What is it?
The launch of the new Mazda MX-5 started with a warning: Welcome to Scotland, where the roads are long and winding, and if you’re doing 61mph in a 60mph zone, they’ll ticket you.
So, with Scotland’s no-tolerance attitude to speeding firmly in mind, I needed a car that would be fun within the legal limits, and I was hoping that the MX-5 1.5 would be one of the best cars in the world for that.
With just 129bhp, this entry-level version of the MX-5 starts at £18,495 (or around £230 per month on finance), undercutting the 158bhp 2.0 by between £600 and £800 depending on trim. However, it does without the 2.0-litre model’s strut brace, limited-slip differential and – in 2.0 Sport trim only – the Bilstein dampers and sports suspension.
In essence, we already know how good the MX-5 is. What we really want to find out here is whether the 1.5 can cut it for thrills on British roads, or whether you should find the extra for a 2.0-litre model.
What's it like?
Our route in the 1.5 started in miserable traffic, but even in stop-start stuff the car impressed. A light clutch, rorty engine note, predictable throttle response and a short, tight gearshift make it feel at ease even in such mundane, generally frustrating progress.
Get it out on a decent rural road and it absolutely sings. As you’d expect, the naturally aspirated engine makes for a supremely linear, long-revving power delivery that welcomes being wrung out to the 7000rpm redline. Low-powered or not, you only need one corner and one sprint through second gear to know that this is a proper sports car, by any definition.
However, the 1.5 is at its happiest when you keep it on the boil through the high mid-range, where it feels fast enough, yet completely predictable and unintimidating. Sure, this engine doesn’t serve up scorching pace, but because you can enjoy using 100% of the performance in all sorts of situations, with pedals well placed for heeling-and-toeing, it brings zeal to a road that would most likely feel ordinary in plenty of other sporting models.
Yet, a fizzy engine is nothing without the handling to go with it, and here the 1.5 MX-5 is a gem. The steering offers a sense of connection that gives you complete confidence in what’s going on where rubber meets road, and there’s loads of grip, which means you can really lean on it through corners, even on damp, uneven roads. If it does start to lose traction, you get plenty of warning, or if you’re looking for oversteer moments then it’ll do that progressively, albeit with a fair amount of provocation.
Ultimately, the 1.5 is a fluid-feeling thing and an absolute joy to drive, even at licence-friendly speeds. Even the ride quality is well sorted. You get a bit of a shiver and thump over coarse intrusions, but most of the time the 1.5 is composed and quite refined for a lightweight soft-top. We even saw an indicated 40mpg, which is no small achievement, given the heavy use it saw over our long route.
Our only real criticism is that the body movement on this model is quite pronounced, with noticeable float over fast undulations, and you’re aware of the car’s weight moving about even in moderately fast switchbacks. Maybe we’d also like a touch more conviction to the steering around the straight-ahead at motorway speeds.
Other niggles? The pedals are slightly offset to the right, which might irritate longer-legged drivers, given the small footwell, but even so, with the tilt-adjustable seat base to help, the vast majority will find the MX-5’s snug cabin and well-shaped seat a real joy. Go for SE-L or up to get the 7.0in colour multimedia screen and it’s a really smart-looking, well-equipped interior.
Should I buy one?
Absolutely. The 1.5 is a notch or two short of the 2.0-litre for outright dynamism, and if you’re considering track days or other full-on driving, it’s definitely worth going for the 2.0 Sport.
However, I couldn’t help but think back to colleague Matt Prior’s initial drive of the MX-5, when he reckoned that the word ‘sweet’ summed up this car. I think he’s right. On UK roads, the 1.5 is about as sweet as it gets. Fast it isn’t, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun, and – refreshingly - not just on the right road.
Mazda MX-5 1.5
Location Scotland; On sale Now; Price £22,445; Engine 4 cyls in line, 1496cc, petrol; Power 129bhp at 7000rpm; Torque 111lb ft at 4800rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Kerb weight 1050kg; 0-62mph 8.3sec; Top speed 127mph; Economy 47.1mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 139g/km, 22%