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Mazda MX-5 review (2015 – 2018)

Not only a more than worthy successor to the original, it's the best Mazda MX-5 yet

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What is it?
Fourth generation of Mazda’s roadster icon.

Key features:
Engine/chassis tech, light weight, drivability.

Our view:
Not only a more than worthy successor to the original, it’s the best Mazda MX-5 yet.

There can be few motorists who are not aware of the Mazda MX-5 – particularly in the UK.

When it first arrived on British roads in 1990 the MX-5 reinvented a market lost with the demise of such British sports car classics as the MGB and the Lotus Elan – it was a light, affordable roadster which fulfilled the basic premise of being fun to drive. In fact it was just the sort of car that such UK specialists should have built to remain major players in the market.

That the MX-5 came from Mazda was a major surprise, the Japanese brand not renowned for thinking out of the box though it had built a radical rotary-powered sports car, the Cosmo, in the 1960s. With the MX-5 the brand got the market just right – virtually everyone who saw the car fell in love with it. Even before the original was replaced by the Mk2 in 1998 it had earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s best-selling roadster, a position it has retained ever since.

As the Mk4 arrives on the market Mazda is closing in on a million MX-5 sales globally, and 12 per cent of those cars have gone to British buyers, the UK total in excess of 120,000 units.

Britain takes 50% of all European MX-5s, the UK owners club has more than 6,600 members and a race series for the car has more than 100 registered competitors and fields that often exceed 90 cars – there is no greater evidence that this is the spiritual successor to the classic 1960s British roadster.

That premise was apparently firmly in the mind of Mazda’s designers when they set out to create the fourth incarnation of the line. The Mk3, introduced in 2005, had taken on the guise of a larger, more muscular beast, partly through all the extra safety kit legislation demanded.

For the new version it was felt the car needed to return to its roots, to that original car, while also incorporating the SkyActiv engine and chassis efficiency technology and the ‘Kodo – soul of motion’ design language that has characterised all recent releases from Mazda – in fact the MX-5 is the last model in the range to incorporate the first generation of both the engineering and design programmes.

So the new Mazda MX-5 is shorter, lower and wider than the outgoing car, and in fact 5cm shorter and 1cm lower than the original Mk1. Meanwhile at 975kg, some 100kg less than the Mk3, this is the lightest MX-5 since the original, achieved through such areas as aluminium-intensive body construction and the more compact, lighter engines.

According to Mazda UK MD Jeremy Thomson, this downsizing completely reverses an industry trend. “Renault launched its Clio supermini around the same time as the Mk1,” Thomson says. “Today the current Clio is twice as heavy and with an 18% larger footprint…”

Yet even with its shorter overhangs, reduced by 4cm either end, and the lower stance, the new Mazda MX-5 is instantly recognisable as directly related to that game-changing original. If anything the styling, with the modern tech super-slim headlamps, are an improvement on the original – the car looks more purposeful, inviting.

The new car has an ever so slightly shorter wheelbase, and the two occupants sit further back and lower to the ground than in previous versions. Yet on slipping behind the wheel, one experiences the paradox of the surroundings appearing to closely fit, cockpit-style as they should on a sports car, while not feeling cramped. The 130-litre boot is bigger too.

Part of the snug comfort is due to improved seats, while a notable touch is the way the exterior metal, and its colour, extends along the door tops. The dash is all circular dials, as it should be, while SE-L models and above get Mazda’s MZD-Connect connectivity system, accessed through a seven-inch touchscreen. While a typically effective version of such technology, the screen itself does look a little ‘stuck on’ the top of the dash.

Then there is the hood – still fabric (Mazda is not yet saying whether there will be a hardtop version like on the Mk3), but lighter than its predecessor and potentially even faster to use. Sitting in the driver’s seat you flick the central catch and drop it down in seconds, while raising is equally easy and rapid, as we discovered during unseasonable August weather during the test in Scotland.

There are two engine options for the MX-5, both familiar SkyActiv petrol units but modified for their sports car application. The former 1.8-litre engine makes way for a 1.5 with more horses, 129 in total, but lower fuel consumption and emissions.

Then there is a 2.0, like in the Mk3, but again with more power, 157bhp, and better efficiency. And both engines are matched to a six-speed manual gearbox, more on which shortly.

All of this is loaded into a chassis that retains its original suspension layout, with a double-wishbone front and a multi-link rear end, but has been lightened in all areas, while also being torsionally stiffer than its predecessor. It all sounds very promising.

The launch test route involved a drive across Scotland, from Inverness airport to the tip of the Applecross peninsula, on roads that offer a major challenge to any car with sporty pretensions, but also great rewards to any car that can deliver – and the MX-5 certainly delivers.

We racked up several miles with both engines and while the true enthusiasts will likely naturally lean towards the more than competent 2.0-litre, it’s the 1.5 that proved the most satisfying. It seems to combine with gearbox and chassis to produce a perfectly balanced whole.

Much of this is due to the gearbox. The 1.5 engine is by no means a slouch but it requires all of its revs, and the resultant plentiful gear-changing is nothing less than sheer pleasure through the short 40mm throw, sharp and precise gate. It all adds a lot to the experience.

Then there is the chassis, and a newly-developed electric power steering system. The car leans purposefully into bends, the steering lightweight but with excellent feedback – you really feel you are driving this car and very quickly start to seriously enjoy roads with lots of corners.

Finally, there is the price. The Mazda MX-5 was always built around the concept of affordability. The £18,495 starting price of the new car is £5 more expensive than the equivalent Mk3, and £3,570 more than the Mk1 when it launched more than 25 years ago. Taking inflation into account, the Mk1 today would cost around £33,000.

The Car Expert does not routinely express superlatives but it is easy to do so with the new Mazda MX-5. This car is not only a more than worthy successor to the original, it is the best MX-5 yet…

Mazda MX-5 – key specifications

Model tested: 131PS SE-L Nav, 160PS Sport-Nav.
On sale: August 2015.
Range price: £18,495-£23,295.
Insurance group: 25E-29E.
Engines: Petrol 1.5, 2.0.
Power (bhp): 129, 157.
Torque (lb/ft): 111, 148.
0-62mph (sec): 8.3, 7.3.
Top speed (mph): 127, 133.
Fuel economy (combined, mpg):
47.1, 40.9.
CO2 emissions (g/km): 139, 161.
Key rivals: BMW Z4, Audi TT Roadster, Mercedes SLK
Test Date: August 2015.

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Andrew Charman
Andrew Charman
Andrew is a road test editor for The Car Expert. He is a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers, and has been testing and writing about new cars for more than 20 years. Today he is well known to senior personnel at the major car manufacturers and attends many new model launches each year.