By Jonathan Crouch
The concept of a lightweight, affordable roadster seems as relevant today as it's ever been, Mazda's fourth generation MX-5 was a perfect example of what could be achieved with clear objectives, single-minded purpose and a bit of engineering passion. Though the size of this market segment has shrunk in recent times, this model proved good enough to reawaken the interest of enthusiasts and prize them away from hot hatches and performance coupes into a purer form of sportscar motoring.
There's nothing quite like a Mazda MX-5. Few cars on sale today can rival its legacy which stretches back to cover more than a quarter of a century of pure roadster motoring. So what of this, the fourth generation ND-series version?
It certainly had a lot to live up to. The original model, first launched in 1989, borrowed its charisma from classic Fifties and Sixties British sportscars and was much loved, though its early phenomenal global success has proved harder to replicate in the modern era. That was partly because as we moved into the 21st century, sales in the affordable roadster segment were no longer as buoyant as they once had been, but it also had something to do with the fact that second and third generation MX-5 models became bigger, heaver and a touch less involving to drive.
So things had to change. This MK4 machine, like the original, had to be one that would properly stir the senses and really deliver on Mazda's founding philosophy of 'Jinba ittai', the Japanese feeling of oneness between car and driver. Sure enough, at the 2015 launch, all the signs were that this MK4 model just might offer exactly that, smaller and lighter than its predecessor, with a superior power-to-weight ratio, a low centre of gravity and an ideal 50:50 weight distribution for the perfectly balanced rear wheel drive chassis.
All the ingredients seemed in place then, for a return to the purity of purpose that so established the earliest version of this car in the hearts of ordinary enthusiasts around the world. It even looked as distinctive as that original version, shorter, lower and wider than before and clearly created by a team of people with a genuine love for this iconic model line. Shortly after launch, an RF metal folding roof body style joined the Roadster variant in the range. And in 2018, Mazda revised the 2.0-litre engine, upgrading it from 160 to 184PS. In 2022, further updates arrived (a 'Kinematic Posyure Control' system), but it's the earlier 2015-2021-era versions of this ND-series model that we look at here.
What You Get
Shorter, lower and wider than its MK3 predecessor, this was the most compact MX-5 ever made. For us, it was also the best-looking example of the breed so far, with perfectly balanced proportions and beautiful detailing that conveys motion, even at a standstill. The emotive shape has more aggression in 'ND'-series form - and a greater sense of energy too - but you'd always recognise it as an MX-5, the design still true to the classic roadster principles of a long bonnet, a rear-set cabin and a short tail. An alternative RF body style with a folding metal roof was also available.
Behind the wheel, the challenge was 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. Mazda claimed there was more kneeroom with this MK4 model - plus there's a bit of extra headroom when the roof's up too - but despite that, larger folk might still like to consider their own dietary plans and all will find the pedal box particularly tight, so much so that, rather annoyingly, it doesn't provide anywhere for your clutch foot to rest on longer journeys.
This irritation apart though, there's not much to criticise here, provided you can fit in in the first place. You quickly get the whole Mazda 'Jinba Ittai' 'driver-and-car-as-one' thing - the way the driving position has been created to make you feel a part of this MX-5. We also like the flourishes of aluminium used on the air vents and door handles - and the way that the exterior body colour flows elegantly over the door on plusher models like this one.
Move out back and on the face of things, trunk capacity looks to have been a casualty of Mazda's move to down-size this car, having fallen by 20-litres to just 130-litres in this MK4 model. The Japanese designers though, beg to differ, claiming that to compensate, this area has been redesigned for greater usability.
What to Look For
Not too much goes wrong. We've heard of gearbox issues, with problems in gear selection from 1st to 2nd and from 2nd to 3rd, so check this out on your test drive. Steer clear of cars that have been used on track days because they exhibit this problem far more frequently. Hub carrier bush failure has been an issue for some ND-series model owners, something expensive to put right as a complete new hub is required. A few cars built between May 2015 and April 2017 had a problem with their i-ELOOP stop start systems: if the car you're looking at falls into that production window, check that any remedial works been carried out. We've heard that engine mounts can fail on harder-driven cars and a few faulty throttle body modules have been reported.
If you find one of the rare automatic models and the car in question was built between October 2016 November 2018, make sure it doesn't downchange into a lower gear when you're not expecting it. If that happens, it's a sign of the need for a software update. Bear in mind that the oil recommended by Mazda - OW-20 Supra Skyactiv - is £36 a litre. Early 2015 cars had a recall to have the retaining bracket for the textile exhaust shield fixed. We've also heard of rear view mirrors and the roof liner above the rear window coming loose. In a few cases, window switches have failed too. And there have been reports of leaking air con seals and loose door sills. If you're looking at the folding metal roof RF model, obviously check the workings of the retractable panels. Other than that, it's the usual things: insist on a fully stamped-up service history. And check the alloys for parking scuffs.
(approx based on a 2020 Mazda MX-5 2.0Roadster - ex VAT) An air filter costs in the £80 bracket and an oil filter costs in the £5 bracket. Front brake pads sit in the £28-£40 bracket for a set. Rears sit in the £17-£36 bracket. A pair of front brake discs is around £76-£112; a pair of rears are around £64-£87. Wiper blades sit in the £6-£15 bracket.
On the Road
So what's it like to drive? Well, MX-5 motoring has never been all about ultimate power - and it isn't here. The two SKYACTIVE-G petrol engines on offer - a 131PS 1.5-litre unit and the 160PS 2.0-litre powerplant (upgraded to 184PS in 2018) - seem to offer modest performance stats on paper. On the road though, a real roadster experience awaits, this MK4 model feeling sharper and more eager through the turns thanks to a dietary development programme which saw over 100kgs trimmed from the kerb weight. The electric power steering system freshly-developed for this model plays its part too, offering great feedback between rubber and road and ensuring that you're encouraged to make the very most from performance on offer that sees the 160PS 2.0-litre model make 62mph from rest in 7.3s en route to 133mph.
Original buyers of the 2.0-litre variant got the option of paying extra for a top 'Sport' version which got a few extra dynamic aids - sports suspension, stiffer Bilstein dampers and a limited slip differential for extra traction. You don't really need any of this though, to have fun in this car. Indeed, when it comes to suspension, the suppler set-up of the standard models is arguably preferable. The wonderfully incisive short-shift SKYACTIV-MT six-speed manual transmission is another key contributor to the whole experience - which is just as well as you'll be shunting the stubby lever around the 'box rather a lot to get the most out of those revvy little engines. A paddleshift automatic option was offered with the 2.0-litre engine, but it's vanishingly rare.
For the final word on this fourth generation MX-5, let's turn to the first thoughts of Designer Masashi Nakayama when he sat down to create it. This, he decided, must be a car its customers would want to hold on to - 'one that could be driven for twenty years'. Nakayama imagined himself as the owner of such a machine and simply hated the idea of eventually becoming bored of it. 'The thought of this was just too sad', he says. 'I wanted this to be a car I would love for a very long time, just as I do the original MX-5'.
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 sportscar maker 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.