Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
Engine, 0-60mph and gearbox
You may be surprised to see such a low rating for this section, but it’s all a case of context. As a sports car, the MX-5 occupies the same class as brutally powerful 400bhp-plus beasts that include the Porsche 911 and Audi R8, which will happily dispatch a 0-62mph run below 4.0sec. In such company, the naturally-aspirated 130bhp 1.5-litre MX-5, which covers 0-62mph in 8.3sec, seems rather tame on paper. That doesn’t mean it can’t still excite, though. You need to rev it hard to get the best from it, but stretching the engine to its 7000rpm red line before changing up a gear is a genuine pleasure. In fact, the 1.5 is our pick of the range, not least because of its excellent value – more about which later.
We’d understand you plumping for the 2.0-litre engine if it fitted with your budget, though. With 181bhp, it provides more mid-range punch as well as a significantly more enthusiastic top end. It drops the MX-5’s 0-62mph time down to 6.5sec, which is quicker than the Toyota GT86’s 7.6sec, but remains relatively small fry in the sports car class, with performance that’s more comparable with hot hatches such as the the Ford Fiesta ST. It’s still more than quick enough for fun on a twisty B-road, though, and quicker than the convertible Fiat 500C and Mini Convertible Cooper S.
Suspension and ride comfort
The 1.5-litre MX-5 is softly sprung and proves relatively comfortable over most road surfaces, despite its low shape, which means you sit very close to the road. It’ll cope easily with speed bumps and isn't overly unsettled by awkward road cambers.
The 2.0-litre Sport Tech and GT Sport Tech models get full-on sports suspension with Bilstein dampers for a more focused handling setup, and are firmer, but not uncomfortably so. However, you'll notice rough surfaces and expansion joints more on the bigger 17in alloy wheels that these trim levels come with, so we reckon most will prefer the standard set-up and 16in alloys that the SE-L has as standard, although that does mean you’ll have to make do with the 1.5-litre engine.
This is the rear-wheel-drive MX-5’s trump card. It’s nimble and quick to change direction, with an accurate and light-footed feel. The steering is accurate and gives you the confidence to sweep the nose from one corner to the next with enthusiasm. It's further helped by strong levels of grip, so you're not afraid to use all of the MX-5's performance on the road. Compared with a lot of similarly priced front-wheel-drive hot hatches, the MX-5 is a much more involving and playful car, even with the fairly pronounced body lean that comes with the soft suspension of 1.5-litre models.
All MX-5s with the 2.0-litre engine gain larger 17in wheels and a limited-slip differential for greater traction out of corners. Their stiffer sport suspension system keeps body lean under tighter control and makes the MX-5 feel even keener to turn in to corners. You also get a strut brace to stiffen the body shell to further tighten the handling.
Noise and vibration
Noise levels with the roof up are acceptable for a roadster, but you have to accept a fair bit of wind and tyre noise at motorway speeds. Handily, it’s not too blustery with the roof down, even at higher speeds, so you won’t be afraid to go without the roof, even if it's chilly outside. Both engines deliver a pleasing rasp at medium revs and remain smooth until you hit the limiter, so it's a hoot to rev them out.
The manual gearbox has a precise, short shift that makes changing gear another joyful facet of MX-5 ownership. You will feel some vibrations coming through the pedals and steering wheel when the engine is at very low or very high revs, and through the suspension when passing over coarse surfaces, but this is a background issue rather than a constant pain.
All the pedal weights are perfectly judged, making smooth, precise brake modulation easy, while the six-speed manual gearbox that shifts quickly between ratios, helping you extract the very last ounce of performance. If you want an automatic gearbox, you’ll have to go for the MX-5 RF.
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