2020 Mazda MX-5 Review

Everything you need to know about Mazda's revered little sports car, including pricing, updates and features

Mazda MX-5 RF
Score breakdown
Safety, value and features
Comfort and space
Engine and gearbox
Ride and handling
Things we like
  •   Fantastic steering and braking
  •   Comfortable ride
  •   Zingy engines
Not so much
  •   Head room tight under roof
  •   Minimal storage
  •   Noisy

What stands out?

The Mazda MX-5 is a traditional two-seat sports car, with a lightweight body and rear-wheel drive. It is among the least expensive of convertibles, and you can choose a folding fabric roof or a folding hard-top. This fourth-generation MX-5 is fantastic fun to drive. Wheels magazine named the MX-5 Car of the Year for 2016.

What might bug me?

Accommodating friends and luggage. The MX-5 is a very small vehicle with a tiny boot. And it has no child-seat anchor points, so you can’t carry children less than eight years old.

Opening and closing the soft roof: it’s a quick, manual process but it is not as easy as pushing a button.

Fumbling for the boot release: it is out of view near the rear numberplate, a place that gets dirty easily.

Getting home after a puncture – there is no spare tyre, just a puncture repair kit.

Paying extra for fuel. The MX-5 requires premium petrol.

What body styles are there?

Two-door, two-seat convertible only.

The MX-5 Roadster has a folding fabric roof that you raise and lower manually. The MX-5 RF has a folding hard roof (made from steel, aluminium and plastic), which power-raises and lowers with the press of a button on the dashboard.

The MX-5 drives its rear wheels, and is classed as a sports car, lower priced.

What features does every MX-5 have?

A sound system with an AM/FM radio, Aux and USB inputs, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, and at least six speakers, controllable from a 7.0-inch colour touchscreen. (Two of the speakers are in the driver’s headrest.)

Support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (so that you can plug in a smartphone and display compatible apps on the touchscreen).

Cruise control, air-conditioning, and satellite navigation.

A leather-wrapped, height-adjustable steering wheel, which carries buttons for operating the cruise control, the audio system and your phone.

Very bright and extremely long-lived LED headlights and tail-lights.

A puncture repair kit. Tyre pressure sensors that warn you if a tyre is going flat.

Reversing camera, autonomous emergency braking, and traffic sign assistance to help you with identifying the speed limit.

Blind-spot monitoring, and a Rear cross-traffic alert.

Four airbags, and electronic stability control – which can help you avoid or control a slide. (For the placement of airbags, and more on MX-5 safety systems, please open the Safety section below.)

All MX-5s with a manual gearbox have a limited-slip differential, which moderates rear-wheel slip through turns.

The MX-5 is covered by a five year, unlimited distance, warranty.

Which engine uses least fuel, and why wouldn't I choose it?

The smaller of the two engines available in an MX-5, a 1.5-litre, four-cylinder petrol, uses least fuel, consuming 6.1 litres/100km with manual transmission (official test, city and country combined). The automatic uses slightly more.

It is based on the engine used in the Mazda2 light car but provides much more power when you work it hard, and has a throatier sound. Expect to average about 7.5 litres/100km in the real world.

This is an excellent engine for the lightweight MX-5. The main reason you would not choose it is that you don’t want to work the car quite as hard.

The bigger engine is a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol that brings you about 30 per cent more power than the 1.5-litre under most driving conditions. It responds more urgently to the accelerator than the 1.5 but does not spin as freely, and it will average about 8.0 litres/100km in the real world.

Both engines need premium unleaded fuel.

The MX-5 is available with a six-speed manual gearbox or a six-speed automatic.

What key features do I get if I spend more?

The least costly MX-5, the 1.5 Roadster, comes with a fabric roof, cloth-covered seats, 16-inch wheels, the 1.5-litre engine, and the features found on all MX-5s. A manual gearbox is standard, and an auto is an extra-cost option.

One way to spend more on an MX-5 is to stick with the 1.5-litre engine but add some luxury, by choosing an MX-5 Roadster GT. That brings you leather-trimmed seats with heating, and climate-control air-conditioning (which maintains a set temperature). You can unlock the car and drive away without removing the key from your pocket or bag. Headlamps switch on automatically when it’s dark, and windscreen wipers work by themselves when it rains. And you get a better sound system, from Bose, with headrest speakers for the passenger as well.

The GT versions also have lane-departure warning, and adaptive LED headlights that adjust their beam depending on the MX-5’s speed and movement.

Alternatively – or in addition – you can spend more for extra grunt from the 2.0-litre engine. All 2.0-litre MX-5s come with 17-inch wheels, and lower-profile, wider, tyres, for more grip.

Wheels aside, the MX-5 2.0 Roadster comes with the same equipment as the 1.5 Roadster. (And it costs less than a 1.5 Roadster GT.)

The 2.0 Roadster GT comes with the equipment in a 1.5 Roadster GT.

Settling on a 2.0-litre engine also brings you the opportunity to choose an MX-5 with a power-folding hard-top: the MX-5 RF.

An MX-5 RF has the same wheel size and equipment as the 2.0 Roadster. And it costs about the same as a 1.5 Roadster GT.

An RF GT matches the equipment of the 2.0 Roadster GT, but adds Adaptive headlamps (which shine into corners when you turn the wheel).

Does any upgrade have a down side?

MX-5s with automatic transmission use slightly more fuel and are not as much fun to drive. And unlike all manual MX-5s, they do not have limited-slip differentials.

An MX-5 RF is a little bit noisier with the hard roof folded down than its soft-top cousins (but it will be quieter roof-up than the others).

How comfortable is the MX-5?

Two-seat convertibles are not designed to pamper. With the roof up, head room in the MX-5 is cramped for people taller than 185cm, and the cabin is snug. And you sit low, which can work your quads when it comes to alighting.

Lowering the roof brings challenges also. It pays to keep sunscreen and hats in the car, for example. Even if it is not raining, a roofless cabin can be unpleasant on cold days – and on very hot days. Roof-down driving is best on dry days with mid-20s temperatures, and on balmy nights.

The airstream will buffet the heads of tall people, and if you’re driving faster than 80km/h even short people will notice plenty of air currents swirling around the cabin – and more of them if they wind down the windows.

Above 80km/h with the roof in place, you notice a rustling from where the canvas roof meets the windows. And on aggressive bitumen, a fair bit of tyre roar.

The hard-top RF is a bit quieter than soft-top Roadsters when the roof is shut, and it feels more cosy. Arguably, it looks more interesting too.

The MX-5 has a simple control layout, with audio buttons high on the dash and a trio of dials for the ventilation system. The tachometer – which displays engine speed – is the most prominent of the instruments, sitting proudly in the centre of the cluster, with the smaller speedo to its right.

The colour touchscreen is a touchscreen only when the car is stationary. On the move, you have to use the rotary controller behind the gear selector to navigate the menus.

MX-5 GTs have a softer feel inside than the others. Their Bose audio systems sound crisper and more vibrant, and you can play them louder.

Seats in the MX-5 are well sculpted, with good support both laterally, for cornering, and for comfort on long drives. The steering wheel can be adjusted for height but not for reach.

Raising and lowering the soft roof is done manually with the release of a lever. It's light work and you can do it from either of the front seats. In an RF the task is made even easier: hold down a button on the dashboard and the roof packs or unpacks itself.

For a sports car, the MX-5 rides very smoothly: it feels about as comfortable over bumps as many small sedans. In this respect, it would be a very easy car to live with, both around town and on the open road.

The 1.5-litre engine works best when driven hard, when it produces the sort of throaty note you might hope for from a modern small sports car. The 2.0-litre feels stronger and doesn’t need to be flogged.

The six-speed manual gearbox is light to use, abetted by a light-action clutch. The steering is light too, and the compact MX-5 body is very easy to manoeuvre in city streets.

What about safety in a Mazda MX-5?

The MX-5’s safety package significantly improved with the 2019 model, with the introduction of a reversing camera, autonomous emergency braking, and traffic sign assistance to help you with identifying the speed limit. This is on top of other standard active safety features including blind-spot monitoring, and rear-cross traffic alert that warns you of any vehicles approaching from the side while you’re reversing.

The MX-5 GT also has lane-departure warning, and adaptive LED headlights that adjust their beam depending on the MX-5’s speed and movement.

Every MX-5 has anti-lock brakes, stability control, four airbags, and two rear-focused sensory safety systems: Blind-spot monitoring, and Rear cross traffic alert.

There is also a rollover hoop behind each seat. These and a strong windscreen give some protection if the car overturns.

Two airbags are directly in front of the driver and passenger. The other two are placed immediately outside you and your passenger, and protect your pelvis, chest, and head, from side impacts.

The Blind-spot monitoring detects vehicles lurking near your rear corners that might not show in your mirrors. Rear cross-traffic alert checks behind you to either side when you are reversing, alerting you to approaching vehicles with an audible alarm and a light in your exterior mirrors.

Vision in an MX-5 Roadster is great with the roof down. Raising the roof impedes rear vision significantly.

In an MX-5 RF, over-shoulder vision is poor even with the roof down, because the broad rear roof pillars remain in place.

All MX-5s except for the 1.5 Roadster have LED daytime running lights, which help other drivers see you. The GT variants feature adaptive LED lighting that light up the road ahead as if it were daytime and adjusts the beam to suit different road conditions based on the car’s speed and movement.

The GTs are also equipped with lane departure warning.

The Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) rated the MX-5 Roadster at five stars for safety, its maximum, in June 2016, and has since extended the rating to the MX-5 RF.

I like driving - will I enjoy this car?

Provided you can see past a convertible’s inconveniences, yes – absolutely. The MX-5’s compact body and other compromises are aimed at one thing: entertaining people who like to drive.

At just over one tonne it is one of the lightest cars on the road. The MX-5 weighs hundreds of kilograms less than most small cars, which makes it not only more responsive to steer through corners but also more forgiving of small mistakes.

That it drives the rear wheels helps also. The accelerator pedal affects only the rear tyres directly, leaving the front free for steering. And when you accelerate, the natural weight transfer rearwards increases grip for the tyres doing the pushing.

Speaking of which, all manual MX-5s come with a limited-slip differential, which enhances acceleration on a slippery road or out of tight corners (by maintaining drive to the tyre with most grip).

The MX-5’s steering is relatively light but wonderfully precise and engaging, responding very quickly to driver inputs. And the prominent front wheel arches that are visible from the driver’s seat make it easy to position the car through bends. Even the low seating position is all about making you feel like an extension of the car.

That supple suspension allows significant leaning through corners, and that’s more obvious when you change direction quickly. However it never upsets the car’s poise.

An MX-5 RF weighs about 50kg more than a 2.0 Roadster but it feels very much the same from behind the wheel – you would have to drive the cars back-to-back to pick up a difference.

Grip from the 16-inch tyres on the 1.5-litre cars is good without being excellent – by high sports car standards. Push hard through a tightening corner and the tyres will start to squeal. That’s not all bad: it means you get a sense of where the grip limits are, and enthusiast drivers will enjoy that. The slightly wider tyres on 2.0-litre cars grip a bit harder and squeal less.

The 1.5-litre engine is a bit lazy when driven gently, and requires a decent prod of the accelerator up long hills. But if you ask it to work it responds nicely, and it is very willing to rev.

A 2.0-litre MX-5 is noticeably perkier when you first press the accelerator, delivering a deeper induction note and building speed with less apparent effort.

The manual gearchange has a wonderfully precise action with a nice, short shift lever. The automatic is less convincing, and does not feel quite as fast – even in the quicker of its two modes, Sport. While all autos supply paddle shifters for a quasi-manual mode, the gearbox will shift up automatically once it reaches the engine’s limit.

But you don’t need to drive an MX-5 quickly to enjoy its driver-focused feel.

As well, you get the experience of having no roof above you. Your view out and up is not restricted. For many people who enjoy a convertible, feeling the breeze is a big part of the fun. And you can hear and – particularly – smell what is going on outside the car: you are part of the scenery, rather than locked away in a capsule. There is a lot of pleasure to be had from these things alone, in any MX-5.

How is life in the rear seats?

Not great – there aren’t any. The MX-5 is strictly a two-seater.

That means kids, dogs and mothers in law will have to stay behind … which could be appealing for some.

How is it for carrying stuff?

It's weekend-away gear at best in the MX-5. The Roadster’s shallow and narrow 130-litre boot will be filled by a couple of soft bags (forget suitcases or anything else bulky and inflexible). Accessing the boot can lead to dirty fingers because the release button is hidden near the rear number plate frame. But you can open it from a button on the remote key fob.

In-cabin storage is very light-on. The slender door pockets might be good for a brochure or some letters, while the covered centre console is very shallow. There is no glovebox, but there is a deep binnacle between the two seat backs.

With the roof down, items left in the car are an easy snitch. Even with the canvas roof up, thieves can enter a Roadster with the help of a knife. An MX-5 RF is more secure.

When folded, most of an MX-5 RF’s roof is housed outside the boot, at the base of the rear uprights. That means boot space is barely compromised: you still have 127 litres.

Where does Mazda make the MX-5?

All MX-5s are made in Japan.

What might I miss that similar cars have?

Possibly a little more grunt on take off. The Abarth 124 Spider is produced by Mazda alongside the MX-5, in partnership with Fiat. It is a modified MX-5 fitted with a Fiat-supplied 1.4-litre turbocharged engine is more powerful than the 1.5-litre MX-5s and produces more torque than the 2.0-litre Mazda engine.

The Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ are low-priced rear-drive coupes which, like the MX-5, offer great steering and relatively low power. They have two small rear seats but they are not convertibles: there is a fixed metal roof. That roof isolates you more convincingly from the environment outside than the hard folding roof of an MX-5 RF.

I like this car, but I can't choose which version. Can you help?

The 2.0-litre Roadster GT is arguably the pick for its excellent value and classier interior. The 2.0-litre cars also make excellent choices, but their extra grunt and grip is not necessary: they offer a flavour that is different rather than obviously more pleasant.

The easy-to-drive manual gearbox suits the fun character of the car much better than the auto.

If you are concerned about leaving your car unattended, or just want the slightly more intimate interior feel endowed by the hard roof, consider an MX-5 RF or RF GT.

Are there plans to update the Mazda MX-5 soon?

This fourth generation MX-5 (codenamed ND) went on sale in August 2015 with the 1.5-litre engine only. Cars with the more powerful 2.0-litre engine arrived about December 2015.

The MX-5 RF arrived about the end of January 2017. About the same time the colour touchscreen previously available only on MX-5 GTs was extended to the Roadsters and RF, and all cars gained blind-spot monitoring and a rear cross-traffic alert.

Mazda gave the MX-5 a slight upgrade in April 2018, which improved the rear suspension and noise levels in the Roadster versions, and added lane departure warning and adaptive LED headlights to the more expensive GT variants.

Another update in September 2019 for the 2019 model year saw the 2.0-litre engine receive more power, and the safety package significantly improved with a reversing camera, autonomous emergency braking, and traffic sign assistance.

In June 2019 Mazda rolled out Apple CarPlay and Android to the MX-5 range and also introduced a limited-run 30th Anniversary Edition that quickly sold out.

Expect a a more substantial update later in 2020, and an all new MX-5 a few years later.

Mazda increased it's three year, unlimited kilometre warranty to five years in August 2018.
Score breakdown
Safety, value and features
Comfort and space
Engine and gearbox
Ride and handling
Things we like
  •   Fantastic steering and braking
  •   Comfortable ride
  •   Zingy engines
Not so much
  •   Head room tight under roof
  •   Minimal storage
  •   Noisy


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