2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata: The SkyActiv Experience
by Josh Sadlier, Senior Editor on March 24, 2016
A wise Edmunds editor (is there any other kind?) once called the Miata's powertrain "the most engaging setup you'll find short of an S2000: The reworked engine winds out to 7,600 rpm like a sport bike while still providing respectable midrange torque."
Except that sagacious fellow wasn't talking about our long-term 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata. He was talking about the previous-generation "NC" Miata, which received a notable overhaul for 2009.
The engine back then was the 2.0-liter MZR four-cylinder, and for '09 the manual-transmission redline went up to 7,200 rpm (plus 400 bonus revs before you hit the limiter), thanks to fun upgrades like forged-steel construction for the crankshaft and connecting rods. Apparently the intake ducting was revised, too, for a sportier soundtrack. The results, as noted above, were pretty great.
In the words of OutKast, I can remember that damn thing like yesterday. The engine loved to rev, and I therefore found myself shifting at redline as frequently as possible, which happens to be one of my favorite things in the world to do.
The MZR is gone now, of course, replaced for the current "ND" generation by a 2.0-liter SkyActiv four-cylinder that's essentially borrowed from the Mazda 3 family. Since the ND's lighter than the NC, and the SkyActiv motor has bigger torque muscles, the new car is faster than its predecessor despite being down 12 horsepower, edging it by 0.5 seconds to 60 mph (6.3 vs. 6.8) and a healthy 3.5 mph in the quarter-mile (93.6 vs. 90.1) per Edmunds testing data.
But those numbers don't capture the difference in character. The SkyActiv 2.0 redlines at 6,500 rpm in this application, just like it does in the Mazda 3 i, and it's "done making power by 6k and only gets rougher higher than that," according to our track driver's notes. That frank assessment squares with my real-world experience: I love the easy torque in just about any gear, but as I said in the S2000 post, there's no reward at higher rpm.
In the 2009-up NC Miata, conversely, 6,000 rpm meant things were just getting interesting. To me, that's what an elemental sports car is all about.
Hey, I get it, I'm an outlier by American standards. That's why the 2.0-liter engine was selected for the U.S. market - because most of us would rather shift early and still have ample shove. Internationally, the ND Miata uses a 1.5-liter four that redlines at 7,500 rpm and is reportedly quite happy to do so. I would gladly sacrifice some speed for that higher-revving experience, and I'd also take a hard look at lightly used 2009-15 NCs, which are readily available for $15-20,000 as of this writing.
But you think I'm nuts. Right?
Josh Sadlier, Senior Editor@ 7,651 miles