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2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata Test Drive Review
The Mazda MX-5 Miata is as perfect a distillation of the sports car concept as can be bought today. Now, for 2019, Mazda hones the Miata recipe and makes the car better than ever.
Driving is fun. Lots of people don’t realize this because their driving is largely limited to traffic-clogged commutes and running errands, and that’s no fun at all. But when the opportunity presents itself – time, an open road, a gorgeous landscape – a world-class sports car like the 2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata is all you need to revel in the escapism and unadulterated pleasure of driving.
Look and Feel
When you go shopping for the street-legal go-kart known as the 2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata, you have two choices. You can get the standard version with the traditional convertible top, or you can get the RF version, named for its power retractable fastback roof. My preference is the convertible, but if I lived somewhere with less cooperative weather than Southern California, the RF would be a smart choice.
Of course, lots of people are likely drawn to the RF simply for its looks. It is an attractive car, the roofline and rear window treatment hearkening back to the 1968-1977 Chevrolet Corvette. Speaking of the ‘Vette, the view forward from the Miata's driver’s seat is similar, too, thanks to high fenders and a low hood.
I think the Miata RF looks best with its roof up. When the roof panels are stowed away and hidden out of sight, the flying buttresses remain and remind me of the rented Mustang convertibles that are a fixture on Pacific Coast Highway all summer long, often driven with the rear quarter windows raised in awkward fashion. This is one reason I prefer the standard Miata, which has a cleaner look with the top down.
And let’s face it. If you’re driving a Miata, the top should be down.
Inside, the Miata features no-nonsense instrumentation with an oversized tachometer flanked by a speedometer and a multi-function gauge that includes a driver-information display. Three air vents and three climate control knobs mimic the shape and detailing of the three chrome-ringed gauges, and Mazda decorates the cabin with polished aluminum trim and accents. The look is classy, even if some of the materials reflect the Miata’s relatively low base price.
You can buy this car for as little as $25,730, not including the $895 destination charge. That’s for the convertible in Sport trim. The track-tuned Club runs an extra $3,860, and the upscale Grand Touring is another $1,190 on top of that.
If you want the retractable fastback version of the car, it comes in only Club and Grand Touring trim. Prices for the RF start at $32,345 and can rise to as much as $39,390 for a Club equipped with the Brembo/BBS/Recaro Package and a sprinkling of accessories.
Nearly 40 grand for a Miata? That’s almost unbelievable, but when you consider that a Porsche 718 Cayman runs $18,000 more before you add so much as metallic paint or leather seats, it remains a deal. And the Cayman’s roof doesn’t retract for a targa-style open-air driving experience.
My test car wasn’t quite that pricey. It was the RF Grand Touring with a manual gearbox, the new-for-2019 GT-S Package (which includes a shock tower brace, Bilstein shocks, and a limited-slip differential), and an Interior Package (door-sill trim plates and alloy pedal covers). That brought the price to $35,405.
Mazda makes a number of changes to the 2019 Miata, the most important of which occur under the hood.
Returning from last year, the 2.0-liter 4-cylinder remains smooth, refined, and eager to rev. But now it makes 26 extra horsepower at 1,000 higher rpm (181 hp), and three additional pound-feet of torque at 600 lower rpm (151 lb-ft). Combined with a redline that’s 700 rpm higher than before, the changes mean the 2019 Miata makes more power across a broader rev range, and that directly translates into a bigger smile on your face as you work the 6-speed manual gearbox.
What’s that? You can’t drive a stick? Well, Mazda offers a 6-speed sport automatic with paddle shifters, but you don’t really want that, do you?
Working the Miata’s manual transmission is a delight of its own, thanks in part to a new lightweight dual-mass clutch flywheel. Recalibrated throttle response delivers quicker, smoother, and more linear acceleration than before, too, and Mazda has also re-tuned the exhaust to enhance the driving experience.
Collectively, these small changes make a big difference in the Miata’s driving character. I live near the Santa Monica Mountains, which are laced with some of the greatest twisty two-lane blacktop in America. It's the kind of environment tailor-made for the Mazda Miata: sunny and warm weather, writhing roads, and gorgeous views of Southern California’s coastline and mountain ranges.
During my week with the 2019 MX-5 Miata RF, I spent as much time as I could running the car hard across those ridges and down through the canyons. At one point, I just kept looping along one of my favorite stretches, thrilling in third gear’s newfound tractability between 35 mph and 75 mph.
Basically, unless you encounter an uphill 15-mph hairpin turn, you don’t need second gear. And since you shouldn’t be driving anywhere near 80 mph anyplace in this mountain range, you really don’t require fourth gear. Granted, the fun of having a manual gearbox is in the shifting, but when you’re exercising the car near its limits, leaving the transmission in third gear clarifies your focus and concentration while hastening your travel.
You still can’t accelerate to 60 mph without grabbing third gear, which is a shame if numbers and data matter to you. Personally, I don’t care about that, and I will tell you that it is sheer joy to run this car up to redline before each shift. If you’re a talented heel-and-toe downshifter, pedal placement is perfect for honing this skill, even for my size-13 feet.
Thanks to my Grand Touring test car’s GT-S Package, it felt nearly as well battened down as the Club trim. The Bilsteins provide a clear connection to the surface without beating you up, and the shock tower brace no doubt assists the P205/45R17 Bridgestone Potenza S001 performance tires in getting the car around corners in a hurry. Together with quick, sharp, and precise steering—and brakes that withstand significant amounts of abuse—the MX-5 Miata’s mechanical components produce symphonic performance honed to perfection.
Fuel economy also improves slightly for 2019, to 26 mpg city, 35 highway, 30 combined with an automatic, though the number remains 29 mpg in combined driving with a stick shift. That’s less than I averaged during a week and 500 miles of travel (29.6 mpg), much of it spent wringing the car out for all it was worth.
Form and Function
The Miata has one purpose: to provide pure driving pleasure for two people. Everything else comes second to this mission, so it comes as no surprise to learn that interior storage and trunk space fail to impress.
There is no glove box. Instead, integrated into the back wall of the cabin between the seats, a locking storage bin holds various items. A smartphone tray sits under the climate controls and forward of the shifter, but may prove inadequate for the oversized devices lots of people prefer. The cup holder clips to the center console, impeding front passenger legroom.
Trunk space measures 4.5 cubic feet. The opening is shaped to accept roll-aboard suitcases, and you might be able to stack two of them inside. Otherwise, stick to soft duffel bags and backpacks.
Driver comfort levels impress. For reference, I’m 6 feet tall and weigh close to 260 pounds, and I fit just fine. Continuing from last year, a thigh support adjuster aids the quest for a proper driving position, assisted by a new tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel. Heated seats are available, helping to extend top-down driving season.
Front passenger’s space doesn’t feel as generous. When I sat there, my knees were uncomfortably close to the dashboard, and the cup holder dug into the side of my left knee. I’d much rather drive this car than ride in it.
You’ll need to be limber to get into and out of a Mazda Miata. The car sits close to the ground, and the shape of the door openings can make for awkward exits. My giant feet also got caught on the door panels and lower dashboard from time to time.
If you’re unwilling to accept these comfort and space compromises, don’t buy this car. They are significant, and they can frustrate you on a regular basis.
If you embark upon Miata ownership understanding that these shortcomings are a part of the deal, you’re more likely to accept them as the price to be paid for a Miata’s significant dynamic pleasures.
Unless you’re referencing its mechanical brilliance, the Mazda Miata is a relatively low-tech automobile. Nevertheless, the technology it does include is useful, such as the available keyless entry and push-button engine starting, automatic climate control, and new road-sign recognition system.
Mazda Connect infotainment is also standard on all Miatas. Drivers interact with the system via the 7-inch touchscreen display (when the car isn’t moving), center-console controls, steering-wheel controls, and a voice-recognition system. My preference is to use the center-console controls, which operate similar to Audi MMI and BMW iDrive. You can use them by feel once you’ve memorized the function locations, and in spite of the cabin’s cramped quarters, Mazda has ensured easy access even for people with long arms.
Bluetooth calling and music streaming, HD Radio, popular music app integration, text messaging support, and E911 emergency notification are standard for all Miatas. Club trim adds satellite radio, and Grand Touring trim installs a navigation system and a Bose premium sound system with headrest speakers.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are notable by their absence. Some new Mazdas have these smartphone integration platforms, so I’m sure it’s coming soon. In the meantime, the company has announced that for $199 plus labor charges, your local dealership can upgrade the existing system to provide this capability.
Two things define vehicle safety: crashworthiness and vehicle weight.
Crash-test ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) are instructive, but some parameters are valid only when compared to vehicles of similar weight. Since the NHTSA and IIHS haven’t tested the Miata, there are no ratings to reference. Therefore, vehicle weight is our only guide.
Generally speaking, heavier vehicles perform better in collisions, especially when those collisions are with a lighter vehicle. Since the MX-5 Miata weighs no more than 2,493 pounds, and since Americans are in love with trucks and SUVs that often tip the scales at twice that amount, it doesn’t take much guesswork to determine that you don’t want to get into an accident while driving this featherweight Mazda, especially if the other vehicle is a truck or an SUV.
In order to help avoid accidents in the first place, Mazda provides Miata owners with more driver-assistance and collision-avoidance systems than ever before. For 2019, a reversing camera is standard on all trims, and a Smart City Brake Support system with low-speed automatic emergency braking is now available. Additionally, buyers can option the MX-5 Miata Sport with a new i-ActiveSense Package that equips the car with Smart City Brake Support, lane-departure warning with a choice between a beep or a rumble, and a blind-spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert.
On the one hand, driving enthusiasts might bemoan the inclusion of such technologies on a pure sports car like the MX-5 Miata. On the other hand, given its light curb weight, it’s important to avoid a collision in the first place. Either way, if safety is at the top of your list of requirements, you don’t want a Miata.
You simply can’t buy this much driving fun at a similar price.
Alternatives include the Subaru BRZ and Toyota 86 twins, and while they offer 2+2 seating, they are not as mechanically refined as the Mazda, nor do their tops drop for open-air motoring. Besides, I don’t recall having as much fun driving them.
I’ve heard great things about the Hyundai Veloster N, another 2+2 with the added practicality of folding rear seats and a hatchback body style. Miraculously, it is priced at less than $28,000, too. But that’s a different sort of a car, one that perhaps Volkswagen ought to be concerned about since it is cheaper than a base Golf GTI.
You might be interested in a FIAT 124 Spider. Like the Miata, the FIAT is a 2-seat roadster, and it's even priced lower than the Mazda. Plus, the 124 Spider is based on the Miata, and is built alongside it in Mazda’s Hiroshima, Japan, factory. But FIAT uses its own drivetrain and dynamic tuning for the 124 Spider, and it simply isn’t as satisfying as the magic Mazda works for the Miata.
If your measure of value relates to practicality, the MX-5 Miata disappoints. But if your goal is to obtain the most driving fun for the least amount of money, you’re looking at the tool that will help you to achieve it.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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