We have cared a lot about the Mazda MX-5 Miata for nearly three decades. So, too, have the thousands of loyal Miata owners who race their cars, modify their cars, and take them to Miata Club meets. But do you know who cares about the Miata even more? Mazda. The little roadster truly is the company’s pride and joy, a North Star doubling as its philosophical center.
Thus, it isn’t surprising that Mazda is both steadfast about keeping the Miata true to its original missive and always looking for ways to make it better. The precedent of continuous improvement could be seen in the first three generations of MX-5, each of which received tweaks throughout its life cycle. It’s now time for the current, fourth-generation Miata (ND to the cognoscenti) to get better; for 2019, that means a revised 2.0-liter inline-four Skyactiv engine.
More Oomph for 2019
Previously, the ND Miata was powered by a 2.0-liter inline-four that was little more than a Mazda 3 engine turned longitudinally and stuffed into the MX-5’s small engine bay. Vehicle dynamics engineer Dave Coleman admits that the car was originally designed around the less powerful 1.5-liter four-cylinder that’s available in other markets and that by the time the decision was made to install a bigger engine in the Miata bound for the United States, it was too late to truly fine-tune the 2.0-liter for a sports-car application. Of course, the engine itself was hardly a dud—responsive and eager, it made the current car quicker than any Miata before it in our testing despite its meager 155 horsepower.
Coleman describes the engine’s changes for 2019 as “standard hot-rodding procedure.” The throttle body, intake valves, exhaust valves, and their corresponding ports are all larger, while the pistons and connecting rods are lighter, the crankshaft is stiffer, and the fuel-injection system runs at a higher pressure. As a result, the engine revs higher (redlining at 7500 rpm versus 6800 rpm) and puts out 26 more horsepower and 3 more lb-ft of torque for new totals of 181 horses and 151 lb-ft.
Acceleration Numbers Don’t Tell the Whole Story
At the track, the objective performance advances are barely noticeable. Compared with our 2016 long-term MX-5, which was the quickest ND Miata we had tested, the more powerful 2019 model is just 0.1 second quicker to 60 mph and through the quarter-mile, hitting those metrics in 5.7 and 14.5 seconds, the latter at 95 mph. (This 2019 MX-5 roadster in Club trim was similarly optioned to our 2016-model-year long-term test car.) Other examples of the ND soft top, though, needed 6.1–6.2 seconds to reach 60 mph and completed the quarter-mile in 14.8 seconds at 93 mph. The 5-to-60-mph rolling-start time also dropped by 0.1 second, so there is no doubt the new engine is more powerful.
Its improved character, though, is the real upside here. The engine revs more freely, the exhaust barks with more authority, and a jab at the throttle nudges you back into the seat a bit harder. Throttle response is prompt, and the power curve is more linear than before—peak power is reached 1000 revs higher, at 7000 rpm, and yet torque peaks 600 rpm lower, at 4000 rpm. More important, when the power starts to taper off in the 155-hp 2.0-liter at about 6000 rpm, the new 181-hp example keeps climbing for another 1000 revs. This allows for just a single shift to reach 60 mph. Spinning the tach all the way to the elevated redline is thrilling in a way that it wasn’t in the old 2.0-liter, elevating this engine to the same emotional plane as the rest of the car.
The already delightful six-speed manual transmission also has been revised for smoother operation, and it does seem to snick through the H-pattern with a bit more finesse than before. Its gearing has not changed, however. (The optional six-speed automatic receives a new final drive, but we did not drive a car so equipped.) Improved EPA fuel-economy numbers are another bonus; we averaged 30 mpg over 500 miles of mixed driving.
The Handling is as Special as Ever
Of course, the true joy of the Miata has always come from its balanced, poised, and playful chassis. Mazda knows this and has left the suspension tune alone for 2019; the car had already received some tweaks for 2017, when the retractable hardtop RF model debuted, and for 2018, when the RF’s subtle retuning was applied to the softtop. (The two still differ in terms of spring rates and a few other variables due to the hardtop’s added mass.) No surprise that the Miata is the same darling in a canyon road as it ever was, with just enough compliance in the suspension to engage the driver and just enough grip to allow for predictable, progressive behavior at its approachable limits.
Mazda even cares enough about the Miata to address small details. The 2019 car now has a telescoping steering wheel, which was engineered to give taller drivers an easier reach to the wheel while adding a minimum of weight. Despite its more complex mechanism, the new function adds only about half a pound to the waifish Miata’s curb weight. A backup camera is also newly standard in accordance with federal regulations. These new features, along with some extra weight in the engine, add up to a claimed weight gain of just seven pounds overall. We measured the 2019 car at 2345 pounds—21 pounds heavier than our long-term Club—with much of that disparity attributable to the extra weight of the Recaro seats that are newly available as part of the pricey Brembo/BBS package that can drive the softtop’s price to a rather dear $35,000-plus (exact pricing is forthcoming), while the 2019 RF can approach $40,000. Expect a bare-bones 2019 Miata softtop to start around $26,500.
From a big-picture perspective, though, the Miata remains a unique proposition: a lightweight, simple sports car that succeeds in placing driving pleasure above all other considerations. It has changed so little over the years that we almost wonder if Mazda is being too faithful to the MX-5 ideal for its own good. And yet, that such a small automaker has taken such painstaking care to maintain the ethos of a car that today presents such a difficult business case is telling. The Miata is hardly for everyone, but everyone should be able to appreciate that it not only still exists but that it keeps getting better.