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Fourth-generation MX-5 heads back to Mazda's roadster's roots, surpassing its predecessor in every area

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While everyone was swooning over the new Toyota GR86 and subsequently getting worked up that you can’t actually buy one, some might have forgotten that if you want a lightweight, front-engined, rear-wheel-drive sports car with a manual gearbox, you could simply go to a Mazda showroom and buy a Mazda MX-5 all along.

The current generation of the Mazda MX-5, codenamed the ND, was brilliant when it launched in 2015, and because it’s such a timeless concept, it hasn’t aged a day. It also helps that Mazda has kept it fresh with model-year tweaks here and there – some small, some quite significant.

The Mazda MX-5 first appeared in 1989, as a reimagining of the Lotus Elan

Other long-running nameplates, such as the Mercedes SL, have markedly changed in character throughout their run, but the MX-5 still fulfils much the same role as it did when it first went on sale in 1989.

It came about as the result of an American wistfulness for cheap British roadsters on the one hand, and a Japanese firm’s readiness to speculate and innovate in order to make its global reputation on the other. ‘Mazda Experiment, Project Number Five’ would go on to become the world’s fastest-selling sports car.

The idea of an affordable open-top was hardly new to Japan. Preceding decades had seen oddities such as the Datsun Fairlady, Honda S500 and Toyota Sports 800 emerge, often as their fledgling makers’ first production models. But by the end of the 1970s, with the demise of such icons as the Triumph Spitfire, MG B and original Lotus Elan, the segment was assumed to be in decline. 

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It was these models, though, that Mazda dissected during the MX-5’s development, and they are among the reasons why it emerged in 1989 as a small, sub-one-tonne, front-engined, rear-drive, perfectly balanced home run.

Ironically, the MX-5’s success found a counterpoint almost immediately in the lukewarm reception and ailing sales figures that greeted the all-new Lotus Elan, which emerged only a few months later, lumbered as it was by a higher price, lumpier looks and front-wheel drive. 

The first MX-5 – the NA – was arguably the model’s dynamic high point. Its successors were generally very good too, but they became progressively more powerful, bigger, heavier and that bit less exciting to drive. 

Until the current ND generation, that is. It was a return to the old template: shorter, lower, wider and – most importantly – lighter than its predecessor, the ND MX-5 comes with a choice of either 1.5 or 2.0-litre naturally aspirated petrol engines and the promise of unparalleled ‘Jinba ittai’ – the manufacturer’s catch-all term for oneness between car and driver.

Mazda MX-5 FAQs

Is the Mazda MX-5 available as a plug-in hybrid or electric?

No. The weight that current electrified powertrains bring with them is anathema to the philosophy of the current MX-5. Mazda is committed to keeping the MX-5 alive, however. In the first instance, this means that the current car will be developed to comply with the GSR2 safety regulations, but Mazda has yet to commit to a future powertrain strategy for the MX-5.

What are the main rivals to the Mazda MX-5?

As the world’s best-selling roadster, the Mazda MX-5 has effectively scared away any direct rivals. If you want a small two-seater convertible with rear-wheel drive, then the Mazda and the much more hardcore Caterham Seven are the only game in town. The Audi TT is going off sale soon and the BMW Z4 is much less of a driver’s car.

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If you don’t mind, or even want a roof, then the Toyota GR86 delivers a similarly uncomplicated and even more focused driving experience, though getting a spot on the waiting list will be tough. Other driver-focused options include small hot hatches, such as Ford Fiesta ST and Hyundai i20 N, while the only other remaining small drop-top is the Mini Convertible.

How much power does the Mazda MX-5 have?

There are two engines to choose from for the Mazda MX-5, both naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol units. The entry-level 1.5-litre delivers 129bhp, and the 2.0-litre 181bhp.

What gearbox options are there for the Mazda MX-5?

As standard all versions of the Mazda MX-5 get a six-speed manual gearbox, while a six-speed automatic is available as option on the 2.0-litre.

Where is the Mazda MX-5 built?

Mazda has several factories around the world, but the MX-5 is built exclusively at its Hiroshima facility in Japan. Assembled on the same line were at one point the Abarth and Fiat 124 Spider models, which used the same structure and interior as the Mazda, but different styling and powertrains.

How many generations of the Mazda MX-5 have there been?

Launched in 1989, the Mazda MX-5 is the world’s most successful two-seater sports car, with well over a million having been sold over four generations. The original set the template that the subsequent models have barely deviated from, each boasting similar exterior dimensions and kerb weight. The first MX-5 arrived in 1989, followed by the second, third and fourth generation models in 1997, 2005 and 2014 respectively. It is likely that there will be a fifth generation, but it is unknown when that might appear.

Range at a glance

Ever since its launch in 2015, the ND-generation MX-5 has been available with a 1.5-litre four-cylinder and a 2.0-litre four-cylinder, both naturally aspirated. In 2018, both got updated, but while the changes for the 1.5 were mild, the 2.0-litre got an extra 23bhp and a 700rpm-higher redline. All MX-5s come with a six-speed manual gearbox as standard, but the 2.0-litre can be optioned with a six-speed torque-converter automatic.

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Through the years, trim levels have come and gone, and there have been more special editions than stars in the universe. In 2023, the range starts with Prime-Line, which gets cloth seats and 16in wheels, and is only available in combination with the 1.5-litre engine. Exclusive-Line adds leather seats, auto headlights, parking sensors, AEB and better speakers. Homura is reserved for the 2.0-litre and has 17in BBS wheels and light grey leather seats.

In 2017, Mazda added an RF (for ‘Retractable Fastback’) model with a metal folding roof to the line-up. It can be had with both engine options.

Mazda MX-5 1.5 Skyactiv-G (2015-2018)†*129bhp
Mazda MX-5 1.5 Skyactiv-G (2018-)*130bhp
Mazda MX-5 2.0 Skyactiv-G (2015-2018)158bhp
Mazda MX-5 2.0 Skyactiv-G (2018-)181bhp

*Version tested




02 Mazda MX 5 review 2024 rear driving

Size and weight were major preoccupations for the project’s engineers. No one would describe the original Mazda MX-5 as large, yet the new model has been made 55mm shorter still. It’s the most compact Mazda MX-5 yet and, save for the original, the lightest. 

Throughout the development, a rigorous ‘gram strategy’ was applied to ensure that the roadster had no superfluous mass. Thus the all-new suspension, still consisting of front wishbones and rear multi-links, is 12kg lighter thanks to its aluminium components. The engine frame is aluminium, as are the front wings and bumper reinforcements.

The LED tail-lights reference the design of the original MX-5 without looking slavish or outdated

The front crossmember is high-tensile steel, a much higher proportion of which is used in the body, too. The rear crossmember benefits from a more rigid truss structure, while suspension mounts have been reinforced all round. The result is a claimed 100kg reduction in kerb weight compared with the 2005-2015 NC MX-5. The addition of a metal folding roof in the MX-5 RF increases the overall weight but adds some useful refinement up to 60mph or so. Any faster than that, and the RF actually produces more wind noise than the roadster.

While production-spec ND MX-5s never quite dipped under the magic 1000kg mark, a basic 1.5 model gets very close, without being as stripped out as a Caterham or as overtly spartan as a Lotus Elise. Moreover, the weight is ideally distributed 50/50 front to back and the centre of gravity is slightly lower than in previous generations.

Mazda’s seriousness about making this MX-5 fun to drive by adding lightness is welcome – and crucial when you consider that this was the first model to use electromechanical power steering. It’s a compact dual-pinion set-up located close to the front wheels for increased stiffness. It has a marginally quicker ratio than that of the previous car, while the front wheels’ castor angle is increased for better resistance to understeer.

The MX-5’s engines and gearboxes have been made to measure. Despite being used elsewhere in Mazda’s line-up, each has been fettled for the MX-5. The 1.5-litre Skyactiv-G petrol engine – related to the one in the Mazda 2 and Mazda 3 hatchbacks – got revised cam timing, a custom crankshaft and a 7500rpm redline, while the 158bhp 2.0-litre version added a lightened flywheel and pistons, as well as a limited-slip differential.

Both engines were revised in 2018. The 1.5 gained just 1bhp, but the 2.0-litre underwent a more substantial transformation that added 23bhp thanks to lighter pistons and conrods, a wider throttle body and enlarged port area, as well as a bigger-bore exhaust valve. This also had the side effect of putting peak power 1000rpm higher in the rev range, at the same 7000rpm as the 1.5.

2024 brought another, more minor update, but still a very welcome one. It included subtly redesigned headlights and taillights, a new two-tone wheel style on Exclusive-Line trim, and a number of interior upgrades. The steering and throttle were retuned as well, and the The 2.0-litre received an upgraded limited-slip differential. Mazda calls it the Asymmetric LSD, as it acts differently under acceleration and deceleration. Upper trims also got a refined stability control system, which gained a half-way house 'track mode'.


06 Mazda MX 5 review 2024 interior

The ND MX-5 is now nine years old – positively geriatric in the context of model cycles. Nevertheless, the no-nonsense interior still feels fresh. It was a huge leap compared with the NC generation, but if you’re unaccustomed to MX-5s, it’s likely that the cabin’s incredibly compact dimensions will need to sink in before you can meaningfully survey the details. The MX-5 has always been resolutely bijou, and the ND is no different.

Broader adults will find themselves in frequent contact with the centre console, door trim and the sides of the skinny footwell, while taller drivers will want for a few centimetres more leg room. Despite a 20mm lower hip point compared with the NC, you sit a little higher than would seem optimal and head room with the top up is relatively limited. Moreover, there is a bulge in the floorpan that denies you the option of folding your clutch leg away on motorways (a malaise of right-hand-drive cars only). Reach adjustment for the steering wheel was added in 2018.

The bespoke manual gearbox now has the same 40mm throw as in the original car

If you plan to do long distances in your MX-5, seek out a version with the Recaro seats, because they are significantly more comfortable than the standard items, and offer more lateral support too. You'll find them in the 30th Anniversary edition and on 2024 Homura cars.

These factors can combine to make it tricky to get comfortable – tricky enough, in fact, for some people to be put off the prospect entirely, although others will proclaim this the most comfortable MX-5 yet.

More fool the critics, though, because in an age that tends towards profligacy, the MX-5’s cockpit-sized simplicity – once reconciled with – makes for a charming environment. The dashboard architecture is similar to that of the Mazda 2, which is a good thing because the same natty design features and chunky, tactile switchgear work equally well here in the roadster. You’ll have to look hard to find soft-touch materials, but that somehow feels appropriate for a no-nonsense sports car.

Nowhere is the MX-5’s simplicity better encapsulated than in the manually operated roof. Made 3kg lighter than in the NC and requiring 30lb ft less effort to close, the hood can be operated easily with one hand, even when moving. There’s one spring-loaded clip to unfasten on the header rail, then a click somewhere in the housing behind you to confirm that it’s safely stowed. It takes four or five seconds and, like pretty much everything else about the MX-5, puts everything larger, heavier and motor-driven to shame. 

The roof’s tiny size means that the car continues to offer a modest-sized but usable boot. It’s too small for golf clubs but is just big enough for two weekend-away bags. Which seems to us exactly as it should be. 

Multimedia system

Over its many years on sale, the MX-5 has gone through a number of infotainment iterations, but the good news is that all of them are quite pleasant to use because they were clearly modelled on the classic BMW iDrive.

Cars up to 2023 used an older interface, but one which still had logical menus and could be navigated using both the touchscreen and the rotary controller in the centre console. Entry-level models used to miss out on the centre screen, but from 2023, all MX-5s have the 7.0in touchscreen.

In 2018, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto were added, the former with wireless functionality. They do come with a Mazda-typical quirk. The touchscreen stops working on the move and you have to use the rotary controller. The latter works great for the native interface, but using it to navigate CarPlay is rather awkward, as that was clearly designed for a touchscreen

In 2024, the screen was upgraded to a 8.8in screen with much more modern-looking graphics. Thankfully, that didn't come at a cost of usability – all the menus remain very logical, and the built-in navigation is actually quite good.

The standard stereo isn’t anything special, but it’s just about brawny enough to be heard over the road and wind noise. The Bose system that used to be available on certain trims put up a better fight, but as this is quite a noisy car on the motorway, it’s always a bit of a losing battle.


19 Mazda MX 5 RT update 2023 1 5 engine

At the launch, Mazda’s engineers said that the 1.5 was the mechanical specification that shows the MX-5 at its absolute purest. So that is the version we chose to focus on when we road tested the ND originally. We've since driven every version, however.

In a modern context, the MX-5's engines are quite special – both the 1.5 and the 2.0 – because where else can you find an engine that spins so freely, and with gathering force, to its 7500rpm redline, short of much more expensive Porsches?

The longitudinal four-cylinder engine and RWD layout make for a perfect 50/50 front/rear weight distribution

For the 1.5, we’re not talking about a particularly quick full stride, although needing little over eight seconds to hit 60mph from rest, the car is appreciably faster than the 1989 original and close enough to hot hatch pace for respectability.

And yet this MX-5 plays perfectly to arouse your excitement and seize your enthusiasm as a willing hostage. It hardly matters how fast you’re going.

The temptation starts with an unexpectedly rorty exhaust note, which sounds playful and offbeat even at idle. Blip the accelerator out of gear and the revs flare with promising urgency, then engage first and the MX-5’s mechanically detailed and supremely positive shift quality announces itself. You’re already having an absorbing and special driving experience – and you’ve yet to even turn a wheel.

Gearshift aside, the car’s controls are light and, being so obliging to control, fairly short-geared and revving cleanly from very low revs, it moves away from a standstill with a pleasing lack of inertia. Add some throttle and you’ll pick up speed gradually at first, with limited mid-range torque on tap but with perfect response and a supremely linear delivery of it as the revs rise. 

Get into a flow on a good road, or even an average one, frankly, and you’ll be revelling in the vivid mechanical interaction and the joy of taking a modern sports car to the redline as and when you choose without worrying unduly about the potential consequences for your driving licence.

There is no doubt that the 1.5 is sufficient for having a brilliant time in the MX-5, and we prefer it over the torquier but less effervescent 2.0-litre option that the ND launched with. However, the updated 2.0-litre engine that replaced it in 2018 mimics all of the 1.5’s character, and adds a substantial 51bhp and a limited-slip differential. The 1.5’s manual gearbox is a fraction sweeter to use, but the more powerful engine has become hard to pass up.


12 Mazda MX 5 review 2024 front cornering

The instincts of many long-standing Mazda MX-5 owners might be to keep the mechanical specification of their car simple, and thereby to give the lauded delicacy of the car’s handling the best chance to thrive. We had the same instincts – hence the chosen specification of 1.5-litre engine, standard suspension, open differential and 16in wheels for our road test subject.

In reality, the MX-5’s handling doesn’t reward that judicious restraint in unqualified terms, in ways we’ll come to. But that shouldn’t prevent this car from taking its place among the most vibrant, responsive and engaging sports cars available at any price.

It's delicate and perfectly balanced, although the ride lacks some of the original's fluency

From the effortlessness of its hold on the road, through its fine balance and directional agility, to the zapping crispness of its every answer to a few extra degrees of steering angle or throttle, this car remains a true sporting great.

On delicacy, meanwhile, nothing short of a Caterham, Lotus or Ariel can equal what the MX-5 brings to the table. The car’s 195-section tyres produce only moderate but perfectly balanced grip levels and therefore don’t overburden the suspension or steering with cornering forces, and they break away into lateral slip with a wonderfully tender progressiveness.

Some testers found the electromechanical power steering overly light, while others appreciated that it is able to delicately convey information about the road surface and grip levels without adding unnecessary weight and stodginess. Generous angles of body roll introduce some softness in the handling mix under high lateral loads, taking some precision away – if only on the very edge of adhesion.

22 Mazda mx 5 rt update 2023 cornering track 2 0

Despite the relatively soft suspension, the MX-5 can be a bit excitable over very high-frequency lumps and bumps, perhaps an inevitable result of the imperfect torsional rigidity of the convertible body, which doesn’t always let the suspension do its work. The 2.0-litre model seems to suffer slightly more from shimmies and scuttle shake, though.

The rest of the time the MX-5’s ride is easy and fairly laid back. Like that of its forebears, the directional keenness and poise come not from high chassis rates but from the advantages of even weight distribution, a low centre of gravity and driven rear wheels, and so the MX-5 doesn’t feel firm on the road or short of wheel travel. It doesn’t need to.

For a car that offers up as many thrills as the little Mazda does, it is remarkably habitable. The ride is rarely harsh and as long as you’re not too tall to fit, it offers a supremely comfortable driving position, legs outstretched but well supported. The MX-5’s one Achilles heel when it comes to comfort is the road noise. It seeps through the car’s every pore and resulted in a reading of 75dBA at 70mph. The hard-top RF does improve the motorway refinement.

Track notes

22 Mazda mx 5 rt update 2023 cornering track 1 0

The day of our performance tests with the 1.5 started wet but subsequently dried out. It therefore afforded us the opportunity to find out that the MX-5's delicate dry-surface grip level becomes even more tantalising when a bit of surface water is in the mix. In the wet, an uninterested driver might call that grip level worryingly faint, however, and the Yokohamas’ proclivity to hydroplane can be startling.

In the dry, there's only just enough power to get the rear wheels to break traction with the accelerator during cornering - and only then at very high revs and by a fleeting few degrees of slip angle. It's a tenderness of adjustability that you rarely find in a modern car and is no less enjoyable for its subtlety than a 500bhp Jaguar's handling is for its luridness. 

Disengage the ESP - a system that's fairly sophisticated so long as you don’t try to provoke the car - and there are familiar ways to have fun with your cornering line, either with a trailed brake or an exaggerated, throttle-off steering input. The MX-5 is sensitive to all. That being said, if on-throttle adjustability is key to your enjoyment of a rear-wheel-drive car, you’ll be much better served by the 2.0-litre, with its additional 51bhp and limited-slip differential. That is especially the case for 2024 model year cars, which get an upgraded differential and stability control system. In our experience, it seemed very slightly keener to yaw through bends, and the stability control's track mode lets you have some fun while still keeping an eye out.

Mx 5 track notes



01 Mazda MX 5 review 2024 front driving

Mazda always kept the MX-5’s affordability front and centre, so much so that at launch a 1.5-litre MX-5 could grace your driveway for as little as £18,495. Unfortunately, the car market is quite a different place in 2024 than it was in 2015, and prices of all cars have skyrocketed.

These days, prices start from £28,000 for a 1.5 in Prime-Line trim, or £32,400 for a 2.0 in Exclusive-Line. The 2.0-litre-only Homura tops the range at £34,800, and the Mazda MX-5 RF model, with its metal folding hard-top, costs £1900 extra on all trim levels.

These days, the MX-5 is well equipped whichever trim level you go for.

The MX-5 is no longer the bargain it once was, but then nothing is, and anyway, even distant rivals are thin on the ground. The Hyundai i20 N is now sale, the Mini Convertible is between generations, and although the Toyota GR86 looks good value at £32,495, it might be a struggle to actually get hold of one. 

The good news is that the MX-5 is well equipped whichever trim level you go for. Even the Prime-Line has heated seats, cruise control and the 7.0in touchscreen infotainment system with smartphone mirroring. However, our favourite version in 2024 is the range-topping Homura, because the 2.0-litre engine gives it enough power for the chassis to have something to think about, and because the LSD, the track setting for the stability control and the recaro seats really complete the package.

Light weight and a small surface area mean both engines can claim excellent real-world efficiency. On a motorway run, 42mpg (2.0-litre) and 50mpg (1.5-litre) are realistic prospects, and even when having fun on twisty roads and using plenty of revs, you’ll struggle to dip below 30mpg in either.

Mazda MX-5 reliability

Surprise shifts: If your automatic MX-5 was built between 5 October 2016 and 22 November 2018, it might downshift unexpectedly. A Mazda dealer will need to update the software for the gearbox if it’s affected by this recall to prevent this from happening.

Height restriction: The MX-5 is small and snug, so taller drivers should try before they buy.

Getting too hot: In issue with the start/stop system (called i-ELOOP) on MX-5s made between 15 May 2015 and 13 April 2017 could lead to it overheating and in extreme circumstances catching fire. Ask a Mazda dealer to check whether your car is affected. If it is, you will need a technician to update its software and inspect the whole system, because certain parts might need to be replaced.


14 Mazda MX 5 review 2024 static

We’ve grown used to giving couched verdicts on sports cars, sometimes weighing progress in one direction against compromise in another. Not so here.

There isn’t a single area in which this new Mazda MX-5 fails to surpass its predecessor. It’s shorter, lighter, more spacious and better laid out. It’s sharper-looking but still disarming and distinctive. It’s faster, more frugal and even more vibrant and engaging to drive.

An outstanding and usable sports car

All that, and yet the MX-5 is still every inch the same zesty and inimitable car that it was. Its character hasn’t altered at all. The 2.0-litre model provides more performance and handling panache than the entry-level car, but you can’t really go wrong with either.

As sporty cars that offer engagement and everyday driving thrills have either fallen by the wayside, and have been replaced by unaffordable plug-in hybrid grip monsters, the MX-5 is still here, providing all pleasures of a sports car or convertible that you could wish for.

With its lack of needless complication, light weight and manual gearbox, the MX-5 flits inertia-free from corner to corner, feeling like a breath of fresh air, even though it is now an eight-year-old design. Mazda’s roadster is arguably more significant and relevant than ever.

Illya Verpraet

Illya Verpraet Road Tester Autocar
Title: Road Tester

As part of Autocar’s road test team, Illya drives everything from superminis to supercars, and writes reviews, comparison tests, as well as the odd feature and news story. 

Much of his time is spent wrangling the data logger and wielding the tape measure to gather the data for Autocar’s eight-page road tests, which are the most rigorous in the business thanks to independent performance, fuel consumption and noise figures.

Mazda MX-5 First drives