(PH contributor Adam Towler in roof up 'Open Season' shocker. Boo!)
Twenty years ago Mazda UK decided that it wanted to offer an MX-5 with a lot more performance. It sought an external contractor to turbocharge the car, and well-known tuning and race preparation firm BBR secured the gig, supplying 150bhp conversion kits that were fitted by Mazda main dealers. Some 1,200 cars were eventually converted in this way, the results amusing, thrilling and occasionally worrying buyers and journalists alike.
Since then, many firms have provided both turbocharger and supercharger kits for Mazda's little wonder, with varying degrees of power increases, prices and ability. It always seems a tempting option: teaming the definitive low-cost, rear-wheel drive roadster with the kind of power to kick the rear end out at will and make overtaking a less fraught activity.
But now BBR is back with a 20-year update on its original kit (for mk1 or 2 models, and 1.6 or 1.8-litre cars). The Brackley-based company has released a conversion that consists of a Garrett GT25 turbocharger (running at 8.5psi); a cast alloy exhaust manifold; a front mounted, air-to-air intercooler (the original kit had this item behind the radiator for cost/ease of fitment reasons); BBR's Interceptor 2010 engine management computer with 3D mapping and external pressure sensor; larger fuel injectors; stainless steel downpipe; new cool air induction and a modified sump, coolant/oil piping and uprated hoses and fixings.
This is enough to see 221bhp at 6,900rpm and 175lb ft at 5,100rpm on a 1.6-litre car, the conversion set up with the emphasis on providing a smooth, linear, power delivery (further power increases are available if desired). You can choose to fit the kit yourself, in which case you're looking at £3,995 worth of damage to your wallet, or you can get BBR to fit the kit for you at £4,995. Moreover, BBR is offering complete, 'Anniversary' turnkey cars, and it's one of these that we're sampling today.
For £7,995 they'll source a mk1 MX-5, strip it down and give it full re-spray, trim the seats in leather and fit the turbo kit. Beyond that, there's a list of options to choose from, including a big brake kit (£545 for 255/251mm discs), a limited slip diff with longer final drive (£1,295), larger wheel/tyre packages, a mohair hood with glass rear window (£695) etc. The idea being that the final product is tailored to your requirements.
This pearlescent white demo car has everything on it, so you're looking at around £12,000+ for something of this nature. Strong money, but I have to say that nestled in the back of BBR's workshop this MX-5 stops me in my tracks when I first see it: the combination of the fresh paint with black details - wheels, mirrors, new front splitter and rear wing - plus the lowered ride height and stuck on number plate looks fantastic. It's simply impossible not to break out into a wide grin as you walk around it.
It's also impossible not to register that it's turbocharged from the moment you pull away. Just like any original mx5, there's a delicious honesty and purity to the car, and even on the lightest of throttles there's a clearly audible hiss from the turbo and a giggle of excess pressure being released as soon as you lift off. Lag seems minimal, and the little engine has an enthusiastic, gruff voice that hardens instantly as the boost joins in, a little like you'd hear from the original Mitsubishi Lancer Evo engines.
At anything between 2000-4500rpm this MX-5 surges forward instantly, easily keeping ahead of other traffic, overtaking in a relaxed manner and constantly surprising other motorists. You can leave a 30mph zone in fourth gear yet pile on an additional 30mph with no fuss and in very little time. But venture into the upper reaches of the rev range and you suddenly discover what 221bhp in a car weighing this little means: the BBR MX-5 flies and you're soon working the wonderful gearbox to locate the next cog. As a comparison, this little roadster would have absolutely nothing to fear over keeping up with a Porsche Cayman S, or the latest band of high-powered hot hatches.
BBR has resurrected the variable rate spring specification from its 1990 conversion - softer than many other spring kits - and together with Spax adjustable dampers on a soft setting and a sensible wheel/tyre combo this MX-5 corners flat and hard yet with real delicacy and a decent ride, while traction is surprisingly good even in slippery, wintry conditions. The car might show its age in certain areas, but driver feedback and fun exceed most moderns.
BBR are positioning the car as a part-road, part-track day proposition, and considering the performance, the rear-drive factor, reliability (a two year warranty is included) and cheapness of servicing - and repairs, should you stack it - it seems an ideal candidate. It may be towards the expensive end of the tuning market for these cars, but the BBR MX-5 is a brilliant package that's simply enormous fun to drive.