Mazda MX-5 2.0 Sport Nav+: long-term test review

6 Aug, 2019 11:30am James Batchelor

Second report: The Mazda MX-5 is as thrilling as the original 30 years ago

Verdict

4
The MX-5 turns 30 this year but unlike our man, it’s certainly not showing any signs of slowing down as it ages. The driving experience continues to impress even if the infotainment system doesn’t.

Mileage: 4,150
Economy: 41.9mpg 

A motoring icon has a big birthday this year and before you ask, no, it’s not me. While I have also turned 30 this year – yes, I know I don’t look it – it’s the famous Mazda MX-5 that has clocked up three decades, so it’s time to celebrate. 

That of course means I had to push the boat out to celebrate the little roadster reaching the ‘big three-o’, so I purchased some posh fizz, a suitable cake and naturally some party decorations (the extra-sparkly ones from Sainsbury’s, no less). 

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In retrospect, it’s all a bit tacky, which is a shame because the MX-5 is anything but that. Of course, it scooped the Roadster gong at this year’s jumbo-bg New Car Awards – a title it has won every year since this version was launched, in fact – but even more importantly, behind its care-free appearance, it’s got a serious side. 

Right from the very outset back in 1989, Mazda’s engineers were fanatical about recreating a sixties British sports car in a modern-day package; and now, 30 years on, there’s a similar level of dedication. 

The current MX-5 is fabulously light for a modern car (the basic 1.5-litre model weighs around 1,000kg), but what’s more amazing is that, when it arrived in 2015, it was lighter and smaller than the car it replaced. In fact the MX-5 has barely piled on the pounds at all in the past three decades – which is something that my own ever-expanding waistline can never hope to emulate. 

I’m hardly saying anything new here but excess weight kills a car. I’m lucky enough to drive every new car on sale, and I review and film at least 100 cars each year for jumbo-bg’s sister title Carbuyer and its YouTube channel. While I do that, one theme I’m noticing increasingly is for each new car to be heavier than the model it replaces (you can normally thank mild-hybrid systems for that, or our insatiable need for cars to be loaded with the latest technology), and consequently the handling is affected. But that’s simply not the case with the MX-5.

Every time I step out of another bloated SUV and into the MX-5, a huge smile breaks out on my face. There’s a delicacy to the controls that’s just so refreshing, and the car’s ruthless ability to slice through corners never gets old. With the roof down – which is its default mode under my ownership – there’s a charm that’s so addictive; and should the roof need to go up, the latest MX-5 is surprisingly cultured. 

Of course it’s no Audi TT – and the MX-5 RF with its folding hard-top roof is even more refined – but given how small this car is, a long slog up the motorway really is no chore. And since I took the keys in April I’ve been getting almost 42mpg. That is pretty remarkable because the MX-5’s new 181bhp 2.0-litre petrol engine loves to be pushed hard and almost encourages you to rev it out to the red line – something you couldn’t say about the old 158bhp 2.0-litre motor.

There are a couple of niggles, however. Despite the MX-5 having been on sale for 30 years, it seems as though it’s never been able to shake off its image as a hairdresser’s car. This is a slur that’s been directed at many roadsters and so far in my time with the car, it’s been bandied around a couple of times by my friends. It’s an insult that’s both untrue and really rather grating. 

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To be fair to Mazda, that’s something that it can’t possibly fix, but what it could rectify is the infotainment system. When this generation of the MX-5 was launched back in 2015, it was rightly praised for being not just attractive to look at, but also simple to use – especially with its rotary controller on the centre console. 

However, while the MX-5, as a complete package, is every bit as good now as it was 30 years ago, the technology in the current car is starting to feel a little long in the tooth. 

The sat-nav is particularly fiddly to use and the graphics are looking decidedly dated. Perhaps it’s time to fork out £110 for the optional Apple CarPlay upgrade.  

First report: Mazda MX-5

Revised Mazda MX-5 sports car joins our fleet – just in time for summer

Mileage: 1,250
Economy: 40.9mpg 

It’s hard to cover up the smile on my face, because I know I have the keys to a Mazda MX-5 for the next six months.

My last three cars have been saloons, so the prospect of a two-seater sports car as the weather starts to warm up is an exciting one. You’d be beaming as much as me.

• 

While I was loath to relinquish the keys to the Alfa Romeo Giulia Veloce I was running before, I did spend some time with the now-departed Mazda 6. And I concluded that, just like the Alfa, it had its flaws, but it was a deeply likeable car to live with.

The 6 offered something different to its rational rivals like the Skoda Superb and Vauxhall Insignia Grand Sport: character. In typical Mazda style, it has also been steadily improved over the years, with the latest version sporting an incredibly well-built and rela interior, and exterior styling that for me borders on being pretty. If only that 2.5-litre engine and automatic gearbox combination were more satisfying to use, then the 6 would be my choice in that family-saloon-cum-executive-car sector.

But just like relationships, the 6 is old news and our new flame is the MX-5. It received a bit of a makeover late last year, with a few subtle changes designed to improve its usability. Things like a steering column that adjusts for reach as well as rake are now standard, as are seats with a smoother reclining mechanism (yes, really), sturdier cupholders and a reversing camera on a new top-spec GT Sport Nav+ model. At the same time, more safety kit appeared in the options list; so did Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

The big news for this revised MX-5 was a new 2.0-litre engine. In the 2015-2018 MX-5, the 2.0 was a bit of a letdown, with the revvy little 1.5 the star of show. But with an extra 23bhp and 5Nm of torque, plus the rev limiter raised from 6,800 to 7,500rpm, the new unit’s figures look more promising.

Indeed, when I first drove this new engine on the car’s launch at the famous Trasfagarasan Highway in Romania last year, it immediately appealed. The next six months will reveal whether the 2.0-litre is now the better engine option for day-to-day use or if the 1.5 – the engine this fourth-generation MX-5 package was designed around – remains the pick of the range.

Speaking of the range, we’ve gone for the MX-5 slap bang in the middle. The Sport Nav+ may not have the neat little spoiler and other niceties of the new GT Sport Nav+, but it’s the one most buyers opt for, because it gets heated leather seats, sat-nav and a Bose sound system. To match our 6, we’ve also chosen arguably the best colour for an MX-5: Soul Red Crystal Metallic. It’s pricey, at £790, but it looks great and, as you can see from the pictures, it’s very photogenic.

Finally, to test out some of the latest tech, we’ve opted for the £800 safety pack as well. This bundles together a reversing camera, adaptive LED headlights and blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert.

No wonder I’m all smiles. The next six months are shaping up to be rather good.

*Insurance quote from AA (0800 107 0680) for a 42-year-old in Banbury, Oxon, with three points.

Key specs

  • Model: Mazda MX-5 2.0 SkyActiv-G 184PS Sport Nav+
  • On fleet since: April 2019
  • Price new: £25,095
  • Engine: 2.0-litre 4cyl petrol, 181bhp
  • CO2/tax: 156g/km/£140
  • Options: Soul Red Crystal Metallic (£790), safety pack (£800)
  • Insurance*: Group: 31/Quote: £484
  • Mileage: 4,150
  • Economy: 41.9mpg
  • Any problems?: None so far