Since starting at CarAdvice, I figured it would be wise to brush up on my driving skills.
Naturally, we do a lot of driving, mainly on public roads. Reasonably frequently however, we’re out on the track, or at an event, driving cars well beyond our limits, and sometimes the vehicle’s too, in safe and controlled environments.
I thought it would be advantageous to spend my own money, and get out there in my own time, to better my abilities, so when the time comes to enjoy something powerful and exotic on the track – I’m able to take full advantage of it.
Consider extracurricular activities on my own time, and my own wallet.
I’ve owned a heap of cars, modified them accordingly, and enjoyed the experience that comes with it. To give you some idea of my car ownership history, it includes:
1x Ford Focus LV RS, 1x Mazda BL MPS3, 2x Mazda NA MX-5, 3x Mazda NB MX-5, 1x Nissan R34 Skyline, 1x Nissan A31 Cefiro, 1x Nissan S13 Silvia, 2x Nissan S14 200SX, 2x Nissan S15 Silvia, 2x Toyota JZA80 Supra, 1x Mitsubishi Evolution 6 Tommi Makinen Edition, 1x Honda DC2 Integra, 1x Honda EF CRX, 1x Toyota EP71 Starlet Turbo S, 1x Toyota AE101 Levin GT-Apex, 3x Renault Megane RS, 2x Renault Clio RS, 1x Mercedes-Benz 190E…
I haven’t even scratched the surface yet, so consider that an insight into the fact I have a problem.
I also love a good project car. Managing editor Trent Nikolic suffers from the same condition, too.
However, in my older years, I’d noticed I’d begun to morph into a car guy who preferred owning a garage queen, as opposed to fixing and driving something more usable. By garage queen, I mean something made from unobtanium, that's rare, and in a condition too good for everyday use.
So, when I looked at my garage and began to assess whether my low kilometre, original paint wearing, 260kW at the tyre, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution 8 MR was the ideal car to put on the track, the result was fait accompli.
Firstly, it was too nice of an example to ruin, and secondly, it has way too much performance for someone looking to have good, clean fun.
So, a quick couple of arrangements were made, and that car was swiftly re-homed. It was more a matter of fending off people who wanted to buy it, than trying to find a buyer.
Was it the right thing to do? Yes, definitively. Do I miss it? Absolutely. Was it a fiscal error to sell it now? Yes, as that car will go on to be worth a stack in the near future.
The latter is where I was going wrong, however. I needed a car that was fit for purpose, and not some investment vessel that’ll make me money while I only sparingly enjoyed it.
So, I went on the hunt.
Criteria was basic: rear-wheel drive, cheap, room for my son who’s now two, and new-ish, so not to be a complete death-trap.
I initially tried to buy a BRZ slash Toyota 86, but every example I looked at I thought was palatable in price, was not up to my standard. I do understand this will be a weekender as well as a track toy, but I have standards, and I’m not quite ready to drop them yet.
Also, the lack of forced induction was slightly bothering me.
I know and acknowledge that naturally aspirated cars are great fun on the track, with excellent throttle response and a linear power delivery.
But I also know that when I get a cheeky evening to myself, to do whatever I want, alone, that driving down my favourite road in something turbocharged would appease me more. It’ll also allow me to enjoy the low-end torque, as well as the sound of spool, while still retaining my license and not breaking any laws.
With that notion in mind, I received some good news.
It was a sunny Saturday morning, and I was out walking with my wife, son, and dog, casually browsing classifieds and emails, as you do when you have a problem.
I noticed I’d been pinged via an alert I have setup for when specific used cars are listed for sale. What it brought to my attention was an absolutely perfect car, but with a huge catch.
It had everything going for it: In budget, rear-wheel drive, turbocharged, modified by the second owner, who was someone incredibly discerning who’d done their research, tens of thousands of dollars of receipts, incredibly low mileage. The works.
The catch was that it had two-seats – a Mazda NB MX-5 SE.
As a bit of a side story, the world can thank Australia for its very existence.
The SE is a factory-turbocharged version of the MX-5, that was sold around the world as the MazdaSpeed Miata in the States, or Roadster Turbo in Japan.
Interestingly, it was Australia who did it first, and inspired Mazda head office in Japan to build them for the rest of the globe. Story goes that a bunch of Mazda engineers sampled the local, Australian built SP model, which was the brainchild of Allan Horsley, Mazda’s motorsport manager of the time.
They were so enamoured by it, that they set off to recreate it for other markets. A few years later, the Mazdaspeed Miata arrived.
I do love MX-5s, and have owned three of the four generations, NA, NB, and ND. I’d heard the turbo SE models were great things, but also heard that you should drop any expectations of getting a super torque-y, strong midrange from one, in standard form.
Apparently, the MX-5 SE featured a flat powerband, that often didn’t live up to the expectations of people like I, who were coming from hi-po forced induction cars.
And in order to change this, it actually costs a small fortune, much like a naturally-aspirated car. You can’t just throw an exhaust on and turn the wick up, as they’re a little sensitive to such things. You need stand-alone engine management, custom pipework solutions, so on, so forth.
This car, however, looked to have the ultimate treatment applied to it – a no-expense spared build.
After reading the advertisement and getting somewhat of a sense of the build, I figured I’d call the seller. This was before informing my wife of what I was doing, who was about three metres in front of me, walking ahead.
I don’t usually buy overly modified cars as I prefer to do the work myself, to my standard, but I felt like the advertisement suggested this guy knew his stuff. He had a good, reputable workshop build the car for him, complete with all associated bills and invoices.
After a quick call, my fondness for the idea grew even further. The owner, Andrew, was a down-to-earth car guy, who wanted to build an MX-5 to match his old Lotus Elise S for performance.
He said he’d gotten close, which instantly excited me.
He also mentioned he had a guy coming to see it on Sunday, even though the listing was an hour old. I believed him, and luckily so, as he turned out to be as, initial suspicions suspected, as honest and straight-shooting as they come.
If I didn't make the move now, it'll be gone. Guaranteed.
I then informed my wife about the plan. She’s into her cars too, so it was a quick discussion. “Alright. Makes sense. Go for it,” was what I heard. I headed up to inspect the car right away, where it passed my inspection with flying colours. So it was bought then and there, on the spot.
It’s been about a month now, and there have been a few changes made, and some planned.
The original Racing Hart wheels have been put back on, as they are narrower than the 16x8-inch RPF1s the car came with. I found those wheels, especially with Advan AD-08 R-compound tyres, offering too much grip to be playful.
I still think factory 17-inch wheels are too big. I’m looking to replace these with a set of 16x7-inch wheels for the perfect balance of size and width. On the topic of wheels, a Nardi 330mm ‘deep corn’ steering wheel has also been purchased, that’ll be used when the car is on the track or skidpan.
Reason being is that I struggle to heel-toe shift with the large diameter factory steering wheel. I know it’ll be a pain to replace the wheel each and every time, but the extra comfort gained will be worth it.
I’ve also given the car a comprehensive detail, and fiddled with the adjustable suspension a touch, to free up some compliance in the ride.
Next major step is to take the car to an old friend, Benjamin Perry, who runs Benchmark Solutions.
I’m not completely sold on the current tune the vehicle has. It produces good power, 170kW at the wheels to be exact, and air-fuel ratios are great under wide open throttle, but it’s a little untidy in areas such as cold start, and transient throttle.
Benjamin is an absolute guru when it comes to data and tuning a vehicle that feels great on the road, in front of making absolute power. I’m excited to see how he transforms it for the better.
Drivability and longevity is key, not a number and a dyno paper printout here.
After that? Drive the thing, make a few more cosmetic and hardware changes, then try to hold onto it for more than a few months.