First Drive

2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata First Drive Review | More power is the icing on top

New power, same feeling

2019 Mazda MX-5
2019 Mazda MX-5 / Image Credit: Autoblog
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The Miata remains one of the most fun cars on the market with a playful chassis and peppy, rev-happy engine. A tight interior is its only drawback.

  • Engine
    2.0L I4
  • Power
    181 HP / 151 LB-FT
  • Transmission
    6-Speed Manual / 6-Speed Automatic
  • Drivetrain
  • Curb Weight
    2,339-2,493 LBS
  • Cargo
    4.5 CU FT
  • MPG
    26 CITY / 34 HWY (Manual) 26 CITY / 35 HWY (Automatic)
  • Base Price
    $33,240 (RF)

SAN DIEGO — When Mazda announced that the 2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata was getting a serious increase in power, I was both excited and nervous. I was excited because more power is always exciting, and it was no insubstantial increase. At 181 horsepower, it's the most powerful production Miata ever offered, beating out turbocharged Mazdaspeed Miata's 178 horsepower. Plus it has more revs to play with.

But what had me worried was whether this power would mess up the friendly, playful character of the Miata. The 155-horsepower 2.0-liter engine is just about perfect, almost universally loved by the Autoblog staff and other reviewers, with good midrange torque and short gearing that always made it feel quick in nearly every rev range. It felt like the right amount of power for the chassis, too. There was just enough to get it loose without working too hard, but it wouldn't spin you around unexpectedly.

I could imagine a couple of ways the new engine could affect that sweet balance, too. A bit too much power could risk some of the Miata's accessibility and predictability. It might become more serious and less fun-loving. I also feared that in pursuit of a higher redline and more horsepower, the low-end of the rev range might become painfully slow. Honda owners know this feeling whenever their VTEC-equipped screamers drop out of the aggressive cam profile, and the Toyota 86 and BRZ suffer from an awful lack of torque right in the mid-range that doesn't recover until nearly redline.

All of this was on my mind when the assembled reviewers were briefed by Mazda engineers about the car. It started out like most presentations, with a brief rundown of the goals of the car and what Mazda has done with the model so far. Then came a chart showing the power curves of the NC, current ND, and the 2019 model, and my fear of a loss of low-end grunt dissipated. The amount of power and torque over engine speed is nearly identical between the old and new ND Miatas right up to around 4,500 rpm. And then from there, the 2019 continues making more power all the way to its 181-horse peak at 7,000 rpm, 500 rpm higher than the previous model's redline. This was a good sign.

2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata power curve

Mazda managed to get these gains with no sacrifices through many small upgrades. The throttle body is wider with a slimmer throttle plate, the intake manifold has longer runners and dual paths, and the intake ports are larger. The exhaust valves, ports and header pipes are bigger, and the exhaust cam has a bit more duration and lift. The pistons were redesigned with slimmer skirts for less friction and new tops for better cooling. The rods have stronger, shorter end bolts for less weight, and the crank is stiffer. Finally, the fuel injectors run higher pressure for better fuel atomization.

Mazda also sought greater refinement, adding a dual-mass flywheel to help with transmission noise and vibration, adjusting the electronic throttle to flutter a bit to eliminate vibration from the engine rocking under power, and tweaking the muffler for a smoother sound.

All the presentation slides and engineering talk is fine, but the true test is actually driving the car. Over the course of two days, I drove freeways and mountain roads between San Diego and Pismo Beach, racking up hundreds of miles between a Miata RF Club and soft-top Miata Grand Touring. And what I learned is that I really shouldn't have worried — and heck, with Mazda's nearly 30 year track record of fun Miatas, I really, really shouldn't have worried. The 2019 Miata is basically the current car, but with an extra little layer of icing. And that icing is delicious — almost too delicious.

Let's start with the engine, which manages to feel just like a current Miata when hustling it around town. It's got enough grunt to feel peppy in town, and it isn't so fast that you'll be cursing every speed limit sign you pass. When surface streets give way to a highway on-ramp is the time you'll first notice the extra power and revs — and you'll notice the revs more than the power, since the car is able to hold each gear a little longer to savor the little engine's furious growl for a few moments more. The power, though, is much more subtle. It's not like the hit from a turbocharger or even the cam profile change in some VTEC engine. It basically continues the current Miata's smooth power past the old rev limit of 6,500 to the new one of 7,200. It feels just like the old car, but it just keeps pulling for longer. Then on backroads, the muted bass of the intake and the higher snarl of the exhaust combine with the power to encourage you to keep the engine as close to redline as possible. And it's easy to do so between the car's laser-precise, slick-as-a-light-switch shifter and the engine's willingness to build revs.

Also evident when driving around are the changes intended to make it all more refined, and it comes through in the sound. There's plenty of the old growl, but the whole engine sounds much smoother. It's lost any raspiness and off-pitch notes the old one had. Whether that's a good thing is arguable. I personally liked that the current Miata was a bit uncouth. It was like it was wearing a slightly wrinkled T-shirt, and the new one is wearing a well-ironed collared shirt. Neither is really bad, just different.

What hasn't really changed with the Miata is, well, basically everything else. Chassis-wise, it feels as nimble and stiff as ever. It's light weight lets it quickly change directions without drama, and the somewhat soft suspension results in some body lean, but it also means it can handle uneven back roads without being upset and bumped loose. The chassis is constantly letting you know which end of the car is getting a little loose, and nothing happens overly quickly, so you have plenty of time to correct with throttle and steering inputs. The steering is delicate and light, which fits the personality of the car perfectly, but its feedback and precision fall a bit short of the 86 and BRZ.

Related to all this are some interesting differences and lack of differences between the two cars I drove, an RF Club with the BBS and Brembo package, and a soft top Grand Touring. The Club is definitely a bit more stiff, though still exhibiting lean on corners. I also can't recommend the BBS and Brembo package. The wheels certainly are sharp, but the Brembo brakes didn't feel particularly stronger than the standard units. Save your money and buy some upgraded pads and the wheels of your choice. In general, the brakes on both cars could be firmer. Also noticeable between the two cars was the RF's extra weight. For reference, the RF is a bit over 100 pounds heavier than the 2,339-pound manual soft top. Going around corners, you could feel the whole car pushing wider.

The tradeoff to the Miata's charming engine and handling is that it's not ideal for long highway jaunts or especially bumpy city streets. First off, it's not quiet. Wind, road and tire noises are omnipresent, regardless of whether you're in the RF or a soft top. The difference is between low roar and medium roar. Also, while the Miata has relatively soft suspension, it's still small, light, and doesn't have that much suspension travel, so you'll still be bounding up and down a fair bit over bigger bumps.

Inside, nothing has changed either except the inclusion of a telescoping steering wheel. As Mazda representatives explained, it was its own major engineering project to keep weight down; the new unit only weighs another half pound. It's sure to make getting comfortable easier for most people, though another inch outward would have been nice for my preferences. Still, the driving position is quite comfortable and low. The Recaros are the same, which is sure to please Associate Editor Reese Counts. While they do offer good support, those of larger build, such as myself, may prefer the less bolstered stock seats. The interior is also still attractive, and the controls are a breeze to use. The plastics are cheap and hard, but that's not something you'll be too worried about. The cupholders are still subpar, and the passenger side is still tight.

There are a handful of other small changes to the Miata. The most notable is the GT-S, which finally lets buyers have all the comfort features of the GT along with the Club trim's stiffer suspension and limited-slip differential. Pricing has also gone up a few hundred dollars for the RF models, and pricing for the soft top is coming soon.

The important takeaway: Even with the extra power and tweaks for refinement, Mazda hasn't ruined the Miata formula in the least. It's the same light, playful little car that's stolen our hearts for years, made just a little sweeter.

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Mazda MX-5 Miata Information

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