While everyone was swooning over the new Toyota GR86 and subsequently getting worked up that you can’t actually buy one, some might have forgotten that if you want a lightweight, front-engined, rear-wheel-drive sports car with a manual gearbox, you could simply go to a Mazda showroom and buy a Mazda MX-5 all along.
The current generation of the Mazda MX-5, codenamed the ND, was brilliant when it launched in 2015, and because it’s such a timeless concept, it hasn’t aged a day. It also helps that Mazda has kept it fresh with model-year tweaks here and there – some small, some quite significant.
Other long-running nameplates, such as the Mercedes SL, have markedly changed in character throughout their run, but the MX-5 still fulfils much the same role as it did when it first went on sale in 1989.
It came about as the result of an American wistfulness for cheap British roadsters on the one hand, and a Japanese firm’s readiness to speculate and innovate in order to make its global reputation on the other. ‘Mazda Experiment, Project Number Five’ would go on to become the world’s fastest-selling sports car.
The idea of an affordable open-top was hardly new to Japan. Preceding decades had seen oddities such as the Datsun Fairlady, Honda S500 and Toyota Sports 800 emerge, often as their fledgling makers’ first production models. But by the end of the 1970s, with the demise of such icons as the Triumph Spitfire, MG B and original Lotus Elan, the segment was assumed to be in decline.
It was these models, though, that Mazda dissected during the MX-5’s development, and they are among the reasons why it emerged in 1989 as a small, sub-one-tonne, front-engined, rear-drive, perfectly balanced home run.
Ironically, the MX-5’s success found a counterpoint almost immediately in the lukewarm reception and ailing sales figures that greeted the all-new Lotus Elan, which emerged only a few months later, lumbered as it was by a higher price, lumpier looks and front-wheel drive.
The first MX-5 – the NA – was arguably the model’s dynamic high point. Its successors were generally very good too, but they became progressively more powerful, bigger, heavier and that bit less exciting to drive.
Until the current ND generation, that is. It was a return to the old template: shorter, lower, wider and – most importantly – lighter than its predecessor, the ND MX-5 comes with a choice of either 1.5 or 2.0-litre naturally aspirated petrol engines and the promise of unparalleled ‘Jinba ittai’ – the manufacturer’s catch-all term for oneness between car and driver.
Mazda MX-5 FAQs
Is the Mazda MX-5 available as a plug-in hybrid or electric?
No. The weight that current electrified powertrains bring with them is anathema to the philosophy of the current MX-5. Mazda is committed to keeping the MX-5 alive, however. In the first instance, this means that the current car will be developed to comply with the GSR2 safety regulations, but Mazda has yet to commit to a future powertrain strategy for the MX-5.
What are the main rivals to the Mazda MX-5?
As the world’s best-selling roadster, the Mazda MX-5 has effectively scared away any direct rivals. If you want a small two-seater convertible with rear-wheel drive, then the Mazda and the much more hardcore Caterham Seven are the only game in town. The Audi TT is going off sale soon and the BMW Z4 is much less of a driver’s car.
If you don’t mind, or even want a roof, then the Toyota GR86 delivers a similarly uncomplicated and even more focused driving experience, though getting a spot on the waiting list will be tough. Other driver-focused options include small hot hatches, such as Ford Fiesta ST and Hyundai i20 N, while the only other remaining small drop-top is the Mini Convertible.
How much power does the Mazda MX-5 have?
There are two engines to choose from for the Mazda MX-5, both naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol units. The entry-level 1.5-litre delivers 129bhp, and the 2.0-litre 181bhp.
What gearbox options are there for the Mazda MX-5?
As standard all versions of the Mazda MX-5 get a six-speed manual gearbox, while a six-speed automatic is available as option on the 2.0-litre.
Where is the Mazda MX-5 built?
Mazda has several factories around the world, but the MX-5 is built exclusively at its Hiroshima facility in Japan. Assembled on the same line were at one point the Abarth and Fiat 124 Spider models, which used the same structure and interior as the Mazda, but different styling and powertrains.
How many generations of the Mazda MX-5 have there been?
Launched in 1989, the Mazda MX-5 is the world’s most successful two-seater sports car, with well over a million having been sold over four generations. The original set the template that the subsequent models have barely deviated from, each boasting similar exterior dimensions and kerb weight. The first MX-5 arrived in 1989, followed by the second, third and fourth generation models in 1997, 2005 and 2014 respectively. It is likely that there will be a fifth generation, but it is unknown when that might appear.
Range at a glance
Ever since its launch in 2015, the ND-generation MX-5 has been available with a 1.5-litre four-cylinder and a 2.0-litre four-cylinder, both naturally aspirated. In 2018, both got updated, but while the changes for the 1.5 were mild, the 2.0-litre got an extra 23bhp and a 700rpm-higher redline. All MX-5s come with a six-speed manual gearbox as standard, but the 2.0-litre can be optioned with a six-speed torque-converter automatic.
Through the years, trim levels have come and gone, and there have been more special editions than stars in the universe. In 2023, the range starts with Prime-Line, which gets cloth seats and 16in wheels, and is only available in combination with the 1.5-litre engine. Exclusive-Line adds leather seats, auto headlights, parking sensors, AEB and better speakers. Homura is reserved for the 2.0-litre and has 17in BBS wheels and light grey leather seats.
In 2017, Mazda added an RF (for ‘Retractable Fastback’) model with a metal folding roof to the line-up. It can be had with both engine options.