2021 Mazda MX-5 GT RS Review

Mazda’s roadster icon, now made sharper and more focused in RS form… but has it killed the fun?

2021 Mazda MX-5 GT RS Review

The Mazda MX-5 roadster is the best-selling sportscar in the world, so after 32 years it’s no wonder the Hiroshima brand is keen to keep things fresh. Enter the MX-5 GT RS, the newest top grade for the soft-top.

In similar vein to the MX-5 RF GT Limited Edition of 2018 (though available as a soft-top), the GT RS variant brings more performance-focused elements like Brembo brakes, Bilstein dampers and a strut brace for extra body firmness to the 2.0-litre-powered roadster.

But is it all too much? The MX-5 is meant to be a simplified sports car for those who want something that fits the traditional sense of the word. Driver engagement, no frills, just fun. Has the RS variant overstepped the mark?

Mazda MX-5 GT RS

Price and Features (Score: 7/10)

The initial hurdle that Mazda might have to overcome in convincing buyers about the benefits of this RS is its $47,020 plus on-roads price. It's not just that the MX-5 experience can be had from $36,090 plus on-roads with a smaller 1.5-litre engine, the non-RS MX-5 GT costs three grand less and provides a similar day-to-day driving experience.

For that extra three thousand, behind the forged 17-inch BBS wheels yare Brembo brakes with four-piston callipers up front, a set of stiffer Bilstein dampers all round and, under the bonnet, a strut brace between the towers to improve body rigidity.

Mazda MX-5 GT RS engine

Once you start looking at options and take into account the extra fees for a driveaway price, the sub-$50k dream goes out the window. Using Melbourne as an example, Mazda quotes $51,707 as a recommended delivered price but options like premium paint (Soul Red, Machine Grey or Polymetal Grey, all $495), scuff plates ($380), MX-5 floor mats ($185), an alarm system ($920), and a front parking sensor ($741) mean you’re looking at being owed nearly $55,000 by an MX-5.

Those in the market for a small sports coupe could get into a Toyota 86 GTS with an MSRP of $39,680 plus on-roads, for a similarly playful drive but without the convertible lifestyle.

Ownership costs (Score: 9/10)

It’s not hard to understand why the MX-5 has been so popular for more than three decades, starting with its frugal four-cylinder engine – 2.0-litres in this case  drinking only a claimed 6.8L/100km on the combined cycle. Even after a round trip of more than 300km during our test, with a mix of highway and spirited twisty road driving, The MX-5’s 45-litre petrol tank was more than half full.

In terms of more passive ownership costs, the MX-5 GT RS is covered by Mazda’s 5-year warranty and each of its first five scheduled services (every 10,000km up to 50,000) costs either $332 or $377. Lightly driven MX-5s can also be serviced every 12 months if they don’t reach the kilometre recommendation.

Mazda MX-5 GT RS

If depreciation is a concern, there’s good news. The fourth-gen (ND) MX-5 has proven to hold its value well, with even early NDs listed as used for around $30,000 in well-maintained (and sub-100,000km) condition.

Comfort and Convenience (Score: 7/10)

Calling the Mazda MX-5’s interior small or cramped is an oversimplification of the fact that Mazda’s designers and engineers have created a cabin in which no space is wasted. Even those less vertically challenged should find the MX-5’s interior comfortable enough, though this most average height of writer finds the seating position, seat shape, and layout all extremely suitable for a sports car. Its leather upholstery and softer touchpoints (especially where your elbows are likely to lean) make for a pleasant place to sit.

The telescopic adjustable steering wheel and gear shifter are relatively positioned such that exaggerated hand movements aren’t required, and the three pedals are well-placed for quick foot movements and heel-toe gearchanges. This is all down to one simple fact: the MX-5 was designed to be a drivers car, rather than a passenger car turned sportscar. Mazda’s own jinba ittai philosophy, meaning ‘oneness between horse and rider’, almost perfectly encapsulates how the Mazda’s cabin ergonomics feel.

When the MX-5 isn’t being used for back-road blasts, the roadster's lack of convenience as transport becomes more obvious. For a start, there’s no interior stowage. There’s no glovebox (even the first-generation MX-5 had one), and the centre console’s storage is big enough to fit the key fob, perhaps with some spare change if you’re so inclined.

Mazda MX-5 GT RS interior

Thankfully, there’s a storage bin mounted between the two seats, built into the space under the roof latch. It’s not huge, but it fits water bottles, hats, small bags or purses … essentially anything you don’t want rolling around your passenger footwell.

There are, thankfully, other little conveniences in the cabin. The MX-5 has three places to mount a cup holder: two between the seats behind elbows (admittedly awkward to reach when driving), or one to the passenger side of the gearshift, which is perfect for reaching as a driver assuming your passenger’s keens remain behaved. There’s also a 12-volt outlet, a pair of USB ports and a 3.5mm auxiliary jack.

Reaching the infotainment controls is easy, though the centre console-mounted scroll wheel is a little more awkward to use than the seven-inch display that only functions as a touch screen when the car is stopped.

Further back, the boot is… well, not huge. 130 litres of storage space is more than enough to get the groceries done, stow a small suitcase for a weekend away or bring home small kitchen appliances, but you’re not getting your Ikea bookshelf box in there. It’s also worth noting anything too bulky is unlikely to fit in the boot, as the point of ingress is rather narrower than the rest of the boot space. Our photographer was able to fit her entire kit for the day in the MX-5’s boot, but it took a little bit of Tetris recall.

MX-5 RF Limited Edition vs Subaru BRZ tS vs Toyota 86 Performance Pack

Safety (Score: 7/10)

It must be said that the Mazda MX-5 is by no means the safest car in the world. But for a  one-tonne, very small sports car, the MX-5 is really rather safe. In 2016, even before the introduction of Smart City Brake Support (Mazda-speak for autonomous emergency braking (AEB), the MX-5 passed its ANCAP crash test with a top grade of five stars.

As well as AEB and the addition of a reversing camera in its mid-life update, the ND MX-5 has an active bonnet that raises higher upon impact for pedestrian safety plus strengthened side impact beams and airbags for both driver and passenger. Being a soft-top roadster, the MX-5 has no side curtain airbags.

Mazda MX-5 GT RS Chris Thompson

Another symptom of its soft-top nature is the fact that once the roof is down, driver visibility is excellent for quick and unimpeded shoulder checks and rear-view mirror glances. With the roof up, the rear window is a little narrower than in solid-roofed cars and doesn’t allow as much field of vision. However, the MX-5 has blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert to assist with manoeuvres.

Even in an emergency, the MX-5’s light weight and ease of control should allow most drivers to avoid the worst of a situation, being quite responsive to relatively sharp steering under braking.

Power and Performance (Score: 8/10)

Putting it bluntly, this is the point at which a Mazda MX-5 review becomes uncomfortably easy for a motoring journalist. Hiroshima’s roadster benefits from Mazda’s persistence with natural aspiration, its 2.0-litre engine having been revamped in the same mid-life update that introduced extra safety features.

The top-spec GT RS gains no extra power or torque (still 135kW and 205Nm) but that’s no bad thing. The 1.5-litre engine was previously the pick for its keen behaviour, but now the updated 2.0-litre is just as keen and provides an extra bit of kick to entice even the more speed-thirsty driver. But it’s still restrained enough to allow a heavy right foot to indulge itself without putting one’s licence at risk.

Mazda MX-5 GT RS

It delivers, at the risk of dragging out the old maxim, linear power in a responsive and predictable fashion that allows a keen driver to make the most of every kilowatt available, with the reward of a lovely but relatively subtle engine note that only increases in drama, rather than coarseness, at higher revs.

Fortunately, the six-speed gearbox (there's no auto option in RS guise) is an accomplice to high-revving shenanigans, especially when the transmission is so easy to convince of the benefits of the upper rev range. Not only do second and third gear lend themselves incredibly well to back-road driving, but the shift between them is also sharp and helped by a compliant clutch pedal.

How does it drive? (Score: 9/10)

It’s difficult to describe the way an MX-5 drives without using the word ‘feedback’, so that’s a solid place to start. Not only does the stiffer chassis of the GT RS provide more information to the driver via the seat with its harder suspension, but it also allows for more control over cornering lines and even oversteer.

While a lesser MX-5 still utilises comparatively comical levels of body roll through corners to keep a willing driver busy, the GT RS is much less of a handful. Of course, the driver is still the main ingredient, but this variant's increased proficiency in cornering becomes clear. Those extra few thousand spent are here evident: the MX-5 GT RS is a more serious machine for a more track-focused driver, who values sharp cornering lines and lap times.

There's thankfully not a massive scope for oversteer when driving on the road  you'd need to really be thrashing it  but the gentle push of the rear wheels under corner exit is evident as the stiffer GT RS chassis is a different breed of playful to the softer GT.

Mazda MX-5 GT RS

With the gearshift close at hand and the clutch obedient, it's easy to bump down a gear and keep the revs high mid-corner to really make the most of every kilowatt available from that smooth 2.0-litre four. Carry too much speed though, and it becomes obvious when the Bridgestones are thinking of giving up. If you're paying attention to the MX-5's feedback, it's easy to adjust to its needs.

Harsher suspension that improves cornering also decreases road-trip relaxation, an issue only if potential owners have any ‘weekend away’ intentions that require more than a quick drive. Other than that, even the stiffened-up GT RS is absolutely liveable.

Verdict: 7.8/10

While the RS provides salient track day upgrades for sporting drivers, the road-focused driver will likely benefit more from the cost-saving of purchasing a standard MX-5 GT as opposed to the RS. However, the RS includes improvements that will prove worthy on a track day and anyone offended by this sharper MX-5 focus has the rest of the MX-5 range to choose from.

Pros: Sharpens up Roadster dynamics; Still ergonomically sensible and comfortable enough; Retains the MX-5’s ‘soul’

Cons: Hard to live with as an only car; Stiffer ride might not suit long journeys; Driveaway price with options

Mazda MX-5 GT RS

Mazda MX-5 GT RS specifications
Engine 1998cc 4cyl, DOHC, 16v
Max power 135kW
Max torque 205Nm
Transmission 6-speed manual
Weight 1052kg
0-100km/h 6.5s (claimed)
Economy 6.8L/100km (claimed)
Price $47,020
On sale now


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