An all-new version of the Mazda MX-5 – the world’s best-selling roadster ever – makes its UK debut this weekend at the 2015 Goodwood Festival of Speed. The fourth generation of the famous car that debuted back in 1990, Mazda says this new version marks a return to the lightweight roots of the purist, driver-focused original.
Mazda has gone back to basics. It’s redesigned the body structure, rethought the engines, fundamentally improved the layout of the car and wrapped it all up in a bodyshell that, for the first time, significantly evolves the original retro-look car.
Occupants sit much further back and lower than ever, with new lightweight SKYACTIV-G engines also positioned further back. This centralises masses to improve dynamics, and bespoke features such as an ultra-light radiator mean the centre of gravity has never been lower either.
The car’s been designed around the smallest engine ever fitted to a Mazda MX-5; a 1.5-litre unit. Producing 131hp, it’s more powerful than the old entry-level 1.8-litre, and revs to a sky-high 7,500rpm. It’s taken from the Mazda 2 supermini, but given bespoke rotating components, cam timing and crankshaft. There’s a snappy new lightweight six-speed manual gearbox too.
With its new drivetrain, aluminium suspension and body that’s made from 71% aluminium or high-strength steel, Mazda’s made this fourth generation MX-5 the lightest since the original 1990 Mk1: a massive 100kg has been cut from the outgoing car. This means the base 1.5-litre, without a driver, creeps under the 1,000kg kerbweight mark – a fantastic achievement.
Visually, it looks excellent, much better than it does in images, which misleadingly give it a slightly dumpy appearance. The reality is a taut, well proportioned shape that benefits from the cockpit being set back, and whose sculpted side lines significantly reduce the visual mass of the car (it’s 4,915mm long, 1,735mm wide and just 1,225mm high). The old one looks tall, chunky and soft alongside it.
From the front, it’s particularly neat, with its mean new headlights (LED lights are standard on all, impressively) sitting the right side of friendly aggression and the wide grille visually sitting the car even lower to the ground.
You won’t only not struggle to tell it apart from older MX-5, but it also may quickly become your favourite.
But how does it fare on the road? Ahead of the car’s debut at Goodwood, we had an exclusive preview drive of the 1.5-litre on the roads around the famous festival location. Ahead of our full review later in July, here’s our first UK verdict on the new Mazda MX-5…
Mazda MX-5 1.5 review: On the road
The car we drove at Goodwood was a Japanese-spec model – the same as UK cars apart from a limited-slip differential; this is reserved for 2.0-litre models only in Britain. The suspension is the same though, as are the 16-inch wheels with 195/50 R16 tyres; 2.0-litre cars get 17-inch wheels with sportier 205/45-section rubber.
2.0-litre Sport models also get uprated Bilstein suspension dampers and a front strut brace but, given how beautifully well the regular 1.5-litre car drove on British back roads we’re keen to see if you really need the extra. Because the new MX-5 1.5 delivers a level of fun fluidity that we’ve not had in a Mazda roadster since that groundbreaking original.
Simply put, it just works. It’s not over-stiff, so suspension can breath over scarred, bumpy roads, but there’s enough damping control to keep body motions in check – unlike the original, it’s not soft and remains settled at speed. Centralising the masses means it turns in cleanly and the beautifully balanced chassis helps you get early on the power in complete confidence. You’ll soon be turning the traction control off…
The engine ‘sounds’ small, but the light weight means it’s perfect. Peak torque is a bit high at 4,800rpm, so it’s best if you rev it above 5,000rpm, but it does so with such free-spinning enthusiasm, and with such bite as you get towards the redline, that you never mind. It’s easily fast enough if you work it (0-62mph takes 8.3 seconds) and there’s just enough low-down torque to lug you round town without shifting gear all the time.
Saying that, the gearchange and clutch are so lovely, you’ll probably shift gear just for the same of it. The shift distance is kept to the same 40mm as the original car, but well-oiled linkages and a near-direct connection between ‘box and lever mean it’s supremely detailed and interactive. The lever even moves and hums under power – never intrusively, but packed with proper retro feel.
It has electric power steering which may make enthusiasts bristle, but unjustifiably so in our initial experience. There’s the tiniest bit of sticktion around the straight-ahead, and it naturally doesn’t have the detailed feel of an original, but it’s still very impressive: quick and direct, it’s light and fingertip-precise without being vague or hesitant.
Mazda MX-5 1.5 review: On the inside
The cabin is transformed. It’s a massive leap on from the old MX-5, with much greater quality, integrity and usability. It looks more expensive, feels more premium and even manages to feel more modern-retro than the original car. It’s a triumph.
Occupants sit much lower – ‘within’ rather than ‘on’ the car – on seats that are both softer yet better-bolstered and more supportive than the Mk3. The footwell has shrunk and the pedals are a bit offset to the right, but the legs-ahead driving position still feels good and the wonderful, perfectly-round steering wheel is positioned just so.
A large-scale rev counter is positioned centrally – you’ll appreciate the detail of its 5,000-7,500rpm zone – but it’s the addition of Mazda’s MZD-Connect infotainment system that’s the biggest instrumentation lift. It’s smart, simple and can even Tweet on the move, as well as guiding you if you pay extra for sat nav.
The dash plastics are, although a bit hard, of high quality and appearance, and SE-L trim and above get beautiful body-colour door panels that give a fantastic retro feel. Cleverly, Mazda’s improved the space and stowage, while although the boot has actually shrunk to 130 litres, it’s shaped to exactly swallow two aircraft-standard cabin luggage suitcases.
The roof, nestling within now-black A-pillars and rollover hoops? Little short of genius: it’s not electric, but is now spring-assisted, so you really can lift and lower it with one arm while sitting in the driver’s seat – way faster than any electric roof could ever operate. We look forward to seeing YouTube videos of the shortest-ever MX-5 roof operation…
Mazda MX-5 1.5 review: Running costs
What do the smallest and most high-tech engine and lightest-in-25-years MX-5 platform combine to produce? Why, the greenest and most fuel efficient MX-5 ever, that’s what. No surprise there – but the sheer fuel efficiency might come as a surprise: official economy is a staggering 47mpg, and CO2 emissions are just 139g/km.
That’s amazing. It’s helped in the real world by the fact there’s so much less mass to, well, stop and start away from the tight controls of the official test cycle. No stop-start, though: weirdly, that’s only available on 2.0-litre models, and then only on left-hand drive cars. Odd.
In terms of general reliability, two things: 1, it’s a Mazda. 2, it’s a relatively uncomplicated Mazda. As the MX-5 has a superb record for dependability anyway, we think it’s a no-brainer in this regard: if you’ve always dreamed of owning a classic roadster, buy an MX-5 and you’ll also have a reliable, dependable one. It’s a great everyday car, enhanced all the more by its greater comfort, practicality and infotainment options (you can even have an advanced multi-sensor, crash-sensing safety pack if you wish).
Retained value should be sky-high. They’re generally good for an MX-5 and this car’s deservedly going to be much in demand, particularly as Mazda’s priced it so well and included so much essential kit – such as alloys, traction control, air con, six-speed gearbox and full USB connectivity – as standard.
Mazda MX-5 1.5 review: Verdict
Our early UK drive in the new Mazda MX-5 1.5 was a memorable one, for all the right reasons. It looks good, feels great to sit in, and, crucially, is a blast to drive.
It’s not swimming in power but it’s powerful enough; it’s not a hard-nosed performance car but is all the better because of it. It seems particularly well suited to the UK’s unique roads and Mazda’s focus on taking it back to its simplistic, lightweight roots seems to have worked – importantly, without being a musty retro-tinged pastiche of the original.
We now look forward to more miles in the new Mazda MX-5: so should you, because it seems Mazda has got the recipe spot-on and ensured the new fourth-generation MX-5 is a real return to form for the world’s best-selling roadster.
Rivals: Mazda MX-5 1.5
- Lotus Elise
- Audi TT
- Ford Fiesta ST
- Caterham Seven
Specification: Mazda MX-5 1.5
Engines: 1.5-litre 4-cylinder petrol
Gearbox: Six-speed manual
Prices from: £18,495 (1.5 SE)
Torque: lb ft
0-62mph: 8.3 seconds
Top speed: 126mph
Fuel economy: 47.0mpg
CO2 emissions: 139g/km