If America sat on its mighty hands in the 1940s it might actually be Australia harpooning whales for dinner these days.
And likewise, we have the Yanks to thank for transistor radios, light bulbs, the polio vaccine, and all manner of other mindless things we take for granted. And now we might have something new to add to this list, thanks to the Yanks’ penchant for big-block grunt.
You see, Mazda will take any opportunity to crow on about the lightweight ethos of its iconic MX-5 convertible. More power is not its philosophy, it might say. And the Japanese brand has clung to its guns resolutely if nothing else. (We sorta get their point, but we can’t help but think the price has been just as carefully considered as any Colin Chapman-esque antics. Power costs.)
But it didn’t matter how hard the Japanese repeated the lightweight mantra, sometimes to get the attention of an American you need to add extra cheese. And in fact when the ND MX-5 was in the pencil-chewing stage, with Mazda considering its 1.5-litre high-compression ‘SkyActiv’ donk, the story goes North America said we need more cubes if this thing is going to sell properly.
For the ND MX-5 to get serious traction in the US market it needed a donk that messed with the actual traction. And so for its latest, fourth-generation car, Mazda is trying a new strategy in offering a ‘big block’ (the most dubious use of that term, ever) MX-5, a 2.0-litre, alongside the smaller, rortier MX-5 1.5.
Which brings us to the reason we’re here today: any time a car company offers two variants of the same sports car, one with more poke, you can count on our ears to prick up. In this case, wondering if the 118kW of the 2.0-litre is worth the extra $2500 over the 1.5-litre, 96kW version – a fun car, but unless you were wearing a jester costume, not one you’d take to the Wednesday night drags.
To some extent the Americans’ demand for more kilowatts from the MX-5 is shared in Australia. Since time began the MX-5 has copped flak for lacking horsepower, but in fact it’s us Aussies who are especially guilty of adding the tabasco sauce to taste, turbocharging during the second-generation with the Oz-only, Prodrive-built SP.
And then there was the tamer but factory-built SE (also our doing). Both cars disappeared quick as they came, hurried off as a limited edition or by a new generation.
For ND both 1.5- and 2.0-litre pinch engines from the existing Mazda range, in the 2.0-litre’s case the Mazda 3. It’s no more powerful than the old 2.0-litre in the previous NC, but the ND’s lower weight means the 2.0-litre scores the titles of highest power-to-weight and torque-to-weight ratio for a global MX-5 yet.
Despite the war on grams the MX-5 2.0-litre weighs 24kg more than the 1.5, due to bigger wheels (17s v 16s), tyres (205mm Bridgestones v 195mm Yokohamas), dampers, and brake discs (280mm v 258mm).
The 2.0-litre doesn’t rev as hard as its 1.5-litre baby brother, either. Both engines sport an undersquare bore/stroke ratio, but a full counterweight steel crankshaft in the 1.5-litre lets it spin to 7500rpm, or 700rpm more than the 2.0-litre. While peak torque for both engines arrives virtually at the same rpm, peak power crests 1000rpm apart, the 1.5-litre’s 96kW lobs at 7000rpm to the 2.0-litre’s 118kW at 6000rpm.
It can’t rev as hard but the 2.0-litre’s extra 22kW/50Nm arrive earlier, and the story plays out as much on the drag strip. One might think an MX-5 enjoys the drag strip like a cat does a shower, but that would be cruel and untrue.
Pointing our Soul Red, muscled-up 2.0-litre down Heathcote’s Raceway, you’ll need 3500rpm before quickly stepping off the clutch. Nail it and you’ll catapult forward in a frenzy of tyre squeal, knocking off 100km/h in 6.97 seconds before tagging 400m in 14.98.
Launch technique is identical in the 1.5-litre but you’ll need to apply another 1500rpm. No real surprise it lags by a second to 100km/h (7.9sec) and is almost eight tenths behind at the quarter mile mark (15.76sec) but no less interesting. Plus, dare we say, it’s more fun.
Where the 2.0-litre makes using every last rpm almost chore-ish, its delivery ironing-board flat and more reliant on a fatter mid-range, it’s more exciting revving the perky 1.5-litre right out, each shift of its six-speed gearbox more of a zinger.
With another 600rpm available the smaller 1.5-litre also sounds better, more rortier. That said, even with both donks blaring through a plumbed intake tract and tuned exhaust system you wouldn’t set either as your ringtone.
When it comes to stomping the middle pedal, both cars are much closer. Even with its wider rubber and larger discs, the 2.0-litre stops just 20cm shorter, probably owing to those 24kg. But if you’d never measured the difference, after a blat on the road you’d swear it stopped harder.
Approaching corners the 2.0-litre’s brakes feel acres stronger than the 1.5’s. With firmer springs, a wider footprint and upsized braking hardware, the 2.0-litre avoids any dramatic dive when you hit the stops. Unlike the 1.5-litre, which is almost theatrical in its dive, roll and squat. (Okay, maybe dive and roll.)
The 2.0-litre’s firmer suspension marries up well with the extra rubber, the result being you can attack harder and cover ground quicker, easily able to pull a sizeable gap on the 1.5. But where the 2.0-litre’s suspension feels firm, the 1.5’s setup is, as alluded, a fair bit softer. But it’s not necessarily for the worse.
Whereas you can get away with manhandling the 2.0-litre, the 1.5 requires more of a deft touch, responding less tolerably to cack-handed inputs and seeming to enjoy a softly-softly approach. Smooth application of the brakes as you load up the nose, a delicate steering input to load up the suspension, and then coming out of both just as gently as the body moves through exaggerated arcs.
And you quickly learn that this is not a car you jump in and prod the ESP off, the 1.5-litre eager to oversteer at the smallest of provocations. And on those skinny 195s it’s either happening at a nice, safe, low speed, or much earlier than you were expecting.
In fact driving the 1.5-litre fast takes real skill, and in turn it can be educational. Accelerate too early and you’ll pick up understeer. Likewise you’re forced to be smooth and look further down the road. If Mr Myagi (from The Karate Kid, where’s your culture?) was ever reincarnated as a car, it’d be this.
And, naturally, the softer set-up works well over bumps. Both feel well damped during hard driving and soak up imperfections well, but the 1.5-litre feels calmer over shoddy roads, its cushier tyres and soft springs doing their part. (That’s not to say it rides like a Rolls-Royce, though, transmitting most of a road’s imperfections over the higher-frequency stuff at cruising speed, but otherwise it’s fine.)
But, in general, driving both back-to-back reveals two surprisingly different cars. With more grip and firmer suspension the 2.0-litre is the meaner, faster cornering device – more of a traditional performance car as we would know around these parts – responding well to having its scruff grabbed and thrown about.
Or at least it’ll tolerate a more ham-fisted, aggressive driving style. Load up the outside rear and squeeze the gas out of a corner and it’ll even serve up a side-step necessitating a quick steering correction. Yep, power oversteer, junior-burger style.
The 1.5 is less tolerant of such a boofhead driving style, however. It better suits the more methodical driver applying inputs in dabs rather than stabs, happiest with a more slow-motion approach.
That’s not to say it’s slow, but there might be a long adjustment period downgrading your Renault Sport Megane to a 1.5-litre MX-5. It gets a lot out of its 96kW and feels faster than it is, owing as much to its lack of sound deadening as its peaky 7500rpm redline. But be in no doubt, the 2.0 is much faster.
It’ll dispose of L-platers quicker, 80-120km/h disappearing 1.5sec faster in third (4.8sec). And, unlike the 1.5, it won’t necessarily require the next lowest gear in anticipation of a long hill.
As you may have guessed by our one interior shot for this feature, both cars share more or less identical cabins, owing more to what spec you grab than engine. And in turn both have the same perks, and problems. For starters you slide into both interiors like a pair of jeans fresh out of the dryer, both being nothing if not efficiently packaged.
To save weight you can only adjust the steering wheel for tilt, not for reach, so it can be tricky to get yourself in the perfect position, but whatever you arrive at, you do get used to. Taller drivers should fit under the roof without too much hassle, as well.
The ND MX-5 is noisy – the roof lets in a lot of sound, whether road, wind or just other traffic. In the wet you can hear water washing up inside the rear wheelwells very distinctly. But for compromises that’s really about as bad as it gets. And you’re not buying a Boxster, anyway.
So, verdict. Just $2500 separates two very different cars. Grab the 1.5-litre if you can tell the NA from NB, NC from ND and if you talk in power-to-weight figures rather than kilowatts or 0-100km/h times.
It takes patience and experience to punt the 1.5-litre fast, and if you don’t know how at the start, and are keen to learn, you’ll come out the end a better driver. And it’s the truer MX-5: the simplified, purer driving tool that Mazda always intended to build. And of course you pocket a bit of coin grabbing it over the 2.0-litre.
But we’d spend it. The 2.0-litre’s extra herbs just make it more fun, give it more sizzle and the extra grip lines up better with our tastes (perhaps we’ve been driving too many hot hatches).
And at the end of the day, we’re still talking only 118kW and 205-section tyres here – something like a Ford Fiesta ST would still see it off up a twisty road. But the roof doesn’t come off a Fiesta ST, so if you’re grabbing an ND MX-5 get the ‘big block’: it’s the bit of butter we didn’t realise the bread needed ’til we tried.
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