From £18,3109
Is the entry-level, 129bhp Mazda MX-5 as much fun on UK roads as we know the more potent 2.0-litre model to be?

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.

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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%

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bowsersheepdog 9 August 2015

The car may be sporty but it seems the drivers aren't

A few months ago a friend and I discussed whether either of us had ever seen a Mazda MX5 being driven hard. Neither of us had. Except in road test clips on sites like this, anyway. One would think that the roads in the Highlands would be the ideal place for giving such cars a blast, and sure enough there are plenty of them to be seen, especially in summer but all year really, yet it would appear that they are bought by people for whom that part of the car's capabilities just isn't of interest. Over the years I've passed many, many of them on the open road. Well, when I say passed I mean overtaken, and it's not like I've ever owned anything really quick. For a couple of years I had a Mazda 626 and as I moved up to go by on an empty, mile-long straight I'd be half expecting the other driver to think "right, I'll show him what a real Mazda looks like", and leave me for dead. But it never happened. It's a strange phenomenon that a car built to be a sports car appears to be bought by drivers who are happiest just pootling around. And fair play to them if they are, that's fine, but I know if I had a car like that I wouldn't be able to resist enjoying its fun side.
Adrian987 9 August 2015

Fun and sporty below the limits

I think the reality is that the pics/clips etc done for the mags and YouTube are a bit of "show" to make good copy, all part and parcel of the rarified world in which journalists exist, and they can hand the cars back after they have finished! For many, driving in a way that does not attract unwanted attention or wear out consumables too quickly will be just fine. Vicky has effectively said that with this particular model it allows the driver to enjoy lots of the things it can offer at sensible speeds/any journey. And when not doing that, of course, it looks good parked up too.
bowsersheepdog 13 September 2015

I see your point and I wouldn

I see your point and I wouldn't expect to see tails hanging out on public roads, but it has seemed strange to me for many years that while, without talking about thrashing them, one would see similar sports cars, Elises, MGFs and S2000s for example, where their owners were clearly enjoying some of the performance of which they were capable, yet I have never seen an MX5 likewise exploited. Most often they would be doing fifty or less on sixty limit roads.
Einarbb 8 August 2015

The thing is, this is usable every day

I suspect that's something worth consideration in terms of the smaller engined and softer set 1.5l. Not just cheaper insurance and cheaper to run. But also that - it's relative suspension comfort - make it a practical every day use car. Not just a toy to have fun in during weekends. Hence the 1.5l may appeal to different set of customers. In short have a broader appeal, than the sharper set - faster - more expensive versions.
275not599 7 August 2015

I'm guessing Mazda did market

I'm guessing Mazda did market research and dialed in some softness for the great majority of their customers but I am a little surprised they didn't offer a sharper suspension option regardless of engine size from the get go.