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Mazda MX-5 NC (MK3) Performance Tuning Guide

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Table of Contents


The Mazda MX-5 NC, the third generation of the iconic roadster, has garnered a reputation as a fantastic platform for modifications and upgrades. Known for its balance, agility, and sheer driving pleasure, it’s easy to see why car enthusiasts still adore this MX-5.

Due to it’s accessible price point and strong aftermarket support, the NC MX-5 is the perfect contender for those looking for a fun and reliable sporty driving experience.

The NC MX-5 came with 2 different engines. 

One featured a 5 speed transmission and produced 126bhp while the other engine was mated to a 6 speed transmission and produced 158bhp.

Regardless of which engine you own, we’ll cover all the best upgrades for power and performance.

So whether you are just wanting a little extra oomph for daily driving or are looking to build your MX-5 intro a track weapon, we’ll cover everything you need to know.

Let’s dive right in!


When it comes to enhancing the handling of your MX-5, coilovers are a popular option. These replace the standard springs and struts to allow for an adjustable and sportier ride. Many people install coilovers to achieve a lower ride height for aesthetic reasons however they are also the perfect choice if you are wanting to transform the performance of your MX-5.

The adjustability of coilovers make them favoured over lowering springs by those who like to drive hard. High quality sets of coilovers allow you to adjust various parameters like the damping, ride height and rebound. 

If you’re wanting to retain the ride quality as much as possible with coilovers, ensure you buy a decent set. While cheap coilovers can stiffen the suspension up and give you a lowered ride hight, you can lose a lot of comfort with them. 

25mm – 35mm drops are the most common. While some coilover sets allow you to go lower, this can negatively affect your handling if the rest of your suspension isn’t set up for it. Going too low may also require you to upgrade other components such as adjustable camber/control arms.

With lots of different options out there, the set you go for will depend on your budget and use. For daily street driving, you may want to go for a set that are a bit softer. If you are looking for something that gains you an edge on track, then you will want a set of coilovers with as much adjustability as possible. 

Meisterr offer various coilovers specifically for the NC MX-5 for a variety of uses including road use as well as heavy track use. 

Performance Exhaust

Replacing the stock exhaust system on your Mazda MX-5 can lead to a noticeable improvement in horsepower, torque, and throttle response.

Aftermarket exhaust systems are designed to reduce restrictions in the exhaust flow, allowing the engine to expel exhaust gases more efficiently.

Aside from the performance benefits, you will get a lovely distinctive throaty note from the exhaust which is music to the ears on full throttle. 

The exhaust section on the NC MX-5 is composed of 3 different parts. There is the headers with the catalytic converter which we will discuss in the next section of this article. Then there is the midpipe section which then goes into the muffler/backbox. For maximum performance gains, you ideally want to replace all sections of the exhaust with aftermarket free-flowing pipes.

Replacing the backbox section of the exhaust will have the most effect on the sound. Some people opt to bypass this section entirely and have the exhaust going from the midpipe unrestricted straight to the tailpipes. Just be warned that this can be quite loud and may drone. 

BOFI Racing and Scorpion (eBay) make high quality cat-back exhausts for this car that can boost performance and give you a lovely deeper exhaust note.

Exhaust Manifold/Headers

The unimpeded flow provided by free-flowing exhaust headers enables the engine to breathe more efficiently, resulting in increased power and improved throttle response. They can also produce a nice throaty rumble from the exhaust which is a pleasing benefit. Gains from free flowing headers alone have been reported to produce gains between 6-10bhp.

To get the maximum performance benefit from the headers, you should invest in a performance exhaust for the NC as well. This includes a midpipe as well as a free flowing backbox/muffler. This ensures there is minimal restriction throughout the entire piping.

Aftermarket headers for the NC either come as “catted” or as a decat system. Decat systems will usually yield the best performance gains as they are essentially just a straight pipe that bypasses the catalytic converter section resulting in the least restriction to air flow. These however aren’t road legal and can only really be used on track cars so if you drive your MX-5 on the road go for a catted system.

Installation of aftermarket headers will require some technical know-how as the 02 sensor will need to be slightly relocated and the cable for it extended along with some welding.

Skunk2 create aftermarket headers for the NC that have proven dyno gains.

Upgraded Anti-roll/Sway Bars

Upgraded anti-roll bars/sway bars are a popular suspension mod for those looking to improve the handling of their MX-5.

By increasing the stiffness of these crucial suspension components, drivers can reduce body roll and enhance cornering stability without sacrificing ride quality.

This modification allows for better weight transfer management and car control, enabling the MX5 to react more responsively through twists and turns with reduced understeer/oversteer. Ideal for you track day enthusiasts! 

To get the full benefits of upgraded  anti roll bars, you may wish to upgrade other areas of the suspension and invest in a set of high quality coilovers to stiffen it up further. Having stiffer anti roll bars on the softer OEM suspension can negate some of the effects of the reduced body roll. 

You have some different options for the NC when it comes to anti-roll bars depending on your budget and how much adjustability you want. The RX8 anti-roll bars are a popular option for those on a budget with some different variations available from that.

For maximum performance, definitely check out the anti-roll bar’s by Whiteline

These are adjustable anti-roll bars, with 2 points of stiffness adjustment at the front and 3 at the rear. This allows you to dial in your suspension and tweak the stiffness to help you find that perfect balance for your MX-5’s setup.


To get the most from a remap on the MX-5 NC, you should have other physical modifications installed first such as headers and a free flowing exhaust. A remap on it’s own on these engines won’t produce massive gains so the best value is to have the car remapped after you have upgraded other components to increase the engines breathing ability.

As is the case with the majority of naturally aspirated cars, you won’t get massive gains from a remap. The most you can expect is around 10hp at a push with more potential if you have other mods installed as well.

Companies like BBR specialise in tuning these cars and offer pre-made packages where they do all the upgrades at their workshop. They even have an option to tune the NC to 200hp while keeping it naturally aspirated. If you are based in the UK, definitely check them out.

Brake Upgrades

By installing high-quality brake components, you can expect improved stopping power, increased heat dissipation, and reduced brake fade during spirited driving or track days. You will also tend to find a more progressive and responsive feel from the brake pedal allowing you judge your braking distances with more confidence.

What brake upgrades you decide to go for will depend on what purposes you use your MX-5 for. The brake setup you would use on a solely track focused car would be different from one which you may set up on an MX-5 daily driver occasionally used for spirited back road drives.

While there are big brake kits you can put on, these are only recommended if you are using your MX5 for heavy track use. For road use and other applications, these type of brakes are most likely overkill.

You can get improved performance by installing a set of quality pads such as Rodders along with high temp brake fluid and braided brake lines. If you are wanting to step it up further then you can opt for upgraded brake discs like EBC. The standard calipers will be sufficient for the majority of uses.

If driving on track, you can also look into cooling ducts. Goodwin offer a good set which provide superior cooling to the brakes over the stock setup allowing you to go harder on track for longer while minimising heat build up.

And don’t forget, the performance improvements of upgrading your brakes will be negated if you don’t have a set of high quality tyres!

Air Intake

While the intake system on the NC engines are well optimized for airflow from the factory, there can still be some marginal gains to be made provided other breathing mods are fitted to the car.

Although some claim performance gains, many owners fit aftermarket air intakes for the aural purposes. Aftermarket intakes can produce a nice throaty growl when on the throttle, adding to the sporty characteristics of the car.

You have some different options when it comes to air intakes with many differing opinions among owners.

A common air intake to install is the classic cold air cone intake. If you are getting one of these, try get one with a heat shield to keep the air around the intake cooler and protected from the engine’s heat. These tend to produce the most induction sounds if that’s what you’re after.

If you want something a little more subtle then you can install a panel filter such as one from K&N. These fit into place inside the standard airbox and replace the standard filter, allowing for better flow into your engine.

For maximum performance gains, look into a skuzzle air intake. Unlike the “short ram” intakes, these are situated further away from the engine at the front of the bonnet. The extended piping that comes with this kit ensures that you are drawing in the coldest air possible. 

These do require a little more work to install, and you need to be mindful of puddles and standing water due to where the air intake is situated. If you live in dry environments then this might not be an issue for you however if you live in rainy places where floods are common then be mindful of where it’s positioned. 

Throttle Bodies

If you are looking for maximum performance from your NC MX-5 without going down the turbo route, then you should consider individual throttle bodies (ITB’s).

Individual throttle bodies provide a significant performance enhancement compared to single throttle body systems. By allocating a dedicated throttle body for each engine cylinder, ITBs allow more precise air intake control and reduce air travel time. This ultimately leads to increased power and a better throttle response.

Due to the closeness of the bulkhead to the engine on these cars, many kits will run into clearance issues. The best option on the market is the BBR ITB kit for both the 2.0 and 1.8 engines and can be ordered for both left hand drive as well as right hand drive NC MX5’s.

This kit is drive by wire and is compatible with the standard ECU and can increase power by up to 20bhp with supporting mods.

BBR MX-5 NC Individual Throttle Bodies - Duratec 2.0 & 1.8

Forced Induction

For those who are looking for that extra bit of craziness from their MX-5, there is of course the option of forced induction. On these cars that usually comes in the form of a turbocharger.

There are a variety of turbo kits available for these cars to help you step the power up a level. While an exciting prospect, there are a few things to consider before diving heard first into this type of upgrade.

You need to ensure that your engine and rest of the car is in good working order before whacking a turbo on it. A large increase in power will expose any weak points of the car and engine. 

There are also other upgrades that are recommended out with the turbo/engine mods. For example, better brakes and a stiffer suspension to improve the handling and help put down the additional power more effectively.

BBR are leaders on the MX5 scene when it comes to turbo kits and tuning these engines. You can check out their Stage 1 turbo kit here.

This kit comes with many of the accessories you need all bundled together for convenience including the exhaust manifold, fuelling upgrades, piping, ECU software and more. Due to the complexity of such an upgrade, you will need to be handy with the wrenches to fit all of this yourself. 

If you are based in the UK, BBR also offer a drive in service where you can take your MX5 to them and they will fit it all for you. 

Finishing Thoughts

The Mazda MX5  in it’s adaptability, continues to reaffirm its status as an icon in the car scene.

Whether you just want a little extra noise from the exhaust or turn it into the ultimate track car – there are many options out there.

The affordability of the NC MX-5 and the aftermarket parts available make it a great car for those looking to get their feet wet with modding. They are generally relatively easy cars to work on as well, so you don’t need to be a seasoned mechanic to install some of the mods and work on the car yourself. 

Happy modding!