Earlier this year we took the celebrated Mazda MX-5 for a spin in the twisting wilds of Scotland – and while that 1.5-litre version was very close to perfection, this more powerful 2.0 litre Mazda ND MX-5 totally nails it.
This is sports car design in its purest form. Armed with 118kW and 200Nm (up from 96 and 150), this scalpel sharp sports car is now nothing less than an enthusiast’s dream, with noticeably more go whenever you need it.
This time we got the MX-5 out scooting along Northern California’s twisty cliff-top roads – only a small part of our drive route for this test. To properly experience this open-top treat’s inherent dynamic talent we took it around the famous Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, just outside the picturesque Carmel-by-the-sea, where legendary Hollywood actor and director Clint Eastwood once presided as mayor.
This place is MX-5 nirvana. In fact, the biggest road-racing class in the US is the Sports Car Club of America’s spec MX-5 class, which sees nearly 1500 first and second generation models line up on grids around the country on any given weekend.
With the latest MX-5, it’s all about minimising weight: from the SkyActive engine to the lightweight body. And while the 2.0-litre version gains 23kg (to 1033kg) over the 1.5-litre manual, you’d never know it from behind the wheel.
It’s still got deliciously sharp steering and instant throttle response, while the extra 50Nm of torque means there’s less all-round cog swapping required. Not that working the stubby little shifter should ever be considered anything but a treat, because the MX-5’s pedal placement is custom designed for perfect heel and toe shifting – especially satisfying here at Laguna Seca.
This is an 11 turn (one esse, 4 right and 6 left) 3.6km pristine road circuit on California’s unique central coast – most noted for its spectacular corkscrew – a one-of-a-kind turn in motorsports.
Here’s why. On entry to Turn 8 (the lefthander and entry to the Corkscrew), the elevation change is a 12 per cent drop. By the time the car hits the apex of Turn 8A (the right-hander), the elevation is at its steepest, an 18 per cent plunge. The Corkscrew drops nearly 18 metres between the entrance to Turn 8 to the exit of Turn 8A, or the equivalent of a 5-and-a-half storey drop over just 130 metres.
Even at the limit, the MX-5 is rock solid all the way through this four-wheel roller coaster ride, utterly composed and breathtakingly sharp on turn in. Front-end grip is very high and a major confidence boost, so understeer isn’t something you need to be worried about, even on track.
It’s a brilliant chassis that allows for minor tracking corrections, even in flat-out, mid-corner moments.
Not only is the electric power steering as sharp as a tack, there’s none of the on-centre twitchiness of the previous generation MX-5 – making it a joy to drive, on and off the track.
From the very moment you punch it, you’ll appreciate the extra grunt from the 2.0-litre engine – especially useful on the numerous flat-out sections at Laguna Seca. It’s noticeably quicker than the 1.5-litre version and delivers the same level of sports car purity.
Our MX-5 tester here in the States is a Club Spec, meaning it gets the uprated sports tuned suspension with Bilstein dampers, limited-slip differential and a tasty Appearance package that adds a gloss black front air dam, rear lip spoiler, bumper skirt and side sill extensions.
But this car is also equipped with the Brembo/BBS package, giving it more powerful front brakes, along with forged alloy wheels in black to match the body kit. The overall appearance is stunning and suits the more powerful MX-5 down to a tee.
The track isn’t the only place this optional handling package can work its magic. On the twist-fest stretch heading into Carmel Valley, the lightweight MX-5 is capable of carrying even more pace, but without any loss of grip or composure.
Even without the package, the MX-5 delivers a master-class in weight balance – 50/50 front to rear, so throwing it into corners is a truly satisfying experience.
The driving position is bang on perfect too. Compared with the previous iteration, this fourth-generation car has the driver seated around 20mm lower to the ground, as well as 15mm closer to the centre of the car.
The only drawback, (more of a nuisance) is that there’s no reach adjustment for the steering wheel, so it takes longer to find that perfect position, especially for those with shorter legs.
For sure, the ride is a tad firmer with the sports-tuned shock absorbers, but the payoff is that body roll is now all but obliterated.
It’s the same scenario with the Brembos – they’re fade resistant, while stopping power is similarly boosted, though never grabby even under extreme loads. You can brake later with all the confidence in the world.
While Mazda offers an automatic transmission that’s sure to find plenty of takers among the general population, enthusiasts will want the do-it-yourself, six-speed manual box. It’s paired with a light clutch that’s beautifully linear, so getting off the line smoothly is dead easy.
Mind, it’s still a notchy action, but it’s a short throw that encourages quick gear changes. And there’s ample pull in all six gears too, especially useful for high-speed overtaking on the US interstates.
Mazda might have gone back to basics with the new ND MX-5, but they haven’t skimped on technology. Inside it gets the same Mazda Connect touchscreen with the easy-to-use rotary controller, as found across the entire Mazda line-up.
As a result, there’s minimal switchgear to contend with, and even that is laid out in a logical, driver-centric manner. There’s plenty of kit too, and all the materials have a premium look and feel.
Make no mistake, with the ND MX-5, there’s a special connection between car and driver. It might not be blessed with the kind of herculean power of today’s full-blown supercars, but this 2.0-litre version is a proper sports car in the purest sense, which delivers the same kind of driver satisfaction as an Italian thoroughbred, only for a fraction of the cost.
Mazda MX-5 local pricing (excluding on-road costs)
• 1.5L Roadster – 6MT – $31,990
• 1.5L Roadster – 6AT – $33,990
• 1.5L Roadster GT – 6MT – $37,990
• 1.5L Roadster GT – AT – $39,990
• 2.0L Roadster – 6MT – $34,490
• 2.0L Roadster – 6AT – $36,490
• 2.0L Roadster GT – 6MT – $39,550
• 2.0L Roadster GT – AT – $41,550
Photography and video by Mitchell Oke.
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