Car review: Mazda MX-5

With the summer almost here, you may be considering an open-topped car - and the latest Mazda MX-5 would be a good choice, says Dr Tony Rimmer.

Now that the days are longer and the sun is starting to shine, many GPs will have thoughts of an open-topped car.

More convertibles are sold in the UK than anywhere else in Europe and the choice is wide. There are many drop-top versions of regular cars like the Volkswagen Golf but what is on offer for the petrolhead GP who likes to drive a proper sports car?

Well best in class is Porsche’s Boxster, recently revised with a four-cylinder turbo engine. However, starting at £41,739 this is likely to be too pricey for most GPs. The second-hand route is an option but there are risks involved with any older car’s history and high service costs are inevitable.

You could go all out and buy a new Caterham 7 but you could not reasonably live with it as a daily drive and home visits would be challenging.  The Lotus range is attractive, but too expensive, and the ageing BMW Z4 just doesn’t cut the mustard any more.

Mazda MX-5

So, what about Mazda’s diminutive MX-5? Well, up to about twelve months ago I would have advised you to dismiss the idea. The third generation car was still fun to drive but had gained weight, had a dated cramped interior and had lost a lot of the purity of the original 1989 car.

I recall testing the 1989 car when new and remember being blown away. Here was a car that was a lot of fun to drive, likely to be reliable and was great value too. It was a real sports car that could blow away the cobwebs and stress of a busy day in the practice just on the drive home. 

The second-generation car appeared in 1998 and, like the 2005 third-generation MX-5, was generally a less satisfying product.

Thankfully Mazda have been fully aware of the subtle erosion to some of the attributes that made the first MX-5 so groundbreaking. They have released the fourth-generation car with a promise that they have ‘gone back to basics’.

What’s new in this model?

The new car is physically smaller, weighs 100kg less than the outgoing model, has a modern stylish body and is safer and more economical.

It is available with a peppy and high revving 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine producing 129bhp, or a 2.0-litre version of the same unit producing 158bhp and more mid-range torque. There are five trim levels available and prices start at a very reasonable £18,495.

My test car was the range-topping 2.0-litre Sport Nav model which has standard heated leather seats, keyless entry, a lane departure warning system, a premium Bose sound system, light sensitive adaptive lighting, an excellent Sat-Nav via a seven-inch touchscreen, side air-bags, rear parking sensors, climate control and cruise control. In other words; an awful lot of kit for  £23,295.

How does it drive?

I was really looking forward to driving the new car and had my fingers crossed that all the initial positive reports would be borne out behind the wheel.

I need not have worried. Before this latest MX-5 turned a wheel it was winning me over. The interior is now right up to date, roomier and the driving position is low and racy.

A lovely rorty exhaust note accompanied start-up and the real clincher for me was lowering the fabric hood.

With one hand I undid the central lever, pulled back the fabric cover and in less than five seconds had it soundly clipped in place behind my head. It makes all heavy electric mechanisms redundant at a single stroke. I was now ready to test the performance and handling on my favourite roads.

Accelerating through the gears makes a few things immediately clear; 158bhp is plenty for a car this light and although the mid-range pulling power is greater in the 2.0-litre model, the smaller engine would be almost as good – and it revs higher to 7500rpm.

The six-speed gearbox is a true delight. A deliberate in-built mechanical feel and the short throw shift makes you feel like a racing driver.

Powerful brakes and sharp direct steering allow the MX-5 to really connect you with the road. It is great fun to drive, the ride is supple and you do not need to be going fast to enjoy it.

The only real rival to the Mazda is the Fiat 124 Spider which shares its chassis and underpinnings. If you really want a folding hard-top, wait for the MX-5 RF (Retractable Fastback) which has an electric roof.

So this is a car able to satisfy the keen driving GP. It is well built, practical enough to be used every day, great value and cheap to run. Mazda have done a brilliant job to recreate the original formula and should be congratulated.

Mazda MX-5 160PS Sport Nav
Body Two seat convertible. Rear wheel drive
Engine 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol
Power 158 bhp
Torque 200 Nm
Top speed 133mph
Acceleration 0-62mph in 7.3 secs
Claimed economy Combined 40.9 mpg
CO2 emissions 161g/km
On-the-road price £23,295

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