It's hard not to like the fourth generation Mazda MX-5, a sportscar the brand is unwilling to fundamentally change - and for good reason. That doesn't mean it can't be improved though - and it has been in this updated form, with handling updates, a smarter look and an enhanced infotainment system. As before, there are 1.5 and 2.0-litre petrol engine options for the Roadster and RF body styles and anything this car lacks in outright power, it more than makes up in agility and tactility.
Is there another affordable sporting car sold today that rivals the Mazda MX-5's legacy? The Porsche 911 is an icon, the Toyota GR86 might well become one and the Volkswagen Golf GTI is a name most can identify with. But the MX-5 is special. It has rewritten the record books again and again for sports car sales and its recipe of light weight, driver focus and simple front engine/rear drive layout just has an inherent rightness about it that hasn't dated. But, as is the case with most cars, successive generations get bigger and heavier. The MX-5 hasn't been immune to this issue, customers demanding improved safety, more equipment and better quality as each successive generation has been developed. With this MK4 model though, originally launched back in 2015, Mazda drew a line in the sand and went back to the light, tactile approach that made the MX-5 so great in the first place. In recent years, the company's added a touch of extra power and technology to the equation and this latest update has brought visual and handling enhancements too.
Mazda hasn't changed the engines on offer with this updated model, but lots else has been tweaked about the drive experience. Throttle response is now sharper, the electric power steering has been adjusted and steering rack friction has been reduced to deliver more natural and fluid response through the turns. Mazda's also introduced a new Asymmetric Limited Slip Differential - basically, a cam mechanism has been added to the conical clutch. The cam angle is set differently for deceleration and acceleration, thereby achieving optimal limiting force of slip during fast cornering. If that cornering happens to be on a circuit, you'll appreciate the new Dynamic Stability Control track driving mode, which delays the usual stability intervention for a purer track experience. Otherwise, everything's much as before. Which means that this fourth generation MX-5 continues to conform to five key criteria that Mazda claims define this model line - rear drive with a front-mid engine layout, 50/50 weight distribution and an eagerness to change direction, plus a low kerb weight and an affordable price. This 'ND'-series design continues to be offered with either a 1.5-litre 132PS unit or a 184PS 2.0-litre engine. The 2.0-litre variant's rest to 62mph sprint time is rated at 6.5s and if you specify a manual gearbox with this engine, your car will come with a front strut brace, a limited slip differential and Bilstein dampers. All soft top models get six-speed manual gearboxes but the 2.0-litre version of the RF folding hard-top variant can be ordered with an optional paddleshift auto. The MX-5 isn't about straight line pace, it's about agility and tactility. Because the engines are so small, they can be tucked down and back in the car. Weight has been pared back by using aluminium for the bonnet, boot and front wings, while the soft top hood is also very light, improving the centre of gravity. Much of the front suspension is aluminium, as is the gearbox casing, the differential casing and the bracing that runs down the car's backbone. The virtuous circle of weight saving means that the smaller wheels only need four bolts as opposed to five. Lower rotational masses mean that the brake assemblies can also be made smaller, simpler and lighter. Which you'll enjoy at speed around the corners. Later versions of the pre-facelifted model benefitted from the addition of a clever 'Kinematic Posture Control' system, which applies a very small amount of brake force to the inner/unloaded rear wheel during cornering. The resulting brake force pulls the body down, suppressing body roll to provide more reassuring cornering so subtly that the MX-5's engaging handling remains unpolluted.
For the first time since the launch of the current 'ND'-series MX-5, Mazda has made a visual change - namely a new LED headlight design that now incorporates the daytime running lights. The rear LED lights have also been redesigned and a new Aero Grey paint colour has been added to the MX-5 line-up. As before, there are two bodystyles on offer, the classic soft-topped roadster and the folding metal-roof RF variant. The shape of the MX-5 hasn't changed radically from generation to generation. This one's no exception, but there's a bit more aggression about the detailing, the car looking like a shrunken Jaguar F-Type roadster from the rear three-quarter. See an MX-5 in the metal and you'll be amazed at just how tiny it is. There's a low, wide look that's always good for a roadster's stance. Behind the wheel, the main change with this revised model is the installation of a larger 8.8-inch central infotainment screen, plus an updated instrument panel. Smaller detail updates include a new frameless rear view mirror and there are extra USB-C ports. Otherwise, everything's much as before. The challenge with this MK4 design was always to keep the MX-5's traditional ergonomic simplicity but match it to modern levels of quality, equipment, refinement and comfort. Does it all work? Broadly yes, though folk over-familiar with the offerings of Colonel Sanders will find that the compact dimensions take a bit of getting used to as they adjust to the close proximity of the centre console, the door trim and the sides of the narrow footwell. In a clever touch, the seat cushions are supported on netting instead of the usual metal springs, allowing Mazda to reduce weight and seat the driver's hip point closer to the road. A lower driver then means the windscreen header rail can shift backwards, in this case by 70mm, which in turn means the hood is shorter and lighter, and also easier to package when folded. Out back, there's a very compact boot that's 130-litres in the Roadster or 127-litres in the RF.
The MX-5 may be quite a bit more expensive than you remember. Prices sit in the £26,000-£36,000 bracket. think in terms of a premium of just under £2,000 if you want to go from the soft top Roadster to the folding hard top RF version. On to spec specifics. The 1.5-litre Roadster MX-5 is available in 'Prime-Line' and 'Exclusive-Line' grades. The 184PS 2.0-litre Skyactiv-G Roadster is matched to 'Exclusive-Line' and range-topping 'Homura grades'. As with the Roadster, the 'Prime-Line' RF folding hard-top model is powered by the 1.5-litre engine, while 'Exclusive-Line' versions of that body style can be specified with either the 1.5 or 2.0-litre engine and the range-topping 'Homura' version is exclusively matched to the 184PS 2.0-litre unit. In addition, 2.0-litre MX-5 RFs in both trim levels come with the option to choose an automatic gearbox. Updates for the latest model include the addition of the Zircon Sand paint colour to the MX-5 for the first time, while 'Homura' manual models will feature red Brembo front brake callipers. Equipment levels include more than you might expect. Even base models come with alloy wheels, LED headlights, a leather steering wheel, plus a lightweight and sleek fabric hood. Plus LED daytime running lights, climate control air-conditioning, a DAB radio, Bluetooth and cruise control, along with Mazda's MZD-Connect connectivity and infotainment system with 8.8-inch colour touch-screen display and Multimedia Commander. Wireless 'Apple CarPlay' is standard and navigation is fitted further up the range. Plusher versions and the 2.0-litre cars feature rain sensing wipers, rear parking sensors, smart keyless entry, a Premium Bose Surround-Sound system and heated leather seats. This improved model gets an upgraded portfolio of safety features, including Lane-Keep Assistance and Intelligent Speed Assistance on all models, while Traffic Sign Recognition has been updated with improved signage recognition.
Stick with light weight and modest power outputs and this dictates a raft of affordable costs. The MX-5 has long been the exemplar of the affordable sports car and WLTP-rated economy and emissions are agreeably low, helped by the addition in recent times of Mazda's i-ELOOP kinetic recovery and i-stop stop-start technology. The 1.5-litre engine is CO2-rated at 142g/km, with 44.8mpg possible on the combined cycle. The 2.0-litre engine is rated at 155g/km and 40.9mpg - or 171g/km and 37.2mpg in auto form. Insurance groups range from 25E to 33A. Owners can keep up to date with their car's maintenance schedule via the instrument binnacle trip computer screen and the 'Applications' section of the 'MZD-Connect' centre-dash monitor. To help you keep track of what work has been carried out, you can access a 'Digital Service Record' online and use a useful 'My Mazda App' to receive reminders about servicing, book your car in at your local dealership and access a digitally-stored record of your model's service history. Residual values ought to hold up well, with the MX-5 a favourite amongst used car buyers due to its relative simplicity, strong reliability and low cost to insure.
Weight is the enemy. Excess weight in a car dulls its responses, makes it harder to turn, stop and accelerate, ensures that it drinks more fuel and puts greater stresses on virtually every moving part, parts which then have to be beefed up and made heavier to cope. The Mazda MX-5 reverses that cycle, stripping weight off which in turn allows it to pare more weight back with other simple lightweight componentry. It's a brilliant piece of engineering and it's been enhanced as part of this update. Not everyone gets the MX-5 experience of course. It certainly won't appeal to those prioritising power. Or people needing the practicality of a hot hatch or a sports coupe. At the other extreme, a specialist sports car maker like Caterham or Ariel could offer you a more intense experience, though one that for the most part would be largely irrelevant for public road use. That's where this Mazda excels. You don't need a test track, a racing driver's touch or a lottery winner's wallet with this car. Just a back-to-basics love of driving. The way it ought to be.