TESTED 29.8.18, ROMANIA ON SALE NOW PRICE £22,295
Sweet-handling roadster finally gets the power its chassis has been crying out for
The Mk4 Mazda MX-5 has only been with us for three years but already it has cemented itself as a legend of the family. We love it for its attainable thrills and back-to-basics character, and apparently so does almost everyone else, as is evident by the two-seater’s growing number of sales, which totalled a not-unimpressive 39,773 in Europe last year alone. But while it’s successfully serving as the plucky halo car for Mazda by appealing to the mainstream, it is yet to reach its full potential for some keen drivers.
The reason relates to its powertrains. With just two engines available from launch – a 129bhp 1.5-litre and a 158bhp 2.0-litre – the car has never been able to garner the attention of those after something serious. It has looked underpowered next to mainstay hot hatches like the 197bhp Ford Fiesta ST, and Mazda knows this. But now the time has come for that to change as part of a wave of updates to the model.
Since 1 September, the MX-5 now comes with a telescopic steering column offering 30mm of welcome reach adjustment and optional Apple CarPlay. The entry 1.5 model will also get a few small mechanical improvements to offer 1bhp more, although that’s not exactly something to shout about. The 2.0, on the other hand, grabs headlines with a longer list of upgrades and a much more substantial 23bhp extra, with peak output now a rather healthy 181bhp. The 2.0 range starts at £22,295, rising to £25,795 for a fully loaded GT Sport Nav+ variant.
The changes to realise this new performance include lighter pistons and conrods, a wider throttle body and enlarged port area, as well as a bigger-bore exhaust valve. There’s also a lightened flywheel to enhance the motor’s responsiveness and it contributes to an increased hunger for revs, with that peak power arriving at 7000rpm and the limiter now set at 7500rpm – respective numbers that are 1000rpm and 700rpm higher than before.
Where better to test the effects of said upgrades than the twisting, winding and highly technical string of asphalt that slithers around the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, the Transfagarasan Highway? This 50-mile route offers a mix of silky smooth surfaces and rough, cambered bends that provide a surprisingly accurate simulation of the good ol’ British B-road.
On such surfaces, our high-spec MX-5 test car, which is in a European specification that’s close to the UK’s Sport Nav+, deals with the challenging surfaces well – no surprise given that there are no chassis changes to the updated car. This top model uses Bilstein dampers and gets a standard-fit strut brace, helping to give the MX-5 its sharpest, most alert responses. It glides over the crests and dips of the Transfagarasan, but the dampers ensure the body remains in check.
Then there’s the 181bhp 2.0-litre engine, which feels considerably better matched to the package than its predecessor did. The motor is zingy, offering a slightly better mid-range punch but significantly more enthusiastic top end. You quickly realise the engine likes to remain spinning above 5500rpm to offer its best, so working the tight six-speed manual becomes an even more rewarding joy. But its improved elasticity allows us to cover great distances of technical sections in second gear, with the driver able to help the revs rise more quickly by encouraging the limited-slip differential (standard on 2.0-litre cars) to send more torque to the inside wheel and enable manageable slides on corner exits.
Okay, so there’s still not enough storage space, cabin room remains tight and motorway journeys will feature plenty of wind noise (even with the roof up). But the MX-5 is affordable, honest and, as a driver’s car, now a truly tempting package thanks to its new 2.0-litre, adding vigour to its rear-wheel-drive purity. If you’re in the market for a sub-£30k roadster, this is where the fun’s at.
A new exhaust silencer for the 2.0 engine has given it a deliciously raspy tone that gargles when you are off throttle. Lovely and old school. SS
Engine 4 cyls, 1998cc, petrol
Power 181bhp at 7000rpm
Torque 151lb ft at 4000rpm
Gearbox 6-spd manual
Kerb weight 1105kg
Top speed 136mph
CO2, tax band 156g/km, 32%
Rivals Abarth 124, Toyota GT86