Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
Engine, 0-60mph and gearbox
You might be surprised to see such a low rating for this section, but it’s all a case of context. As a sports car, the Mazda MX-5 occupies the same class as brutally powerful beasts that include the Audi R8 and Porsche 911, 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.
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 redline before changing up a gear is a genuine pleasure and it’s brisk enough to have fun. In fact, the 1.5 is our pick of the range, not least because of its excellent value – more about which later on.
We’d understand you plumping for the 2.0-litre engine if it fitted 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 marginally quicker than an entry-level BMW Z4. That said, you’ll still have a hard time swatting away hot hatches such as the Ford Fiesta ST. It’s still more than quick enough for fun on a twisty B-road, though, and faster 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-slung appearance. It’ll cope easily with speed bumps and isn't too unsettled by awkward road cambers, although the Audi TT Roadster is a little more composed over really undulating Tarmac.
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 those trim levels come with, so we reckon most buyers will prefer the standard set-up and 16in alloys that SE-L and regular Sport have as standard (although those trims are only available 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 and the pricier Audi TT Roadster, 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 car feel even keener to turn in to corners. You also get a strut brace to stiffen the body shell to further tighten the handling. Sure, it’s no Porsche Boxster, but you’ll have a far bigger grin on your face than a BMW Z4 driver.
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. It’s not too blustery with the roof down, even approaching motorway speeds, so you can enjoy top-down opportunities in chilly weather. Both engines deliver a pleasing rasp and remain smooth until you hit the limiter, so it's a hoot to rev them out.
The manual gearbox has a short, precise 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. If you want an automatic gearbox, you’ll have to go for the Mazda MX-5 RF. Those who really value refinement should look at the Audi TT Roadster.
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