Mazda MX-5 2020 review
"Design and dynamism in a small but perfectly formed package"
Drive off into the sunset with a Mazda MX-5

Mazda MX-5 2020 review: roadster thrills come no finer

  • Updated 06 August 2020
  • 7 minute read
  • By Gavin Braithwaite-Smith


Life’s too short to drive boring cars. Whether you see yourself as a car enthusiast or not, shouldn’t you drive something that removes the tedium of a journey or raises a smile on the daily commute?

Some people spend six-figure sums on cars that hit speeds they’re not allowed to reach, are too wide for our congested streets and must be accompanied by an armed guard when not in use. Other, more enlightened people drive a Mazda MX-5.

Over the course of three decades, Mazda has sold more than a million MX-5s, making it far and away the best selling two-seat sports car in the world. You’re not buying into an exclusive club, but a million people can’t be wrong.

It’s a simple formula: engine at the front, driver and passenger in the middle and drive through the rear wheels. A classic formula for very good reason: it makes for a great car to drive.

Thanks to an update in 2018, today’s Mazda MX-5 is better than ever – and best of all you don’t need to break into your savings to secure the greatest affordable sports car on the planet. Prices start from less than £20,000, which is what I'd expect to spend on a supermini. So what are you waiting for? Growing up can wait for another day.

Looks, tech and design

The original Mazda MX-5 was inspired by classic British sports cars of the 1960s, but while the ingredients have changed over 30 years, the recipe remains the same. This is a lightweight, compact sports car with an emphasis on enjoyment.

There’s nothing quite like it. The Audi TT Roadster takes a different approach – and costs a great deal more – while the Toyota GT86 and Subaru BRZ demand that you keep your top on while having fun as they do without a convertible roof.

Looks good from every angleMazda MX-5 review - rear view, orange, driving Available to lease from £306 per month Lease Now

The MX-5 is offered in two flavours: convertible and RF. In the case of the former, it’s fitted with a manually operated fabric roof that can be opened or closed faster than you can say “here comes the sunshine”. RF stands for Retractable Fastback – and this version features an electrically operated folding hard-top that should, in theory, offer the best of both worlds. But more on that in a moment.

Mazda has chiselled and honed the MX-5 to within an inch of perfection – the body is as toned as a fell runner, while everything has been designed and engineered to save weight. In some cases, Mazda took things too far, to the point that the car was launched without reach-adjustable steering. Thankfully, this was rectified as part of the 2018 update.

The cabin remains snug, especially with the roof up. Taller drivers may need to look elsewhere for their driving thrills. The two seats are divided by a tall centre console, but it's still a very intimate affair, with driver and passenger almost brushing elbows.

Thankfully, Mazda’s strict weight-saving diet hasn’t resulted in a car that’s as stark and uninspiring as a Ryan Air flight. Even the basic SE+ model gets 16-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, LED headlights, keyless entry, electric windows, four speakers, electrically-adjustable heated door mirrors and – wait for it – a single cupholder. As a weekend toy, it could be all the MX-5 you need.

If you intend to drive your MX-5 to work, it’s worth upgrading to the SE-L Nav+. A 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with sat-nav is added to the mix, along with LED daytime running lights, six speakers, heated cloth seats, climate control and – brace yourself – a second cupholder.

The Sport Nav+ adds heated black leather seats, automatic headlights and wipers, adaptive lighting, a Bose nine-speaker audio system and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror. The flagship GT Sport Nav+ pushes the car into luxury territory, with 17-inch alloy wheels, heated tan leather seats, a reversing camera, adaptive LED headlights and some dynamic wizardry designed to appeal to enthusiastic drivers.

Intimate and involving insideMazda MX-5 review - interior Available to lease from £306 per month Lease Now

If you fancy the RF with its theatrical folding roof, you’ll need to dig deep, because prices start around £3,500 higher than the entry-level MX-5 Convertible. Some of the additional cost pays for the roof, but it’s worth noting that SE-L Nav+ is the lowest grade available on the RF, so the true difference is around £2,000.

Is it worth the upgrade? Maybe not, because while the RF is undoubtedly quieter with the roof up, it’s noisier with the roof down on motorways and there’s an awful lot of wind buffeting at speeds above 55mph. I also think the RF looks a tad awkward from some angles, even if the roof mechanism is an engineering masterpiece.

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You’re faced with a choice of 1.5-litre or 2.0-litre petrol engines, both free-revving and both non-turbocharged. Naturally, you’re going to want the more powerful unit, aren’t you? Well, yes and no.

Before the 2018 update, the 1.5-litre was the range sweet-spot, offering brisk rather than rapid performance while rewarding drivers willing to explore the upper reaches of the rev counter.

Such a sweet car to driveMazda MX-5 review - front view, orange, driving Available to lease from £306 per month Lease Now

However, it’s not the engine you should choose if you’re buying a new MX-5 today. Mazda has thoroughly reworked the 2.0-litre unit to give it more performance and a smoother delivery of power. It’s the engine the MX-5 has been waiting for – fast, frenetic and fun.

Opt for an MX-5 with Sport in the title and you’ll be treated to uprated suspension and other upgrades. The result is a car that offers faster cornering with greater control, albeit with a much firmer ride.

Think carefully about this. For while it's tempting to go for all the bells and whistles, I found the softer ride of non-Sport models is often welcome on Britain’s notoriously rough roads. Smaller wheels help with this, too.

In all cases, you’ll revel in the driving position, the eagerness of the engine, the delightful gearchange and a sense of fun that seems so hard to find in the modern world.

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Cost and economy

One of the most amazing things about such an exciting car to look at and drive is that it's also surprisingly affordable. And that includes the monthly finance prices as well as the price list - Mazda is always running good deals, too.

The most affordable sports car aroundMazda MX-5 review - badge detail Available to lease from £306 per month Lease Now

So while it's not a very practical choice, you'll find the MX-5 will hardly put a big dent in the household budget. What's more Mazda claims nearly 45 miles per gallon is possible with the smaller 1.5-litre engine, with the 2.0-litre promising 40 miles per gallon.

Because the car is so light and the engines so efficient, these figures aren't even as much of a fantasy as you might think. Just expect to get a lot less whenever you put your foot down on a more entertaining drive.

The MX-5 should be reasonably cheap to insure, too, especially if you opt for the RF, with its hard-top offering greater security and protection. In short, pound for pound, only the Ford Fiesta ST offers this much fun at such an affordable price.

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The Mazda MX-5 is proof that you don’t require a gazillion horsepower or a huge turbocharged engine to have fun. You could spend double or treble the price of the MX-5 and you wouldn’t be having double or treble the enjoyment. The fact is, the MX-5 is fun at any speed, anywhere.

Sure, living it with everyday could be a struggle – the boot is too small, there’s a shortage of storage pockets and the absence of a glovebox means there’s nowhere to put your, er... gloves. But you don’t buy a car like this for its practicality or luggage capacity.

As an affordable sports car, the MX-5 is without peer. You just need to decide whether to opt for the 1.5 or 2.0. Either way, you’ll be having the drive of your life.

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