BBR Mazda MX-5 1.5 Turbo: Driven

It's no secret that we at PH have enjoyed a great deal of BBR's recent work with the Mazda MX-5: be it Mk3 or Mk4, turbocharged or naturally aspirated, the combination of more power with sharper handling has unsurprisingly won the tuner's handiwork many fans around here. The MX-5 is, after all, the Answer to Everything, is it not?

But this is something new. Because while it's another turbocharged MX-5 from BBR, it's based on the 1.5-litre version - and as far as we're aware, that's not been done before. Why not? Most likely because it looks like fighting a losing battle. Firstly, if you're chasing big power from a turbo'd MX-5, the 2.0-litre car would obviously provide a better basis. And secondly, the joy of the 1.5 is in its effervescent, revvy character; dull that with a sluggish turbo and a significant part of the basic MX-5's appeal would be lost - which feels like an unnecessary sacrifice for 200hp.

However, BBR is adamant that this hasn't happened, with the standard 1.5's 13:1 compression ratio maintained and a twin scroll, low inertia turbo used to aid response. Its 213hp peak is made at 7,150rpm (compared to 7,250rpm for the standard car), and 197lb ft arrives at 4,100rpm, where a non-turbo 1.5 makes 118lb ft at 4,650rpm.

The car you see here, BBR's demonstrator, is also fitted with a four-piston brake upgrade at the front as well as a new set of high performance springs. As the car taking part in Autocar's forthcoming Junior Handling Day, the MX-5 was also running OZ Superleggeras on Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres. Wheels and rubber aside, the upgrades are said to total £7,506, with this car now actually for sale at BBR. But more on that later...

On initial impression, the MX-5 in question is much like any other - a bit too small for taller drivers, with a steering wheel that's too big, and a chassis that's still a tad wobbly over broken surfaces. At the same time it's also a lovely size for a B-road and blessed with a great manual gearbox - like every MX-5 of the past 30 years.

What very few MX-5s have boasted since 1989 though, is an engine quite like this - BBR's work on the 1.5 is genuinely extraordinary, bestowing far more senior performance on its 1,496 cubic centimetres with seemingly no adverse effects. Certainly its enthusiasm for revs is not diminished one jot, and you'll search in vain for any meaningful lag. There's simply no sense of the MX-5 being turbocharged beyond going much, much faster than usual (and the occasional sneeze when the throttle is closed), with the engine still alert to every throttle movement and unerringly keen to nearly 8,000rpm. On the road this means that its driver has options that haven't existed in the entry-level MX-5 before; most notably the ability to rely on some torque - 197lb ft is more than a Yaris GRMN, while also carrying less weight - for overtakes, as well as buzzing through the ratios as you deem necessary.

If anything the turbo makes even more sense - and reveals what a clever upgrade it really is - on a circuit. Because there you spend more time in the upper reaches of the rev range, marvelling at the zeal such a small turbocharged engine can muster. It feels actually quick too, at any commitment level, another positive the torque contributes

However, there is a caveat to the BBR's circuit speed: those tyres. Cup 2s are about as performance-orientated as road rubber gets. Therefore while they meant a searing on-track performance, they did also rob the MX-5 of some of its endearingly accessible adjustability. Oversteer was typically only initiated by momentum, the window of opportunity open for less time and closed rather abruptly thanks to the huge gain in grip. They make the car faster, of course, yet less entertaining than MX-5s typically are, with the surfeit of grip making you crave even more power to exploit it. Still, they're easily changed.

The brake and suspension upgrades are more straightforward to recommend. The four-piston calipers deliver not only improved stopping power, but a firmer, more reassuring middle pedal for lap after lap. Given the amount of so called 'track cars' that really don't deliver on the braking front, the caliper upgrade isn't far off a revelation. As for the springs, they drastically reduce the pitch and roll that make the current MX-5 so underwhelming as a track car, delivering much of the accuracy and dynamism we've been craving in a 1,000kg sports car. It's not quite perfect, the dinky Mazda still settling resolutely on its outside corner a bit too easily, but it's a significant improvement on both road and track - there's composure and confidence to replace the vagueness and frustration felt before. Don't forget, too, that this is still using the standard damper from the 1.5; there's scope for something even more feisty if you wish.

That said, there's an awful lot to like in this BBR MX-5 as is. Dropping down to a slightly more road biased tyre should open up some of the rear-drive entertainment, with that incredible turbo conversion the perfect accompaniment. Would the car need a limited-slip diff to make the most of it? Perhaps.

Let's not lose sight of the overwhelmingly positive conclusion though: any concerns that the 1.5 would somehow be a poor relative have been allayed here. By retaining the standard car's zest and bringing in a level of performance that takes it comfortably beyond the 2.0-litre versions, this BBR model carves out its own very desirable niche in the MX-5 landscape. As has been discussed, the work doesn't come cheap, but not only are early 1.5s down to £13k (making a car like this achievable for around £20k), BBR's own demo is up for sale: it's done 13,000 miles and is up at £18,995.

Think about the alternatives there. More than 200hp, kerbweight near a tonne and some proper circuit ability. Caterhams, Elises and VX220s would be more exciting still, but more fragile and less accommodating. An S2000 is tangibly slower. And a £19k Boxster is 11 years old. The BBR MX-5 turbo cars are very hard to argue against, and very easy to love (that's coming from someone not all that keen on the whole Jinba Ittai thing) - put your prejudices aside and try one, because they're absolutely tremendous. 


Engine: 1,496cc, 4-cyl turbo
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 213@7,150rpm
Torque (lb ft): 197@4,100rpm
0-62mph: N/A (standard car 8.3 seconds)
Top speed: N/A (standard car 127mph)
Weight: 1,050kg (with 75kg driver)
MPG: 47.1mpg (NEDC combined for standard car)
CO2: 139g/km (standard car)
Price: Standard car + Stage 1 kit from £4,395 DIY or £4,995 fitted, plus VAT, see BBR for further details; this car £18,995

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Comments (29) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Hugh Jarse 04 Aug 2018

    Sounds spot on.
    Amazed that they can work turbocharging around such a high compression ratio.
    Only downside, as the article states is the plethora of second hand nargains around of fancier cars.

  • snake_oil 04 Aug 2018

    Tremendous indeed. Great idea giving the 1.5 the BBR treatment and having the skills to retain the zing of the lower capacity engine.

    Superb. Tempting at 19k too.

  • Onehp 04 Aug 2018

    Those are Ultraleggeras.

    Sorry, I would prefer the new NA 2.0 engine with the lsd and uprated dampers. Or just the basic 1.5, together with the pitch and roll, it works just fine on the road, very exploitable and enjoyable performance.

    Edited by Onehp on Saturday 4th August 09:58

  • jwwbowe 04 Aug 2018

    Very attractive package, I think BBR will be busier than ever in a year or two as the prices drop for earlier versions of this generation of MX5, mainly as it’s a desirable car out of the Mazda showroom (very impressed with the mass figures in this day and age) but lacking in a little poke for some so this suits nicely.

    I like the look of what they have done with the N/A 2.0 more as a sort of spiritual successor to a S2000 (let’s face it Honda aren’t going to give us another like it frown ) but this 1.5 turbo looks good value IMO. Think I would leave the graphics option un-ticked though!

  • Jaroon 04 Aug 2018

    I'd like to see some before and after performance stats.

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