In true British style, I’m testing two convertible roadsters and it’s raining. Here in Britain, despite our typically grim weather, we love a convertible, so a new Mazda MX-5 is a pretty huge deal. When the ND was released, we persuaded Mazda to give us a 1.5-litre base model for a few months, and our resident MX-5 fanboy Alex has enjoyed his time with the car.
I, on the other hand, haven’t. I spent a few weeks with it over Christmas, and I found it to be frustratingly slow and far too softly sprung. The engine could be fun if you rung its neck, but that’s not wholly practical on British roads, and while I loved the shift action, the body roll was too much and didn’t leave me with confidence in the car’s limits.
I wrote about my issues before, because if like me the idea of automotive nirvana begins and ends with stripped out race cars for the road, you might think that the MX-5 is a cheap entry into this world. It’s not, but to give the car a second chance I booked in a 2.0-litre Sport Recaro model (the white car in these photos) to see if the increased power and other gubbins could convert me. And just in case it didn’t, I called Mazda tuning specialists BBR GTI and asked to have a go in its 190bhp fettled ND - if anything could make me love the MX-5, surely it would be this one?
Let’s start with the stock 2.0. In Sport Recaro trim it makes 158bhp, up 29bhp from our 1.5-litre longtermer, and while it’s still not quite as punchy as I’d like, it’s a big improvement that immediately ups the enjoyment factor. It’s 25kg heavier, but with the extra power you don’t notice - on the road you’ll never be driving it hard enough to be able to pick up any minute changes in cornering ability. It also gets a limited-slip differential and a Bose sound system, both welcome additions.
What you will notice is that it feels a lot like its smaller-engined sibling, however now everything happens just a little bit faster. The engine’s a bit more responsive, and you’re not so conscious of the fact that the needle’s struggling to make its way around the speedo. The handling is very similar in that you have to push through an initial bout of body roll before leaning on the tyres. The benefit of this is that in normal driving the MX-5 feels smooth and refined, but the down side is that it knocks your confidence in the car a little.
I seem to be in the minority when it comes to thinking this car is too soft, but I find it disconcerting when cornering hard. I’d prefer the car to be stiffer so you can immediately push to the edge of grip. As it stands when you chuck the car into a corner you lean the weight towards the outside, and the first sensation you feel is body roll. Then, once the body settles into its lean you start to push the tyres’ grip levels. For me, that initial roll nullifies the lateral grip feedback, since there are two stages to hard cornering.
And that is why I’ve brought the stock MX-5 Sport Recaro to BBR GTI. The guys are based in Brackley, a stone’s throw from Mercedes’ F1 team headquarters and at the heart of Britain’s legendary motorsport and engineering expertise. As I step into the fairly unassuming workshop, I’m greeted by the resident dog. Around me are numerous MX-5s from various generations and in various states of repair, and at the centre of it all sits a turbocharged NC.
BBR doesn’t currently offer a turbo kit for the ND, so we’re here to try out its Super 190 kit for the 2.0-litre ND MX-5. It costs £1995 fitted, and bumps both power and torque up to 190bhp and 176lb ft respectively. Most of the go is still at the top end, with peak power coming in at 6700rpm, but peak torque is achieved at 3500rpm, significantly lower than in the stock engine.
These numbers are achieved through various modifications. First up, the package builds on the £595 StarChip remap, which alone boosts power to 160bhp in the 1.5-litre, and 175bhp in the 2.0-litre. The extra cash for the Super 190 kit goes towards a cold air intake system, a new exhaust manifold with 2.5-inch diameter outlet, a 2.5-inch high flow stainless steel TIG welded exhaust centre section with integrated sports catalyst, and a stainless steel rear silencer with adjustable twin 2.5-inch BBR-branded tailpipes.
The clouds above us begin leaking again, but I put a brave face on for Matt’s camera and keep the roof down - the faster I go the dryer I’ll be, I keep reminding myself, so I push the BBR car to see if the sportier suspension it’s also riding on can weed out the annoying body roll. First impressions are good. There’s still a little more lean than I’d like, but you don’t feel like you’re riding a wave before loading up the outside rubber.
The extra power is a very good thing, but it doesn’t feel quite as sprightly as the figures might suggest - remember it’s still not as powerful as a Toyota GT86, but it is considerably lighter. What it does do is take the car’s character and just turn it up a notch. Much like jumping from the 1.5 to the 2.0, the power delivery isn’t considerably more eager, but the numbers on the speedo are definitely higher.
The MX-5 doesn’t make a particularly pleasant racket, with the agricultural-sounding 2.0-litre engine dominating in the stock car. Here, the BBR exhaust makes everything a lot noisier, and while it’s not a sonorous gift to the ear drums, it’s a nice addition, as it works with the extra power to create a greater sense of urgency. It’s a little droney at motorway speeds, but not unbearable.
Unfortunately, due to the cold and wet weather, the BBR car’s Goodyear Eagle F1 tyres struggled a little for grip. I did feel as though the only limiting factor to my cornering speed was the rubber, which was a real shame as I really wanted to see how the car reacted differently in the bends.
I feel like I gleaned enough from the day to say that if you’re going to be driving your ND MX-5 like a bit of a hooligan, or if you’re the kind of person who enjoys a track day, the BBR GTI kit is money well spent. It doesn’t suddenly transform the car into a fizzy little fireball, but it takes everything important and makes it just that little bit better. I’d love to go back on a hot summer’s day to really find its limits, and I’ll definitely be heading back to Brackley once the inevitable turbo kit becomes available.
In the meantime, it didn’t do enough to convince me that the Mazda MX-5 could ever be the pure driving experience I’ve always hoped it could be, but it’s a bloody good effort, and improves the stock car in every important area.