The Mazda MX-5 is still great fun, and more grown up in its third generation. For pure driving fun, little gets close

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The Mazda MX-5 hit the ground running and became so instantly iconic that it seems weird now to think that there was a time when it didn’t exist.

It turned out to be, over its four generations (so far), the ultimate real-world enthusiast’s car and the biggest-selling two-seat sports car of all time.

Styling is a subtle evolution of the old car’s, with a hint of natty RX-8 detailing

Oh, yes, of course, there were other dainty drop-top two-seaters that came before it and some that came after it, but Mazda's delightfully simple and properly screwed-together roadster delivered a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive answer to more than a million people’s prayers.

You see, if you want affordable fun, the iconic MX-5 has always delivered in spades. The Mk1 car (the NA) was an analogue delight, the Mk2 (NB) a practical uptick, the Mk3 (NC) more refined and the latest Mk4 (ND) a dainty peach.

The answer to the question of which one to buy is probably that you really need one of each. However, presuming the budget allows only one, we would start by discounting the first two generations, because they’re now well stricken in years, so to find a good one means shopping very carefully. We would dismiss the Mk4, too, as a nouveau venu.

That leaves us with the Mk3, and that’s good, because this is a car that’s definitely still a sound purchase and starting to look like really good value.

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Launched in 2005, it was larger and heavier (by around 100kg) than the Mk2, but it offered more comfort and refinement. It was more powerful, too. Under the bonnet, you could choose between a 125bhp 1.8-litre or 158bhp 2.0-litre in-line four, the latter with variable valve timing and a limited-slip differential.

A slick five-speed gearbox was standard on both, but track down a 2.0-litre in Sport trim and it will have a six-speed ’box, as well as 17in alloy wheels, stiffer suspension, traction control and heated leather seats.

Unlike the previous MX-5s, this model was available in two different guises: the traditional soft-top roadster and a Coupé Cabriolet, which came with an electrically powered folding hard top that gave the refinement of a coupé but allowed you to get the wind in your hair at the touch of a button.

For most, the 1.8-litre model will be fast enough out on the open road, and slightly cheaper to run. However, if you want to make the most of the MX-5’s agile chassis, the 2.0-litre is a blast.

But straight-line speed isn’t what the MX-5 is about. What you will get for your modest outlay is what remains one of the best-driving cars available, regardless of budget. Both hard- and soft-top models are wonderfully agile.

The steering is precise, while the chassis offers fluid handling with bags of grip. The ride is comfortable and controlled over broken surfaces, too, especially in the coupé, which has slightly softer suspension settings.

The range was facelifted in 2009, when it gained a revvier 2.0-litre engine and tweaks to the suspension, front and rear bumpers, door mirrors and some enhanced cabin trim. SE replaced the old entry-level trim, while Sport Tech superseded Sport.

A further facelift in 2013 brought changes to the front grille and lights and styling changes to the wheels, as well as such luxuries as sat-nav and standard-fit climate control.

Mazda MX-5 2005-2015 common problems

Engine: The engine is mostly bulletproof, but it’s vital to keep the oil level at its correct level, so check that first. Look for oil smoke and listen for any strange noises emanating from the crankshaft. Older, higher-mileage cars can suffer broken wires in the coil-on-plugs. It has a timing chain, not a belt, but the tensioner can fail.

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Bodywork: MX-5s do rust, so go over it with a fine-toothed comb. Check under the bonnet, as well as the boot and chassis areas. Make sure the panel gaps all line up and watch for any overspray on bumpers. Check the clips securing the plastic panel beneath the wipers. They can channel water into the interior. Likewise, ensure the hood drain holes are clear and feel for damp carpets. Check the roof operation on early coupés.

Interior: Watch for warning lights staying on, especially DSC (dynamic stability control), caused by battery disconnection.

Transmission: Expect the action on five-speed and six-speed gearboxes to be stiff from cold but to loosen up. Listen for any suspicious noises from the rear diff.
Suspension and brakes: Check the dampers. Listen for knocking from the front and rear anti-roll bar drop links, which last around 40,000 miles. Brake hard to check for pulling, because the calipers are prone to seizing.

Roof problems: Whether you’re looking at a roadster or a Coupé Cabriolet, check the roof-folding mechanism and ensure that there are no signs of leaks, tears or damage. The Coupé Cabriolet’s roof can stick half-open, because of faulty position sensors. Careless owners can leave the roof down in poor weather, so check for damp patches and water marks on seats and carpets.

Interior: Some owners complain of a strange buzzing noise from near the gearlever when the car is accelerating. Mazda says it’s nothing to worry about.
Wheels and tyres: The wheels can be incorrectly aligned, so check for any signs of uneven tyre wear.

In this used Mazda MX-5 buying guide, we’ll tell you how much fun it is to drive, how practical it is, and how much it’ll cost you to run. And, of course, whether a Toyota GT86, Subaru BRZ and BMW Z4, makes the better choice.


Mazda MX-5 front quarter

Look at the sales figures, furnished with the knowledge that each model was on sale for roughly eight years, and it’s clear that Mazda's original MX-5 was significantly more successful than its successor.

Of course, it had the market virtually to itself at first, and a small part of the original’s magic was lost in the transition to the Mk2. For this third-gen model, Mazda has therefore striven to recall the distinct flavour of its ancestor while offering the space, safety and durability of a thoroughly modern car.

Boot isn’t exactly large at just 150 litres, but it’s quite well shaped and will accommodate a couple of weekend bags

The latest model is bigger than its predecessor and is 4020mm long, 1720mm wide and 1255mm tall (5mm more than soft-top models). Its wheelbase is 65mm longer than the Mk2, while the track is 75mm wider at the front and 55mm wider at the rear.

Underneath these smart clothes lies a conventional steel monocoque with structural use of high-tensile steels to improve safety and add stiffness, resulting in a 47 percent improvement in torsional rigidity.

Despite the increase in size and strength, Mazda claims the weight increase is minimal. Even so, the lightest models tip the scales at 1150kg, and with the folding roof and a 2.0-litre engine that increases to 1261kg. When the third-generation model launched, it weighed 1095kg – thank increased equipment levels for that.

But the weight could have been so much more: Mazda kept weight gain to a minimum with its ‘gram strategy’ - engineers were asked to think up ways of saving weight throughout the car.

As well as detailed tinkering - simplifying the rear-view mirror saved 84g, for example - there are more fundamental measures: the bonnet, boot, engine sub-frame and suspension control arms are all made from aluminium, as is the engine.

A mid-life facelift in 2009 included a new front bumper that now houses Mazda’s signature five-node grille, consigning the Lotus-Elan-style elliptical intake of the old car to history. Revised suspension geometry brought about a significant lowering of the Mazda MX-5’s roll centre up front, which also helped reduce the car’s ride height.

For the 2013 update, Mazda focused on the throttle and brake systems. Changes to the former claim to offer the driver 'more control when accelerating from low speeds' whilst a retuned brake servo is said to 'optimise brake return control'.


Mazda MX-5 roof down

The new cabin was a major step forward from that of the previous Mazda MX-5: not only the design and feel of the cabin, but also the fact that Mazda engineered so much more room. The chunky gearlever is well sited and there’s plenty of clearance for your knees under the now height-adjustable wheel.

The seats offer decent support and visibility is improved, but it’s mainly the fact that you now sit lower in the car that makes the real difference.

The Mazda's headlights are good, but not exceptional

That said, tall occupants will notice the footwell’s lack of length and width. Some may also find it difficult to find a comfortable driving position, having to either choose between sitting at an odd angle or brushing their head against the roof.

Despite the improvements made in the fit and finish of the cabin plastics, they’re still a step or two behind the MX-5's admittedly far more expensive rivals. But there’s a surprisingly small gap between the quality of the Mazda's interior and that of the Toyota GT86 – a car introduced seven years after the third-gen MX-5.

Mazda's manual hood is exceptionally well thought-out and incredibly easy to operate – just release with the button near the rear-view mirror and fold it back.

With the hood lowered, it’s clear that Mazda has worked hard to contain buffeting and noise levels. With it raised, the general refinement is acceptable, but on our test car, there was a tiresome droning from the back of the hood.

The Roadster Coupé’s folding hard roof takes up barely any more space than the MX-5’s soft-top, so there’s the same, 150-litre boot, roof up or down. It’s a superbly packaged mechanism, and a quick one at that. Twelve seconds might be about four times as long as it takes on a regular MX-5, but it annihilates its hard-roofed rivals. It’s noticeably quieter than the soft-top, too.

Refinement is acceptable in the Roadster Coupé, but there’s a degree of wind noise where the A-pillar meets the roof. Take a Roadster Coupé and a soft-top on back-to-back drives and the fabric-roofed model reveals considerably more noise. Both suffer from notable road noise intrusion, too, but not to an uncomfortable extent.


Mazda MX-5 front quarter

As you drive off, you immediately feel more secure than in the previous Mazda MX-5 because this is clearly a stronger and more substantial car. But existing owners will appreciate the similarities, too, such as the eagerness of the engine and steering and the precision of the gearbox.

As ever, the Mazda demands intimate interaction right from the off. Curiously, it sounds very much like the previous car, too, with the same tuneless mechanical-sounding engine note – but at least the exhaust burble from the two chunky tailpipes is engagingly sporty.

The MX-5 needs to be stretched, but there's a laudable amount of fun in doing so

The 2.0-litre is a 16-valve unit with 158bhp and it requires considerable stoking if you want to make rapid progress, even after the stronger bottom end that was included as part of the 2009 changes.

That’s no bad thing, but at times it feels flat lower down the rev range, and on hills and motorways it could use a little more torque.

At the top end, the engine feels nicely fluid. It’s here that you learn to work the motor hard, holding on to the lower gears and downshifting with purpose to stay in the power band, which is roughly the top 2000rpm.

Despite a crisp throttle response that allows blipped downshifts and heel-and-toeing, there are times when the engine seems to have a lethargic flywheel and the revs die out too easily. We were surprised by our 0-60mph time of 7.1sec, as the MX-5 never feels that brisk.

The smaller 125bhp 1.8-litre engine is also fine: smooth, noisy enough when required, mute otherwise. But its power-to-weight ratio of 109bhp per tonne isn’t much. Anyone hoping to get the best out of the MX-5 should opt for the stronger 158bhp variant and enjoy the extra 16lb ft of torque.


Mazda MX-5 cornering

There are few cars that trade outright performance for handling thrills, but the Mazda MX-5 is certainly one of them. For all the plaudits showered on the Toyota GT86 and its Subaru BRZ twin, it’s easy to overlook just how good the MX-5 is.

Standard variants (read non-Bilstein-equipped Sport Tech MX-5s) ride surprisingly well, but those models with the suspension rates wound up leave a car that never really settles on typical British asphalt.

The MX-5 breaks away at the back end more cleanly and responds better to corrections than it did before.

In either event, the MX-5 fundamentally offers deliciously balanced rear-wheel drive handling.

Once you are confident in the car, it can be driven up to and beyond its limits of grip more easily than just about any other sports car around. The Mazda telegraphs a slide early on but is easy to catch with some opposite lock and a sensitive right foot.

Earlier versions of the Mk3 were somewhat handicapped by a degree of glutinous resistance on the hydraulic steering system, but a revised set-up applied to the 2009 facelift helped to restore some of the lost fluency.

One development that could hardly be faulted was the fitment of traction control and stability control on the MX-5. Second-gear oversteer on a roundabout is one thing, but the rear will step out at the top of third gear pulling on to a wet motorway, and the short wheelbase can make that kind of behaviour tricky to handle at speed. Electronic intervention is a worthy safety addition.

Purists will bemoan the additional mass of the Roadster Coupé, which naturally sits high in the car and raises the centre of gravity, but you’d need back-to-back spirited drives in both to tell the difference. And even so, the hard-top is hardly lead-footed.


Mazda MX-5

Where pricing is concerned, the MX-5 sits largely in its own orbit and remains a car with few direct rivals.

A 2.0-litre BMW Z4 is considerably dearer but is a much plusher and more refined car than the back-to-basics approach adopted by the Mazda.

The 2.0-litre Mazda should return an acceptable 30mpg in day-to-day use

A Lotus Elise 1.6 is also considerably more money, and leans towards the more hardcore end of the market, where Caterham sits.

Alternatively, there are a whole host of cropped hatchbacks which come closer to the Mazda, but none can hold a candle to its dynamic finesse or sporting appeal. Even the Toyota GT86 is substantially more expensive.

The 2.0i Sport brings air-con, a limited-slip differential, a six-speed gearbox, the bespoke Bilstein dampers and a cross-brace, heated seats, a Bose sound system and cruise control.

Thanks to Mazda’s famed build quality and reliability (don’t worry, this MX-5’s no exception), the MX-5 won’t cost the earth to run.

In the standard roadster, the 1.8-litre unit will return 39.8mpg and the 2.0-litre 36.2mpg. Automatic ‘Powershift’ models see fuel economy drop to 35.3mpg, while CO2 emissions stand at 167g/km for the 1.8, 181g/km for the 2.0 and 188g/km for the auto.

Insurance groups range between 21 for the entry-level 1.8 Roadster Coupé, and 26 for the soft-top 2.0 Sport model.

One thing that might trouble some, however, is the absence of a spare wheel – and no provision for the fitment of one. You're either going to have to come up with your own solution, or rely on your breakdown cover or the supplied tyre sealant system.


4 star Mazda MX-5

At one time, Mazda was accused of being a one-car company and the MX-5 was that one car.

The rest of the range has risen closer to its excellence, but the lithe roadster was characterful enough to remain the jewel in the manufacturer's crown.

Few cars retain a distinguishable link to their ancestor, but the MX-5 remains a happy slave to its 80s ethos

The third-generation MX-5 is roomier, quieter, safer and better equipped than its predecessor. Driven hard, it rewards the driver with thrills at licence-friendly speeds, and it will improve your skills more in a week than a hot hatch would in a year.

It’s not without its drawbacks though. Even when it first launched, the interior was feeling its age and its refinement is lacking by the standards of its rivals. These days there are few cars that trade power and speed for entertainment, but the MX-5 is one of them.

It’s also a more practical proposition than the old model, although you’ll still struggle to fit more than a single suitcase in the boot.

That’s not a reason not to buy one, and there are many reasons why you should.

The owner’s view

Aidan Clegg, owner and specialist: “I’ve owned three NAs, an NB and, for the past seven years, an NC, which I like the most and have owned for the longest. It does everything the previous version did but in a more solid and grown-up way. The NA was pure and simple fun – always a pleasure and never a chore to drive. The NB was softer and more compliant. For me, though, the NC has the best bits of the previous versions with the maturity that comes with age… and a roof that retracts in five seconds, plus a cam chain that will probably outlast me!

Mazda MX-5 2005-2015 First drives