I'll let you in on a secret: I may have been one of the only automotive journalists on the planet to have never driven a Mazda MX-5 Miata, until a few weeks ago. I'm a tubby guy, that's certainly no secret — and until last month, I didn't actually fit in Mazda's diminutive roadster. But after months of hard work, diet and exercise, my 85-pound weight loss now lets me fit comfortably behind the wheel of the iconic sports car, and I finally get what everyone raves about. The thing is magic to drive.
No sooner had I piloted my first Miata, a brand-new 2017 "ND" model in Mazda-speak, than I found myself behind the wheel of a hotted-up version at the M1 Concourse raceway park. Mazda invited select journalists to come try the Mazda MX-5 Cup racecar at this private track just a few miles north of downtown Detroit in advance of the weekend's Grand Prix festivities, but the company also brought something special — the Long Road Racing "Ultimate" MX-5.
Turn-key Track Star
Long Road Racing is the company Mazda uses to build the MX-5 Cup racecar, a turnkey track star you can buy directly from Mazda Motorsports that's used for the Global MX-5 Cup racing series. For just this side of $59,000, you get a new Miata that has been heavily reworked to racing specifications, including a new custom suspension, headers and exhaust, wheels and tires, full roll cage, racing seats, fire suppression system, gutted interior and much more. Engines and transmissions are sealed, special Used Engine control units are fitted to ensure parity among racers and amateur owners travel the country racing against as many as 50 other participants at various tracks.
If you win, Mazda sends you some cash and will help bootstrap you up the ranks of Mazda Motorsports' other increasingly advanced racing series. At the top are the prototype-level racecars — Mazda is one of the only automakers to sponsor several racing divisions to train drivers up through the ranks internally, with a focus on affordable grassroots competition as a way to build customer excitement. As long as you keep winning, Mazda will keep helping you out for as far as you want to rise.
But for those of us who don't have that kind of cash or racing ability, there's another option for a fancier, faster Miata. Long Road took its expertise in developing the MX-5 Cup car and applied it to a package it'll sell you for the new ND, something they call the Ultimate MX-5.
Firing up the Ultimate MX-5 at the M1 Concourse paddock immediately clues you in to the fact that this is not a weekend grocery getter. Yes, the interior looks completely stock, with the Grand Touring trim model I sampled still featuring the leather seats, multimedia system, airbags and all the goodies that make it a street-legal, comfortable little sportster. But fire up that Used Engine and head out onto the track, and you soon see that Long Road's tuning experts have breathed on this little dragon pretty heavily.
"We didn't want to create a racecar for the street," says Glenn Long, founder and top dog at Long Road Racing. "We wanted something that you could option the way you want, without the limitations of Mazda's packages, but that still could get you home with a dozen eggs in the trunk that haven't become an omelet."
So think of the Ultimate as a step between your showroom-stock Miata and the Cup racecar.
How Fast Can You Afford?
The list of modifications is as long as you want it to be. How fast can you afford to go? The Used Engine hasn't been touched much, with the LRR headers, exhaust and ECU tuning providing an additional 15 horsepower at the wheels, according to Glenn Long. You can also choose from an array of mufflers, from quieter-than-stock to louder-than-hell, depending on what personality you wish to bestow upon your Miata.
Where the Ultimate's magic really lies is in its suspension and chassis tuning. Wilwood brakes have been added up front, six-piston calipers with rotors 2 inches larger than stock (the rears are already adequate). LRR offers a suspension kit that includes custom strut tower braces front and rear, sway bars and two possible spring-and-damper combinations. LRR will only sell it to you as a kit, however, so you can't buy the suspension bits piecemeal. Steering, transmission and clutch remain unchanged from stock.
Stock Vs. Stacked
Driving the Ultimate MX-5 back-to-back with a stock Miata Grand Touring reveals just how different the Ultimate feels. The stock Miata hustled around the M1 Concourse's tight track with its usual verve and eagerness, the lightness of the car and directness of the steering communicating back to the driver everything that was going on. But the LRR Ultimate MX-5 was just that much better.
The biggest difference comes in composure — you don't realize how much the stock Miata rolls through curves until you experience one back-to-back that's almost completely flat around the same bends. The tires are also a stickier compound and, combined with the suspension modifications, make the Ultimate MX-5 feel far grippier and more confidence-inspiring on the track.
The Used Engine hasn't been touched, but the exhaust certainly has. On startup and idle, the Ultimate MX-5 growls like a little monster and sounds absolutely wonderful at full throttle. It feels a little quicker than the stock Miata, but that may simply be a combination of flatter, tauter suspension and louder exhaust fooling you into thinking you're going faster.
All of the modifications you could possibly order won't top $15,000, according to LRR. Start off with the right car and you could roll out for under $40,000 all-in. And you'd have a true sports car that's even more entertaining than a stock Miata, something that would seem inconceivable — if it weren't actually true.