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The fact that there is a choice of 1.5- and 2.0-litre versions of the all-new fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 begs a simple and obvious question: which is the better buy? The answers, though, are numerous and more complex, each starting with the words ‘it depends’…

It depends if you plan on using your 2016 Mazda MX-5 as a daily driver or as that ‘third car’ for sunny weekend touring. It depends on whether you live in the urban crush of Sydney, the west coastal Tasmanian outreach of Strahan, or elsewhere. It depends on finance and taste, on the subjective and objective, and on various factors with which to draw suitable decision making.

Instead, we’ve decided to hone in a particular challenge that should appeal to many buyers: which MX-5, the 1.5-litre or 2.0-litre, is the best buy as the preferred weekend warrior track car right off the showroom floor?

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Simple, right? Surely it must be the larger capacity 2.0-litre – more power, fitter dynamic equipment, better prospect. Well, hold your extra horses…

Both cars tested here are base (non-GT) manual Roadsters, so ideal track-car fodder for playing the frill-free value card. Neither is what you’d call expensive. Our white 1.5-litre starts at $31,990, our red 2.0-litre $34,490 (both before on-road costs), for a difference of $2500.

In academic terms, the 2.0-litre’s $2500 premium buys 118kW instead of 96kW and 200Nm against 150Nm. More tangibly, Mazda claims 0-100km/h acceleration times of 7.1 seconds and 8.5s respectively – a formidable 1.4s advantage to the red Roadster.

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While that’s the claim on their boxes, what’s the actual real-world difference? And, importantly, how might the 2.0-litre’s extra outputs contribute to quicker lap times given the other spec differences in play?

Those differences? The 2.0-litre’s premium brings broader rubber at each corner (205mm versus 195mm). In theory, this should deliver better off-the-line drive and superior cornering grip.

The 2.0-litre also gets larger 280mm brake rotors all around, whereas the 1.5-litre adopts 258mm items up front and 255mm discs in the rear. Again, you’d presume the 2.0-litre might stop quicker and in a shorter distance, but by how much?

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Each MX-5 gets its own unique model-specific suspension tune to best leverage tyre grip, but, further muddying the form guide, the 2.0-litre sits on Bridgestone Potenza rubber, the 1.5-litre on Yokohama Advans. At 1033kg, the 2.0-litre is also 24kg heavier than the 1009kg 1.5 – not a huge disparity, though one that may or may not affect their relative abilities.

Predicting the lap-time split between them looks the blurry crapshoot. But even then, does a quicker lap time necessarily equate to the better buy? Or is which is the more enjoyable to drive of greater importance?

How much faster is the 2.0-litre? Which is more fun? And which one gets the CarAdvice tick as the Mazda MX-5 to have as a weekend, off-street plaything? Let’s pull their strings and find out.

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0-100km/h acceleration

The Marulan Driver Training Centre’s main straight, with its prominent dip followed by a climb up to Turn One, mightn’t provide definitive drag racing science, but it certainly provides relative pace to 100km/h from a standstill using our GPS-based timing equipment. Tyres are set at 29psi (as recommended on the cars’ placards) in keeping with the spirit of ‘showroom delivery’ specification. Meanwhile, while the ambient morning temperature sat at 31 degrees Celsius, the track surface itself was hot enough to fry eggs on – not ideal for optimal straight-line testing, though not unusual conditions for fair-weather Australian track-day workouts.

Out of the blocks, the 1.5 pulls a major surprise. With two gear changes at its 7000rpm power peak en route to 100km/h, the smaller-capacity MX-5 hooks up hard and confidently marches off in each of its three consecutive runs, returning a personal best sprint time of 7.68s – a whopping 0.82s quicker than its factory claim. For the record, a mere 0.12s separated the 1.5-litre’s two quickest times, demonstrating that its stunning PB was no one-off fluke.

Shifting twice at its lower 6000rpm power peak, the 2.0-litre returns a 7.24-second initial run followed by a 7.63s and 7.40s. Respectable indeed. If the 2.0-litre’s PB being fractionally shy (0.14s) of its maker’s claim was somewhat predictable, though, the fact it was only 0.44s swifter than the 1.5-litre’s best time was a shocker, especially given the vastly wider 1.4-second gap claimed by Mazda. Still, this was only almost as shocking as the 2.0-litre’s unexpected yet chronic wheel spin…

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Out of sympathy, we give the 2.0-litre two ‘bonus’ runs to attempt to defend its honour, though the 7.43- and 7.63-second passes fail to better the situation. All up, we try a variety of rpm step-off points – from 2500rpm through to 5000rpm – all of which see the red Roadster either bog down or burn rubber (and axle tramp) off the line. We even generously reposition the launch location in an effort to cure its off-the-mark traction foibles, but to no avail.

Perhaps the 1.5-litre’s rear Advans respond better to track surface heat than the 2.0-litre’s Potenzas, or perhaps the 1.5’s softer suspension setup allows it to better squat and hook up off the line more confidently. Either way, the red 2.0-litre delivers its maker’s promise, while the white 1.5 punches well above its weight.

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100-0km/h braking

Each MX-5 is treated to two full-ABS stops from 100km/h to a standstill: the first with completely cold brakes, simulating an emergency ‘highway stop’, the second immediately after with residual heat in the braking hardware as you’d have during sustained spirited driving. Both cars are tested at the same (slightly uphill) point on Marulan’s main straight.

The 1.5 returns a handy 23.7-metre stopping distance, then improves 80cm in its ‘hot stop’, for a best of 22.9m.

The 2.0-litre follows an identical regime, its 22.5-metre ‘cold stop’ beating the 1.5’s best by just 40cm. It then shortens its first result by half a metre on its second attempt. With 22.9m against 22.0m, the pair is separated by a quarter of a car length, in favour of the red car.

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Lap-times

Given the 2.0-litre accelerates quicker and stops better point-to-point along the straight, it’s fair to predict, everything else being equal, that the red car will widen the stopwatch gap once Marulan’s eight corners come into play – particularly with its off-the-mark wheel spin issues removed from the exercise. Further, the 2.0-litre’s extra 50Nm ought to translate into superior corner-exit and on-the-move punch compared with the 1.5-litre.

With resident track test dummy Dave Zalstein at the helm, ‘the Little Guy’ – as we came to nickname the 1.5-litre – rolls up to the start/finish line first. The plan is to complete one out-lap and two timed fliers. In slightly longer than the blink of an eye, the results are in: the 1.5-litre banking a 52.27s and 52.17s.

In something of a moment of truth for the ‘not-exactly Big Guy’, the 2.0-litre replicates the process, delivering a best-of-session time of 50.85s. The second flier coming in at 51.02s.

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At the end of the Round One, the more powerful 2.0-litre MX-5 holds a fairly slim 1.32-second advantage over the leaner 1.5-litre. Slimmer than expected, truth be told. Tellingly, the scant split times for each car’s respective dual runs demonstrates not only bona-fide performance but consistent performance too.

Still, to further validate their abilities (or perhaps Dave’s), each car heads back out for a second session. And to avoid any psychological shenanigans, Dave is spared any lap-time results until the completion of all the day’s track testing.

Apart from annoying Dave, this method also means he is blissfully unaware that at the end of the 1.5-litre’s second session, with a best time of 51.44s, ‘the Little Guy’ has narrowed the gap down to the 2.0-litre’s 50.85s first-session PB to 0.76s off the red car’s pace. He backs this time up with another pass just 0.11s slower.

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Crunch time. On its return performance, the 2.0-litre counters its sibling’s 51.44s best with the quickest lap recorded for the day: a 50.54s (followed by a 50.90, for the record).

Final result? The pair is split by just 0.9 of a second.

Fun factor

To apply an objective spin to ‘fun factor’, Dave completed his laps attached to a heart rate monitor, so that we could measure how ‘heart-racing’ each MX-5 was compared with his track-side resting heart rate of 83bpm.

The results, though, were inconclusive. In his first session in the 1.5, Dave’s heart rate climbed to 106bpm. The following stint, in the 2.0-litre, the rate dropped by just two beats per minutes – in medical terms, next to nothing. In fact, the two-beat-per-minute variation likely came down to the driver ‘settling in’.

Subjectively, though, Dave’s appraisals of the two cars were less ambiguous.

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“At their core, these two MX-5s are largely identical. But while their difference are small, they’re by no means insignificant,” Dave said.

“The 1.5-litre likes to be driven up to about eight-tenths, but doesn’t like going much beyond that.

“It pitches and leans and rolls around on its softer suspension to a point where pushing hard is still fun, yet yields little further reward at nine- or ten-tenths.

“Around the circuit, the 2.0-litre is noticeably more strapped down and pointier. It doesn’t suffer the body roll of the 1.5, so it feels more ‘mature’ and serious. But while the steering is a little more responsive and turn-in is a little sharper than that of the 1.5, the 2.0-litre is let down by the Bridgestone tyres, which lack the outright grip of the 1.5-litre’s Advans. That said, the 2.0-litre’s chassis is more planted mid corner.”

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Of the two engines, Dave preferred the smaller, revvier 1.5-litre, more due to character than sheer shove.

“I really like the 1.5’s revvy nature. Hunting down the 7500rpm rev-limiter is a blast that reminds me of ‘hurting’ my first car out in the hills.

“Sure, the 2.0-litre has more corner-exit poke, but its power and torque are delivered in a lazier fashion.

“It’s great for cruising around town and getting up inner-city hills, but on track, it’s less spirited and noticeably less entertaining. For me, the 2.0-litre simply isn’t as much pure fun as the 1.5.”

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Verdict

How much faster is the 2.0-litre Mazda MX-5 compared with the 1.5-litre Mazda MX-5? Not nearly as much as we’d expected.

Which is more fun? Objectively, neither. Subjectively, it’s almost entirely down to which of the markedly different characters a buyer prefers.

So which gets the CarAdvice tick as the all-new Mazda MX-5 to have as a weekend, off-street plaything? Our pick is the 1.5-litre.

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We came to this conclusion partly because it performed beyond expectations and manufacturer claims, where the 2.0-litre simply delivered on its promise, partly because, on the day, you could barely split the pair, and partly because the 1.5 delivered more fun factor than we’d bargained for.

Point is, you don’t get some second-rung sports-car experience by opting for the cheaper and smaller-engined 1.5-litre MX-5.

There is, though, the bang-for-your-buck equation: the $2500 question of value. Of which there are numerous ways to spin contrary viewpoints.

For instance, financed on a three-year lease, the 2.0-litre will cost you just one extra dollar per day to own. Equally, it can be argued that $2500 is, in performance and sports car measures, chump change. And then there’s stigma – justified or not. Buy a 1.5-litre and you’ll undoubtedly be forced to defend criticism that you chose the ‘soft option’.

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Countering this is the standpoint that $2500 goes a long way in fuel, or a set of extra tyres for track work. Given how light the MX-5 breed is on both, alternatively, $2500 also buys many fun-filled hours of track time.

Nevertheless, underpinning all of this is something of a cold, hard reality that there’s roughly a two per cent differential in circuit prowess between the two MX-5s tested that have roughly an eight per cent disparity in price. And in this fight at least, the scale only tips the 1.5-litre’s way. A win for the Little Guy…

Click on the Photos tab for more 2016 Mazda MX-5 2.0L and 1.5L images by David Zalstein.

Video by Christian Barbeitos.



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