The 2019 Mazda Miata’s Extra Power Makes a Great Car Better

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The 2019 Mazda Miata isn’t completely revamped, but then again, it didn’t need that. Now, though, it is more powerful, more efficient, and basically just a tiny bump better. The car was already great, now it’s even more of a goddamn blast.

(Full Disclosure: Mazda kindly flew me to San Diego and gave me a Miata to drive up to San Luis Obispo over the course of a few days. The company kept me well-fed, not thirsty, and sheltered at night along the way.) 

Mazda’s goal with the 2019 Miata was to keep it true to its lithe and light nature while dialing it up in some appreciable ways. “Keep it true to itself,” as one engineer put succinctly. “What’s more important?” He said. “The cupholder or room for the shifter?”

A life question, more than anything else.

What It Is, What Matters 

This is a refresh of the fourth-generation ND Mazda, the one that launched for the 2016 model year and managed—incredibly, given the safety and technology requirements these days—to get size and weight pretty close to the early 1990s original.

It’s still an ND, but a better ND. There’s the power bump from 155 horsepower to 181 HP, which we’ll get to. And a tad more weight. I really do mean a tad.

Mazda claims that the soft top 2019 weighs in a 2,339 pounds, up a whopping seven pounds from the 2018. The hardtop RF version adds about 100 pounds on top of that.

Mazda promised that the additional weight was placed low and central, to minimize any disturbance to the car’s balance, while adding a telescoping steering wheel and more importantly, a further-polished version of its 2.0-liter, inline four-cylinder Skyactiv-G engine that now redlines at 7,500 rpm. That engine, as you probably know by now, produces a claimed 181 horsepower, or 26 more horsepower than the previous model year.

The engine, adjustable steering wheel and a federally mandated backup camera will be standard on all 2019 Miatas. A GT trim also gets a low-speed automatic emergency braking system plus traffic sign recognition so you can keep track of the speed limit from your dashboard.

That’s just one option, though, as there are seven different versions of the Miata in 2019, designed to appeal to everyone. There’s the base Sport, which is super lean; the Club, with optional Brembo brakes, Recaro seats, and BBS wheels; the GT luxury version; and then there’s the GT-S, a GT with a limited slip-differential and Bilstein suspension. And all of these (except for the Sport) can be had with the soft top or the RF retractable hard top. Base price for the Club RF with a manual transmission is $32,345; for the GT RF it’s $33,335.

Pricing for the soft top versions of those cars and the Sport has yet to be announced, though we expect it’ll be slightly more than the current base price of $25,295. Deliveries of the hotter-selling RF began last week, with the soft top “a little ways out,” a Mazda spokesman said.

What’s Great

The acceleration. The acceleration is great. I’m talking about first-gear acceleration, of course, but I’m also talking about the acceleration in second and third gears at high revs, which is the most fun I’ve had in a car in 2018. I’m not even sure you need fourth, fifth, and sixth gears on the Miata.

OK, actually, I’ll take sixth gear, which is good for cruising and fuel efficiency, but fifth gear isn’t good for cruising and isn’t powerful enough for highway passing. When you really need to, kick it down to fourth gear or even third. This is all not really fifth gear’s fault; the engine in the 2019 Mazda Miata likes the high revs more than the low revs. If you’re revving in the 6,000 to 7,500 range in fifth, that means you’re breaking the speed limit or, hopefully, on a track.

Straight line speed has never been the Miata’s forte, but the extra 26 horses on tap here are a welcome addition. Most car companies are happy to document those speeds precisely, giving zero-to-60 numbers and top speeds for its wares, but Mazda is a little different, as it provides neither. Car and Driver said the previous model went zero to 60 in 6.1 seconds; I would say the 2019 certainly felt quicker than that.

More than just speed, the fuel efficiency is improved on the 2019 Miata compared to the previous year’s model version, averaging 34 mpg on the highway with the manual versions, an improvement of 1 mpg over 2018.

Mazda says it did this by increasing the amount of air that gets pumped into the engine, with a larger throttle body, larger intake valves, and larger intake ports. The 2019 also has larger exhaust ports, larger exhaust valves, and a higher lift exhaust cam to help take all that air out.

Pistons and connecting rods are lighter, and the refined Skyactiv-G engine sprays fuel into the combustion chamber in up to three bursts as the RPMs go higher, resulting, in the highest RPMs, with a more consistent, fuel mixture and a richer mixture of fuel near the spark plug, where it counts.

All of this, combined with what Mazda described as a “software trick,” results in not just higher fuel efficiency but also more linear acceleration, which is dependably predictable when getting up to highway speeds.

More fun is what happens when you put the gas pedal to the floor, which in most sports cars is downright dangerous if you’re not ready for what happens next, since most sports cars have too much power. No such concerns with the 2019 Miata, which is really best spent driven in second and third gear, the revs high, when a tap of the gas is enough for a charming lurch forward while full throttle unleashes all of the car’s power into a thrilling sprint.

Let’s talk for a minute about that six-speed manual gearbox, since you’re not getting an automatic. Mazda says that it’s smoother and quieter this year, and, indeed, it shifted fluidly on a recent drive in southern California, helped by a new dual-mass flywheel to prevent gear rattle.

About as smooth as the gearbox is the suspension, which Mazda designed to be soft but not too soft, though certainly not stiff enough to cause you any harm. The reasoning is simple—the best driving roads in America tend to be the most remote, and therefore often not very well taken care of, where a stiff suspension would be uncomfortable to say the least.

And you might think that this would come at a cost to performance, but in my experience this just made it playful around tight corners, and left you feeling a little foolish for thinking it’d be anything less. We tested this on one of the more white-knuckle-inducing roads in America: the Angeles Crest Highway in the San Gabriel Mountains, where a wrong turn or blown tire can lead to certain death. But the handling was reliably steady and assured, taking corners with a spirit of adventure.

As for differences between the soft top and RF, the retractable metal of the RF’s makes its cabin much quieter while enclosed, which should be no surprise, and yet, having driven both, I can’t help but recommend you get the cloth-roof convertible.

The RF has nasty blind spot to the driver’s left with the top up—mitigated, somewhat, by blind-spot detection lights on the mirrors—and that blind spot still sticks with you to a lesser degree even with the roof retracted.

The soft top has no such problems, and also generates more air flow in the cabin, which you may or may not like. But if I’m in a convertible I like it windy in there, because otherwise what’s the point? The soft top is also lighter, which means it’s quicker. It also doesn’t look bad, you know.

What’s Weak

People complain about the cupholders in Miatas, and, indeed, they are pretty inconvenient. They’re these detachable things you can situate in the center between the two seats, not worthy of anything more than a closed bottle; putting coffee in these things would just stress me out.

Anyway, they’re better in 2019, as Mazda said that engineers in Hiroshima put a lot of work into making them wiggle less. Let’s examine the results of that work:

I can report, it was indeed sturdy, both in its standard location in the middle between the two seats (forcing the hated reach-around) and its position to the left of the passenger’s left leg.

Before the drive, while in San Diego, Mazda set us up with some Miata club members, who trotted out all of their beautiful Miata children. It was a pleasant evening, though briefly interrupted by one Miata owner who complained loudly that the cupholders were $180 to replace. “That’s $180 for a well-engineered piece of plastic!,” the man cried. To which a Mazda spokesperson replied, well, it is a $35,000 car, which I think is a fair point.

The cupholders, in other words, are fine. They work. This is a Miata. You learn to accept its limitations, which mainly fall on the passenger to deal with, as the interior, for anyone except the driver, is small and kind of uncomfortable.

Perhaps this was a function of my size; I’m six-foot, three-inch, or about six inches taller than average American man, but still within the range of what I think manufacturers should reasonably account for. And yet, my knees were up against the dash in the passenger, leaving me to wonder how they might fare if the airbag deployed.

Then there’s the backup camera, now federally mandated for cars in the United States. See if you can spot the backup camera on this picture of the Miata’s rear:

Yes, that’s it, right in the middle, which might be fine if it weren’t so obvious. Maybe, you say, it’s because this Miata is white and we’re looking directly at it, making the camera stick out.

Hmm. Nah. Still there. That’s unfortunate.

The 2019 Miata, as with all NDs, also lacks a glove box, leading to a storage crisis. For the passenger, that means the answer to the question of “where do I put all my shit” is too often “I guess in my lap like a big dumb idiot.”

Who cares! You won’t, behind the wheel. The Miata is perfect, really, only for the driver—where my six-foot, three-inch frame fit like a glove—and for solo drives, where instead of stuffing two bags in the trunk and weighing down the car further with one of your stupid friends, you can use the passenger seat for easy access to your bag, and then hit the highway and open it up.

Early Verdict

Mazda said that its engineers were not really trying to make a more powerful engine, but instead were aiming for, as they have been with Miatas past, a specific driver feel. When Mazda tested it at the end, having the engine make 181 HP was just a happy accident. Or so they say. When Grassroots Motorsports put the new Miata on a dyno, they highest they got was 168 horsepower, chalking up the missing 13 to driveline loss, and concluding that 181 horsepower might be even a pessimistic number for the Miata.

What I can tell you from driving it is that even if 181 is a completely made up number—hell, even if it’s an overestimation—it’s possible that just knowing that the new Miata makes some amount more power than the old one has its own kind of placebo effect.

And does it really matter in the end? The maxim at the core of the Miata’s success is that it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than to drive a fast car slow. For 2019, the Miata is less slow. And, really, the most fun you can have is driving a not-really-that-slow car fast.