2015-2020 Mazda MX-5 (mk4) Expert Review
Lithe and lightweight, the fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 proves that you don’t need several hundred horsepower or to spend a fortune to have the time of your life behind the wheel of a sports car: it’s huge fun whether you’re an enthusiast driver or simply want the wind in your hair on a trip to the pub. As an added bonus, the MX-5 mk4 is reliable and cheap to run.
Two-door roadster soft-top
Two-door targa folding hard-top
2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020
- Fiat 500 Convertible
- Mazda MX-5 mk3
- MINI Roadster
During the course of four generations, the Mazda MX-5 has become the world’s best-selling roadster, with considerably more than one million examples sold. As important as its sales success is the halo effect the MX-5 brings to the entire Mazda line-up, which is why the company’s engineers put so much effort into making the MX-5 such a great little sports car.
Launched in 2015, the MX-5 mk4 is roughly the same size as the original MX-5 from 1996, and weighs about the same, too – that’s quite some feat of engineering given that the need to meet modern safety legislation generally means cars get bigger and bigger: look at the MINI hatchback. Being modest of weight and dimensions allows the MX-5 mk4 to have modest-sized engines, too, and yet remain a spirited performer. The basic engine in the car is a 1.5-litre four-cylinder producing 129bhp and capable of propelling the rear-wheel drive two-seat roadster from standstill to 62mph in 8.3 seconds and pressing on to a top speed of 127mph. Above that sits a 2.0-litre unit that initially produced 158bhp but in 2018 was revamped to boost the power to 181bhp: the latter handles the sprint in 6.5 seconds and has a top speed of 135mph.
All the fourth-generation MX-5's Skyactiv petrol engines – the 1.5-litre was also revamped in 2018, not for extra power but better economy and lower emissions – are smooth and eager: enthusiast drivers initially preferred the 1.5-litre because of its more revvy nature and in spite of its comparative lack of power, but when the 2.0-litre was made not only more powerful but also given a higher rev limit, much changing of minds went on. Truth is, whichever engine you choose you won’t be disappointed, and you will also enjoy the slick, sharp shift of the MX-5 mk4’s six-speed manual gearbox. Those who struggled with the MX-5's driving position will also appreciate that the steering wheel in 2019 model years cars and onwards is adjustable for reach as well as height.
Lively petrol engines are matched by crisp, accurate steering and an agile chassis, and while the MX-5 mk4 does have a fair bit of body roll through the corners, you do quickly get used to it. Although the soft-top roof is manually operated it’s a doddle to put down and up, and when the cabin is exposed to the elements the car’s occupants are well protected from the wind.
The Mazda MX-5 RF (for Retractable Fastback) was introduced in 2017 with coupe-like styling and a hard-top metal roof panel that stows electrically behind the seats. Roof panel stowed, the RF is more targa than convertible, but it’s still a blast despite some wind noise coming off the buttresses behind the cabin, particularly at motorway speeds.
The MX-5 mk4’s two-seater cabin is stylish and well-made, but it’s tight on space and if you’re more than six-feet tall you may not fit: give it a try, though. There’s not much stowage space in the cabin, either, and the boot is small (though with careful packing, bigger than it looks at a glance). But the fourth-generation MX-5 is a small sports car with the driving experience, not practicality, at the top of its agenda.
Three Things To Know
- The MX-5 mk4 has a relatively uncomplicated range of trim levels, starting with the entry-level SE that features cloth upholstery and a basic radio and infotainment system. Above that sits the SE-L with climate control, a DAB radio and a colour touchscreen: to this the SE-L Nav adds satellite navigation. Sport, available only with a 2.0-litre engine, ups the ante with Bilstein dampers, a limited-slip differential, keyless entry, leather upholstery, rain-sensing wipers, rear parking sensors and a Bose hi-fi. As for the Sport Nav+, you’ve guessed it… After the 2018 engine revamp there was also the GT Sport-Nav+, Sport Tech and GT Sport Tech.
- Throughout the lives of all four generations of the MX-5, special editions have been not only rampant, but coveted, too. A few months after the MX-5 mk4 was launched the 600-only 2.0 Sport Recaro arrived; in 2016 it was the 1.5 Arctic and 1.5 Icon; 2017 heralded the (300-only) 2.0 Z-Sport and RF Launch Edition; in 2018 it was the turn of the 2.0 Z-Sport and 2.0 RF Sport Black; more recently it was the R-Sport. Perhaps most significant is the 30th Anniversary Edition from 2019, (400 roadsters, 200 RFs) which celebrates 30 years of the MX-5 and features special alloy wheels and brakes – its spec is great, but you have to like orange, the only colour it comes in.
- At the same time as introducing the more powerful engine in September 2018, Mazda upped the safety equipment on the MX-5 mk4. Sport Nav+ models and above are fitted with Front and Rear Smart City Brake Support, Lane Departure Warning, and Traffic Sign Recognition and Driver Attention Alert. The GT Sport Nav+ also features Blind Spot Monitoring and Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Adaptive LED Headlights and a reversing camera: this kit was optional on Sport Nav+.
Which One to Buy
- If you want to revel in the pure MX-5 feeling: Get yourself a 1.5 SE, the bare basic MX-5 mk4. The joy of this car is not to be found in gadgets or a powerful engine, it’s in the art of making a modest amount of power but a large amount of chassis excellence combine to make swift, enjoyable, absorbing progress along winding, deserted roads. That’s the essence of a great sports car and the 1.5 SE has it in spades.
- If you enjoy outright speed: With the 2018 revamp of the 2.0-litre engine, Mazda engineers didn’t just adjust the electronics, they changed some of the internals, too: their aim was to increase the power (to 181bhp), but also to make it rev more willingly and to a higher engine speed, in the great tradition of a good sports car engine. Best of the 2.0 bunch, if you can put up with its orange paint, is the 30th Anniversary Edition, which also features uprated front brakes, lightweight alloy wheels, and a front suspension cross-brace.
- If you’re not convinced a full fabric roof convertible is really for you: It’s a little heavier than the roadster models and a fraction less agile, but the coupe-style RF (Retractable Fastback) offers MX-5 mk4 thrills with the security of a solid roof – the roof panel above the cabin can be electrically manoeuvred into a stowage space behind the seats in a piece of mechanical theatre that involves the whole buttress section lifting up to swallow the panel. The hole above you lets you see plenty of sky without exposing you too much to the elements.
- If you fancy modifying your MX-5 mk4: Modifying isn’t for everyone, but all four generations of the MX-5 seem to attract an audience keen to give it a try. More modern and complex than previous generations, the MX-5 mk4 has proved a challenge to the tuning industry, but British firm BBR GTi has a range of well-developed – to the point they have a warranty – engine, suspension and brake conversions, including turbocharger packages for both the 2.0 and 1.5.
- If you want a turbo: Another option for those who fancy turbo power in their MX-5 is to not buy an MX-5 at all, but instead look at a Fiat 124 Spider. This Fiat was developed in conjunction with the fourth-generation MX-5 and shares its basic chassis and many components – except that is, the engine. Where Mazda sticks with naturally aspirated units, the Fiat uses a 1.4-litre turbo petrol.
The MX-5 mk4 weighs just 1,075kg in its heaviest guise which means that its light on its tyres, brakes and thirst for fuel. Forget the official economy figures – many motoring magazines have enjoyed MX-5 mk4s on long-term loans, and even driven flat-out for pretty much every mile, including time spent on the race track, those little roadsters have averaged fuel economy in excess of 40mpg. That's astonishingly good mpg for a sports car. Less leaden-footed owners meanwhile should easily achieve (even comfortably exceed) the claimed 47mpg for the 1.5 Skyactiv petrol engine.
Not only are the MX-5 mk4’s engines economical, but they’re also efficient in terms of their CO2 output, with the result that annual road tax sits in the £150 to £205 range. For a sports car the MX-5 mk4’s insurance groups aren’t too bad either, spanning groups 25 to 32.
Servicing costs give no great cause for concern. The MX-5 mk4 requires a service every 12 months or 12,500 miles, and all of those should cost you less than £240 at a Mazda dealer up until 75,000 miles or 72 months when a biggie is due – that should cost you about £449. Older cars that are now out of warranty are starting to show up at independent MX-5 specialists (yep, specialists devoted to one particular type of Mazda), where the prices could be as low as £150 to £350.
Chances are that the fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 you’re looking at will have plenty of tread left on its tyres and they are probably the original ones – on older examples those tyres are now comparatively old and may need replacing. For an MX-5 mk4 1.5 expect to pay between £73 and £110 each for a quality brand, while with the larger tyres on the 2.0 you’re looking at £79 to £122.
Most owners end up forming an emotional attachment with their MX-5 (they tend to be bought for special reasons, not for practical ones) and as a consequence cleaning products become a significant ongoing expense. The soft-top hood, especially, requires regular attention if the car is parked outside or on the street.
The good news is nothing much goes wrong with the MX-5 mk4, particularly with the expensive bits such as the engine. To date we’ve heard of no problems with either the 1.5-litre unit or the 2.0-litre, and that includes feedback from some of the UK’s biggest motoring magazines whose MX-5 long-term loan cars have been driven on the rev-limiter for 12,000 miles at a time. Similarly, the MX-5 mk4’s six-speed manual gearbox and six-speed automatic appear to be trouble-free at this stage.
Hardly a reliability issue but worth bearing in mind is the fact that the MX-5 mk4’s front lip spoiler is low enough to be vulnerable to kerb damage and even hitting chunks of mud and roadkill on country roads. Attractive finance deals from Mazda means that a goodly number of MX-5 mk4s were originally bought by folk who were not necessarily car enthusiasts and who weren’t so careful about not grazing alloy wheels when parking – second owners tend to like their car to look pristine.
Early mk4s suffered a problem where the hood scuffed against the roll-hoops above the headrests as its was lowered and raised, and it could rub a hole in the hood’s fabric. This was subject to a recall, but check that it was carried out, as replacing the hood is expensive. And talking of hoods, make sure you ask your garage to clean out the hood drain holes on a regular basis – on older MX-5s blocked drain holes have led to water accumulation inside the chassis and devastating rust problems.
While the MX-5 mk4 is easy on its brakes, this can mean that the rear brake discs can start to rust – causing a deterioration of braking performance – if not applied hard on a regular basis. And while we’re down in the chassis area, bear in mind that some of the earlier MX-5 mk4s with relatively high mileages will by now be suffering some suspension wear, particularly suspension bushes.
The CarGurus Verdict
If you want a two-seater sports car that you can enjoy immensely on a daily basis without scaring yourself silly and spending a fortune to buy it and run it, the fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 has much to offer. Point-to-point it’s far faster than its specification suggests it should be, it can be equally entertaining at low speeds as it is at high ones, and it doesn’t demand that you be an expert behind the wheel to get a great deal of driving thrills out of it.
Sure, it’s a bit cramped in the cabin for tall folk and you won’t get much in the boot, but as well as being entertaining to drive it’s reliable and cheap to run. This is a sports car that’s in tune with modern road conditions where huge horsepower simply leads to driving frustration: the MX-5 mk4 uses a little to do a lot, and is all the more rewarding because for it.