Before I arrived, I hadn’t heard of Palisade, Colorado. It’s a small town in the high desert near the Utah border and set humbly among the peach orchards is a little company called Flyin’ Miata that’s known for getting the most out of Mazda’s roadster.
Since the launch of the original MX-5, they’ve been developing all of the crazy things – turbo kits, superchargers, even stuffing V8s under the Mazda’s bonnet.
The latest generation ND MX-5 is here and Flyin’ Miata already has a complete range of tuner parts. But what’s most interesting is that they’ve already managed to fit a 392kW, 6.2-litre LS3 small-block in one. They call it the Habu, after an Asian pit viper.
While there are parallels throughout the history of sports cars where someone had the wild idea to take a small car and drop in a big motor, this is 2017 and this new MX-5 brings a full set of considerations.
For starters, the MX-5’s systems communicate to one another through a CAN bus, making an engine swap more challenging than ever before.
What’s more, the V8 conversion necessitates swaps of other major components, further complicating matters. The Mazda gearbox is replaced by a Tremec T-56, the differential is new, and so is the hydraulic steering rack, all procured from the fifth-generation Chevy Camaro.
You might imagine the V8, transmission and diff are a difficult fit for the ND, but other than massaging the firewall and reinforcing the front and rear subframes, it all goes in quite easily. No cutting or chopping of the MX-5’s chassis required.
On the other hand, persuading GM components to talk politely with Mazda’s systems is difficult. Flyin’ Miata turned to an unlikely specialist – one that deal with mining equipment – to fix the integration.
After a tremendous amount of development, the Habu’s systems operate as in a regular MX-5 – the climate control functions perfectly, as do the gauges, while the abysmal satnav functions as intended.
Flyin’ Miata leaves two systems out of the V8 conversion – stability and traction control –removing the electronic nannies and making the Habu a machine for purists. ABS is retained, but otherwise it’s you and your skills, the way it should be.
While the first development car is still having a couple of electronic niggles remedied, the first customer build is under way – with a 575hp Lingenfelter-sourced V8, because 525 ponies feel asthmatic pulling an 1180kg roadster. Flyin’ Miata also offers a 430hp V8, primarily to satisfy Californian emissions legislation.
Despite the radical surgery it’s unmistakably an MX-5. The dimensions are the same over a near-stock stance only altered by massive Bridgestone rubber on custom wide wheels.
It isn’t excessively low and the subtle roll bar barely hints that a monster engine lives here, though for fun the team replaced the SKYACTIV marker with a $10 LS3 badge from eBay.
Similarly, the interior can also be mistaken for original. There’s a new steering rack but the Mazda airbag wheel is unchanged while only MX-5 nerds will notice the shift knob sits a little differently.
Then you hit the start button and the V8 thunder reminds you of something bold and brash from HSV. You can’t help but laugh as the promise of the looks melts away.
There’s real heft to the controls. Where the MX-5 feels light and lithe – through the controls and the seat of your pants – the Habu is like driving a scaled-down Corvette. A faster, rawer Corvette.
The steering feedback delivers the wonderful analogue quality that’s so rare today, and it’s quick enough to catch oversteer or perhaps even balance a graceful drift. It requires more input than the MX-5’s electrically assisted steering, but that matches the other control weights.
The clutch and shifter are far from delicate. The Tremec T-56 ’box’s shift action is direct and mechanical, requiring about twice the Mazda’s shifter effort.
The brakes have received a modest Wilwood upgrade, the rear rotors retained and clamped by four-piston calipers while the fronts feature larger 325mm two-piece rotors and six-piston calipers – more than any 1200kg car could ever need.
The conversion adds nearly 120 kilos to the MX-5 but while the additional mass contributes to the Habu feeling different, more substantial, it doesn’t upset the MX-5’s wonderful balance.
Flyin’ Miata says the front-to-rear weight balance has changed by less than three per cent, and I’d say the suspension package makes up for it. The new set-up is light years ahead of the original equipment and better suited to tame massive power.
Mazda designed the ND with relatively long suspension travel for a roadster, and Flyin’ Miata took full advantage. They believe that for suspension to work it needs travel, and damper supplier Fox agrees.
Better known for mountain bike and off-road truck shocks than sports car applications, Fox has been working with Flyin’ Miata for some time and what you see is an MX-5 that’s been modestly lowered over its wider wheels and rubber.
Ride quality, body and wheel control are all superb; without question, these are some of the finest conventional dampers available.
Grip from the track-spec Bridgestone RE-71R tyres is exceptional. At 245/40-17 all around, they’re mounted on 9in-wide 949 Racing wheels engineered specifically for this car.
The Flyin’ Miata/Fox suspension excels everywhere, road or track. The limits are quite high – the Habu will reportedly pull over 1G laterally – but it remains approachable all the way to those limits.
With outstanding ride quality and wheel control, as well as the fine overall balance at or even beyond the limits, this is a car that taunts you into going faster and faster through the turns. It’s a combination from the heavens – a controllable and predictable chassis with remarkable feel.
Driving this tiny package, the 6.2-litre LS3 GM crate motor is simply magnificent.
As well as the impressive 392kW there’s 663Nm on tap, and a throttle response that can only be described as crisp, so controlling the Habu’s attitude takes little more than a caress of the pedal.And it’s all accompanied by a glorious howl wherever you are in the rev range.
What that translates to is the Flyin’ Miata ND Habu claiming 0-100km/h inside four seconds and stomping the quarter-mile in less than 12.
So just as the added mass of the conversion has changed the handling, so the driving experience is equally more substantial. It’s recognisable yet doesn’t feel like a Mazda at all.
Of course, all this added goodness comes at a cost – US$50,000 on top of the donor MX-5. Even so there’s nothing like it; there’s nothing as raw and visceral as the Habu for the price.
Flyin’ Miata is currently nearing a solution for right-hook MX-5s – the challenge has been sourcing a compatible steering rack – but by the time that’s resolved, any of us crazy enough to drop a V8 in an MX-5 will also get to choose between the soft top or the new RF.
The Habu is an over-the-top roadster. But while it has enormous performance, it also rides comfortably enough that you and your passenger won’t be fatigued after a road trip. Smaller and much more wild than a Corvette, it’s a sports car that will paint a smile on your face every time, whether on the road or the racetrack.