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Icon buyer: new Mazda MX-5 vs used Lotus Elise, CAR+ November 2015

Published: 15 October 2015

► Used cars vs new cars
► Lotus Elise now in reach
► £18k MX-5 or £17k Elise? 

There’s more than a little Lotus to Mazda’s MX-5. The first generation picked up where the Elan left off in the ’70s, combining affordable ownership, rear-drive dynamics and top-down windiness. The new fourth-gen MX-5 goes back to those roots: it weighs just 950kg, produces 129bhp or 158bhp from 1.5 or 2.0 naturally aspirated litres and, at £18,495, makes hot hatches look expensive.

Other than the complete lack of squeaks and rattles, the MX-5 could’ve been created by Colin Chapman himself. The things is, for £18k – or quite a bit less – you could get an actual Lotus. It’s a brave buyer that forgoes Mazda’s famously robust build quality and a three-year warranty for a decade-old Elise, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

We’ve sourced a second-generation Elise 111S from specialists Bell and Colvill. The 111S is essentially a regular Elise with a 36bhp hike to 156bhp, a couple of decals and some unique alloys. Prices range from £13k-£18k and this one’s covered 30,000 miles since 2004, comes with a full service history and is up for £16,995.

Twist the unassisted steering and you immediately feel dialled in; the helm is incredibly light, and constantly tickles your hands with road-surface information. Despite picking up every nuance, the Elise is never nervous over cambered B-roads – the front tyres are skinny 175-section 16s – and while the suspension is firm, it still lets the 111S flow.

Elise: carpets? Soundproofing? Electric windows? Where’s the suffering?

Like many Elises, this 111S’s K-series engine breathes through an aftermarket Pipercross air filter, and it sounds fabulous: a deep bellow at lower revs that’s lost under mechanical zinging towards the redline. This is more than enough power to have fun.

Yes, there are rattles – especially with the roof on – and it’s easier to extract yourself from a post box than straddle that chunky sill, but the subterranean seats are snugly comfortable, and by this point the Elise had carpets, soundproofing, central locking and electric windows, while our car’s air-con was optional. 

The Mazda, of course, is the easier daily drive. You don’t need limbo skills to get in, there’s a boot you can use, and while the roof is manually operated, latching and unlatching is a cinch. Just don’t expect a Merc SLK-style mollycoddling: putting the roof up on the motorway doesn’t actually seem to reduce wind noise.

On the road, the MX-5 can’t compete with the Elise’s tactility, but it is a lot of fun. Point the steering at an apex and the nose takes an exaggerated lunge, but there’s also channel-ferry body roll. You can use that roll to generate oversteer, but it does feel at odds with the keenness to change direction. 2.0-litre cars get sports suspension, which probably feels more cohesive.

The 1.5-litre’s 7500rpm redline sounds promising, but the MX-5 gathers speed reluctantly, and there’s no shift in character as the needle scrolls the dial. Despite the relatively close power-to-weight ratios, the Elise feels significantly more eager. The Mazda does boast the sweeter gearchange, though, has nice steering, and the pedals indulge heel-and-toe heroics.  The lightweight, open-air ethos unites this pair, but there’s no mistaking the gulf between the two driving experiences.

Servicing and running costs 

Elise servicing depends on whether you have a K-series Rover engine (as the 111S does), or the Toyota unit that replaced it. K-series motors adhere to 9000-mile/annual servicing, and are based on A (oil/filter, brake fluid), B (A plus air filter and spark plugs) and C (A and B plus fuel filter, cambelt, gearbox oil, aux belt). Bell and Colvill quote £371, £451 and £878 respectively. The sequence is AA, B, AA, C, repeat. For Toyota engines, expect a £377 annual service, plus an air filter (£90) at three years, coolant at four years (£118), and spark plugs and gearbox oil at six years (£222). The Toyota has a cam chain, not belt, lowering costs.

MX-5:  sweet steering, sweet gearchange, sweet pedal positions

The MX-5 is based on annual or 12,500-mile servicing. A 12,500-mile service (oil/filter) typically costs £161, 25,000-mile-service (oil/filter, brake fluid and cabin filter) £270, and the 37,500-mile service (oil/filter, air filter) £192.

Based on a 40-year-old male, Adrian Flux Insurance quotes £225 fully comp for the MX-5, the Elise £265.

Reliability

Very low mileage Elises might not be the bonus you expect. ‘Cars used consistently tend to have fewer issues,’ explains Jamie Matthews at Bell and Colvill.

Both engines are robust, but the Toyota has the edge for frequent trackdayers. While a generally strong unit, the K-series head gasket is a weak spot; look for dipstick mayonnaise, and a creeping temperature gauge.

On all Elises, check for poorly repaired accident damage, and also the paint: it’s water-based, the body fibreglass, and can freeze and blister. Headlamp lacquer can also delaminate. Air-con was optional, but check it blows cold; the sill pipe can corrode, a circa £600 fix. No matter how good your car, you will get squeaks and rattles; after two miles the heater knob on our car threw itself into the footwell.

The MX-5 comes with a three-year, 60,000-mile transferrable warranty, and extended warranties offer three levels of cover: Essential, Elite, Complete. Costs depend on the level of excess. Visit mazdaextended.co.uk.

Key options

Elise 111s options were limited to a radio/cassette/CD changer, air-con, black eight-spoke alloys, and metallic/custom paints. An alcantara interior was no-cost over standard leather. A hard-top and ‘thermal’ black soft-top were standard, the latter available in red, blue or green at extra cost.

The MX-5 comes in five specs: SE (£18,495, 1.5 models only), SE-L (£19,245), SE-L Nav (£19,845), Sport (£21,845) and Sport Nav (£22,445) – add £850 for 2.0 models. Spec is engine-dependent: 1.5s get 16-inch alloys, 2.0 models 17s, limited-slip diff and strut brace, and you can’t upgrade. Sports suspension is standard only on 2.0 Sport and Sport Nav, and unavailable elsewhere.

All models get LED headlights, but rain-sensing wipers, adaptive auto headlights and rear parking sensors are reserved for Sports. Sat-nav features on, yep, ‘Nav’ models, with the option to upgrade to a ‘premium connected’ version.

Arctic White is no-cost, Soul Red Metallic £660, everything else £540. Upgrade to Sand leather for £200 on Sport Nav models, and 2.0 Sport Nav models can be optioned with a Safety Pack (high-beam control, blind-spot monitoring) for £350.

Elise rattles less with the roof off; MX-5 is equally noisy with roof up or down (but manual roof is sooo easy to operate)

Verdict

The Elise 111S puts much of the fun of a Caterham into a safer, more useable package. Values are firm, and the usual pitfalls of Icon Buyer pairings – that the used car is significantly thirstier and harder on its costlier consumables – vanish here.

With Mazda’s finance options, you’d spend about £3.8k annually (£4k deposit, £12k split over 42 months), then return the MX-5. Buy this 111S and you’ll get a one-year warranty, and it’ll retain a chunk of its £17k over the same timeframe. Why not allocate those gone-for-good finance payments to a kind of reverse swear jar for the Elise? It breaks, you swear, remove future residuals for repairs…

For some, the fact it’s give-or-take whether a decade-old car is cheaper than a new one will sound like man-maths gone mad. The MX-5 is an enjoyable drive, it’s the more sensible daily driver, you know your costs up front, and you’ll get to work every day. 

It’s a dilemma best solved thus: only car? MX-5. Weekend toy? Elise. 

Mazda vs Lotus: the numbers

Mazda MX-5 1.5 Sport

Price: £21,495
Engine: 1496cc 16v four-cylinder, 129bhp @ 7000rpm, 111lb ft @ 4800rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Performance: 8.3sec 0-62mph, 127mph, 47.1mpg, 139g/km CO2
Suspension: MacPherson strut front, multi-link rear
Weight/made from: 975kg/steel
Length/width/height: 3915/1735/1225mm
On sale: Now

Lotus Elise 111S

Price: £16,995 (2004, 30k miles)
Engine: 1796cc 16v four-cylinder, 156bhp @ 7000rpm, 129lb ft @ 3500-4650rpm
Transmission: Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Performance: 5.3sec 0-62mph, 132mph, 40.9mpg, 163g/km CO2
Suspension: Double wishbones
Weight/made from: 806kg/fibreglass
Length/width/height: 3785/1719/1143mm
On sale: 2002-2005

My Lotus Elise 111S

Jon Edwards

‘After many other Elises I recently returned to a 2002 S2 111S. I love the K-series engine, the long third gear that just keeps giving, the steering and handling and the fact the mpg is so good. Cons? The standard exhaust and airbox are too quiet, paint micro-blisters can be an issue and the heater control units are a weak point and expensive to fix, but DIY is possible. But the 111S is the best model for road use, and it’s so much fun you’ll find yourself laughing out loud at times.’

My Mazda MX-5

Clive Sloman

‘I ordered my MX-5 a year ahead of its launch and I think my dealership, Donalds Ipswich, were as excited as me! I own a top-spec 2.0 Sport Nav in Soul Red and commute daily. I’ve only had the car for a month, but I’m already up to 1500 miles. The car genuinely feels like it’s on rails and I smile from the moment I get in to the moment I leave. I want more time to drive it! I love the GT-esque soundtrack, the BOSE sound system is the best I’ve ever had, and the LED lights are brilliant. It’s truly special.’

Climb into the Lotus and you’ll know how a letter feels when posted. Slipping into the MX-5 is a doddle

By Ben Barry

Contributing editor, sideways merchant, tyre disintegrator

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