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Mazda MX-5 1.5 Sport Nav (2016) long-term test review

Published: 29 November 2016

► Mazda's new Mk4 MX-5 on test
► We've picked the slower, entry-level 1.5
► Is it a return to roadster first principles? 

Month 11 running a Mazda MX-5: final report

After 11 months, 12,583 miles (it arrived considerably well run-in from the UK launch event) and 41 tanks of fuel, it’s time to say goodbye to our Mk4 Mazda MX-5. In terms of fitness for purpose, this is in many, many respects an utterly brilliant car, but even as a hardcore MX-5 enthusiast I’d stop some way short of calling it perfect. In fact, the closer it came to the end of its term, the less concerned I became about the hole its departure would be leaving in my life.

First the good stuff. I’m not sure any other mainstream car currently on sale puts the average driver more in touch with the process and physics of the driving experience. The little 1.5-litre engine needs to be walloped unremittingly from key turn to switch off (though never from stone cold, honestly) in order to make modern-era progress – just keep telling yourself that Mazda didn’t put that 7500rpm redline in there for fun. Or rather, it absolutely put it in there for fun, so it’s your petrol-hearted duty to make sure you’re constantly making the most of the 1000rpm headroom over the faster but less enthusiastic 2.0-litre alternative. Think of the super-sweet six-speed gearbox and perfectly placed pedals as gateway drugs to the rev limiter; there’s none of this torque nonsense to smooth the path of rapid progress – you have to work for your overtaking opportunities in this car.

2016 Mazda MX-5 long-term test

There’s a similar sense of ‘immersion required’ to the chassis. It’s a lively beast, this MX-5. Without the overly firm Bilstein suspension of the 2.0-litre Sport, it rolls like a trawler in a storm during vigorous lateral g manoeuvres – to such an extent that it sometimes fools you into thinking the back end of the car is trying to overtake the front. In the wet, it often actually is (and the stability control is relaxed – if that’s the right word – enough to let you make the initial intervention, which is scary at first), but it teaches you to treat rear-wheel drive with an appropriate amount of respect whilst encouraging you to explore its potential.

This isn’t always the friendliest of sensations, however, and every time I got back into the car after a period of driving other motors I always found myself approaching the first sequence of bends with a tremor of trepidation. Was I always 100% confident how the Mazda was going to react in a turn? Heavens, no. Was it always engaging and beguiling? Absolutely. Ultimately, though, I found this aspect of the car, together with the associated unsettled ride quality, rather frustrating. While the overall feel of the chassis is remarkably similar to the original Mk1 MX-5 (I’m on my third at present), it seems to me there’s a much better suspension set-up waiting to be released from the Mk4 if only someone would take the time and trouble to find it.

Moving on. The three-second roof is a work of engineering genius – if only my Mk1 MX-5 made open-air life that easy – and the Multimedia Commander infotainment system is one of the best at any price, the ‘route avoid’ sat-nav option making up for the occasions when it refused to accept the programmed destination (spuriously due to lack of access, or some such excuse). However, after time you do get exasperated with the lack of sensible in-cabin storage, and the person-packaging is so tight and the steering/seat adjustment so limited that taller colleagues complained they were forced to practically sit with their heads in the slipstream.

2016 Mazda MX-5 long-term test

But it’s still a good-looking bugger, the increasing number of them on the roads doing nothing to diminish that. And our car is wearing its 14,000 miles reasonably well, even if there are a few stonechips showing up the thin paint on the bonnet. The only unexpected cost came when a pothole punctured a tyre, but the over-sensitive tyre-pressure monitors were a constant irritation, and the level indicator for the (tiny) washer-fluid reservoir has stopped working.

If you loved this car, you’d gladly live with such foibles, I reckon. But for me, while it has much of the spirit of the original it doesn’t quite have the charm or finesse. I’ll stick to chasing rust and worrying about MoT failures rather than start contemplating Mazda’s latest finance packages.

Count the cost

Cost new £23,105 (including £660 of options)
Dealer sale price £17,905
Private sale price £16,635
Part-exchange price £15,360
Cost per mile 12p
Cost per mile including depreciation 65p

Logbook: Mazda MX-5 1.5 Sport Nav

Engine 1496cc 16v 4-cyl, 129bhp @ 7000rpm, 111lb ft @ 4800rpm 
Transmission Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive 
Stats 8.3sec 0-62mph, 127mph, 139g/km 
Price £22,145 
As tested £23,105 
Miles this month 644 
Total miles 14,287
Our mpg overall 41.5
Official mpg 47.1
Fuel cost overall £1482.12 
Extra costs overall £225.14 (screen wash, punctured tyre, first service)

By CJ Hubbard


2016 Mazda MX-5 long-term test

Month 10 running a Mazda MX-5: my family and other animals

The Mk4 MX-5 stands on the shoulders of perhaps not giants – it is, after all, rather small – but decades of enthusiasm at Mazda. Proving this point, I’m at Goodwood, surrounded by some of the hottest metal from the firm’s back catalogue.

The day starts damp and dreary. Yet it’s like the sun is shining in my rear-view mirror, as I’m followed into the venue by a bright yellow RX-2. Privately owned, Mazda’s invited it along to look good in the pictures, but I do subsequently get a go in a succeeding RX-3. Styled like a miniature muscle car, painted like the ocean and steered via a massive yet gloriously thin-rimmed wooden wheel, it dates from 1973 and the leading item of standard equipment on the spec sheet is ‘clock’. However, this one has a later 12A rotary engine screaming away at the rear wheels with around 130bhp. It feels delicate and tippy-toed and absolutely joyful. I want one immediately; according to howmanyleft.com there are currently just six examples taxed in the UK.

Other rotary gems: two generations of RX-7, the RX-8 and a Cosmo. The latter is passenger rides only, spiritedly delivered by owner and rotary nut Phil Blake, who at last count owns 15 NSU Ro80s, an RX-7 and an RX-8 as well. It’s a gorgeous slip of a thing, the Cosmo, and utterly beguiling. I find myself less enamoured of the RX-7s, but the RX-8 proves just like the big, breathy MX-5 I remember it to be. And they are so cheap to buy now – shame that’s largely because they’ve garnered a reputation for expiring before you can get them home.

Not that rotaries are the only daft engine indulgences here. Take the MX-3, that curious mid-’90s coupe with a 1.8-lite V6 – yes, six – powering its front wheels. Again, they’re peanuts these days, and as an unusual hack-about, potentially compelling, thanks to a noise like a racing sewing machine and keen handling.

2016 Mazda MX-5 long-term test

But what of the MX-5s? The Mk2 10th Anniversary Edition surprises me, with by far the tightest chassis of any early MX-5 I’ve ever driven. The 25th Anniversary Edition Mk3 feels a touch ponderous in comparison, leaving the Mk4 free to revel in the lightness of being that has so captivated us since its 2015 launch. Back-to-back, it’s not so much the 2.0-litre’s extra power that impresses over the 1.5 as the anticipated increase in grip and composure delivered by the firmer Bilstein suspension. I still know which I’d rather have on the road, though, as my 1.5 ably reminds me all the way home.

Car of the day, however, has got to be the Mk1 MX-5 Le Mans. Outrageously painted to commemorate the Le Mans winning 787B, just 24 were built exclusively for UK buyers in 1991, complete with uprated suspension and BBR turbo kit boosting the 1.6 from 114 to 150bhp. Can’t say it feels quite that powerful , but the turbo integration is just so beautifully judged you never care. Brilliantly balanced and huge fun – traits that still run very much in the family.

From the driving seat 

+ Sweet engine and gearbox combo  
+ Pedals perfect for heal and toe  
+ Baby iDrive infotainment a joy  
+ Three second roof action  
– Unsettled ride disappointing  
– Roly-poly body control

Logbook: Mazda MX-5 1.5 Sport Nav 

Engine 1496cc 16v 4-cyl, 129bhp @ 7000rpm, 111lb ft @ 4800rpm  
Transmission Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive  
Stats 8.3sec 0-62mph, 127mph, 139g/km  
Price £22,445  
As tested £23,105  
Miles this month 893  
Total miles 13,643  
Our mpg 43.7  
Official mpg 47.1  
Fuel this month £109.42  
Extra costs £0

By CJ Hubbard


2016 Mazda MX-5 long-term test

Month 9 running a Mazda MX-5: servicing shenanigans

The MX-5’s first service started well. Online booking? Check. Free collection and delivery? Check? All on a Saturday? Amazing. Too amazing to be true, as it turned out – 15mins later EMG Cambridge was on the phone to say none of the above was actually possible, and my booking represented a ‘glitch in the system’.

Still, a new appointment was made, and duly carried out with commendable lack of hassle the following Tuesday. Pays to shop around, too, as the same job in Peterborough was quoted at £30 more.

Logbook: Mazda MX-5 1.5 Sport Nav 

Engine 1496cc 16v 4-cyl, 129bhp @ 7000rpm, 111lb ft @ 4800rpm  
Gearbox Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive  
Stats 8.3sec 0-62mph, 127mph, 139g/km  
Price £22,445  
As tested £23,105  
Miles this month 1767  
Total 12,750  
Our mpg 46.6  
Official mpg 47.1  
Fuel £207.56  
Extras £113.06 (service)

By CJ Hubbard


2016 Mazda MX-5 long-term test

Month 8 running a Mazda MX-5: just how practical is the roadster?

I don’t know: I lend the MX-5 to James Taylor for one weekend, and it comes back with a boot looking like the aftermath of a post-race press conference struck by a typhoon.

Not just one first-place trophy but two… I’m guessing most motoring journalists believe they could have been an F1 driver if only they’d had ‘the opportunity’ – in James’s case it might actually be true.

The boot capacity in the MX-5 stands at a snug 130 litres; not huge, no, but decent enough for a two-seat roadster. Make sure you pack squashy bags and plenty of weekend-away clobber will fit in. Once you've mastered the hidden boot release outlined in an update below, that is.

Beyond this, life with the MX-5 continues to be rosy. Quite literally in the recent hotter weather, sans sun block…

By CJ Hubbard


MX-5 meet MX-5

Month 7 running an MX-5: and then the sexy cousin turns up

I’ve been wondering for a while: have we got the right MX-5? I was absolutely convinced the 129bhp 1.5 was the way to go after the original UK launch. But with consistent comments from colleagues about how slow and soft they think it is, I’ve found myself with growing doubts. And then Mazda goes and launches the Sport Recaro edition, just to throw a little further fuel on the fire.

A limited edition of 600, complete with menace-enhancing body kit and dubious, diamond-cut 17-inch alloy wheels, the £24,295 SR is only available with the 158bhp 2.0-litre. It’s also based on that car’s Sport specification – meaning extra bracing, Bilstein dampers and a limited-slip differential – and comes fitted with Recaro seats as standard.

Mazda MX-5 long-term test

There’s nothing particularly wrong with our 1.5’s seats, but it’s obvious pretty instantly that the Recaros are superior – more supportive and, in retrospect, less sloppy. They don’t solve the lack of steering wheel reach adjustment, but they do gel with the surprising degree of extra stiffness apparent in the 2.0’s structure. Our long-termer has always felt like a very ‘lightweight’ car; you forgive the occasional impression of shuddering waifyness because you understand that being light is virtuous, yet it’s hard to argue the additional rigidity doesn’t make the Sport Recaro more precise. Helped of course by the Bilsteins and the LSD, which allow you to be much more aggressive with direction changes. Add in the bigger engine’s extra torque (148lb ft at 4600rpm vs 111lb ft @ 4800rpm) and you’ve suddenly got a genuinely punchy little sports car. Predatory, even. Which is something you could never say about the 1.5.

But after I waved the SR off and slipped back behind the wheel of li’l red, I was immediately glad to be rid of the Bilstein’s punishing low-speed ride, and found myself with renewed appreciation for the effort it takes to drive the softer, higher-revving 1.5 Sport with the conviction the Sport Recaro takes in its stride. As Mark Walton said in his column two months ago, it isn’t necessarily perfection we crave but wabi-sabi, the flaws that reveal true character.

By CJ Hubbard


Month 6 running a Mazda MX-5 Mk4: it's in the details

It’s more tightly packed than an airline dinner, but loads more tasty. How’re we doing with our favourite little red roadster? 

Hidden boot release of joy

Hidden boot release

It’s a small detail, and not that unusual in the grand scheme of things, but the hidden boot release in the corner of the number plate recess brings me joy every time I have to show someone how to use it. Too much Gone in Sixty Seconds in my youth, I fear… 

So long A14, it was never nice knowing you

Mazda MX-5 screen

I bang on about this a lot, but the iDrive-alike infotainment is one of the MX-5’s unexpected gems – especially the sat-nav’s ‘avoid route’ functions. Stuck in traffic? Simply dial up the distance you want to divert and it will find another way. Or tell it to avoid certain roads altogether…

Tight packaging is tight

Mazda MX-5 sun visors

Not a car for the generously proportioned, taller occupants will find themselves locked in a battle between compromised seating ergonomics and keeping their head out of the air stream. Mazda has pushed the packaging so far in pursuit of weight reduction the sun visor clips the rear view mirror whenever you lower it.

Perfect pedals. Or are they?

Mazda MX-5 Mk4 pedals

We could argue the relative merits of the MX-5’s engine capacity and suspension all day, but no-one criticises the snicky gearbox, and the pedal positioning is basically perfect for heel and toe. However, the initial brake feel’s eerie similarity to the accelerator can cause confusion when exiting a cruise control nod.

By CJ Hubbard


Mazda MX-5

Month 5 running a Mazda MX-5 1.5 Sport Nav: the joy of small roadsters

What is it about open-top sports cars? Do we have some kind of inherited memory of blasting across the plains on horseback with nothing above our heads except the stars? Even the most disinterested passengers start to make cooing noises as soon as you lower the roof of the MX-5.

Case in point: Harry and Will – my better half’s nephews. Aged six and four, respectively, they think I’m all right because I’m good with Lego, but have never shown the slightest curiosity about the cars I bring when we visit, including the previous Lamborghini. Yet the moment I show up with the roadster, they’re suddenly queuing for a ride round the block; honestly, we could have carried on all day. It was uncanny.

That all is not lost for the future of motoring enthusiasm is this month’s good news. For the bad news consider the slogan, ‘I’m not drunk, I’m just dodging pot holes’. As comedy bumper stickers go, it’s a pretty lame one – for it’s not until you really have reason to notice the dreadful state of so many of our roads that you really understand the sentiment. In my case, that reason really came when I ran over what I can only assume was a modest anti-tank trench on the A414 on the way back from Heathrow one dark evening.

The noise was incredible. Especially since said trench was on a roundabout, which I’d just pulled onto from a standstill. Sure enough, a couple of miles later the tyre-pressure warning light came on. I was able to cram enough air back in at a petrol station to get me home, but the next morning the offside rear was as flat as a proverbial pancake.

Fearing the worst, I booked it into the Cambridge dealer. Getting hold of the correct Yokohama Advan Sport took three days – while it’s a relatively new car, that’s going to be pretty inconvenient if the MX-5’s your only transport – but the technicians reported no other damage, and the £102 bill was a pleasant surprise. Less pleasant was the reappearance of the tyre-pressure warning light later the same day; this is either down to a slow puncture on one of the fronts or because the dealership had inflated the new rear to 32psi, some 3psi more than Mazda specifies. The monitoring continues, and FYI, I’m teetotal.

By CJ Hubbard


Mazda MX-5 long-term test

Month 4 running a Mazda MX-5 1.5 Sport Nav: Mpg crushed in country carnage

My commute is turning me into a zombie: 20 miles of truck-clogged, average-speed-camera-patrolled dual-carriageway A14 leading straight into the quadruple-lane, police-bait drag-strip section of the A1. The surfacing seems optimally primed to activate the MX-5’s irritatingly jiggly ride issues, too – okay, so it’s got a short wheelbase, but surely there was a better spring-to-damper match than this?

Clearly I needed to give the thing a bit of seeing to before it all got too much and we ended up with irreconcilable differences. So taking advantage of my other half being away for the weekend, off Mazda and I trotted on a remarkably bright Sunday morning in an effort to rekindle the flame, targeting the B660 out of Bedford by the power of Google.

It used to be that the occasional horse was the only countryside worry; now it’s enormous roving packs of cyclists. Still, on the stretches in between, the MX-5 was more than happy to remind me to be thankful. Yes, it’s a little soft, which can lead to some clumsy sliding on cold tyres and damp surfaces. And no, it’s not particularly fast. But with such a snicky gearbox and such perfectly placed pedals it remains a hoot – and once you’ve wound it up the suspension tuning comes together far more convincingly.

I enjoyed myself so much I even treated it to a wash afterwards. And following three months of an embarrassingly repressed 40mpg average, that trip worked out at 29.1mpg…

From the driving seat:
+ Sweet engine and gearbox combo  
+ Pedals perfect for heel and toe
+ Baby iDrive infotainment a joy
+ Three-second roof action
– Unsettled ride increasingly annoying...
– ... especially since body control is so soft

By CJ Hubbard


Mazda MX-5 long-term test

Month 3 running a Mazda MX-5 1.5 Sport Nav: tyre pressure sensors and fuel economy

After a month of religiously checking, whatever was going on with the variable tyre pressures has apparently resolved itself. They haven’t budged since I last set them, so perhaps someone fell victim to a rogue forecourt inflation machine.

No matter, the important thing is that our MX-5 is now fully thrashable again. Which brings up the rather sticky issue of the fuel economy: I can barely get it to drop below 40mpg. And while that’s largely due to average-speed cameras on my commute, it’s pretty embarrassing for a sports car.

Damn you, Skyactiv Technology…

By CJ Hubbard


Mazda MX-5 interior

Month 2 running a Mazda MX-5: getting to know you

Settling into life with the new MX-5, I won’t lie: I miss the grunt of my previous Lambo Huracan. And for some reason, other motorists are less inclined to observe good lane discipline when it’s the dinky Mazda following behind.

Otherwise, everything is peachy – there are many nicely considered touches, including the way the air-con automatically engages when you switch to the demist setting, and the handy tyre-pressure warning light. Hold on. Should I be seeing that so often? Time to visit the dealer already?

By CJ Hubbard


2016 Mazda MX-5 long-term test

Month 1 running a 2016 Mazda MX-5 1.5: the introduction to our long-term test

It’ll be too slow. That’s what I was told by colleagues when I originally tried to order the entry-level 1.5-litre engine for our new Mk4 Mazda MX-5 long-termer. But within five minutes of starting a test drive in the 2.0-litre alternative I knew the 1.5 was the one for me. While the bigger brute may be more powerful – James Taylor reckons it’s the first MX-5 he’s driven that actually feels ‘fast’ – it also comes across as flat as an ironing board that’s been in an accident with a steamroller compared to the puppy-on-Haribo urgency of the smaller unit, which peaks a whole 1000rpm further round the dial. Okay, so you have to wind it up, but isn’t that what the MX-5 is all about? Apparently Mazda’s engineers agree; they’re said to favour the 1.5-litre version, too. 

Long-story-short, the new MX-5 that graces these pages is not a 2.0-litre. Instead, it’s the way I think Mazda really wanted it to be. We’ve even got the Soul Red Metallic chosen as the launch colour – it’s the most expensive paint option at £660 but I doubt you’ll blame us, especially given how sensational it looks contrasted with the black 16-inch alloys and mirrors that come standard as part of the Sport specification. Actually, it’s the Sport Nav package in this instance, which brings the (obvious) addition of satellite navigation while meaning that at £22,445 even before adding the paint, our car costs almost £4000 more than the bone-stock £18,495 SE model. Porsche would probably charge you that much for a swanky cupholder of course, but on a relatively low cost car like this that represents a hefty percentage.

I’ve done the math. The difference is approximately 21% of the base price. In exchange you get 21 items of extra kit, including climate control, the Mazda ‘Multimedia Commander’ infotainment system, heated leather seats, Bose audio with additional speakers in the headrests, automatic lights and wipers, cruise control, and keyless entry. This is on top of the fancy LED headlights that are fitted across the range, alongside items such as keyless go and the obligatory USB ports – of which there are two, so you and your passenger don’t have to get into a fight about who should charge their phone first. Mazda lists the weight of both versions at 1050kg, which seems slightly suspicious, but I’m not going to complain about the added luxury; if I want a rawer (rattlier) MX-5 experience, I can always fire up my 1991 Mk1, which has electric windows and that’s about it.

Even with all that gear I suspect the 129bhp 1.5-litre Sport Nav is going to be something of a rarity – not because it’s poor value but because the 158bhp 2.0-litre equivalent is just £850 more at £23,295, and how many people are really going to be able to resist the extra 29bhp? After all, it’s enough to shuck a whole second off the 0-62mph time, bringing it down to 7.3sec, and not only do all 2.0-litre MX-5’s get a limited-slip differential and arch-filling 17-inch wheels, the 2.0-litre Sport and Sport Nav include pub ammo bonus points in the form of Bilstein suspension. Personally, I found this made the new MX-5’s already nervous ride quality still worse when I tried it, preferring the extra compliance of the ordinary suspension (and smaller wheels) on all but the smoothest of surfaces. Others in the office have already raised eyebrows at the body roll.

Again, though, I would direct the jury’s attention to the purpose of this vehicle. It isn’t about outright speed – and what was ever going to be as fast as the Huracan I’ve just said goodbye to, anyway? It’s about a sweet, responsive engine paired with one of the nicest, tightest six-speed manual gearboxes currently on sale and a chassis that’s built to balance and inform, not turn every corner into a simple twirl of the wheel. It’s about compact, distilled driving that actually gives the chump behind that wheel the opportunity to get involved. And it’s about a manual convertible roof that folds flat in under three seconds. Winter is coming, and I know I’m still going to be able to make the most of it.

By CJ Hubbard

How we specced our MX-5:

Paint it red
Soul Red Metallic is the most expensive paint choice at £660 – but it’s also the only option fitted, so we don’t feel too bad about it

Shiny things
LED headlights – standard across the range, and quite brilliant given they look so tiny 

Less is more
1.5-litre engine means 29bhp less but 1000rpm more – shut up and cane it

What a wand!
Six-speed manual gearbox – the magic wand of happiness

Case closed
Who needs a folding hard top or power assistance when this simple, lightweight fabric roof can be opened or closed in under three seconds – brilliant
 

Hot seats
Heated leather seats – help make every clear moment a drop-top opportunity

Spot the diff
1.5-litre cars make do with an open diff, 2.0-litre cars get an LSD – so far, so what?

CAR's first drive of the 1.5-litre Mazda MX-5 Mk4 

Watch the 2.0-litre MX-5 on track with Toyota's GT-86 in CAR's video review

Mazda MX-5 vs Audi TT Roadster vs Toyota GT-86 Giant Test on CAR+

Inside the cabin of our 2016 Mazda MX-5

By CAR's road test team

Our reviewers: fresh perspectives for inquisitive minds

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