Ordinarily, truly great cars pass into legend some time after production ceases. The Mazda MX-5, however, achieved iconic status some years ago.
Indeed, so right was the first MX-5 that it stayed in production for nine years, and even the current third generation model has been with us since 2005.
Mazda have kept the MX-5 current through the years with a series of targeted updates, most recently in 2013 with a tweak of the styling, a new ‘active bonnet’ to improve its pedestrian safety performance, and a TomTom-based satellite navigation system among other goodies.
The fundamental concept of the MX-5, that of a lightweight, fun-to-drive sports car, has been meticulously maintained. Mazda’s ‘gram strategy’ sees engineers chasing seemingly infinitesimal weight savings – a few grams saved on a mirror or a few metres less cabling can quickly add up – while heavy components such as the battery and fuel tank have been relocated to lower the centre of gravity and preserve that mythical 50:50 weight distribution.
Today’s MX-5 is available with a choice of either a 1.8-litre petrol engine producing 126PS at 6,500rpm and 167Nm of torque at 4,500rpm, or a more gutsy 2.0-litre unit with 160PS at 7,000rpm and 188Nm at 5,000rpm. The larger engine is two seconds faster to 62mph than the 1.8 – 7.9 seconds versus 9.9 – and tops out at 136mph while its little brother runs out of puff at just over 120mph.
Emphasising its entry-level status, the 1.8 is the only engine if you’re looking for the original folding fabric roof, while the hard-top model (dubbed the ‘Roadster Coupe’) is available with either power unit.
Whichever top you choose, both are undoubtedly the best in the business. The simplicity of the manually-operated soft-top is rewarding in its own right; flip down the sun visors, press the release button near the rear-view mirror, and just the push the roof back, all without getting out of the driver’s seat.
The hard-top is a small-scale engineering marvel. Release the catch, press the button on the dash, and 12 seconds later the roof has electrically folded itself neatly away, a process it manages without eating into the 150-litre boot space.
The hard-top’s cabin is a much quieter place to be than the soft-top equivalent, although the downside is that the engine note seems dulled and a little lacking in fizz with the roof in place. Thankfully, with the roof down, that’s replaced not just by the sounds of the countryside but also a peppy burble from the exhaust that’s more befitting the little Mazda’s character.
Continuing the MX-5’s ethos is the fabulous gear-shift action. The stubby lever, mounted well forward on the high transmission tunnel, falls perfectly to hand, and its short throw lends itself to frequent rifling through the ratios.
That’s the driving style the MX-5 seems to find most rewarding; both engines reserve their best until relatively high in the rev range, and that invites you to make some commitment to the driving experience by keeping it all on the boil.
Once you do, though, the rewards are plenty. The rear wheel-drive chassis offers a degree of throttle adjustability that’s impossible to replicate in a front wheel-drive set-up. Oversteer your way around a roundabout if you want to, safe in the knowledge that the limited-slip differential will stop the inside wheel lighting up, while the electronic stability and traction control systems will do their best to avoid any impromptu hedge-trimming.
Hooligan antics aside, the hydraulically-assisted steering loyally transmits the various signals being broadcast by the chassis, while the brakes are beautifully linear and easily modulated.
Around town, while the ride will remind you that your posterior is mere inches away from the rear wheels, it remains perfectly usable for a daily commute or long weekend away.
There are no great compromises to be found in the interior, either. The instruments are attractive and unobstructed by the steering wheel, the controls are well placed and well weighted, and there are sufficient cubby holes for mobiles and other gubbins.
That said, tall drivers will feel hemmed-in, and getting out can be tricky, too – the handbrake isn’t relocated on right hand-drive models and for me, at 6ft 4, was in the way of where my knee needed to be so I could hoist myself out.
That the only complaint we had was about something that happens when you leave shows that everything else the MX-5 does is so well judged.
We wouldn’t object to a peppier power plant, however. While this may have been a sacrilegious suggestion a few years ago, we think the time is right for the MX-5 to adopt a small capacity turbocharged power unit. Not only would this instil an extra sense of nippiness that we feel would suit the little Mazda, it would also bring fuel economy and emissions benefits, too.
Not that the current engines are exactly gas-guzzlers: the 1.8 manages 39.8mpg on the combined cycle, with CO2 emissions of 167 g/km that place it in VED Band H (£285 in the first year, £200 thereafter). The 2.0-litre by comparison records 36.2mpg and emits 181 g/km, nudging it up into Band I – £335 the first year, £220 thereafter.
Prices start at £18,495 for the 1.8 SE Soft-top, with the hard-top version available for £1,500 more. Equipment levels are generous, with climate control, electric heated mirrors, electric windows, six-speaker MP3-compatible stereo and alloy wheels on all models.
The £23,095 Sport Tech adds 17-inch alloy wheels, Bilstein dampers, front fog lights, alloy pedals, cruise control, auto-dipping rear-view mirror, Bose stereo with Bluetooth and a limited-slip differential, while Sport Tech Nav adds a TomTom-based satellite navigation system for just £200 making it something of a no-brainer.
There’s also a £22,995 limited edition Sport Graphite model which includes 17-inch gunmetal alloy wheels, black headlight inserts, heated leather seats, grey door mirrors and grey roof.
Whichever model you choose, the Mazda MX-5 remains that most delicious of objects: an icon you can still buy today.
|Entry-level Price||£18,495||Price as tested||£23,295|
|Engine||4-cylinder petrol, 1999cc||Transmission||Six-speed manual|
|Power||160ps @ 7,000rpm||Torque||188Nm @ 5,000rpm|
|0-62mph||7.9 secs||Top speed||136 mph|
|Economy||36.2 mpg||CO2||181 g/km|
|Dimensions||4020 x 1720 x 1255 (LWH)||Kerb Weight||1248 kg|