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Mazda MX-5 – 30 years old and still a world favourite

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World favourite is a brave term to apply to any car but surely the tag fits the Mazda MX-5. In 30 years more than a million have been made, over four generations, but even today the most up-to-date version still subscribes to the basic DNA of the first 1989 car – a compact, rear-wheel-drive sports car that one cannot fail to enjoy driving.

Nowhere is this more true than in the UK, one of Mazda’s most important markets for the MX-5. British buyers snap up half of all European MX-5s, and a UK race series for the car has more than 100 registered competitors. Basically we love the car.

As the model celebrates its 30th anniversary, with of course a special edition version, in this feature we take a look at the four incarnations of the Mazda MX-5. This particular road tester is one of many avowed fans of the car and has been promising himself one for some time. But which would he buy?

Mazda MX-5 Mk1: 1989 to 1997

Mazda MX-5 Mk1 | The Car Expert

It’s fair to say that when Mazda launched the MX-5 in 1989 it caused a sensation. Not only was the car like nothing the then little-known Japanese manufacturer had previously produced, it was also like nothing on the market.

At least it was like nothing that sports car enthusiasts had seen since the demise of British classics such as the MGB, Lotus Elan et al. This was a spiritual successor to those cars, a proper roadster with a 1.6-litre engine of 115hp, a perfect 50:50 weight distribution and handling-friendly rear-wheel drive.

The MX-5 drove just like those old classics, in fact better than many of them, and it had bags of character. And it was a modern Japanese car, without such challenges as the rust-bucket sills that came with owning say a classic MG.

Buyers loved the pop-up headlamps, the fabric roof that was both light, aiding the handling, and could be raised or lowered in seconds simply by undoing two catches rather than mucking around with electronics. And when lowered it didn’t take up any of the admittedly modest bootspace.

The first generation MX-5 sold some 450,000 across the world in the eight years it was made, and during this time it gained a more powerful version with a 1.8-litre engine of 130hp, as well as an automatic gearbox engine (to be honest, auto shifting is sacrilege in a driver’s car such as the MX-5…).

Admittedly the car also gained in some quarters an unfair reputation, seen at the time as a model for lifestyle types who wanted to be seen in it car rather than actually enjoy driving it. Those who ignored it for such reasons had clearly never driven one.

Even today, to drive a Mk1 MX-5 is a real pleasure, because it boasts such placeable, inch-perfect handling, an on-the-road package that would not quite be replicated in later models, at least until the fourth-generation came along.

So would a Mk1 be our man’s MX-5 buy? It would for many, because it is in many ways the purest of the breed, especially its handling. But owning one now is really owning a classic car. Mechanically the MX-5 is a very simple car and being Japanese it is highly reliable, but Mk1s are of an age where you really will have to spend money and/or time keeping them on the road.

Mazda MX-5 Mk2: 1998 to 2005

Mazda MX-5 Mk2 | The Car Expert

With such a success on their hands Mazda’s designers faced the ‘difficult second album’ problem when creating the Mk2 version, but they overcame it. Launched in 1998, the car was instantly recognisable as the successor to the iconic Mk1.

The pop-up headlamps were gone, a styling touch that had dated very quickly, while the aerodynamics were improved along with details such as a proper glass rear screen in the hood.

There was a bigger boot, achieved by moving the battery and spare wheel under the floor. This also lowered the car’s centre of gravity, and combined with a more rigid body allowed the enthusiasts to breathe easily because the new car handled almost as well as the old one.

This was particularly true if you went for the 1.8-litre engine, as this had been given a 10 horsepower power hike and a six-speed gearbox – by the time the car was retired in 2005 it was putting out 146hp. The 1.6, meanwhile actually lost five horses.

Our man likes the Mk2 – it still has that purity of drive that we adored in the Mk1, but one feels there are less bits to show their age, especially the lack of pop-up headlamps.

Mazda MX-5 Mk3: 2005 to 2015

Mazda MX-5 Mk3 | The Car Expert

In many ways the Mk3 is seen as the least attractive of the MX-5 line – not that any of the models are unattractive, but this is regarded as the most sensible and therefore least fun version. 

It arrived in 2005 when technology in the car market was exploding, and it reflected the trend. Whereas the Mk2 had almost matched the Mk1 for size, the Mk3 was bigger. Not much, actually – while the wheelbase was extended by 6cm, the overall length sized out by only an extra 2cm, with a similar width stretch. But this had the effect of making the car look more grown-up, slightly affected by middle-age spread, no longer quite the diminutive sports car of its predecessors.

The new car did benefit from technology gains. There was more body rigidity, more modern materials to save weight. And there were new, all-alloy powertrains, a 1.8-litre with 126hp but most buyers going for the 2.0-litre version with 160 horses.

It’s only four years since the Mk3 MX-5 was retired and when slipping into a later model from the production run you really feel like you are in a modern car, with the surfaces, dash design and toys such as sat nav systems. No, it doesn’t feel quite as pure to drive as the earliest models, but it also feels a lot more solid. It’s a car one can happily use every day in comfort, but still have fun in.

And perhaps nothing demonstrated the sensible side of this generation than the launch in 2006 of a version with a retractable hard top. Electrics opened or closed in just 12 seconds and when down it sat in a special tonneau cover on the rear deck – adding a bit of weight but not taking any boot space. This version of the car was no longer the pure roadster, but its practicality ensured it became highly popular.

Mazda MX-5 Mk4: 2015 to today

Mazda MX-5 Mk4 The Car Expert

Mazda would never admit that it had gone too sensible with the Mk3 but suffice to say when creating the Mk4 the designers started with a clean sheet of paper, incorporating the brand’s trendsetting Skyactiv powertrain and chassis technology. 

And as can be read from our road tests of the model, they have succeeded in creating a thoroughly modern car that many road testers, this one included, believe actually outshines the original Mk1 in the handling stakes.

There is also a strong consensus from across the motoring media that the Mk4 MX-5 is once again at the top of its game. According to The Car Expert’s unique Expert Rating system, which aggregates new car reviews from about 16 of the top UK motoring websites, the latest MX-5 currently has an overall Expert Rating of 91%. That currently ranks it fourth of the 120 cars we’ve currently analysed (behind only the Porsche 911, McLaren 600LT and Alpine A110).

Today the roadster retains that fabric top just like that first car of 30 years ago and comes with the option of 1.5-litre 131hp or 2.0-litre 160hp engines. Or there is a new RF version with a metal targa top that in seconds transforms from snug coupe to wind in the hair – and comes with 24 extra horses. And to be honest, Mazda sells a few more RF versions than it does roadsters.

Remarkably it’s the shortest MX-5 ever – 6cm shorter than the original Mk1. In these more compact surroundings, the engine sits lower and further back, while the driver sits lower too, and closer to the car’s centre line.

These measures help to offset all the weight that has been added through the needs especially of extra safety protection and the technology expected in modern cars. Today’s MX-5 is still an absolute blast to drive, a car that one will go looking for challenging cross-country routes in, and at the end of the day will be perennially sad to get out of.

Mazda MX-5 30th Anniversary Edition

There have been many MX-5 special editions over the years and Mazda cannot let such a milestone as 30 years pass by without creating another. So we have the 30th Anniversary Edition – totalling 3,000 cars with just 550 on sale in the UK.

These will comprise 370 roadsters and 180 RF versions, at £28,095 and £29,895 respectively, so around £2500 more than the top standard versions.

Likely quite a lot of that extra cost pays for what Mazda tells us is a newly developed ‘Racing Orange’ body paint. Boy it is a bright colour, and it’s repeated on such details as the brake callipers.

Other additions include forged bespoke aluminium wheels developed by specialist Rays Co Ltd, Brembo brakes operated on by those bright callipers, and of course a 30th Anniversary badge that displays the model’s serial number.

Inside, there is a lot more orange – on the seats, door trim, dashboard, steering wheel, air vents and gear lever. There are sporty Recaro seats and Alcantara trim on the door trim and instrument panel. And one practical note – Apple Carplay and Android Auto comes as standard on this one.

The choice is yours

So, as mentioned, this road tester is a firm MX-5 fan. But as he takes a sip of tea from his MX-5 30th Anniversary mug and considers the options, which would he buy?

Money no object, it would have to be a current Mk4, as it ticks every box. But like for many, money is an object, and the second car to the ‘family runabout’ will by a used buy that will clock up quite a lot of mileage – us motoring journalists don’t spend all our time in test cars you know…

So, shock horror, it will likely be a Mk3, as the best combination of practical everyday car and sheer fun. You can pick up a really good eight to ten-year old MX-5 for around £4,000-£5,000 if you shop carefully, and being a basically simple and – crucially – Japanese-built sports car it’s virtually bulletproof. (Funnily enough, this is exactly the same conclusion that I came to last year – ed)

Others will prefer the classic feel of the earlier models, but one aspect will remain constant – whichever MX-5 you buy, you won’t be disappointed…

Mazda MX-5 30th Anniversary group The Car Expert

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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.