The Mazda MX-5, the world’s most successful roadster, is unsurprisingly something of a motoring icon. It really isn't difficult to see why either. Its combination of pure and direct driver engagement, and a deftly calibrated level of power, weight, mechanical grip, and balance has been honed to near perfection.
It has democratised driving thrills like no other, unshackled driver enjoyment from six figure sports cars, disassociated sheer speed and power with fun on the road.
Now that it has entered its 4th generation, available in two engine choices and either standard Roadster or Roadster GT grades, the keenly priced Japanese open top occupies a market where former competitors have strayed from their original formula, adding in more power, more kit, more weight, and consequently more cost to their own alternatives, meaning that Mazda’s insistence to not waver from its roots only further separates the MX-5 from ‘them’.
They're is only too happy to let cars like the BMW Z4, Mercedes-Benz SLC, and Porsche Boxster fight among themselves for each sale, leaving those who are serious about unvarnished driving thrills to trickle into their fold, smirking at the folks who aren’t enlightened enough to realise that what could be the most rewarding car to drive might actually cost so much less.
The only bother the MX-5 has had of late would be the equally Japanese Toyota 86 (or identical Subaru BRZ), which uses a very similar set of ingredients to achieve the same ends: affordability, lightness, simplicity, rewarding rear-wheel drive balance, and oodles of fun on the road.
But that is a coupe where the MX-5 goes the roofless route. However, Mazda has also introduced a version with an electronically actuated metal roof called the MX-5 RF (Retractable Fastback) for a premium above the soft top. Also, due to the ink drying on some deals with FCA, the MX-5 is now the basis for the resurrected Fiat 124 Spider nameplate along with its more powerful sibling from Abarth.
The MX-5’s history isn’t without some pain points, though. Many people view the 1989 original as the pinnacle of the series, with the subsequent models succumbing slightly to the ‘more is better’ philosophy with progressively more weight, larger dimensions, and more power.
Mazda’s newest version, codename ND, is meant to be something of a return to square one, thought it does adopt many visual cues that the brand is currently rolling out on its more practical everyday cars as well as some conveniences that some buyers will no doubt lament should they be absent.
Has Mazda crafted the ultimate everyday roadster for the common man (or woman)?
“Mazda has made the new MX-5 smaller than the original in a bid to keep its kerb weight down to just over 1000kg.” - Drive.com.au
Mazda’s KODO Soul of Motion design philosophy has now permeated to their roadster as well, giving it some much needed visual edge. The implementation here is more subtle than its other cars, though, but noticeable nonetheless especially when viewed alongside its current stablemates and immediate predecessor.
From certain angles, the MX-5’s new look gives it a sportier stance and a more muscular presence in spite of its diminutive size. Fans of Honda’s sorely missed S2000 will also notice some resemblance particularly when viewed in profile.
The Japanese automaker has taken a granular level of consideration when it comes to weight, and from that baseline informs every decision that was made during the MX-5’s development. More of the car is made from aluminium and placed strategically to ensure better weight distribution and a lower centre of gravity.
Dimensionally, it’s the smallest MX-5 Mazda has ever produced, measuring less on every axis than the previous version and volumetrically more compact than even the first Mark 1 of 1989. Weight has dropped too by approximately 100kg, with a kerb weight less than 1,000kg, which pays dividends when considering the freedom it allowed for the suspension tune where heavier cars would need a firmer setup to counteract the inertial compression during cornering.
The MX-5 RF (Retractable Fastback) differs by using a metal folding roof in lieu of the fabric top in the standard car, which needs to be pulled over and clamped manually. This in itself isn’t new as the previous NC MX-5 was offered as a ‘Roadster Coupe’ with the expected folding hardtop splitting into three pieces before being stowed behind the seats.
The RF, however, features buttresses that remain as part of the car’s silhouette even when the roof is folded for a Targa-esque open top experience. This approach also permitted Mazda more leeway for weight saving and an unimpeded boot volume with fewer folding panels that needs storage.
Engines and Drivetrain
“Torque has been substantially increased at low to mid-range engine speeds when compared to the 2.0-litre engine from the previous model.” - CarsGuide
There are two engines that are offered with the MX-5, both petrol four-cylinders from Mazda’s SkyActive-G range starting with a 1.5-litre unit that generates 96kW and 150Nm while a larger 2.0-litre unit produces 118kW and 200Nm.
Both seem to love being thrashed up to the redline with particular praise given to the larger 2.0-litre in this respect. Some think the larger engine is the obvious choice for a lithe sports car like the MX-5 while others pundits prefer the smaller 1.5-litre engine for its lighter weight and smaller size allowing it to be positioned a little further away from the front axle and further toward the centre of the car.
Where the disparity between the 1.5-litre and 2.0-litre engine becomes most present is low end grunt and the larger engine simply has more of it, available at an earlier engine speed which is very useful for powering up a hill without needing to select a taller gear.
Drive is sent to the rear via either a six-speed automatic transmission that works well enough with paddle shifters behind the steering wheel or - the more righteous choice - a slick six-speed manual that will either reintroduce you to the pleasures of a stick shift and the unmatched sense of connection with the car that that brings, or merely reinforce it. What’s more, manual transmissions units receive a limited slip differential for livelier cornering by ensuring an even spread of power to the rear wheels.
With most cars’ interiors becoming ever more complex, it’s such a refreshing change to slide behind the MX-5’s dashboard. - Telegraph Cars
The MX-5’s interior, despite the car’s intense focus toward keeping weight down, isn’t as spartan as you might think. With some clever trim material selections and plush touches, Mazda has managed to achieve both reasonable comfort without allowing any luxury beyond what’s necessary.
The cabin isn’t big either, which means a snug fit for most drivers but should at least allow you plenty of opportunity to appreciate the supportive sports seats, leather gear shifter, leather steering wheel and leather handbrake lever along with the soft touch materials garnished throughout the dash and door panels. All Mazda cars now feel high quality and they’ve somehow managed to carry that over to this one as well, as contradictory as that may seem.
There is climate control air conditioning, and in GT grade, there’s the rather intuitive MZD Connect infotainment system that uses a rotary controller to navigate its menus which pipes in audio via a 9-speaker Bose audio system. This is as much creature comforts as is permitted without adding too much weight and only cars like the Lotus Elise can get away with not including such features at all - the MX-5 is made for the mass market after all.
However, that same pursuit of lightness has also meant sacrificing on sound insulation, and this becomes more evident as the speed builds particularly with the soft top deployed, effectively echoing the sounds that do seep into the cabin such as tyre roar, wind noise, and the patter of rain drops against the fabric roof.
Behind The Wheel
“Mk4 MX-5 has been passionately designed and developed around a theoretical concept: in this case, to offer interaction and a sense of speed and fun for everyone.” - EVO UK
Sitting inside the MX-5, there’s a sense of connection to the road even before you set off. You’ll sit low and snug surrounded by all the controls and readouts you need. Assuming you’ve selected the manual transmission option, the clutch is easily judged and the shifter itself operable by light movements, it won’t take long to develop a groove with it.
On the road, the Mazda MX-5 copes with bumps, undulations, and the occasional bumpy stretch of road very well indeed for a car of this sort. Again, this is down to its light weight that permits a more compliant suspension setup.
The steering is a departure from normalcy as it’s an electromechanical rack instead of hydraulically assisted. Yes, there’s less of that chatter that can inform drivers of exactly what the front wheels are up to and what surface they’re dealing with, but the new steering is quick, well weighted and doesn’t hinder the car’s eagerness to dart precisely from corner to corner.
At motorway speeds, though, it can be a little too sensitive and requires a stable command of steering input to keep it calm and poised but, really, the MX-5 is meant less for high speed cruising and much more for tackling your favourite canyon route. Otherwise, the car is quite composed and more than capable of long distance journeys with little fatigue.
Ask it to put a smile on your face, though, and very few cars can match the MX-5’s sheer ability to make you feel like a million bucks even after a stressful day or week, at any price. The lightness makes every input feel immediate but the car is also quite forgiving because of it. Before long, drivers of any skill level will be able to acclimatise themselves, stringing together corners and feeling every curve conquered.
The car’s relatively thin tyres provide enough grip and the modest engine specifications allow just enough traction to break for that rare pivoting sensation in rear-drive sports cars. It's addictive. The principal of ‘more being better’ definitely does not apply and because of this, can get drivers to more easily explore its limits at safer, lower speeds, made more engaging by the crisp throttle response. That’s the beauty of the MX-5: it makes you a better driver instead of just a faster one.
Safety and Technology
“Mazda has a long record of producing dependable and safe cars and the new Mazda MX-5 should be no different.” - Carbuyer
The MX-5 only has two occupants to worry about at most, so its four airbags are are adequate should the worst happen - a front and side airbag each - while a reinforced windscreen frame can support the weight of the car should it roll over.
ANCAP awards the fourth-generation MX-5 with a 5-star safety rating, but active safety systems such as autonomous emergency braking aren’t included. However, the more traditional anti-lock brakes with EBD (Electronic Brake-force Distribtion) and Electronic Stability Control are, as well as Emergency Stop Signal which is activated upon sudden deceleration. Parking an MX-5 can be tricky with the roof up, which is why Mazda offers an optional reversing camera.
Cruise control is also standard but void of any adaptive capabilities while front illumination is handled by LEDs. As we’ve mentioned, the MZD Connect infotainment system with navigation only comes with the GT grade, no matter the engine choice, and is worth the extra cash. You’ll also get larger wheels and nicer interior materials.
Few cars can provide the kind of engaging and rewarding drive that the MX-5 can. It’s even better when you consider how much it costs relative to other cars that can dish out the same thrills. Being a roadster, cruising along a coastal highway on a sunny day is also an option when you're done spanking it up a twisty road.
But, again, it isn’t as if you will be sacrificing too many creature comforts for an effervescent drive. In fact, save for some higher NVH levels that are well within reasonable limits for a sports car, the MX-5 is quite an easy, even relaxing car to drive.
Carbuyer - 4.2/5 “The Mazda MX-5 is the most successful sports car ever, and there are several good reasons why. It successfully combines usability, driving fun and dependability to make it one of the most engaging convertibles of all time.”
Telegraph Cars - 9/10 - “The Mazda MX-5 harks back to a simpler time when power wasn’t the be-all-and-end-all. But this doesn’t mean it feels old fashioned; indeed, it’s a truckload more fun than any roadster this side of £30,000.”
EVO UK - 4/5 - “The new MX-5 is a fine car and an appealing one, but if that line sounds curiously downbeat it is simply a reflection that, on paper, the concept encapsulates everything many of us have been arguing for in recent years.”
Motor Trend - 4.5/5 - “The 2016 MX-5 Miata continues to be a great choice for cheap speed and affordable top down fun.”
CarsGuide - 4/5 - “Despite a few niggles, Mazda once again has delivered on a compact open-top two-seater with a perky engine, rear-wheel drive, 50 / 50 front-rear weight distribution, grippy handling at an affordable price. If that’s your bag, what’s not to like.”
Drive.com.au - 7/10 - “It is an extensive range that caters to a wide range of buyers and coupled with the sharper dynamics and fresh looks this latest MX-5 has been well worth the wait.”