Most manufacturers have their halo car at the top of their model range. It's the one with the most stuff, be it horsepower, technology, starting price, or some combination of each. Mercedes-Benz has its variations of the S-Class, Porsche has the 911, Chevrolet has the Corvette, and so on.
2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata First Drive
Smoother, More Powerful and More Fun Than Ever
Then there's the 2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata. It's not about massive horsepower, luxurious appointments and limited availability — it's about the dedication to purity of purpose, balance and simply being fun to drive. That's been the guiding philosophy for this roadster for 29 years. For 2019, Mazda has further honed this little halo car into the best iteration we've seen to date. Other manufacturers, please take note.
What Makes It Better?
It's the new engine. No, Mazda hasn't tossed in a small V6 or added a turbocharger. Instead, nearly every major moving part inside and out has been redesigned in the name of power, higher revs and drivability. The effort has paid dividends. Last year's 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine made 155 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque at 6,000 and 4,000 rpm, respectively. For 2019, the engine size and displacement haven't changed, but the engine now makes 181 hp at 7,000 rpm and 151 lb-ft at 4,000 rpm. Not only that, its highway fuel economy rating has improved slightly, now at 34 mpg.
These improvements are the result of good old-fashioned hot-rodding combined with a little modern technology. First, Mazda got more air into the engine by using a shorter, multipath intake manifold and enlarging the throttle plate, intake ports and intake valves. To get that extra air out post-combustion, a new exhaust camshaft provides higher lift and longer duration, while larger exhaust valves and ports complement a bigger exhaust manifold.
The stiffer and better-balanced crankshaft allows the engine to rev to 7,500 rpm. The connecting rods are redesigned (saving 40 grams each), as are the pistons themselves, which are each 27 grams lighter. And the redesigned pistons aid in combustion while simultaneously reducing the propensity for knock. The modern technology bit? That lies with the fuel injection, which uses higher fuel pressures that help Mazda tailor the way the injectors work to provide for better efficiency and more power.
Please Drive It
Once situated behind the new telescoping (finally!) steering wheel, you can release the low-effort but still positive clutch and pull the MX-5 from right off idle to 7,500 rpm. A new dual-mass flywheel makes it possible to do this with nary a stumble or a grumble from the transmission, no matter the gear.
Once underway, and much to the chagrin of all of the talented engineers who worked countless hours and probably ate an equally countless amount of doughnuts, the 2019 MX-5 doesn't really feel that different from the 2018 version. And while that's not a bad thing, we should explain.
That newfound horsepower and torque are available across the entirety of the powerband, not in a high-rpm spike or a big wallop of low-end torque. The experience, especially if you're driving without much aggression, is eerily similar to last year's model. But when you get more aggressive and explore the further reaches of the gas pedal, you notice that you're going considerably faster than you've ever gone in an MX-5. So smooth and linear is the power delivery that you need to rely on the speedometer to see the difference. It's a marvel, and the engine is a gem.
As we've come to expect from the MX-5, the six-speed manual transmission is superb and remains completely unchanged from last year, though the optional automatic gets a shorter final drive. Even the ratios stay put, as Mazda says the power curves of the new 2.0-liter engine match those of the globally available 1.5-liter engine for which the transmission, and its ratios, were originally designed. This new motor and transmission now feel like a perfectly matched set.
The MX-5 is still wonderfully light and agile, a revelation in the age of 3,500-pound sports cars. It has gained only 7 pounds over last year's model, now weighing a scant 2,340 pounds. The steering remains light just off center but gets incrementally heavier as you turn the wheel more. The relatively slow steering ratio keeps the nimble Mazda easy to control, and it never feels darty. The car's handling is as responsive to small throttle inputs as it is to those of the steering, making the Miata not only easy to place but just as easy to correct should you get off the line a bit.
In the Sport and Grand Touring trim levels, the ride falls on the soft side, favoring compliance in day-to-day driving situations. Enthusiast drivers will want the Club or GT-S. These trims use special Bilstein shock absorbers that create a considerably firmer ride — more in tune with what a Subaru BRZ offers — while still having all the necessary compliance and suspension travel to eat up the worst any good road has to offer. That's something the BRZ and Toyota 86 have never been able to accomplish.
Which One Should I Get?
The MX-5 remains one of the best driving and handling cars you can buy today, whether it's outfitted with the manually operated soft top and the basic Sport trim level or with the power-folding hardtop, called RF, and the performance-oriented Club package and optional BBS wheels, Brembo brakes and Recaro seats.
No matter if you're a casual driver looking for simple, inexpensive roadster driving enjoyment or a seasoned enthusiast who's tired of ever heavier and more complicated sports cars, the MX-5 should be on your very short list. The 2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF is at dealer lots now with a starting price of $32,340, including destination. The soft top should be available in the fall and start at around $26,000.