The MX-5 is easily the world's best-selling two-seat roadster, with over a million new ones bought since they breezily bounced onto the market in 1989, and it's not hard to see why. It took the idea of a small, fun to drive roadster that had been conceived but imperfectly executed in the Austin Healey Sprite and the Lotus Elan and added two key ingredients: reliability and low running costs.
The fourth ND version of the MX-5 that arrived in 2015 was heavily promoted by Mazda as a return to the good old days of the first NA. That marketing approach wasn’t lost on those who thought that the preceding NC, and to a lesser extent the NB before it, had lost some essential MX-5-ness somewhere along the line.
Whatever your view on it, there was no arguing about how successful the ND was in repackaging and refining the MX-5's most appealing core attributes. The ND was shorter, and not just than the NC either. It was 55mm stubbier than the NA while somehow feeling more spacious than any other MX-5. It was simple, and it was light. Indeed, in something of a turnaround from normal automotive practice, it was actually lighter than its predecessor. The NC was hardly lardy, but Mazda’s weight-saving ‘gram strategy’ which left no component unscrutinised stripped a whopping 100kg from the ND. We’ll shortly get on to the drivetrain’s part in trimming the fat, but elsewhere in the car the use of aluminium for the front knuckle and upper and lower suspension arms knocked 12kg off on their own. The cloth roof was 3kg lighter and even easier to deploy.
The sheet metal was reworked, always a tricky operation in such a well established and well loved car, but Mazda pulled that off well, giving the ND a distinctive, shaper-edged new identity. The interior was a clever adaptation of Mazda’s corporate design at that time, taking a lead from the Mazda3 from which the new MX-5’s base 1.5-litre ‘SkyActiv’ engine was also taken. With new cam timing, new intake and exhaust systems and a new crankshaft, the ND version of that 3 engine put out 129hp at 7,000rpm and ran on to 7,500rpm. The 1.5 engine was 14kg lighter than the old 1.8. Another SkyActiv engine, the 2.0-litre four, was given the same breathing mods to produce 158hp plus better torque at low and mid revs. It was 8kg lighter than the previous iteration. Both of the new engines wore an aluminium cover to evoke the original MX-5's exposed twin-cam head. The ND’s new manual gearbox was 7kg lighter than the NC's.
Whichever drivetrain you chose, all these weight reductions allied to the lowering of the car’s centre of gravity played a big part in creating an MX-5 that was both faster across the ground and more economical than the equivalent NC and, in the eyes of many, a friendlier and more dynamic everyday driving prospect. The 2.0 was 25kg heavier overall than the 1.5 but all 2.0 models had a limited slip diff and bigger brakes, while the higher-spec Sport and GT models received a front strut brace and Bilstein dampers to reduce roll and keep the turn-in sharp.
The entry-level 1.5 is arguably the purest model if you subscribe to the notion that the MX-5 is a dish best served without too many trimmings. A year after it came out, however, while the MX-5 was being voted World Car of the Year, Mazda complicated things by releasing the steel-roofed RF (Retractable Fastback) model. To be pedantic, the MX-5 RF should really have been a MX-5 T as it was a targa. The rear buttresses were fixed, with just the top panel folding away.
The RF was kicked off in the UK by 500 £28,995 'Launch Edition' cars in Soul Red or Machine Grey with BBS alloys, a rear spoiler and Recaro seats. To start with it could only be had with the 158hp 2.0 engine. Post-Launch Edition cars could be ordered with the 1.5 unit but then you needed to consider the performance ramifications of the RF's extra 40kg, which added around 0.2-0.3sec to the soft top's 0-62mph time.
For 2019MY cars the 2.0 engine was uprated from 158hp to 181hp at 7,500rpm, with 151lb ft of torque, lowering the soft top's best 0-62 time to 6.5sec. Today, the newly midlife-refreshed 2021 MX-5 exits the showroom at prices starting from £24,055 for the ragtop and £25,955 for the RF - but you can find used NDs for £11,000 or less, and damaged/repaired cars at under £9,000. £11,000 is less than what some dealers are asking for mint, low mileage NCs.