What's it like?
The rural roads of Northern Ireland’s County Fermanagh provide all the examination potential a road tester could ever want or need. These roads are something else: cruelly twisting and endlessly undulating but always with a strong sense of flow. They’re roller-coaster roads along which you quickly learn to expect the unexpected and make adjustments, often substantial, on the fly.
We’ll start with the new engine because it’s this that transforms the MX-5 from being likeable with caveats to a seriously desirable device for people who love driving. And this is not solely because of the additional power, which doesn’t so much electrify progress as dispel the slight lethargy of earlier Mk4 cars. And that’s all we ever really wanted. Even more power would be nice, but the important thing is that never do you feel now as though you need it, or that you’re somehow missing out by not having it.
The lovely thing is that 181bhp in a sub-1150kg chassis also isn’t so much that you can’t stretch this engine right out, time and time again, to its new 7500rpm ceiling – some 700rpm higher than before. In second and third gears in particular, the final thousand of those crisply responsive revolutions seem to relay an extra energy on top of a base that’s already lean-sounding and wonderfully cammy in the manner of many older performance engines.
There are (relatively) practical benefits, too. Because peak torque arrives 600rpm earlier at 4000rpm, fourth gear is no longer useless if you don’t happen to find yourself on a racetrack and still want to arrive on time. The engine also now has reach enough for second gear to be snagged for corners taken at speeds closer to the national speed limit, which allows you to indulge in this engine where it’s at its best, more of the time.
You’ll snag second neatly, too, and not simply because this six-speed ’box is a tactile delight. A more generously ported exhaust manifold along with a lightweight flywheel and the same beautifully positioned pedals also make it even easier and more gratifying to roll your right ankle and precisely blip the throttle during downshifts. In fact, were the clutch action a touch heavier, the MX-5’s control weighs would be approaching Porsche levels of excellence, because the brakes are still quick to bite but only modestly servo-assisted and instinctive to modulate.
We should also mention that Mazda has finally relented and given us telescopic reach for the steering column. Taller drivers will have to temper their enthusiasm at this news because we’re only talking 30mm of travel, but it has helped to address a significant weakness in the MX-5 package and removed an element of the toy-car vibe.