New Car Reviews

First Drive: 2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata

It’s all about the higher redline

SAN FRANCISCO, California — As time appears to be running out on the human driver-operated, three-pedal sports car, minor mid-cycle upgrades on such beasts take on greater importance. Enjoy more power and better option choices while you can.

To that point, the automaker formerly known for Zoom Zoom organized a big, multi-wave road trip up the West Coast to unveil the 2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata. The Driving Matters company could easily have introduced the mid-cycle refresh by dropping a handful of ’19 Miatas into various press fleets in Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York City, and perhaps Chicago, Atlanta, and Miami, along with press releases describing the changes.

But then, yours truly would not have discovered a perfect—if not the perfect—twisty road for this sports car, Highway 9 eastbound out of Santa Cruz, and north of the middle of the second wave, which covered San Luis Obispo to San Francisco. California 9 reveals that the ’19 ND Miata’s most prominent upgrade, its engine, is all about mid- to upper-range horsepower.

Power is up 26 to 181 hp while torque has risen a mere 3 pound-feet, to 151. Most importantly, redline now is up by 700 revs to 7,500 rpm. This does not mean a big improvement in straight-line performance, except that the car may not need a time-consuming upshift to third before topping out on a 0-60 mph sprint. With the new fatter powerband, the old engine’s dropoff, running out of steam before you reach the redline, is gone. It’s now worth it to work that rev-limiter.

Hold, say, third gear longer before reaching the next turn whereas with the old 6,800 rpm redline you’re more likely to have to upshift to fourth just before braking and downshifting, again. On my favorite portion of California Highway 9, a six- or seven-mile stretch which I drove both directions in a convertible Club model, I spent very little time shifting either way out of third gear, despite the fact that I had control of the world’s best-feeling, most intuitive gearbox at my right hand along with pedals spaced nicely for heel-and-toeing.

Mazda PR sent us a note after the drive to say that the 7,500 limit is a “low-gear, transient-condition redline,” essentially when “driven aggressively,” such as on the track. Otherwise, the redline is 7,200 rpm. It seems I was driving it “aggressively” enough on Highway 9 and Highway 1 to be in that transient condition, and in any event the lack of pre-redline dropoff is where you’ll feel the most of this improvement.

Mazda converged chassis tuning on the convertible and the RF for the ’18 model year, and so the RF feels a bit softer on tight, twisty roads due to its higher mass (though it still weighs less than an NC ragtop). Miata detractors will continue to find the car too soft, and that’s a legit argument. Those of us for whom speed and acceleration isn’t as important as polar moment of inertia will consider the 2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata as having taken another step toward perfect automotive balance.

Why did we have to wade through three model years of ND1 before the car got a power band that could beat the NC Miata’s?

The ND and its gearing “was set up for the original powertrain [the new Miata] was supposed to have,” the 1.5-liter, says Dave Coleman, Mazda North America’s manager for vehicle dynamics engineering. The new smaller four, sold in the MX-5 everywhere but North America, fit with Mazda’s desire to downsize the sports car and save every possible gram of weight.

But Mazda North America was having none of that, and instead shoehorned the 155-hp 2.0-liter Skyactiv I-4 from the Mazda3. There was no time, or perhaps no money considering all the resources going into the ND and its new 1.5L, to rework the bigger engine for the 2016 model year.

For the ND2, launching in the car’s fourth model year, Mazda heavily massaged the Skyactiv 2.0, though Coleman does not consider it a new engine. It has a fatter, more useful power band and a 1-mpg increase in highway fuel economy to 34 mpg, when equipped with the six-speed manual. Fuel economy for the automatic is up… oh, who cares?

“At every torque level, this engine is more efficient,” Coleman says.

On the new, revised Skyactiv 2.0, all the reciprocating bits are lighter, and a reduced skirt area takes 27 grams taken out of each piston. Connecting rods are 41 grams lighter. The cylinder heads are dome-shaped, shorter, and wider, and the crankshaft is made of a stiffer material. Rod bolts are smaller and stronger, and have lost 40 grams each, for higher revving. The shorter dome creates “really good tumble” in the combustion chamber. Engineers have changed the intake port’s shape, and the new piston design has edge cuts that are said to eliminate hot spots and reduce knock. [It’ll make a nifty engine for the all-new Mazda3 due by 2019.]

The redesigned engine remains gas direct-injection, with higher injection pressure, a finer spray and shorter pulses. The engine now has a dual-mass flywheel for smoother gear changes, and Coleman says engineers in Hiroshima managed to make that change without adding much weight, which is up between six and seven pounds for both the Miata convertible and the targa-top RF. That includes an extra half-pound or so for making the tilt steering wheel able to telescope.

Prior to the much-updated engine, the ND’s biggest mid-cycle development was last year’s addition of standard heated cloth seats to the Club trim package. For the first two model years of the ND, the Club’s standard Bilstein shocks, shock tower brace, and limited-slip differential were not available on the top-trim Grand Touring model, which was the only of the three trim levels (Sport remains the base model) with heated seats. Mazda had apparently assumed that if you want the luxury of bun warmers, you didn’t want your backside to feel more bumps.

Now there are two ways to combine the better suspension with the indulgence; the Mazda MX-5 Miata GT-S package, available only on the six-speed manual version of the Grand Touring convertible or RF, for $750 extra [on a personal note, my NC Grand Touring PHRT’s sport suspension package was $500 extra, so a decade later, this is a pretty good value]. Or the Club package, which comes with standard heated cloth seats. A new-for-‘18 Brembo/BBS/Recaro package, at $4,670, is $900 more than the Brembo/BBS package without the heated Recaros.

The ’19 Miata RF with the GT-S package comes with a hand-painted black proof, a feature of the ’17 RF Launch Edition.

Some of the younger auto journos balked at the upper-$30s pricing of either these options, which pushes the Miata above the price of the average new vehicle in the U.S., currently about $33,000. They also bemoaned the lack of Apple CarPlay/Android for Auto, connectivity features currently trickling in elsewhere in the Mazda line, which Your Humble Servant did not miss.

I would also not miss the i-Activesense Package, $450 extra, which my drive partner and I had on our RF GT-S tester, but not on our convertible Club with the Brembo/BBS/Recaros. For that matter, I don’t see the need for a backup camera on this car, but that’s heresy to safety advocates, and anyway, it’s standard and required on all new MX-5s.

Of these two solutions to the heated seat/best suspension tuning issue, my personal preference goes to the Club convertible with the Brembo/BBS/Recaro package instead of the i-Activesense package. The base Mazda seats’ bolsters fall short of keeping you—or me, anyway—from sliding around in the driver’s seat on those perfect roads like California 9.

2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata Specifications

ON SALE Currently (RF), Autumn 2018 (convertible)
PRICE $27,180 – 35,305*
ENGINE 2.0L 16-valve I-4, 181-hp @ 7,000 rpm, 151 lb-ft. @ 4,000 rpm
TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual, 6-speed automatic
LAYOUT 2-door, 2-passenger, RWD convertible or retractable roof targa
EPA MILEAGE 26/34 (city/hwy) *manual 26/35 (city/hwy) *automatic
L x W x H 154.1 x 68.3 x 48.8/49.0 in
WHEELBASE 90.9 in
WEIGHT 2,339-2,493 lb
0-60 MPH 5.9 sec (est)
TOP SPEED N/A

*As of press time, Mazda had announced pricing only on the MX-5 Miata RF models. The base price of $27,180, for a manual-gearbox Sport convertible, is our estimate based on the 2019 model year price increase of $990 for the RF models. Miatas sold in Alaska cost $45 more due to a $940 destination and handling price.