GRAND JUNCTION, Colorado — How I wish the pioneers who first shoehorned big, American V-8s into small, lightweight roadsters could be here today. The creators of those unruly, poorly balanced little monsters would see my trembling hands and laugh, thinking I had scared myself witless with a gut-wrenching tankslapper. But I’m not scared, just unbelievably excited, stopped on this lonely back road in western Colorado only because a pair of mountain goats wandered in front of me. My fingers rap impatiently against the vibrating shift knob, staying in rhythm with the 525-hp crate engine’s loped idle as I wait to further explore Flyin’ Miata’s LS3-powered 2016 Mazda MX-5. This is one of the most communicative, engaging, and enchanting cars I’ve ever driven.
I didn’t expect the car would be as good as it is, but perhaps I should have. Flyin’ Miata, a small shop based in Colorado’s peach-farming town of Palisade, has modified Miatas since the original debuted and has churned out V-8 Miatas for more than eight years now. The first-gen Miata had so much empty space in its engine bay you couldn’t help but imagine a V-8 in there. You’d think doing so would upset the car’s balance and composure, but the LS1 engine Flyin’ Miata first used for swaps didn’t weigh much more than the original Miata’s inline-four. This new car’s LS3 and accompanying Tremec T56 six-speed manual transmission — typically used in Vipers and Corvettes — weigh a combined 622 pounds, only 237 more than Mazda’s stock powertrain; that’s trading 10 percent more weight for 240 percent more power. Solid, considering weight distribution isn’t whacked-out either, landing at 53 percent front, 47 rear.
In early 2016 the Flyin’ Miata team tore this car apart, did 3D scans of its vacant engine bay, and used 3D engine models provided by GM to digitally position and mock up the V-8. Only a few brackets and lips needed to be trimmed when the bigger powertrain arrived. The transmission barely squeezed into the existing tunnel, and packaging the 2.5-inch, center-exit dual exhaust and existing electronics proved difficult; a smaller washer fluid bottle from a Honda replaced the Miata’s, and the battery moved to the trunk (its proper location). Flyin’ Miata also needed to replace the MX-5’s massive, rack-mounted electrically assisted steering system, swapping it for a hydraulically assisted setup.
The rear subframe can handle the engine’s 486 lb-ft of torque now that it is supported by a giant cross-tube and a couple metal reinforcement plates that hold the chassis bars together as load transfers to the rear differential, plucked from a 4,000-pound Camaro SS. “The drivetrain is completely overbuilt for its use,” says Keith Tanner, one of the head techs at Flyin’ Miata who previously raced his V-8 MX-5 in the Targa Newfoundland. I ask him how this new car compares to past V-8 builds, and he says, “It’s the best of the bunch. First time on the track, it felt immediately familiar. Like my track car that I’ve been honing for eight years. It’s got the potential to be an excellent long-distance cruiser as well as really, really sharp on the track.”
As the mountain goats saunter toward the edge of the road, I ease onto the Miata’s accelerator. Tip-in is immediate, and every bit of slack has been sucked from the pedal. When hooves hit dirt, I let out the heavy clutch, and the rear end hooks up surprisingly well, considering there’s no traction control and the matched tires are each only 1.5 inches wider than those on a Club edition. Speed builds instantaneously, and a quick, notchy upshift through the transmission’s narrow gates helps me hit 60 mph in about 3.5 seconds. With the bright red needle on the speedometer moving almost as fast as the one on the tach, I check the rearview mirror and see nothing but a big, black roll bar, so I stay on it until I come to a set of quick sweepers. The exhaust burbles as I lift and bury the brake pedal, the six-piston Wilwood front brake calipers grabbing hard and fast, the car wiggling around as it slows. Everything stays flat as I pitch the car left to right and back, the rear end stepping out just a bit between transitions. This car exhibits the best mid-corner balance I’ve experienced, letting you sit comfortably on the tightrope between useable traction and none. The Fox Racing suspension dampers, rebuilt by Tanner himself, have made one of the best chassis on the market even better. There isn’t a long enough road, with enough sharp corners or chicanes. The Miata has long been the simplest distillation of what we love about driving, and Flyin’ Miata’s V-8 swap doesn’t complicate its charm at all. As a driver’s car, it’s flawless.
240% More Power: An unbelievably enjoyable coming together of thoughtful engineering
Since it’s a prototype, the car has quirks, including a few electrical gremlins. Just about everything digital in the new Miata is interconnected; by getting rid of electrically assisted steering, for example, lane-departure warning went down, the adaptive headlights went awry, and tire pressure monitors checked out. “We had nine error lights on Thursday, but we’re down to four now,” says Tanner, who assures me all the e-wrinkles will soon be ironed out. “It’s one thing to build one of these things, bang it out, and get it up and running. It’s another thing to build one with the expectation that you’re going to build 50 more. You’ve got to productionize everything.” Flyin’ Miata’s V-8 turn-key conversion will cost $49,995 on top of the cost of the car, which means explaining to your better half you’re going to spend about $80,000 on a Miata. “It’s an expensive Miata, but the guys who are buying these aren’t buying Miatas,” says Tanner. “They’re buying a light- weight two-seater. They’re cross-shopping against an F-Type or 911.”
Of course those cars have widespread dealership networks standing behind them when things go wrong, but Flyin’ Miata has considered that, too. The engine has a two-year warranty that will be honored nationwide by just about any GM Performance Parts dealer, and Flyin’ Miata uses as many off-the-shelf parts as it can so that if something does fail, you can walk to NAPA, part number in hand, and pick something up on the spot. Slowly cruising through Colorado’s red rock canyons at dusk, I’m shocked and delighted that I’ve not only discovered one of my new favorite cars, but also that such disparate parties could come together to bring this car to life: Mazda’s amazingly capable foundation, Chevy’s well-oiled aftermarket machine, and Flyin’ Miata’s dedication to doing things differently.
The LS3-powered 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata perfectly encapsulates what enthusisasts love about our little world, and I wish the folks who first built these ridiculous roadsters could be here today to see my smile.
Flyin Miata LS3 V8 2016 Mazda MX-5 Specifications
|Price:||$82,125 (as tested)|
|Engine:||6.2L OHV 16-valve V-8/525 hp @ 6,200 rpm, 486 lb-ft @ 5,200 rpm|
|Layout:||2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD roadster|
|EPA Mileage:||14/25 mpg (city/hwy) (est)|
|L x W x H:||154.1 x 68.3 x 48.8 in|
|0-60 MPH:||3.4 sec (est)|