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UK drive: The most basic Mazda MX-5 might just be the sweetest of all

Reviews | Published: | Last Updated:

Tom Wiltshire takes a 1.5-litre Mazda MX-5 for a spin to see what it offers over larger capacity options

What is it?

“Oh, the 2.0-litre is more powerful, but the 1.5-litre is sweeter.” “It’s actually the engine the car was designed for, you know…” “You don’t need all that power, really.” Discuss the latest Mazda MX-5 with enthusiasts for any length of time and these few phrases are bound to come up. But is there any truth in them?

On paper, Mazda’s MX-5 seems to benefit massively from the fitment of a larger, 2.0-litre engine – with more power, more refined handling thanks to a tricksy differential and more relaxed cruising. Yet many people may steer you towards the ‘lesser’ 1.5-litre. Why? That’s what we’re here to find out.

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What’s new? 

There are no surprises here – short of the smaller engine under the bonnet, this is exactly like the fourth-generation MX-5s we’ve grown to know and love. Even the engine isn’t exactly new, as it’s been available from its 2015 launch.

We’ve gone for what many might consider the ideal spec. There’s that smaller engine, of course, but there’s also a manually folding soft-top in place of the electric hard-top on RF models. But despite the basic underpinnings, Sport Nav specification ensures you’re not left wanting for too many goodies.

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What’s under the bonnet?

Lift the lid and you’ll find (if we’ve not drilled it into you already) a 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine. It produces a relatively modest 129bhp and 120Nm of torque, good for the 0-60mph sprint in 8.1 seconds. That’s not exactly sparkling, to put it kindly – there’s many a diesel hatchback that could outsprint this MX-5.

But when allied to the close-ratio six-speed manual, there really are few combinations on the road today capable of eliciting such a grin. You’ll find yourself rowing through the gears to make any sort of meaningful progress – far from a chore, as this is one of the best manual gearboxes in the business – while a throaty exhaust note and rev-happy engine combine to make even a dash to the shops sound appealing.

Best of all, the relative lack of performance means you’re rarely going fast enough to be in danger of overwhelming the chassis. The MX-5 allows you to have fun at totally safe speeds.

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As a bonus to those pinching the pennies, this engine achieves remarkable fuel economy. Work it hard and you’ll still struggle to push the average figure below 40mpg.

What’s it like to drive?

The MX-5’s chassis is similar to the powertrain in that it’s far from perfect but generates a smile-a-minute regardless. Stick the little Mazda hard into a corner and you’ll be amazed how much the body leans – yet the rear-drive chassis hangs on tenaciously, once again adding to that notion of ‘fun at any speed’.

The added finesse of the 2.0-litre can be missed under hard cornering, but the lightness of steering that the featherweight engine bestows on the front end more than makes up for it in our book.

The MX-5 even rides with a degree of comfort. The car’s long wheelbase relative to its tiny size, combined with the fact you sit dead in the centre of the car’s length means you’re fairly well shielded from potholes. Combine this with a nigh-on perfect driving position and supportive seats and the MX-5 is a car you might actually consider doing a long journey in.

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How does it look?

We’re massive fans of the MX-5’s aesthetic, which combines sharp-edged Japanese styling with the classic proportions of a British sports car. Some might find it a little fussy, and there’s no denying that the Mk1 or ‘NA’ model remains the purest MX-5 yet in terms of design.

There are some real masterstrokes here though, the roof being one of them. Opening it takes just seconds – unlock a catch above the windscreen, throw it back, and push down behind you to lock. Putting it up involves another lever in between the two seats, which lifts the edge of the roof up high enough for you to grab it and pull it over, locking it back into place. You’ll be wondering why anybody does it any other way.

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What’s it like inside?

The interior is where the MX-5 hits its first hurdle – because boy, is it tight in here. Anyone approaching six foot (or with a little more around the middle) will be forced into some interesting contortions to get in and out, though it’s worth mentioning that once in place, the MX-5 is comfortable for the majority of drivers.

A lack of storage also grates. There’s a lockable stowage bin between the seats, a tiny cubby under the armrest and an even tinier one in front of the gearlever – and that’s it. No glovebox, nowhere particularly easy to put your phone and nowhere to store a big bottle.

The boot is similarly constrained, though it’s plenty big enough for weekend luggage for two – so we can’t knock it too much for that.

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What’s the spec like?

Basic powertrain doesn’t have to mean basic equipment. Our test car was in range-topping Sport Nav trim, which nets a good level of standard kit – though it really ought to, given the basic price tag of over £23,000.

There are 16-inch gun metal alloy wheels, rear parking sensors, adaptive LED headlights and automatic wipers, while passengers are treated to heated leather seats, keyless entry, a Bose sound system, climate control, cruise control and Mazda’s own infotainment system.

Though it’s relatively basic in function, it does include sat-nav and is worlds ahead of the Toyota GT86’s aftermarket setup.

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Verdict

The 2.0-litre MX-5 remains the chariot of choice for those who care a little more about performance, or perhaps drivers who intend to use their MX-5 for a lot of motorway travel.

For everyone else, we say give the 1.5-litre a try. It’s just as much fun whether you’re taking it easy or pressing on, usefully cheaper to buy and somehow more fitting with the MX-5’s ethos. Of course, at this price it goes toe-to-toe with some remarkably accomplished hot hatchbacks, so do consider those, too.

  • Model as tested: Mazda MX-5 1.5 Sport Nav
  • Price: £23,645
  • Engine: 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol
  • Power: 129bhp
  • Torque (Nm): 120Nm
  • Max speed (mph): 131mph
  • 0-60mph: 8.1 seconds
  • MPG: 47.1mpg

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