The Mazda MX-5 continues to set the affordable roadster standard as the years roll on. Here we test the 1.5-litre to find out whether it's as much fun as the engaging 2.0-litre engine.
The 2018 Mazda MX-5 remains the most sensible, budget friendly, and ‘connected’ roadster experience you can have. It’s staggering to think that no other manufacturer has properly attempted to take Mazda on head-to-head, especially given the unbelievable success of the diminutive drop-top at this pricepoint.
The world’s most successful roadster. Think about that for a second. What started in 1989 was something that probably not even Mazda could have predicted would become this legendary. And, while the Japanese brand’s ‘Jinba Ittai’ or ‘horse and jockey’ mantra can be written off as nothing more than marketing nonsense elsewhere in the company’s stable, it perhaps started with the original MX-5.
I remember 1990 like it was yesterday. My father and I were midway through completely restoring what was to become my first car, a 1970 Alfa Romeo Duetto Spyder. It had, for me, the best of the era. The duck-tail rear end, rather than the later kamm tail, the gorgeous 1750 engine, rather than the earlier 1600, and what remains one of the most brilliant manual gearboxes I’ve ever had the pleasure of using.
Yes, it seems folly now that the Spyder would be anyone’s first car, but they didn’t cost then what they are worth now. And if you grew up working on cars, as I did, carrying out the bulk of the work yourself reduces the price by a huge margin. My father file-finished that car too, no bog, just lead where it was needed, and only the thinnest skin of putty before the final paint coats went on. We even did that in the workshop at home too, priming and sanding back, readying the body for final paint.
Anyway, enough nostalgia. An architect friend of my father’s knew what we were up to, and invited us round to check out his new roadster; one he assured us would show us the error of our ways. His MX-5 was red, one of the first batch to land in Australia from memory, and had been optioned with AC. It had no power steering, no LSD, and no unnecessary accoutrements. In other words, it was very much in the mould of the traditional roadster concept.
Prior to rear glass windows, those of you familiar with the early examples would remember you had to unzip the window if you wanted not to ruin it, and in one swift move, drop the roof down out of the way. Our Spyder had won a design award for its roof design, but the Mazda’s some two decades newer was light years ahead. Rumour had it that Mazda engineers had specifically tried to mimic the feel of Alfa’s gearshift action too, but again, the MX-5 left the classic Alfa for dead.
In short, the MX-5 was a revelation. A convertible that didn’t leak? A roof that stayed taut when locked into position? That didn’t transmit untenable levels of road and wind noise into the cabin? Optional AC? A radio you could actually hear? And, of course, the MX-5 drove like the lusty little precision instrument it was supposed to be.
That original MX-5 set a template that made all drop-tops before it seem archaic, poorly engineered and expensive. However, it was 1990, and a 1600cc lightweight two-door made plenty of sense. In 2018, a 1500cc lightweight two-door has its work cut out in a market drunk on the punchy mid-range of modern turbo petrol and turbo-diesel engines. Engineers keep telling us that the NA petrol engine is just about dead in any form, and it's hard to argue that fact when you’ve tasted the torque and effortless power delivery of forced induction.
Still, the 1.5-litre MX-5 is as close to the original brief as you can currently get. And, while the platform got bloated, moved to a hard-top, and stepped away from that original brief for a while, the new ND generation is firmly back on the arguably close-to-perfection original course.
Could we recommend the 1.5 over the 2.0, though? Let’s find out.
Pricing for the 1.5-litre starts from $34,190, but you can step into a 2.0-litre for $41,960 (both manual). That $7770 might seem like a hefty leap, but we know the 2.0-litre is an exceptional sports car for the money. Further, while I’m a firm believer and advocate for the modern automatic, even in sports and super sports cars, the MX-5 remains an outlier for me. If you’re buying an MX-5 with an auto, you’re buying the wrong car.
Standard 1.5-litre features include: 16-inch wheels, LED headlights with auto on/off, rain-sensing wipers, power windows with one-touch down, rear-view camera, AEB, front and side airbags, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, traffic sign recognition, tyre pressure monitoring, black cloth trim, climate control, 7.0-inch touchscreen with MZD connect, and leather-trimmed steering wheel, gear shifter and handbrake.
One thing the modern requirements of safety, airbag installation and impact absorption have done is cramp cabins up significantly. If you compare an original MX-5 to this current generation, the cabin feels a lot tighter and more compact, despite the added storage space and utility. Still, there is ample room for six-footers behind the wheel, and there’s enough seat adjustment to get into the right position. The steering column, now adjustable for reach up to 30mm, makes a big difference here too, with long-legged drivers previously feeling like they had to reach out to the steering wheel.
The MX-5 is low, and you tend to fall into it and climb back out of it, but that’s par for the course for any proper sports car, so if you don’t like an ungainly entry or exit, you might have to look elsewhere. Once seated, visibility out over the stubby nose is excellent, and with the roof closed, Mazda has done an excellent job to keep the blind spot to a minimum. With the roof down, visibility backward is obviously expansive, and there’s effectively no buffeting at speed either.
Lowering the roof is truly a one-handed operation. Unclip it from the centre, fold it back over your head, and lock it down into position. Unlatching it pops it up and forward, where you simply grab it, pull it over your head and lock it back into the closed position. Simple and fast.
With the roof up, the Mazda is as good as any soft-top on the market. There is a little wind noise, and some road noise at highway speeds, but it’s not deafening by any means. Crank the AC up and the cabin cools down quickly on days when it's too hot to have the roof down. With a material roof this good, and a glass window rather than plastic, you do question the need for a hard-top.
Bluetooth worked nicely, but unlike other Mazdas, the MX-5 does not provide a direct smartphone link, which would be a good inclusion. The factory-provided satellite navigation does work well, though. There’s a tiny centre console bin that works well for keys, two cupholders that will also fit small bottles, and a clever storage bin between the two seat backs. While space is tight, storage is actually better than you could expect for a compact sports car of this nature.
For the 2019 model year, Mazda has tweaked the 1.5-litre SkyActiv four-cylinder with a higher-pressure fuel pump, new injectors, and redesigned piston crowns. These subtle improvements have been made to "increase torque across the rev range and improve combustion efficiency". As such, power is now 97kW at 7000rpm and torque is 152Nm at 4500rpm.
The question really boils down to whether the 2.0-litre engine is worth the aforementioned seven-grand price jump. Given Mazda reports only five per cent of buyers opt for the 1.5 against 25 per cent for the 2.0 in roadster form, it seems the public has voted too.
That’s what I find behind the wheel of the 1.5 too – I couldn’t opt for this over the 2.0. Sure it's pure, sure it’s raspy and enthusiastic, and sure it loves revving lustily to redline. However, it feels like it has no usable torque, meaning you’re constantly rowing through the gears, and the engine almost always feels – and sounds – like it’s working hard. At low speed around town, you use first and second more than you will in nearly any other modern car.
Beyond that, I don’t think you lose any of the balance, precision or change of direction sharpness moving from the 1.5 into the 2.0, strengthening the case even more. After all, that’s what the MX-5 has always been about regardless of which engine powers it. Engagement.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the 1.5 by any means, and there’s still something to enjoy about the unfussed purity of the base model. Maybe it's as close to the original MX-5 as you can get. Thing is, it’s 2018 not 1989, and our expectations have changed. Put simply, for those buyers not on a super-strict budget, there’s zero argument not to dig a little further into your pocket.
Where the 1.5 continues to reward, though, is the connection between car and driver. The steering is beautiful, perfectly weighted and direct, the chassis balance phenomenal with just the right amount of roll and weight transfer, and the brakes precise and fade free. Few cars can reward like the MX-5 on a twisty road, without going nutso at warp speed. It will put a smile on your face every single time you drive it.
While the 1.5-litre MX-5 remains the most affordable variant in its pure roadster form, there’s almost no doubt that the same platform with the 2.0-litre is the better option. If you can afford it, you buy the 2.0-litre with a manual and live happily ever after.
If you can’t afford the bigger engine, though, the 1.5-litre will still put (almost) the same wind-in-your-hair smile on your dial that Mazda has been delivering for decades now, without any of the old world’s roadster quirks. That Mazda can still deliver such a raw, connected driving experience within the confines of modern expectations is something to truly rejoice in.