The Auto Trader expert verdict: ★★★★★ ★★★★★ 4.0
The MX-5 offers something for everyone. It’s grown up, good-looking and luxurious enough to please buyers after a simple cruiser, but also fast, exciting and engaging enough for die-hard enthusiasts. A true star. Voted for by the public as the 2018 winner of Auto Trader’s New Car Award for ‘Most Fun Car to Drive’.
Reasons to buy
- Brilliant handling
- 2.0-litre engine much improved with extra power
- Everyday usability
At a glance
- How good does it look? ★★★★★ ★★★★★
- What's the interior like? ★★★★★ ★★★★★
- How practical is it? ★★★★★ ★★★★★
- What's it like to drive? ★★★★★ ★★★★★
- How powerful is it? ★★★★★ ★★★★★
- How much will it cost me? ★★★★★ ★★★★★
- How reliable is it? ★★★★★ ★★★★★
- How safe is it? ★★★★★ ★★★★★
- How much equipment do I get? ★★★★★ ★★★★★
- Why buy? ★★★★★ ★★★★★
How good does it look?
Size matters to Mazda; and, as far as the company is concerned, smaller is better when it comes to the MX-5. With stubby overhangs to put a wheel right at each corner, it has an aggressive stance, but with classic sportscar cues such as a long bonnet, short tail and cockpit mounted right at the back of the body. It features LED headlights and alloy wheels as standard, with entry-level cars getting 16-inch rims, while 2.0 and GT Sport models sit on 17s. All models have a fabric folding roof that's lowered by hand, rather than electrically.
What's the interior like?
Traditionally, MX-5s have always been a bit compromised inside as they often came with few creature comforts and were, at best, cramped. This model goes a long way to addressing those criticisms, though. The dashboard surfaces and switches feel satisfyingly robust, although there are cars out there with more premium-feeling plastics and the infotainment system feels a bit dated, with no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto as standard (although you can have it fitted at the dealer, for a price). The driving position is spot-on, placing the driver low down to the ground, feet straight out on the pedals, right in the centre of the car. Early cars saw the steering wheel adjust only for height, not reach, but an update in mid-2018 changed that to give adjustability for reach, which is most welcome. Taller drivers though should make sure they can comfortably fit inside though. The MX-5 is many things, but roomy it is not. Visibility is excellent towards the front of the car, with the steep windscreen angle giving you a fantastic view down the road, making the car easy to place accurately.
How practical is it?
Careful revisions to the cockpit now mean tall adults will be much comfier in the MX-5 – with more head and elbow room than in earlier incarnations, but it can still be a squeeze for those over six foot. The cabin feels narrow because of the high central transmission tunnel, but a set of handy removable cup holders, a lockable storage cubby, decent door pockets and a phone tray mean the Mazda can just about cope with all the usual gubbins associated with a longer trip. There's no denying the boot is rather small, with just 130 litres of space, but it has room for a couple of soft bags, and that space remains the same whether the fabric roof is up or down. The roof is a doddle to use, too, with a manual release, but spring-loaded action so you can fold it away in five seconds flat, one-handed. Mazda deserves credit for making the most of the space the MX-5 does have, while also shrinking its size.
What's it like to drive?
While the MX-5 loses some ground in the practicality stakes, it claws it back again with a wonderfully involving driving experience that truly sets the standard in this segment, and most others. The controls stream a constant flow of information to the driver, responding crisply and immediately to each and every input. The steering is an electro-mechanical system that is perhaps a touch lighter than you might expect around centre, but it weights up naturally as soon as you start to move the wheel. The body initially leans into corners, but once settled the tyres generate more than enough grip, both on entry and exit. Push harder and you can exploit the poised rear-drive chassis, adjusting your line by easing off the throttle. On 16-inch wheels and standard suspension, the ride on the 1.5-litre petrol is very supple, taking all but the most rutted surfaces in its stride. The 2.0 manual models comes on lower, harder springs, and feels quite a lot stiffer on rough roads, but is supple enough to soak up bumps mid-corner.
Drivers that face lots of motorway driving should be aware that the soft roof means lots of road and wind noise above 60mph. If you're just zipping about on short journeys then it shouldn't be too much of an inconvenience, but it can start to grate after an hour or so of assaulted eardrums. If that's a concern, then check out the MX-5 RF, which has a folding hard top and is less raucous at higher speeds.
How powerful is it?
Two four-cylinder petrol engines are available: a 1.5 with 132 horsepower, and a 2.0-litre that put out 160 horsepower when the car was introduced in 2015, and boosted to 184 horsepower mid-way through 2018. The 1.5 will be okay for buyers wanting nothing more than a very gentle open-air potter from their MX-5, but if you want anything more than that, we’d recommend the upgrade to the bigger unit. It’s not so much the shortage of outright pace that’s the problem, more the shortage of in-gear flexibility that’ll have you constantly chopping and changing on the (albeit sweet-shifting) manual gearbox.
The 2.0-litre delivers a good bit more fizz when the mood takes you, especially in the later models, with more power and a higher rev limit. The 2018 power increase really lifts the MX-5's character. Most hot hatches are faster, but there’s enough pace there to let you make the most of the MX-5’s sweet handling. A six-speed automatic gearbox is also available with the 2.0-litre, but we’re yet to try it.
How much will it cost me?
There aren't too many rivals for the MX-5 at this point, which means it's a lot of fun for the cash and there aren't too many alternatives. Compare what we think is the version to go for - the Sport Nav+ model with the 2.0-litre engine - to Fiat's 124 Spider and you'll find the Mazda will depreciate less and cost less to service, repair and maintain, and also boasts considerably more performance. Toyota's GT86 costs more, won't hold onto its value as well as the MX-5, and it'll use more fuel too. Compared to a hot hatch like Hyundai's i30 N, the Mazda will again hold its value better, which means it's a financially wiser move over several years of ownership.
How reliable is it?
The Mazda MX-5 has always had an exceptional reliability record for any kind of car, let alone compared to other sportscars. The amount of Mk I cars you still see rolling around today should go some way towards backing up that reputation. So should previous models' performance in Warranty Direct’s Reliability Index, which is about as strong as it’s possible to get. Mazda also ranks extremely highly in the league table of manufacturers, which should top up your confidence even further.
However, there's less rosy news in JD Power's Vehicle Dependability Study, which looks at more recent overall manufacturer performance. From 2017 to 2018, Mazda has slid down the overall table and while it still sits solidly mid-table, with better that average performance, it's not the stellar report we were once used to.
How safe is it?
Front and side airbags are provided – which is similar to what you’ll get with other small convertibles – as are tyre pressure monitoring, stability control and a pop-up bonnet to give pedestrians better protection. Sport Nav+ models, from mid-2018, also have Lane Departure Warning on top, Front Smart City Brake Support (a type of automatic emergency braking), Traffic Sign Recognition and Driver Attention Alert, which will warn you if you're getting tired. You'll have to pay extra for the Safety Pack if you want a blind spot monitoring system, although this is included on the top-end GT Sport Nav+ models. The MX-5 hasn’t been crash-tested by Euro NCAP, but there is an Isofix child seat mounting point on the passenger seat.
How much equipment do I get?
Essentially, the MX-5 range breaks down into four trim levels - SE, SE-L, Sport and GT Sport. In base SE spec, which comes only with the 1.5-litre engine the MX-5 misses out on cruise control, the touch-screen infotainment system and DAB radio, but still has alloys, air-con and a leather steering wheel. Upgrade to SE-L and you’ll receive most of the goodies mentioned above, plus sat-nav, a wind deflector for the cabin and LED running lights. Sporte models look and feel a bit plusher inside, with leather upholstery on the dash and (heated) seats, a high-performance Bose sound system that packs nine speakers into the car, including two in the seat headrests. The top-end GT Sport model has Nappa leather seats, heated seats and a reversing camera.
If you want the best-handling drop-top on the market, then the MX-5 is a fantastic choice. The MX-5 is better than its ever been, with great handling and, from mid-2018, more power in the 2.0-litre version. The fact that it’s so tiny, and relatively cheap to buy, own and insure, only helps further bolster its huge appeal. If you're planning to be on the motorway a lot, then the wind noise might mean you'd be better suited to the electric hard top version, called the RF, but otherwise, this is the best little car of its type.