Engine, 0-60mph and gearbox
Don’t be fooled by the modest power outputs of the MX-5’s two four-cylinder engines. This is a light car and it doesn't need masses of power to move at a decent pace. That said, cars with the 130bhp 1.5-litre engine are brisk rather than genuinely fast; you need to rev it right to its high 7000rpm limiter to get the best from it.
The 2.0-litre engine, meanwhile, offers better mid-range punch as well as a significantly more enthusiastic top end. In fact, you’ll often find yourself waiting until the heady 7500rpm red line before changing up a gear, such is the engine’s appetite for revs. However, on paper, even with 181bhp to move a lightweight body, it's still only small hot-hatch fast (think Fiesta ST). It’s still more than quick enough to have fun in, though.
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.
Suspension and ride comfort
The MX-5 is softly sprung and proves relatively comfortable over most road surfaces. It’ll cope easily with speed bumps and isn't overly unsettled by awkward cambers. It even manages to take the sting out of sharp-edged bumps when the larger 17in alloy wheels are fitted.
The 2.0-litre Sport Nav+ and GT Sport Nav+ models get full-on sports suspension with Bilstein dampers for a more focused handling set-up, and are firmer but not uncomfortably so. You'll notice rough surfaces and expansion joints more, though, and we reckon most will prefer the standard set-up that the SE-L Nav+ comes with. Alternatively, on 2.0-litre models, you can go for the Cup pack, which, among other things that we’ll mention later, adds an Eibach lowering kit which improves the stance of the car by some margin, without much cost to ride smoothness.
This is the rear-wheel drive MX-5’s trump card. It’s nimble and quick to change direction, with an accurate and generally 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 most of the front-wheel-drive hot hatches you'll pay a similar amount for, the MX-5 is a much more involving, playful car.
It's worth mentioning that the soft suspension can result in quite pronounced body lean through corners, but it’s not something that’ll bother most people as, ultimately, there's not much body to be leaning anyway. It’s a small price to pay for such agility, because it helps the MX-5 to ride so smoothly.
All MX-5s with the 2.0-litre engine gain larger 17in wheels and a limited-slip differential for greater traction out of corners. Sport Nav+ and GT Sport Nav+ 2.0-litre models have an altogether different, stiffer suspension system that keeps roll under tighter control and makes the MX-5 feel keener to turn in to corners. You also get a strut brace to stiffen the body shell and further improve handling. Adding the Cup pack lowers the car’s centre of gravity, making it feel more alert when changing direction and, as a result, even more fun.
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. The good thing is that 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. The metal roof of the MX-5 RF is naturally more insulated than the convertible’s canvas roof, but wind noise is still pronounced at motorway speeds. There’s also and there's an intrusive whistle around the fastback body shape with the roof down.
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. Adding the Cup pack brings a Bastuck sport exhaust that doesn’t really make the car any louder, but adds a welcome bassy undertone when the engine’s at idle and when when accelerating with the needle halfway around the rev counter.
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 when passing over coarse surfaces, but this is a background issue rather than a constant pain.