Mazda MX-5 RF 1.5 Sport Nav

Frontal view of Mazda MX-5 RF being driven round a long right-hand corner.

My only opportunity so far to choose any MX-5 I wanted from the whole range came a few months ago. I was going to drive one in a motorsport event, and the selection process was straightforward. Obviously, the car had to have the two-litre engine because it has 29bhp more than the 1.5, and slightly less obviously because the 2.0s come as standard with a limited slip differential.

Soft-top MX-5s are lighter than RFs and have a lower centre of gravity, so it had to be one of those. It had to be a Sport Nav too, since they have uprated suspension (very important) and a strut brace to keep the tops of the front dampers the same distance apart at all times (somewhat less important but definitely something you’d want if it was available).

Mazda agreed to all this and supplied a car of the above specification for a hillclimb at Prescott. It all went rather well – better than pre-event expectations, in fact – as you can read here. I was aware, though, that I had deliberately chosen very nearly the opposite of the MX-5 I would want to live with.

Mazda MX-5 Sport Nav rounding Pardon hairpin at the Prescott hillclimb course.
Photo copyright Track Action Photography

Not precisely the opposite, because the 2.0 SE-L, which doesn’t have the uprated suspension, is the runt of the litter and should be avoided. Not far off, though.

I had no say in the MX-5 I was given for this test and just had to accept whatever turned up, but by happy accident it turned out to be a 1.5 RF Sport Nav, different from the hillclimb car in every major respect. If I were going to buy an MX-5 for road use, this would be the one.

While I’m not a fan of the RF’s rear styling, it’s the MX-5 for me. I’m unnecessarily tall, so I need the extra headroom resulting from the lack of metal crossbars which, though padded in the current generation, would still do the top of my skull serious damage if I had a big accident and landed roof side down.

My preference for the 1.5 engine is just a personal thing. For me, its maximum output of 129bhp is exactly right for the car, whereas the 2.0’s 158bhp can sometimes be a shade too much. I also think the 1.5 sounds better. (I’d like to believe this is a radical viewpoint, out of step with the consensus, but in fact every journalist I’ve discussed this with says the same.)

Front side action shot of Mazda MX-5 RF.

The absence of a limited slip differential is crucial. The first time I drove an MX-5 with one of these, I was horrified. It provided extra traction in a car already had as much as it needed, and cornering was a matter of trying to limit understeer on the way in and oversteer on the way out. Other than the hillclimb car, which was a special case, I’ve felt the same about every single LSD-equipped MX-5 I’ve driven since.

Fortunately, 1.5s don’t have them, so it’s not an issue. They don’t have the 2.0 Sport Nav’s suspension either, and that’s fine too. The standard set-up is as near perfect for the job as any I’ve come across.

There are cars which handle better at some speeds than others. A really good MX-5 – and this is one of the best ever – is a delight in every situation, from reversing into a parking space to giving it large along forty miles of coastal road in the west of Scotland. There was never a moment during this test when I wished I was driving something else.

Mazda MX-5 RF being driven away from the camera on a deserted moorland road.

As an added bonus, my indicated fuel economy over the course of a week was 48mpg, which is slightly better than the official EU combined figure. And there were times when I wasn’t exactly hanging about.

There are two flavours of MX-5 RF 1.5. This one is the more expensive by £2600, and for that you get heated leather seats, keyless entry, adaptive front lighting, automatic headlights and wipers, lane departure warning, a couple of exterior trim upgrades and a nine-speaker premium Bose audio system which I’m sure is lovely, though I must admit I was having so much fun driving the car I never got round to switching it on.

Price £24,895
Engine size 1496cc
Power 129bhp
Top speed 126mph
0-62mph 8.6 seconds
Fuel economy 46.3mpg combined
CO2 emissions 142g/km
Towing capacity not applicable
Euro NCAP not tested
Information correct at publication date

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Mazda MX-5 RF 1.5 Sport Nav
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