports car that’s entertaining and brisk, yet not a high-performance supercar. It’s all about the responsive nature of the controls, rather than the power of the non-turbocharged 1.5-litre or 2.0-litre petrol engines.
A stiffer sports suspension is available, though all MX-5s prove very nimble on winding country roads. The car is also comfortable and composed on motorway cruises.
The smaller petrol engine is fine for town driving and short journeys. The bigger, more expensive 2.0-litre unit adds a little more refinement for motorway cruises. It also comes with a limited-slip differential, a clever mechanical link that provides slightly better cornering for the keener driver.
A stiffer sports suspension is available, though all MX-5s prove very nimble on winding country roads.
The obvious point first - you get just two seats in the MX-5’s snug cockpit. You sit low in classic roadster style, with legs stretched out in front. There’s actually quite a lot of space for the two occupants, considering the modest dimensions of the car.
It’s neat and well-built without being a showy prestige car. The dashboard is another link with the rest of the Mazda family, and Mazda 3 owners will feel right at home. It’s a user-friendly, robust design. The lovely, precise six-speed manual gearbox is more popular than the slightly less economical six-speed automatic option.
All models are fairly well-loaded with equipment and luxuries. Even basic versions get electric windows, air-con and a steering wheel with multi-function controls. Higher trims add extras like climate control and a seven-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Bluetooth and DAB radio. It’s all very easy to use.
Top-spec cars come with premium features like automatic headlights and wipers, rear parking sensors, heated leather seats, key-free operation and a superior Bose stereo.
If you struggle to get comfortable behind the wheel, models sold after 2018 have a more adaptable driving position as the steering column is adjustable to and fro from that point. When shopping around, look out for the confusing list of regular ‘special editions’ of the MX-5 that come with various packages of optional extras – check they’ve got what you need.
The fabric roof is considered one of the best because it’s quick and easy to raise and lower, and is well-insulated and resistant to leaks. This soft-top hood can be folded away in seconds and doesn’t impact the boot space. The RF version offers a powered folding metal roof with more weight and more security. Overall, this latest generation has more safety kit than ever before.
This is a sports car, so there are compromises. The obvious one is that the boot is nowhere near a hatchback’s. You’ll fit in shopping and overnight cases – not golf bags. There are a few cubby holes in the cabin, and a few maps and jumpers might slip behind the seats.
One of the best optional extras to look for are the speakers mounted into the headrests that give great quality, even speeding with the roof down. It’s like wearing headphones.
Reliability and running costs
The latest MX-5 generation, since 2015, is the most economical yet. It compares well against any rival sports car. The impressive official combined figures for the two different petrol engines are 41mpg and 47mpg.
All other running costs are likely to be slightly more than a normal hatchback, but a lot less than an exclusive sports or executive car. Look for versions with the start-stop system and manual gearbox to maximise fuel economy.
The MX-5 has had an excellent record for reliability and buyers generally rate the ownership experience highly.
What we love
It’s the sports car that’s both desirable and cheap to run, easy to park and economical with fuel. The legendary Mazda MX-5 provides driving thrills plus everyday usability. You can drive it slowly to the shops or cruise along a winding A-road. It’s very reliable and looks great. No wonder it’s the best-selling sports car of all time.
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The Mazda MX-5 is brilliant at what it sets out to do: provide unpretentious fun in a classic convertible sports car. It’s as easy to drive and own as any car, and more economical than many. The latest version is the coolest-looking, best-equipped and safest yet.
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