Fi­nally, the en­gine it’s al­ways de­served

The ever-evolv­ing Mazda road­ster hits a new high with the lat­est ver­sion, com­bin­ing a cleaner and more pow­er­ful en­gine with fa­mil­iar chas­sis bril­liance. By CJ Hub­bard

CAR (UK) - - First Drives -

WEL­COME TO RO­MA­NIA, home of Drac­ula, Da­cia and the Transfa­garasan road across the Carpathian moun­tains, so fa­mously wig­gly that on pa­per it looks like the out­put of a seis­mo­graph some­one has ac­ci­den­tally knocked off a shelf in the mid­dle of record­ing a mi­nor ge­o­log­i­cal event. It’s got more hair­pins than Claire’s Ac­ces­sories, climbs to over 2000 me­tres and sounds like the ideal place to launch a new, more pow­er­ful evo­lu­tion of the Mazda MX-5.

You’ll need to get up early. For if the change­able weather con­di­tions, rip­pled sur­faces and pot­holes so large they’ve got names weren’t haz­ard enough, the road also func­tions as Ro­ma­nia’s ma­jor tourist at­trac­tion, so come lunchtime it’s clogged with slug­gardly ob­struc­tions.

These (barely) mo­bile chi­canes would have been a chal­lenge for pre­vi­ous it­er­a­tions of the MX-5. For all that it’s gen­er­ally been a sweet-han­dling lit­tle ma­chine, Mazda’s dinky sports car has never been over­bur­dened with a sur­feit of out­right per­for­mance. Gladly, the 2019 ver­sion (ac­tu­ally on sale right about now) has taken a big step to­wards solv­ing this prob­lem with the in­tro­duc­tion of an up­graded 2.0-litre SkyAc­tiv en­gine.

This hap­pily smashes the lat­est WLTP and Euro 6d emis­sions re­quire­ments to help keep the en­vi­ron­men­tally-con­scious happy – and let’s face it, that re­ally should be all of us these days – yet still ends up with an ex­tra 23bhp. That means the 2.0-litre MX-5 has a grand to­tal of 181bhp, with nary a tur­bocharger in sight.

That’s quite an achieve­ment. It’s as if Mazda’s en­gi­neers locked the ac­coun­tants in a cup­board, then blew4

the bud­get on a whole host of oily good­ies, which I’m just go­ing to go ahead and nerd-out on for a mo­ment. To make more power you need more air, so the en­tire in­take assem­bly has been re­con­fig­ured – with en­larged throt­tle body, ports and valves, and a smoother in­take man­i­fold. The air also takes a shorter path to the en­gine for im­proved throt­tle re­sponse. To make use of that air you need more fuel, which ar­rives via new higher-pres­sure, multi-stage in­jec­tors. A new ex­haust camshaft com­bined with larger, lighter ex­haust valves and in­creased di­am­e­ter for the ex­haust ports and ex­haust man­i­fold then gets rid of the waste gases more ef­fi­ciently. There’s a new main si­lencer for sex­ier noises, too, but I couldn’t tell the dif­fer­ence.

This is all ex­cel­lent, but brace your­self – the re­ally ex­cit­ing part hap­pens be­tween in­take and exit: new light­weight pis­tons and con­nect­ing rods, asym­met­ric pis­ton rings and a stiffer coun­ter­bal­anced crank­shaft al­low the new en­gine to rev faster and higher.

With 227g of in­ter­nal weight sav­ings, the 2.0-litre now sings to the 7500rpm limit pre­vi­ously re­served for the smaller 1.5-litre en­gine, in­stead of call­ing time at an un­sat­is­fy­ing 6800rpm. Mazda has also done some clever stuff with dual-mass fly­wheels and vi­bra­tion damp­ing to fur­ther bring out the best of the four-pot.

Got some cake? Then eat it, as the zingy, rev-happy ap­peal of the 1.5 is now fully present and cor­rect in the big mo­tor. As such this is, un­ques­tion­ably, the MX-5 you should now choose – the ad­di­tional 51bhp the 2.0 musters over the 1.5 com­pounded by the 0-62mph time dip­ping to 6.5sec, some 0.8sec faster than be­fore. What’s more, while peak torque only rises slightly to 151lb ft from 148, there’s sub­stan­tially more mus­cle at higher revs, en­er­gis­ing de­liv­ery when you’re stretch­ing the en­gine. This comes in very handy when the ex­tra reach of that ad­di­tional 700rpm has us flash­ing be­tween Ro­ma­nian switch­backs in ut­terly un­sym­pa­thetic abuse of sec­ond gear.

Other changes of note in­clude a stop-start sys­tem for the first time (un­ex­pect­edly shud­dery aw­ful­ness), some ex­tra safety equip­ment (on high­spec ver­sions) and a new GT Sport Nav+ trim level (reg­u­lar Sport Nav+ is just fine). If you’re after ex­te­rior vis­ual clues to The New Hot­ness, you can for­get it – the body re­mains ex­actly the same. On the in­side, how­ever, Mazda has now fit­ted a reach-ad­justable steer­ing wheel. The joy, the un­speak­able joy, of fi­nally be­ing able to find a truly com­fort­able driv­ing po­si­tion. This should be loudly ap­plauded. You can also add Ap­ple CarPlay and An­droid

Auto via a dealer-fit box.

There are no chas­sis al­ter­ations, since Mazda reck­ons that area was al­ready peachy. But since we’ve got a moun­tain and the op­por­tu­nity, time for a few back-to-back ob­ser­va­tions about the stan­dard sus­pen­sion ver­sus the Bil­stein set-up fit­ted on 2.0-litre Sport mod­els.

The stan­dard car feels like it’s been di­alled-in by some­one who wants to slide around a cir­cuit they know re­ally well. It’s soft, so it rides nicely, but it’s very much in­clined to roll at the rear, which can pun­ish the timid or the clumsy (and some­times I’m both) by snap­ping into over­steer. Great if you know where the road goes, not ideal if you’re in un­fa­mil­iar climes with a 1500m drop on one side. Be de­ci­sive on the brakes, go for a slow-in, fast-out ap­proach, how­ever, and ev­ery­thing seems to click nicely into place. Ex­cel­lent.

The Bil­steins are much firmer, which gives you a much more in­stant per­cep­tion of grip lev­els and con­trol – closer in be­hav­iour to a Toy­ota GT86. The im­pact on the ride is po­ten­tially hate­ful if you’re the pas­sen­ger, but cer­tainly tol­er­a­ble if you’re the driver, since you can carry more speed into the cor­ner, get back on the power ear­lier out of the cor­ner, ex­e­cute sud­den di­rec­tion changes with­out fear. So this ver­sion is also ex­cel­lent, and ul­ti­mately faster, sooner – though per­haps not as in­volv­ing as the reg­u­lar ver­sion.

You sense a happy medium be­tween the two ought to be achiev­able, but hey. Whichever floats your boat, the new en­gine is a no-brainer – and it’s avail­able in the RF if you must, too. And, mirac­u­lously, all these im­prove­ments come ac­com­pa­nied by only minimal price in­creases.

Go in faster, come out faster, wear a big­ger smile. They’ve nailed it

Un­changed body still with a choice of soft-top or fold­ing hard­top

30 years on, and Mazda in­ally lets you ad­just the wheel’s reach

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