The Cult of Cars, Racing and Everything That Moves You.
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The 2019 Mazda Miata Really Is That Much Better

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The 2019 Mazda Miata answers a prayer car enthusiasts have recited for years, by getting more power than it’s ever had from the factory. In going from 155 horsepower to 181, the new model takes the honored, three-decade-old Miata formula and improves it in one of the most obvious, and important, ways.

The new Miata really is that much better, too, on both paper and in practice. But it’s a better version of an already great thing.

(Full disclosure: We asked Mazda for a 2019 Miata to compare to my mom’s 2017 model, and a Mazda spokesperson said “your mom is my hero” before giving the loan the OK. The car arrived with a full tank of gas, which was promptly used up.)

Horsepower isn’t the only change on the new Miata, even if it is the big one. It now has a higher redline, a telescoping steering wheel, more torque, the option for a sportier, stiffer suspension, a meaner exhaust note, and more appearance choices than the last model did.

To see how different all of that really is from the outgoing spec, we spent a week driving it alongside a 2017 courtesy of my mother, who’s owned three of the four generations of the car.

The Cars

Both the white 2019 car Mazda provided and my mom’s black Miata are part of the top Grand Touring trim. The 2017 had a sticker of $31,070 when new, while the 2019 rings up at $33,050 with options.

The two are about as close to being the same car, different model years as possible, and the prices aren’t terribly far off. The 2019’s window sticker only has a few line items the old car’s doesn’t: the new power and torque numbers, the telescoping steering wheel, and the optional GT-S package with suspension tweaks and a limited-slip differential.

Mazda announced that the 2019 car would come with 181 HP and a new, higher 7,500-rpm redline last year, and in the power-to-weight context of a car this small, a 26-HP bump is huge.

If power to weight means nothing to you, basically: The curb weight on the 2019 Miata ranges between 2,339 and 2,493 pounds, with automatic and RF models being heaviest. The 2018 Mazda 6 sedan’s top trim comes in at 3,560 pounds, which is more than 1,000 pounds heavier than even the heftiest of 2019 Miatas, and even a Porsche 718 Boxster PDK is more than 3,000 pounds. The Miata’s extra 26 HP means more than it would on most cars, given those stats.

The Miata’s light weight has always been one of its highlights, and with more power, that’s been accentuated for 2019.

The Horsepower Boost

When I got into the 181-HP Miata for the first time, it had been a few months since I’d driven my mom’s 155-HP model. I rolled out of my sloped driveway in neutral because I’m lazy, tossed it into first gear and headed for the nearest, hardly trafficked stop sign in my neighborhood.

I didn’t just do a routine stop at the intersection when I got there, though. I stopped and looked around, taking in how odd yet incredible the extra power felt. The Miata had gone from the light, well-balanced and adequately powered car I’ve known since my mom had her first one years ago, to what felt like the vehicle version of a purse-sized dog—yappy, aggressive, yet tiny and lovable as ever.

Unlike older, moderately powered Miatas, this new one could pull a driver back in their seat—not in a “Hellcat at the drag strip” type of way, but enough to provide an actual sensation of speed. The revs now shoot up in comparison to the steady climb of older models, and even with the extra power, the new car’s balance, handling and steering feel distinctively Miata.

I was consumed with the power boost for days, raving about it to my mom while she responded with, “Oh, shut up, they’re taking your car away soon and I get to keep mine.” But then the weekend rolled around, and it was time to see how her Miata directly compared with this one.

That’s when mom no longer had to defend her older, slower Miata, because it debunked all of the notions I had in my head without saying a word.

To my sincere surprise, her car was still quick. After back-to-back acceleration and cornering runs, the 2019 didn’t make me hate the 2017, or even think it was severely underpowered. The old car seemed weaker in comparison, sure, but they both felt good—even if the older car was noticeably slower in lower revs.

Jumping back and forth, it became immediately apparent what made the new car feel so dramatically different than the old one at first: its smooth, powerful, and, most importantly, loud exhaust note. Compared to the new car, my mom’s 2017 sounded muted and uninspired, like your average engine with no attention paid to the exhaust note.

It wasn’t a bad sound coming from her Miata, of course; it was just so obviously crude in comparison to the new one, which made its presence known as soon as I tapped the gas pedal.

The engine noise in the cabin sounded so good that it almost felt fake, as if it was piped in through speakers or other means—a common practice in modern cars. Mazda’s people say that’s not the case, though, and explained that the sound is from the car’s “retuned, freer-flowing exhaust system” that’s meant to make the exhaust note deeper than the older fourth-generation models.

The Handling

Like all other Miatas, the 2019 car was designed to corner like the Dodge Challenger was designed to go straight. That’s its signature move.

On curvy roads with elevation changes, the 2019 Miata did what it does very well—handled like a passenger car on a roller coaster, sticking to the road and taking the people inside of it along for the ride. Compared to the 2017, the new car’s suspension also felt more planted, stiffer and more solid in general.

I later popped the hood and saw this was due, in part, to a front shock tower brace that wasn’t on the 2017. The add-on is part of the GT-S package, which costs an extra $550 on the soft top and $750 on the RF. The package only comes on the manual 2019 Grand Touring, and also adds a limited-slip differential plus a “sport-tuned suspension” and Bilstein-branded shock absorbers.

Miatas are also known for their tight steering, and the 2019 model felt tighter than even the 2017 did. That could be due to the fact that my mom’s Miata had 8,073 miles on the odometer and had taken a few more corners than this new one at the time we tested them, but the 2017 felt noticeably looser.

The New Features

Aside from the color differences, it would be hard to tell the 2019 model in this review apart from my mom’s car, but the new Miata has a few extra features that aren’t immediately evident.

Since all U.S.-spec cars now need backup cameras, the 2019’s infotainment screen switches to a backup view when the driver shifts into reverse, while the 2017 model doesn’t. The camera is nice for remembering that you left the car in reverse when you parked, but other than that, it’s nothing particularly special.

There’s also the telescoping steering wheel in the 2019 car, which Mazda played up in announcing it. While drivers have only been able to adjust Miata wheels up and down before this model year, the new, telescoping wheel also lets a person move the wheel closer or further away.

It’s helpful for those whose body proportions aren’t particularly Miata friendly—of whom there are many, since the cabin is so tight. Telescoping is also good for posture and adjusting seating positions for different types of driving, like going through town versus taking the car on some winding roads.

The last obvious change between the two cars was the new, more complicated and more modern-looking gauge cluster on the 2019. The two gauges on the right have little to no change between the two model years, aside from the new redline on the 2019. But the gauge on the left has a different styling and font this model year, along with a couple of extra bits of driving information, like a stop-sign recognition system that displays on it while moving.

The Verdict

As my husband, mother and I stood in the driveway at the end of my week with the 2019 Miata, hood up on both of the cars, we circled them while I made some final notes. The new car was noticeably better, and it would be easy to tell the difference between them in a blind test. (Don’t conduct blind driving tests.)

But the old car was good, too. There certainly wasn’t anything wrong with it.

“You know,” my husband said, in a sudden revelation. “The new Miata is like the S version of an iPhone. If you already have the current model before the S refresh, upgrading isn’t that big of a deal.”

That was it. When it comes to the big decision, the 2019 car is like an iPhone S. It’s the mid-cycle refresh with a few major updates and a lot of little tweaks, and all of the talk about it is enough to make the owner of the outgoing model feel like they’re already behind—even if they bought theirs six months ago.

But no matter how taunting the flashy new model is, there’s plenty life and enjoyment left in the “old” Miata. It wouldn’t make sense for my mom or any other owner of a prior fourth-generation car to take the depreciation hit for a new one, no matter how tempting it might be.

For those who don’t already have the car, though, the newest version truly is better than ever—and it makes perfect sense.