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

What do you get when you cross an American wistfulness for cheap British roadsters with a Japanese firm’s readiness to speculate and innovate in order to make its global reputation?

In 1989 you got ‘Mazda Experiment, Project Number Five’, which would become the world’s fastest-selling sports car.

The Mazda MX-5 first appeared in 1989

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. 

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 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 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. 

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Now Mazda – with its Skyactiv engineering programme in full swing – insists it has returned to the old template. Shorter, lower, wider and – most importantly – lighter, the new 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.

For 2016, Mazda created the fourth iteration of its special edition Icon model, which we drove around Iceland to announce its arrival, and was then followed in 2017 by the hard-top Mazda MX-5 RF.

Just as importantly, the car starts at less than £20k, meaning that everyone currently considering a small hot hatch is in the ballpark. Can the new MX-5 do as much as its forebear to turn their heads?

Mazda MX-5 FAQs

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

The Mazda MX-5 was designed to be as light and compact as possible, meaning that it’s virtually impossible to package either a plug-in hybrid or full-electric drivetrain. Such is the focus on keeping the mass to a minimum on the car that there’s not even the option of a mild-hybrid system using a powerful starter-generator unit. What’s more, Mazda has revealed the next generation of MX-5 - due in 2024 - will be purely petrol powered, likely using a version of its advanced SkyActiv-X engine.

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 is the only game in town. If you don’t mind a roof, then the forthcoming Toyota GR86 delivers a similarly uncomplicated driving experience, while the Caterham Seven serves-up more thrills but requires commitment. Other driver-focused options include small hot hatches, such as Ford Fiesta ST and Hyundai i20N.

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 a modest 130bhp, yet can fire the Mazda from 0-62mph in a surprisingly brisk 8.3 seconds. For the flagship models a 2.0-litre is available that serves up a muscular 181bhp and gives the MX-5 impressively deep-chested performance, helped in no small part by a kerbweight of just over a ton, with 0-62mph in as little 6.5 seconds.

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What choice of gearbox 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. If you don’t need a self-shifter, then stick with the three-pedal layout, because the Mazda’s manual transmission is the best in the business. With deliciously short throws and beautifully oiled mechanical quality it encourages you to change gear just for the hell of it. The automatic is smooth enough, but its ponderous delivery doesn't suit the eager Mazda’s character.

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 is the Fiat and Abarth 124 Spider models, which use the same structure and interior as the Mazda, but different styling and powertrains. Officially withdrawn from sale in the UK, the 124 Spider is still available in most of Europe. Hiroshima is also home to the Mazda 3, Mazda 6, CX-30 and CX-5, as well as the larger CX-8 and CX-9 that are not available in the UK.

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 kerbweight. The first MX-5 arrived in 1989, followed by the second, third and fourth generation models in 1997, 2005 and 2014 respectively. An all-new model is due in 2024.

Mazda MX-5 First drives