The ever-evolving Mazda roadster hits a new high with the latest version, combining a cleaner and more powerful engine with familiar chassis brilliance. By CJ Hubbard

WELCOME TO ROMANIA, home of Dracula, Dacia and the Transfagarasan road across the Carpathian mountains, so famously wiggly that on paper it looks like the output of a seismograph someone has accidentally knocked off a shelf in the middle of recording a minor geological event. It’s got more hairpins than Claire’s Accessories, climbs to over 2000 metres and sounds like the ideal place to launch a new, more powerful evolution of the Mazda MX-5.

You’ll need to get up early. For if the changeable weather conditions, rippled surfaces and potholes so large they’ve got names weren’t hazard enough, the road also functions as Romania’s major tourist attraction, so come lunchtime it’s clogged with sluggardly obstructions.

These (barely) mobile chicanes would have been a challenge for previous iterations of the MX-5. For all that it’s generally been a sweet-handling little machine, Mazda’s dinky sports car has never been overburdened with a surfeit of outright performance. Gladly, the 2019 version (actually on sale right about now) has taken a big step towards solving this problem with the introduction of an upgraded 2.0-litre SkyActiv engine.

This happily smashes the latest WLTP and Euro 6d emissions requirements to help keep the environmentally- conscious happy – and let’s face it, that really should be all of us these days – yet still ends up with an extra 23bhp. That means the 2.0-litre MX-5 has a grand total of 181bhp, with nary a turbocharger in sight.

That’s quite an achievement. It’s as if Mazda’s engineers locked the accountants in a cupboard, then blew the budget on a whole host of oily goodies, which I’m just going to go ahead and nerd-out on for a moment.

To make more power you need more air, so the entire intake assembly has been reconfigured – with enlarged throttle body, ports and valves, and a smoother intake manifold. The air also takes a shorter path to the engine for improved throttle response. To make use of that air you need more fuel, which arrives via new higher-pressure, multi-stage injectors. A new exhaust camshaft combined with larger, lighter exhaust valves and increased diameter for the exhaust ports and exhaust manifold then gets rid of the waste gases more efficiently. There’s a new main silencer for sexier noises, too, but I couldn’t tell the difference.

This is all excellent, but brace yourself – the really exciting part happens between intake and exit: new lightweight pistons and connecting rods, asymmetric piston rings and a stiffer counterbalanced crankshaft allow the new engine to rev faster and higher.

With 227g of internal weight savings, the 2.0-litre now sings to the 7500rpm limit previously reserved for the smaller 1.5-litre engine, instead of calling time at an unsatisfying 6800rpm. Mazda has also done some clever stuff with dual-mass flywheels and vibration damping to further bring out the best of the four-pot.

mazda mx5 first driveGot some cake? Then eat it, as the zingy, rev-happy appeal of the 1.5 is now fully present and correct in the big motor. As such this is, unquestionably, the MX-5 you should now choose – the additional 51bhp the 2.0 musters over the 1.5 compounded by the 0-62mph time dipping to 6.5sec, some 0.8sec faster than before. What’s more, while peak torque only rises slightly to 151lb ft from 148, there’s substantially more muscle at higher revs, energising delivery when you’re stretching the engine. This comes in very handy when the extra reach of that additional 700rpm has us flashing between Romanian switchbacks in utterly unsympathetic abuse of second gear.

Other changes of note include a stop-start system for the first time (unexpectedly shuddery awfulness), some extra safety equipment (on highspec versions) and a new GT Sport Nav+ trim level (regular Sport Nav+ is just fine). If you’re after exterior visual clues to The New Hotness, you can forget it – the body remains exactly the same.

On the inside, however, Mazda has now fitted a reach-adjustable steering wheel. The joy, the unspeakable joy, of finally being able to find a truly comfortable driving position. This should be loudly applauded. You can also add Apple CarPlay and Android Auto via a dealer-fit box.

There are no chassis alterations, since Mazda reckons that area was already peachy.
But since we’ve got a mountain and the opportunity, time for a few back-to-back observations about the standard suspension versus the Bilstein set-up fitted on 2.0-litre Sport models.

The standard car feels like it’s been dialled-in by someone who wants to slide around a circuit they know really well. It’s soft, so it rides nicely, but it’s very much inclined to roll at the rear, which can punish the timid or the clumsy (and sometimes I’m both) by snapping into oversteer. Great if you know where the road goes, not ideal if you’re in unfamiliar climes with a 1500m drop on one side. Be decisive on the brakes, go for a slow-in, fast-out approach, however, and everything seems to click nicely into place. Excellent.

The Bilsteins are much firmer, which gives you a much more instant perception of grip levels and control – closer in behaviour to a Toyota GT86. The impact on the ride is potentially hateful if you’re the passenger, but certainly tolerable if you’re the driver, since you can carry more speed into the corner, get back on the power earlier out of the corner, execute sudden direction changes without fear. So this version is also excellent, and ultimately faster, sooner – though perhaps not as involving as the regular version.

You sense a happy medium between the two ought to be achievable, but hey. Whichever floats your boat, the new engine is a no-brainer – and it’s available in the RF if you must, too. And, miraculously, all these improvements come accompanied by only minimal price increases.

MAZDA MX-52.0-LITRE SPORT NAV + CONVERTIBLE

> Price £24,795 > Engine 1998cc 16v 4-cyl, 181bhp @ 7000rpm, 151lb ft @ 4000rpm > Transmission 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive > Performance 6.5sec 0-62mph, 136mph, 40.9mpg, 156g/km CO2 > Weight 1030kg > On sale September 2018

UP AGAINST

BETTER THAN
Fiat 124 Ugly fake Mazda; why bother?
WORSE THAN
A lightly used Boxster Not that you’ll find one for this money
WE’D BUY
A Mk1 MX-5 But the 2019 car makes more sense

MARKING

L O V E
Extra power, finally sitting comfortably
H A T E
Still getting dusted by diesel hatchbacks
V E R D I C T
Turbos? Where we’re going, you don’t need turbos…
★ ★ ★ ★

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