The Mazda MX-5 continues to define “fun to drive”, while the GT RS specification rounds off a few of this convertible’s rougher edges
The Mazda MX-5 is the most cheerful new car on the market, and the new GT RS specification refines the already well-balanced “ND” generation of this classic Japanese roadster.
Those attributes are fundamental parts of the MX-5 experience. The MX-5 is still an analogue sports car, albeit one that comes with a new-car warranty and at least a few new-car safety features.
The $47,020 GT RS soft-top is described as being track-ready, thanks to its combination of new Bilstein dampers, BBS light alloy wheels, enlarged Brembo front brakes and an engine bay brace.
While those additions certainly would help on track, they actually combine to make the GT RS – also available as a $51,100 hardtop – one of the best road-going MX-5s of the ND era.
But a few missed opportunities also hold the GT RS back from being our favourite ND MX-5. The super-rare and limited ND 30th Anniversary, which combined all of the GT RS features bar the engine brace – but also threw in better Recaro seats and a unique body colour – remains the best-in-generation.
You can’t buy a 30th Anniversary, though. In fact, you never could – Mazda offered those special cars to 30 loyal customers and none ever hit a dealership forecourt.
So is the GT RS as good as it gets for a series-production ND MX-5?
Driving dynamics are the single most most important factor of the MX-5 experience – and that’s why we’ve given them the most weighting for the score this car has received in our testing.
Quite simply, the MX-5 offers the best fun-per-dollar of any car on the market. No matter what spec you buy, the Mazda MX-5 is a total charmer. We would be surprised if anybody who drives one did not come away with a smile on their face – well, anybody who fits into it.
That’s because the MX-5 distils a classic sports car driving experience. Two high-revving, responsive, non-turbo engines are available. The standard manual gearbox is a delight. And the simple, communicative, rear-wheel drive handling balance flatters the driver and makes fun achievable at legal speeds.
We continue to have a very soft spot for the entry-level MX-5 1.5 ($36,090). The 1.5-litre engine is the feistier and freer-revving of the available petrols and despite having only a modest 97kW/152Nm on tap, the 1.5 evokes memories of the original NA MX-5 thanks to its tare mass of just 980kg.
But the RS specification on test can only be had with the more powerful and particularly more torquey 2.0-litre petrol that makes 135kW/205Nm.
A six-speed automatic is a $2,000 option across most of the soft-top and Retractable Fastback variants, but the RS is six-speed manual fare only.
That should be no matter, though. Even if you’ve never owned a manual before the MX-5 is a great place to start, with its perfectly readable clutch, bolt-action gear shift, and two forgiving powertrains with ample low-end torque. Experienced manual drivers will love the pedal spacing, perfect for heel-toe downshifting.
The two-litre ND engine was initially criticised for feeling flat in the top end, and while the ND2 update of 2018 mostly solved this, the bigger of the two engines still does its best work in the mid-range, failing to sparkle quite as brightly as the 1.5-litre as redline approaches.
But it’s a close-run thing and the fact that the 2.0-litre accounts for nearly every MX-5 sale in Australia does not surprise. It’s a flexible engine and quick, too, with the 994kg soft-top manual dashing from rest to 100km/h in about six seconds.
That takes care of straight-line speed surprisingly well but even in two-litre guise the MX-5 is a momentum car, able to sustain real pace in tight and technical corners thanks to its ultracompact size, short wheelbase and truly light weight.
When it’s fine out and you find a great road, letting the wonderful atmosphere of the car and your surroundings in is as easy as unlatching the manual roof latch and pushing the roof down. Simple, quick, light. It takes 2 or 3 seconds.
205-width tyres are found at all four corners of two-litre models (the 1.5 gets skinny 195s) and in the GT RS, the rubber is Bridgestone Potenza S001, providing plenty of grip for strong turn-in but not so much adhesion that the rear doesn’t want to step out.
In fact, the rear very much wants to step out, but it will only do so with necessary, predictable provocation under the right foot. The MX-5 chats away affably through both its steering wheel and chassis. It’s not marketing BS: you do feel at one with this convertible.
Speaking of steering, the rack remains a little slow for our liking, with a fair amount of tiller-twirling required to correct bigger slides on track surfaces. While they aren’t really direct rivals, the Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ have more intuitive steering ratios (and smaller steering wheels).
The ride of the standard MX-5 can be a touch brittle but the versions upgraded with Bilstein dampers – including the GT RS – achieve a really good blend of control and compliance. It’s firm, of course; you’d want that in a car like this; but crashiness is dialed out.
And the Brembo front brakes, with 280mm front discs for the GT RS, feel positive; they work well and there is so little mass to pull up regardless.
The MX-5 is never really a quiet car and that makes it unsuitable for really long journeys, but a four or five hour blat away from an Australian capital city into the hills and back is entirely doable … we just found ourselves wishing for the comfort of the Recaros that Mazda should have added to the RS specification.
While there is no disputing that the MX-5 is one of the smallest cars on the road, its anticipatory and adaptive safety technology features are reasonable.
The GT RS includes forwards AEB that works up to 80km/h and reversing AEB that works between 2-8km/h. You also get blind spot monitoring, which is particularly useful when the roof is up. There is passive lane departure warning (but not active holding), plus speed, stop and no entry sign detection and rear cross-traffic alert. There is a reversing camera but it is pretty grainy.
Optimists would say that the MX-5’s interior is no-nonsense. It’s well made and high-quality but there are few frills to distract from the driving experience – the thing that is the whole point of an MX-5.
Pessimists would rightly point out that most of the cabin fittings are lifted from a Mazda 2 light hatch that is basically half the price of the MX-5.
Those taking a balanced view can admit that while the MX-5’s cabin is fit-for-purpose and not that bad, in late 2021, it’s feeling pretty dated – particularly in light of the advances in interior design seen in the Mazda 3 small car and CX-30 small SUV.
Impossible to ignore is just how compact it is in here: the MX-5 is a tiny car with a very short wheelbase. That’s part of what makes it fun to drive but it rules out this sports car for the unusually tall or those with large frames. This six-foot but slenderly-built tester fits fine.
The MX-5 continues to wear an older interior design structured around a stitched faux-leather shelf above which sits a seven-inch touchscreen operated via an intuitive rotary dial when on the move.
The driver gets a prominent set of instrument pods, one digital – for trip computer readouts – while two are analogue: a large central tachometer with a gear indicator, plus a small speedo. There is no digital speedo to be found, and no HUD.
Back to the central screen: the issue isn’t so much the fact it isn’t tightly integrated into the dash, but more so that the software it runs is a bit amateurish and, well … old. The maps are low-def. There is cable-driven Apple CarPlay and Android Auto now, so you can bypass Mazda’s software.
Audio, though, is delivered by way of a fairly punchy Bose stereo that has small speakers integrated to the headrests of GT grades, including the GT RS on test.
Shame the GT RS didn’t pinch the superb Recaro seats of previous special-edition NDs such as the 30th Anniversary and the 2018 RF LE. Instead, the standard leather-shod MX-5 pews are used here. These seats continue to lack lateral support and sufficient lumbar.
They’re heated, at least, and the perforated leather is soft. While there is no electric adjustment or even height adjustment, a clever dial at the front of the base allows you to customise the all-important thigh angle for a proper driving position.
Storage is minimal, with movable stick-out cup holders able to be placed either between the seats or sticking out from the passenger footwell.
There is a larger stowage box between and behind the front seats where you could fit a very small bag. But this is an MX-5; it’s not practical.
It almost goes without saying that there are no rear seats – this is strictly two-person transport – but there is a reasonably usable boot.
At 130 litres, cargo space in the boot is very modest but it’s basically a big, rectangular box. If you use soft bags for a weekend away you’ll get 3 or 4 in without too much stress. Hard suitcases are more of a challenge.
Scheduled maintenance for the MX-5 takes place every 12 months or 10,000km. That distance interval is a little short but it’s par-for-the-course for Mazda’s high-compression petrol engines.
Five years of servicing – covering 50,000km distance – costs $1,755, averaging $351 per year.
Like other Mazdas, the MX-5 is covered by a five year warranty with unlimited kilometres.
Fuel consumption depends on your driving style, but the MX-5 isn’t especially fuel-efficient for such a light vehicle.
Across many examples of the 2.0-litre MX-5 that we’ve tested, average consumption of 7.5L/100km – 8.5L/100km should be expected.
Premium petrol of 95 octane or better is required for the MX-5, and watch that 45-litre tank, which provides a relatively modest range of about 500km.
Owning a Mazda MX-5 is like a rite of passage.
To own or to drive an MX-5 is to understand why this vehicle is such a legend of modern motoring. A combination of willing rear-drive powertrains, a beautiful manual gearbox, super-light weight and a communicative chassis means this car is the definition of ‘fun to drive’.
It’s not practical, and it won’t suit everybody. For many, the MX-5 is a vehicle to be considered as a second (or even third) car.
But those whose lifestyles allow a folly like an MX-5 are fortunate. A high-spec MX-5 may be getting quite expensive now – in fact, it’s never been that cheap – but they offer a fabulous smile-per-dollar ratio.
Buyers who snapped up a Toyota GR Yaris at the original driveaway price of $39,950 scored an incredible deal – and even though it’s now more expensive, the GR Yaris resets modern hot hatch benchmarks.
Variant tested ROADSTER GT RS
Key specs (as tested)
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