Yes. And we’re going to cut to the chase – the 675 LT is the best McLaren road car since the original F1. This is the one we’ve been waiting for.
Really. To be reductive about it, the 675 LT – it stands for Long Tail, a tribute to McLaren’s reworked 1997 endurance racer – is McLaren’s answer to the Ferrari 458 Speciale, a lightweight, more powerful track-focused limited series car, absolutely dripping with aerodynamic know-how.
It’ll rip to 62mph in 2.9 seconds, 124mph in a barely believable 7.9 seconds, and thunder on until it’s all done at 205mph.
It has a dry weight of 1230 kg – 100 less than the 650S – which translates into a 542bhp-per-tonne power-to-weight ratio. It also generates 40 per cent more downforce than the 650S.
See the name logo on the side skirts? On the 650S that’s 4mm thick. Here it’s just 2mm…
McLaren has always been great at numbers, and slightly less brilliant at the emotional stuff. Didn’t Ron Dennis say he ‘could scientifically prove’ the 12C was the best super sports car in the world’?
Indeed he did. That’s why the 675 LT is such a revelation – because they’ve figured out how to be comfortable in their own skin.
There was always a sense that the Fun Police were on standby at McLaren, wondering why the hell anyone would want to get a car sideways.
Well, plod has been given his marching orders. And the LT has an ESC button that can be firmly switched off. And it has a dead simple launch control mode. What a rebel.
Fantastic. So now McLaren have become anything-goes hippies?
Hardly. After a 45-minute immersion, it’s difficult to think of a road car that’s more focused or intense than this.
It’s the work of some very clever people, and the form/function thing hasn’t been completely kicked into touch. They’ve just lightened up a bit.
Sure, an unrepentant purist might still grumble about the fact that the engine uses forced induction and isn’t normally aspirated, but – more numbers – only a total berk could find fault with 666bhp (at 7100rpm) and/or 516 torques (between 5500rpm and 6500rpm).
The 3.8-litre twin-turbo now has lighter connecting rods and camshafts, and a reprofiled titanium exhaust (in fact, 50 per cent of its components are new).
The result is a monumentally fast car. Crazy fast. Almost other-worldly.
What about the non-fast parts of the supercar experience?
They’re the best bits, to be honest. A hefty percentage of this car is effectively new, even if it looks like a modded 650S, and you can genuinely feel them work for you.
The front bumper has a bigger splitter and new end plates, the under body is new, the side skirts are reprofiled, the side air intakes are new, as is the lower panel on the rear bodyside, the rear wings are different, the rear screen is polycarbonate, and the airbrake is 50 per cent bigger and more effective.
The aero detail is immense for a road car: for example, the dirty air around the front wheelarches is, says McLaren, ‘cleaned’ as it’s channelled towards the rear of the car by the side skirts (they’re made of carbon fibre, by the way, as is most of the LT).
The second side intake funnels cooling air into the radiators: they’re the same size as the ones you’ll find on the 650S, but the angle has been increased from 15 to 19 degrees to make them more efficient.
Efficient! It’s all about efficiency, isn’t it?
Yes. And no. Here’s another example. The LT’s front and rear track have been widened by 20mm, to promote improved grip and overall agility, and the ride height at the front has been reduced by 20mm, so that it cleaves the air at a more rakish angle.
This in turn gets rid of the air at the back of the car more, er, efficiently, and makes the rear diffuser work harder. All of this aero activity moves the centre of pressure forwards, resulting in superior front downforce. Or so the McLaren guys tell us.
So how does it feel?
So good it’s genuinely tricky to describe. But ‘feel’ is the word.
A lot of contemporary supercars have such high limits – of adhesion and performance – that it’s difficult to get close to them without being superhuman or going toe-to-toe with the Grim Reaper.
The 675 LT is no Caterham Seven, but a faster rack means that the steering is sublime and the linearity of its major control responses – primarily the throttle – is superb. The brakes are unchanged, but have perfect feel.
Like the 650S, the LT uses McLaren’s ProActive Chassis Control (hydraulically interconnected dampers) and Brake Steer, but the Normal, Sport and Track settings have all been reworked to deliver edgier responses. The suspension features new and lighter springs all-round, with uprights and wishbones derived, says McLaren, from the P1.
The 675 LT also benefits from bespoke Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R rubber, 235/35/R19s at the front, 305/30 R20s at the rear, which offer precisely six per cent more grip than the regular ones, while the forged alloys are even lighter than the rims fitted to the P1.
The result is a car that attacks corners with an insatiable hunger, relaying every morsel of information into the palms of your hands, while remaining astonishingly composed over sudden crests, surface imperfections, or ugly camber changes.
Rarely have compliance and cornering agility come together to such spectacular effect.
Wow. Anything else?
Hell yes. It’s so useable, despite its huge performance. The 675 LT has a low cowl, and the driving position is pretty much perfect, so you can position it on the road like it’s an earthbound Eurofighter.
It’s also relatively compact, so you’re not fidgeting nervously against the white lines or hedges. It fits, and its turn-in is possibly the best we’ve ever encountered on a road car.
And its transmission is equally mighty. It’s fast whatever the setting, but in Track mode, with more than 5000rpm dialled up and 60 per cent throttle, McLaren’s ‘Inertia Push’ tech delivers what it calls an ‘impulse of torque’ as the next gear is engaged.
Shift times are just 40ms, but the key thing here is that the driver isn’t left in the cold. It’s like being invited into the heart of a chemical reaction.
A few. The first is that the 675 LT costs £259,500 before you start adding the carbon exterior pack (£7890), or the track telemetry camera (£3400), or maybe the Meridian 10-speaker audio upgrade (£3150).
That’s a mountain of money, but academic – all 500 675 LTs have been sold. McLaren reckons a fair percentage of these will see regular track use, in which case their owners will need to respect this car’s remarkable potential.
Sport mode gives you more slip angles to play with, and the ESC can be completely switched off. At which point you’ll discover that those slip angles are actually quite narrow, and you need to be on the ball.
The current supercar breed has so many algorithms so deeply integrated into the car’s ‘mainframe’ that doing without them is an increasingly risky enterprise. Not to mention slower.
The original F1 didn’t have any fancy electronics.
No, it didn’t. In many ways, the 675 LT is channelling some of that car’s singular character, raw edges included. The LT will mind its own business if you want it to, but knowing what it’s capable is arguably the biggest buzz of all.
First Drive: Ferrari 488 GTB 2dr Auto
What’s this, then?
At the risk of sounding like the dramatic voiceover from an action movie trailer, this is a big moment in the history of fast cars.
The Ferrari 488 GTB is the replacement for the 458 Italia and potentially a very large nail in the coffin of natural aspiration.
Yes, the atmospheric V8 Ferrari is dead: Ferrari’s mid-engined supercar has gone turbocharged.
Two reasons: power and economy. Though Maranello is officially exempt from average CO2 targets binding mass-market manufacturers, it must be seen to show willing - and short of bolting on a heavy, expensive hybrid module (or switching to diesel), turbocharging is the only realistic way to raise efficiency and lower emissions.
Perhaps more significantly, though, it’s about keeping up in the power wars. With Ferrari targeting an increase of around 100bhp on the 458 Italia, Maranello’s engineers admit it would have been all but impossible to squeeze so much more from the naturally aspirated V8, at least not without compromising reliability, thoroughly blowing the budget or embracing a much bigger, heavier engine.
Look at the bald figures, and it’s difficult to argue. 2004’s Ferrari F430 made 483bhp and 343lb ft from its 4.3-litre, naturally aspirated V8 engine. It’d do 0-62mph in 3.7 seconds and 0-124mph in 12.2, while officially returning 18mpg and 345g/km CO2.
The new 488 GTB? 661bhp - a near-180bhp jump in 11 years - and 560lb ft from its twin-turbo 3.9-litre V8. Vital stats? 3.0 seconds to 62mph and 8.3 to 124mph, along with 25mpg and a piffling 260g/km CO2. That, in strictly numerical terms, is serious progress.
That 661bhp headline equates to the highest specific power output of any road-going Ferrari, a meaty 169bhp per litre of displacement. If the Dodge Viper’s V10 managed the same power density, it’d make 1400bhp.
But supercars aren’t just about numbers. They’re about, like, sensation and stuff.
Correct. Those who buy city cars, or motorway rep-mobiles, will accept fuzzy throttle response and a droney noise as a trade-off for a decent squirt of overtaking power and a half-price tax disc.
Not those in market for a screaming V8 supercar, as Ferrari is well aware. One of the trademarks of the 458’s naturally aspirated eight was its whipcrack reactions up and down the rev range, spinning up and back with extraordinary, inertia-free alacrity. Maranello knows it needs to serve up a similarly engaging experience with its mid-engined turbo offering, so has thrown its full suite of engine tech at the 488’s powerplant.
It’s a new flat-plane crank V8 of no relation to the 458’s, dry-sumped and, Ferrari claims, offering the quickest throttle response time of any blown sports car engine. If you’re doing 2000rpm in third gear and stab the throttle, the 488 will give you maximum power in point-eight of a second. That, says Ferrari, is just a tenth shy of the 458’s reactions, an engine never regarded as tardy, exactly.
Hang on. Isn’t it the same engine as the California T?
The 3902cc V8 engine is from the same ‘F154’ family as that of the new California T, but shares very little in the way of individual components with the Cali’s wet-sumped motor.
There’s a new crank and conrods; redesigned cylinder heads; new cams, intake system and cranktrain; bespoke intercoolers. A different, noisier exhaust too.
Even the turbos are all-new, the compressor wheels fashioned of an aerospace-grade, low-density titanium-aluminium alloy to reduce inertia, with Ferrari boldly promising ‘zero lag’.
Does it deliver?
We’ll come to that in a sec. First you need to know about the aero.
If Ferrari let its engineers go crazy on the engine, the aerodynamics clearly represent a breakout at the asylum. There’s plenty of F1-derived knowhow here - in fact, so strict are Formula One’s bodywork regulations that there’s arguably more aero cleverness here than on Seb Vettel’s F2015. Only the roof panel has been carried over from the 458.
Up front is a double spoiler, the top section ramming air into the radiator while the larger, lower section generates downforce under the front of the car.
The underbody includes faintly ominous sounding vortex generators, which reduce pressure to create ground effect without adding drag. The result, says Ferrari, is a car with a lower drag coefficient than its predecessor, but one capable of generating 325kg of downwards lift a 155mph. That’s proper downforce, 50 per cent more than the 458 generates.
Need more aero? Round the back there’s a diffuser with computer-controlled active flaps, which open or close to reduce drag or increase downforce respectively.
And see that little hole at the base of the rear screen? That’s the intake for the 488’s ‘blown spoiler’ arrangement.
“We don’t like to add aerodynamic devices on top of the form,” explains Ferrari design chief Flavio Manzoni. So instead of a fat, 911 GT3 RS-style rear wing, the 488 instead rams air through this dinky intake where it passes over a hidden lip, pushing the 488’s rear to the road. Subtle and very clever.
Got it. There’s a lot of aero going on. Anything else?
The rest of the hardware should be familiar from the 458, though upgraded across the board.
The 488 retains Ferrari’s trademark aluminium-intensive body structure - no McLaren 650S-style carbon-fibre monocoque here - and employs a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, which limits torque in lower gears to maximise acceleration without simply spinning the rear wheels. Software tweaks allow for upshifts up to 30 per cent quicker, and downshifts up to 40 per cent quicker.
The now-familiar magnetorheological active dampers get a faster ECU, three new sensors and new piston rods promising better body control.
Under 20-inch alloys wrapped in bespoke Michelins lurk Brembo brakes from the LaFerrari, with stopping distances reduced some nine per cent over the 458.
Oh, and, there’s an evolved version of 458’s genius Side Slip Control (unofficial motto: Helping The Ham-Fisted Drift since 2009!), which promises to be ‘more precise and yet less invasive’.
Out with it. What’s it like to drive?
Fast. Very fast. Very, very fast.
The 488’s acceleration is a step up from the 458 and even the Lambo Huracán, flinging you down the road with the shocking, brutal thrust of a fighter jet on take-off.
It’s the sort of acceleration that pins you back into the seat, the sort of acceleration that causes a string of involuntary expletives to spew forth from your lips.
The sort of acceleration that, if you break attention for but a split-second, sees you arriving at a tight corner at least 40mph than expected, before hastily testing the capabilities of those Brembos.
Put it this way: if someone has an off in a 488, it’s not going to be small. 0-62mph in three seconds dead? More than believable, that.
The surge of torque is utterly relentless, the power arriving in a continuous, unending deluge with barely a bhip between gears. So relentless is the power that I kept battering into the limiter just north of 8000rpm, expecting the rush never to run out.
The brutality of the acceleration reminds me of the Nismo GT-R, but with nothing like the turbo lag. The throttle response is all but instantaneous, the power linear and even and massive.
But does it feel like a proper Ferrari V8?
It doesn’t feel like an old Ferrari V8, that’s for sure. The turbo engine certainly doesn’t gain and lose revs with the massless snap of the old naturally aspirated V8, which would drop from 8,000rpm to idle so quickly you wondered how the rev-counter needle could keep up. The new V8 is just a mite slower in its reactions.
That said, it’s a nimble thing by the standards of turbo engines, and, in its own way, a mighty serious piece of industrial engineering. It’s a different sort of power, this, broad-shouldered and all-consuming, an unstoppable wrecking-ball of speed.
Does it sound as good as the 458?
It sounds very, very different. Whereas, in the 458 Speciale, you felt you were stretching some sort of mad elastic band as the revs increased, the noise getting higher, tighter, more frenzied, the 488 sounds more linear, controlled, industrial.
Despite Ferrari’s claims to have engineered a cacophony of different sounds through the 488’s rev range (naturally, mind you - no speaker-based synthesising here), it doesn’t have the baritone-to-soprano range of the old naturally aspirated V8, trading the 458’s vocal range for a heftier, chest-filling boom. Certainly, it doesn’t get all screaming and sparkly at the top end, just louder and angrier.
In fact, the 488 sounds, in part at least, like a modern F1 car with its pit-lane limiter on: a bass-heavy, air-bullying thump overlaid with a medley of whooshes, cracks and mechanical edge. Certainly there’s far more to it than mere induction noise, and it’s probably the best-sounding turbocharged production motor out there right now, but for me it doesn’t have quite the fizz of that atmospheric V8.
It is, however, plenty loud and shouty enough to attract the attention of everyone outside your Monaco apartment, which is probably the major concern of most 488 buyers.
How does it handle?
Drive it sensibly, and the experience is very much like the 458. The steering is light yet direct, the sensation of a balanced and agile chassis, the 488 signalling clearly what its front and rear are up to.
Drive it hard, though, and you discover the 488 is seriously, seriously oversteery.
I’m not the sort of driver to jump in a 600bhp-plus, rear-drive supercar and start immediately drifting it on public roads (I know, what a square), but - with the manettino dialed back to ‘CT OFF’ - even I was quickly achieving neat, controllable slides out of corners, hanging the tail out before flicking it back into line.
Partly that’s thanks to the vast plateau of torque served up from the V8, which allows you to meter a dead-even, precise amount of power to the rear wheels.
But more - significantly more, if we’re being honest - it’s thanks to the utter genius of that second-gen Side Slip Control (SSC), which now monitors and adjusts the damping front and rear for even greater slip angles.
This is no now-stop-that-right-now safety net, shutting down the power as soon as it spots a hint of slip. Quite the opposite: it all but encourages you to engage in gorgeous, steady slides, allowing you to get sideways and somehow, imperceptibly, holding you there.
In the pre-match tech briefing, a Ferrari engineer showed us the equation used to calibrate SSC2. It covered an entire page of A4, and looked like something out of The Theory Of Everything. Point is, there’s some very clever stuff going on, but as the driver you have no sensation of the electronics doing their thing, just that you’ve been transformed, overnight, into a Driving God.
And when you’re not being a hammer-footed fool?
The 488 isn’t an intimidating or difficult car to drive. It’s happy to burble through traffic, throttle and brakes forgiving, all-round visibility better than in, say, the Lambo Huracán.
We tried it on some pretty harrowed Italian tarmac, and - with the dampers set to ‘bumpy road’ mode at least - it retained a pretty impressive degree of comfort.
Ferrari says a lot of V8 owners use their car as a daily driver, so has worked hard to engineer a bit more space for human and stuff on board. Accordingly, the front boot is of a decent size, while there’s room in the cockpit for, ooh, at least a dozen pencils.
But is it better than a 458?
Hmm. Ah. I’ve spent a long time thinking about this, and I reckon it comes down to a trade-off. Namely this: do you want more power, more speed and even better sideways? Or would you trade that in for the screaming, high-rev thrills of the old atmospheric V8?
This isn’t a cop-out, but I think you could argue it either way. The 488 doesn’t have quite the tingling effervescence of the 458, doesn’t goad you to the redline in quite the same way, doesn’t sing so lustily when you get there.
But the 488 feels new, and different, and stonkingly fast. It sounds unique, and offers up a dizzying, crushing surge of torque. It’ll get round any track or down any road noticeably quicker than the 458 - the 488 is two seconds a lap faster around Ferrari’s dinky Fiorano circuit - and probably use a bit less fuel doing so. Where do your priorities lie?
And let’s be honest: the question of whether the 488 is better than its naturally aspirated predecessor is ultimately moot. Yes, turbocharged sports cars are different, but they arehappening, and Ferrari’s proven they won’t all be characterless vacuum cleaners.
The era of natural aspiration is, like it or not, reaching its end. The 488 represents the very forefront of the turbo charge.
First Drive: Lotus Evora 400
Facelift time for the Evora?
More than. It’s been around for six years. But steady on: this not so much a facelift as a reincarnation. Lotus says more than two-thirds of the parts are new.
The Evora looks much the same from dead abeam, but the nose and tail are comprehensively new, and the cabin too. So is much of what’s underneath.
Why 400, anyway?
It’s the horsepower number. That’s from a Toyota 3.5-litre V6 engine, which Lotus transmogrifies with its own supercharging, charge-cooling, intakes, exhaust and management. It’s an ever-alert beating heart to the car.
The throttle pedal is an instant sluice-gate for a massive head of force, all across the rev range. A new fat exhaust has an opening baffle for all your stadium-filling requirements. But if you toggle a tailpipe button on the dash, it stays smoothly discreet.
It’s still manual, right?
Yes, with a shorter shift action than before. Mostly it’s mechanically enjoyable, but it can sometimes catch you out by stiffening up and baulking. Not a deal-breaker for me.
Anyway, there’s also an auto option, and that’s rather good: quick in its shifts and programmed so well that even I – a habitual over-rider – found myself letting it do its own thing.
How much does it weigh?
The manual’s figure is 1395kg with fuel on board, which is less than the old Evora S, despite the newfound power, and the extra cooling and braking hardware that came along with it.
Broadly, that’s 911 Carrera S ballpark for the weight, the power and the +2-ness of the seating arrangements.
Lotus claims 4.2 seconds for 0-62, and a top speed of 186mph (to those who inhabit metric-land that’s a significant 300km/h).
Around the Hethel track the Evora 400 runs at a pace unimaginable to a driver of its predecessor. It’s a whole seven seconds quicker. That means the Evora 400 will actually keep up with the harsh and headbanging Exige S.
Plenty of grip then?
Not just lateral grip, although its ability to cling on is pretty spectacular. The new, bigger brakes are progressive and stout.
On the way into the bend the turn-in is dragonfly agile. Mid-corner it’s all about balance and friendly tweakability that yields you bags of confidence.
Acceleration out of tight bends is supercar-quick – not just because of that power-to-weight business, but because of astounding traction, plus a traction-control system that operates at the point where the digital fades into the lyrical.
How does it work on the road?
The Evora has morphed from something charmingly delicate into a machine in a different, more serious league. Stiffer springs and dampers mean the low-speed ride is tougher. But hey, it’s still more supple than most quick sports cars this side of a McLaren. And at speed, things start to breathe serenely beneath you.
The steering was once one of the most vivid systems in the whole of car-land, but now it talks slightly less of the ever-altering slip angles and tyre weighting. That’s partly because its geometry has been modified to reduce kickback and tramlining, but mostly because slip angles are lower now.
Still, I honestly think this is a better steering setup than a Cayman GT4.
You’re name-dropping the Cayman GT4 and the Exige S. So has the Evora become brutal and uninhabitable?
Quite the opposite. For a start, compared with the old car, the side sills have been made a lot lower and narrow, and yet no less strong.
This means you can now get in and out without thinking about it. If you wear a skirt, you can get in and out without onlookers remarking on it.
Once inside you’ll find new Sparco seats, comfy yet supportive and usefully lighter than before. New door inners give you more space.
New footwell contours, ditto (though your feet, especially in a LHD car, are offset to the centre). The new dash looks better, and is upholstered more fittingly for the £73,000 car this has become.
Perhaps most important, the switches have been re-done. In the old car they looked cheap, if you could see them at all – many were dangerously out of sight behind the steering wheel. The new arrangement of auxiliary and light switches is far more ergonomic and better-looking. New climate knobs operate a far more effective heating and a/c system.
And dare I ask about quality?
By all means. It’s come on in bounds. Not just in the cabin either. The rear boot-lid, when you shut it, now feels and sounds like a boot-lid. Before it was like the top of a Tupperware sandwich box.
And ahead of it, the supercharger and engine – all machined aluminium and allen bolts and crackle paint – wink seductively through the rear glass.
Anything to complain about?
Porsches still feel more solid and more precise in some touchpoints – gearchange, door handles, column stalks. But seriously, with the new Evora you’re looking at a sports car that’s fabulously engaging enough to reduce those things to trivialities.
You might want a bigger boot, but you can shove stuff into the rear seats. Don’t like the black roof? It’s an option. This car is a looker.
Really, it’s hard to find a rival. The Cayman GT4 isn’t very liveable, but it’s sold out. The Cayman GTS isn’t so engaging. An Alfa 4C? Utterly absorbing but makes your ears bleed. And your nose.
But the Evora 400 money now gets you a 911. Hmmm. It’d be the lower-power Carrera, and we just bet you couldn’t stay off the options tick-boxes. But a 911, eh? That shows the level of Lotus’s ambition.
Big UK road test: new Honda Civic Type R
We’re on the M4, emerging from a set of roadworks as we head west out of London. Ahead, a diesel van. It would be easy to get caught out by his torque lunge away from the final cone, left choking on his sooty exhalation. After all, Type Rs, famously, have no torque. And this feels every inch a Type R: the instruments glow red, there’s a fiddly dash, gorgeous manual gearchange, firm suspension and an exterior design that’s… well, we’ll come on to that later.
Right now, I’m preoccupied by the van. Will I need fourth? Third even? But then I remember. I have a turbo. And even on what’s only been a brief acquaintance so far, I know sixth will be fine.
I had, for a split second, forgotten the seismic shift that’s happened in Honda’s thinking, a sea change that’s seen the days of 8,500rpm rev limits and singing VTEC zones thrust aside in favour of the easy gratification of a turbo. Well, everyone else has, why not Honda?
There’s a hiss of turbo pick up; the van is dispatched. No fuss, no drama. It’s probably what most people want in this day and age, and does at last mean the Civic gets to compete on a level playing field against the likes of the Focus ST, Megane RS and Golf R without being slated for its lack of low-rev urge. Honda hasn’t completely abandoned its heritage, though. This is still a VTEC. Where most rivals opt for variable vane turbo geometry to control boost across the rev range, Honda uses a monoscroll unit and depends on its VTEC valve control to manage things. It also electronically controls the wastegate.
The end result is an engine with a far healthier mid-range, but it still pays to hang on, because the top end is savage. OK, it only goes to 7,000rpm now and, despite Honda’s engineering nous, is a little more laggy on the throttle than the car you’ll be reading about in a couple of pages’ time, but by gum it’s not slow. Honda claims 0–62mph in 5.7secs, we plugged in our timing gear and hit 60mph in 5.3, 100 in 11.3. That’s outrageous for a FWD hatch.
Enough about the engine for a moment, because you need to know how deep Honda has plunged in its efforts to sort out the Civic. As far as the bodyshell itself goes, they’ve not added extra steel, but by changing the bracket designs and using the adhesive more cleverly, rigidity has been increased by 18 per cent.
Then there’s the suspension. Remember a few years back when the trendy term in hot hatchdom was ‘reduced kingpin offset’? The Focus RS, Astra VXR and Megane all had trick front-suspension systems reducing torque-steer by minimising the camber change on the front wheels during cornering. Vauxhall called it HiPer Strut, Ford RevoKnuckle, and Renault PerfoHub. Now it’s Honda’s turn to shout about its new Dual Axis Strut Front Suspension. DASFS. Catchy. The claim is appealing, though: torque-steer down by 55 per cent.
The lower arms, damper forks and bushes have been re-engineered, although at the back Honda has stuck with a torsion-beam set-up. The promise is good – the new design exclusively for the Type R is so stiff (up 177 per cent) that there’s no need for a rear anti-roll bar. Still, it’s not the most promising set-up for dynamic behaviour.
That 2.0-litre direct-injection engine feeds its power to those poor, hard-pressed front wheels via a 6spd manual ’box and mechanical diff. Honda does good manual ’boxes. The best, in fact. And this is a belter: so slick, so fast, so precise. If everybody had a gearbox like this, there’d be no call for double-clutchers. It’s a total delight.
And the gearing is not stupidly long, either. Honda, refreshingly, seems to have decided that real-world drivability means more than shaving a few extra grammes off the CO2 figure. The claims here are 37.8mpg and 170g/km – OK, but not great. Over 450 miles of mixed driving and three carefully measured tankfuls, we got 27.8mpg.
The Civic consumes the lower ratios with zeal. The lights on the dash never seem to stop flashing if you give it the beans. It’s properly quick, properly addictive, makes a real song and dance about going places. But not an especially tuneful one. There is noise, quite a bit of it, but it’s not the top-end singing, snargly yowl emitted by VTECs of old.
“0-60 IN 5.3SECS. THAT’S OUTRAGEOUS FOR A FWD HATCH”
Instead, you get the feeling that the car’s only intent is to get to the next gear as soon as possible and that it views sounding good as superfluous. It’s a shame, because you get a bit of exhaust woofle on start-up, and on light throttle openings around town the turbo wastegate chatters audibly.
It does everyday stuff surprisingly well, too. True, tyre roar on coarsely surfaced motorways is excessive, but the boot is huge. And there’s plenty of headroom. And the view out the back is surprisingly good, entirely unimpeded by that lofty wing. And the ride is… satisfying.
The suspension is tremendously well controlled, like it’s underpinned by expensive dampers. It’s firm over speed bumps and potholes, but rounds off the edges really well. Considering the tyres are 235/35 ZR19s (Conti CSC6s, rubber fans), that’s a good effort. It never feels less than purposefully sporty, though, the whole car shot through with a motorsport vibe.
The seats, for instance, are fabulous. Tall side bolsters, good rib support, best road-car seats I’ve sat in for a while, actually. Same goes for all the touch points – gearlever, steering wheel, pedals. Just a straightforward car to operate. I struggle with the two-tier dash and find the seating position – despite the hip point having been dropped 30mm – a little high, but build quality is good and it feels purposeful.
And now, on the terrific roads of the Brecon Beacons, I’m discovering what the Civic is actually like – or more accurately, what it isn’t like. It isn’t one of those playful hatches, like the Ford Focus ST or Mini Cooper S. No, it’s serious about speed. Acquiring it, maintaining it, even shedding it (the 350mm cross-drilled front Brembos are lovely to use and super-powerful).
Two things strike you immediately – how low the centre of gravity seems and how stiff the shell is. I know, odd ones. But also important, because when you combine this tautness with the controlled damping and LSD, you end up with a wonderfully rapid and effective cross-country device. It doesn’t have great steering feel, if I’m honest, but it does have a very talkative (and deliriously effective) diff. The traction, the speed you can carry out of corners, is outrageous.
It feels like a tarmac rally car, appearing to relish the punishment. If you want to get the most out of it, you have to know what you’re doing. Ideally, an ability to left-foot brake is preferable, allowing you to build up boost pressure on the throttle and release the brakes at the apex for a rapid, lag-free corner exit. Yep, all a bit track-day enthusiast, but that’s what the car’s like.
The only issue I have is with the +R system. This is the button you press to make the instrument rings glow red. OK, it also loosens the ESC, implements a more aggressive torque map, reduces assistance to the electric power steering and firms up the magnetorheological dampers. Trouble is, you can’t select these settings individually – your choice is either to +R or to not +R. And unless you’re on millpond tarmac, you’re better off not plussing the R.
Pity you can’t tone down the bodywork. Honda claims it all serves a purpose – managing airflow, adding downforce – but even if it does actively help, why does it have to look, well, like it doesn’t? Like a MaxPower version of itself? Aren’t people looking at £30,000 hot hatches (£32,295 with desirable GT Pack added) going to be after something a little less ostentatious? Answers to your nearest Honda dealer.
And by all-new, you mean ‘a bit different to the old one’?
No, all-new. Fresh from the ground up, and both lighter and smaller than the car it replaces. The MX-5 has lost 10 per cent of its body weight, over 100kg, and is now even shorter than the 1989 original. That’s virtually unheard of.
It looks dinky in the flesh, but has real presence, and yet there’s more cabin space. The MX-5 is a very, very clever piece of packaging, as you’ll deduce if you open the bonnet and see that the whole of the engine sits behind the front axle line. That’s good for weight distribution, and the only penalty is a lump in the footwell underneath your calf, where the gearbox is.
Moreover, the engine is mounted lower in the chassis, which means the bonnet is lower. Thanks to that, the driver’s hip point has been dropped, too. So you sit nice and snug in it.
Looks smart, too…
Doesn’t it just? In fact, with its scowling eyes there’s a newfound edge of aggression to the fourth-gen MX-5. Lightweight aggression, though. A bit of cheekiness. And the back end is very nicely sculpted indeed, even better than the front. There’s a harmony to the design of the fourth-generation car that’s been absent since the first one.
How’s the cabin?
I’ll tell you what’s most impressive. You know how you can see where corners have been cut in cheap cars? In the MX-5 you can’t, despite the fact prices are likely to start around £19,000.
I got in it for the first time at night and was immediately struck by how strong the headlights were, how simple the infotainment was to operate, that the stereo had good clarity, that the seats were brilliantly shaped (if a bit narrow across the shoulders), and how well assembled everything was.
It was even remarkably refined, too, with just a rustle of wind noise from the tops of the doors where glass meets roof. For a car that weighs less than a tonne, that’s fantastic.
The boot’s deep, there’s somewhere to put your phone, and even a pair of USB slots. There’s a lovely body-colour door cap that, when you sit in the car, makes a line that runs past the A-pillar, straight out along the front wing. The MX-5 melds interior and exterior design better than any car I can think of.
No fussy electric roof?
No, a simple manual with a single latch in the centre. Unclip that, throw it back and press down to click it in place. Simple. It takes about three seconds without moving from the driver’s seat, and if you’ve got a bit of shoulder strength it’s just as quick to throw it back up.
There’s a feeling with the Mazda, before you even drive it, that there’s real integrity to the design and engineering. They’ve kept it simple, but made sure they’ve done the simple stuff well.
How is it to drive?
It’s just fun. Not wide-eyed fun like a Porsche GT3, or sweaty-palm fun like a muscle car. Just light, easy, peppy fun. The MX-5 moves really, really well, asking nothing of you but darting merrily along like it’s having the time of its life. It seems to whistle cheerily to itself all the time.
The chassis is a peach, and because there’s little weight involved, the skinny 195-section tyres grip better than you’d believe. Keep the power on and some squealing will eventually occur, but the front end doesn’t give up on you.
Doesn’t it have electric power steering? Is that a good thing?
Rarely, and if I’m honest it’s the same here. There’s not much feel, it’s a bit light for my taste, and personally I’d like the nose to have a little more bite on the way into corners. But the MX-5 has been designed for your aunt as well as you, and aside from that, and the slight chassis shimmer over cats’ eyes, there are few dynamic complaints.
The damping is great: gone is the weird initial lurch you got from early Mk3s when you turned into a corner. Well, most of it. It’s capable of acting the grown-up on motorways, and is a proper hoot in towns: city car small, and with a responsive, perky engine.
Is it thirsty?
According to the trip computer, our car did 50.5mpg on a 100-mile trawl northwards out of Barcelona. On that evidence, you could well decide this little 1.5 litre four pot is all about efficiency. After all, with only 129bhp it’s hardly a ripsnorter, is it?
But if I hadn’t been told otherwise, I’d have sworn blind this was the 2.0-litre. It may not be turbocharged, but the base-engined MX-5 has enough low-down pick-up, and enough mid-range to run with it. True, it’s not fast-fast - though Mazda hasn’t released official performance stats, you’re probably looking around eight seconds to 60mph - but it’s got enough punch to make exiting corners fun.
And, although not as charismatic as a Honda VTEC, the little four-pot has a certain amount of character and a cheeky exhaust note. I also love that it gives you 500rpm more than you need when you fire it up, a chest-puffing little flare of revs.
The best. A cracker of a six-speed manual, and the pedals are nicely positioned for a spot of heel-and-toe if you like that sort of thing. Which you will do in this, as it comes so naturally.
A good egg, then?
Completely. The MX-5 is a simple car, but the simple stuff has been done really well. It hasn’t been overcomplicated with active-this and electronic-that. It’s a great little mover, one that enjoys being thrashed and always has a spring in its step.
With many European cars you get the sense that the marketing men identified a niche, and the engineers had to build something to fit it. The new MX-5, however, does what it’s always done, but does it better, I think, than ever. It’s got the design, engine and handling chops that have been absent as a package for a couple of generations.
So why have other car makers abandoned the small roadster market?
Who knows? Maybe they don’t think they can better the MX-5, a car which, let’s not forget, has now sold almost a million examples.
More likely it doesn’t fit their marketing strategy, and it would be too expensive to develop a compact rear-drive chassis. Shame.
I’m just glad the MX-5 exists. The world deserves a small roadster as good as this. It brightens things up, and we all need a bit of that in our lives.