2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata First Drive - Tuned By Tufnel

Chris Tonn
by Chris Tonn
2019 mazda mx 5 miata first drive tuned by tufnel

Take a good look at the photos throughout these virtual pages. A really good look. If you haven’t been obsessively reading about the refreshed-for-2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata, you are no doubt puzzled by the “First Drive” tag in the title.

Indeed, Mazda didn’t change anything visually significant in this, the fourth model year of the fourth generation of the legendary Miata. From the outside, the only real clue is the appearance of a gash in the rear bumper for a rear-view camera. But under the hood, it becomes clear that Mazda engineers channeled the storied fictional guitarist in turning the already excellent Miata to eleven.

The big change to the 2019 MX-5 Miata is indeed the 2.0-liter four cylinder engine, which now produces 181 horsepower at 7,000 rpm and 151 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm — up 26 horsepower and three lb-ft over the 2018 engine. The extra power is a bit more useful, as the 2019 car is much more flexible in lower gears. The redline is up 700 rpm to a maximum of 7,500. This maximum occurs during aggressive driving in low gear — say, when track driving. Otherwise, the redline is up 400 rpm to 7,200.

Disclosure: Mazda flew me to San Diego, where journalists spent two days driving north among roads of our choosing. Mazda also fed us. Mazda also supplied a branded portable cell-phone charger, which unfortunately I had to use. More on that anon.

To the delight of armchair enthusiasts and hardcore autocrossers alike, the 2019 MX-5 matches that higher redline with unchanged gear ratios, allowing the new car to approach the magic 60 mph number in second gear. My testing (using the TrackAddict app on my Android phone, which is at least repeatable but not to-the-millisecond accurate) shows the 2019 reaching 62 mph before hitting the rev limiter in 2nd gear, whereas the 2018 — using the same testing method on a car from a local dealer — only managed 53 mph at the limiter. That’s a significant difference that should drop the published 0-60 times, as one less shift may be required.

That unchanged gearbox, according to Dave Coleman (Mazda’s manager of vehicle dynamics engineering) was tuned in Japan for the high-revving 1.5 liter engine sold in the rest of the world. The 2016-2018 two-liter was saddled with the same gearing. In developing the 2019 two-liter, Mazda made a number of incremental improvements to increase efficiency and power.

The throttle body is 5mm larger than before and uses a 2mm smaller shaft, which increases the flow area by 28 percent. The intake and exhaust ports are larger, as are the valves. The exhaust cam has a higher lift and longer duration, allowing the exhaust charge to exit the cylinder more quickly and completely, paired with larger primary and secondary exhaust manifold tubes.

Beyond that, Mazda lightened the pistons and connecting rods — the bolts for the connecting rods use a stronger material that allows a smaller diameter bolt, and a shorter skirt on the piston reduces surface area and thus friction. 40 grams of weight savings on the rods, and 27 grams on the piston doesn’t sound significant, but those rotating masses can significantly affect rotating speed of the engine. A stiffer crankshaft helps smooth vibrations at the higher RPMs this engine sees.

Further, the direct fuel injection system runs at a higher pressure, allowing shorter fuel injection “events” more frequently. The higher pressure allows for better fuel atomization in the combustion chamber, which combines with a three-stage injection process that creates a more consistent air/fuel mixture throughout the chamber, with a richer mixture right by the spark plug.

Mazda did add a total of 7 pounds to the overall weight of the 2019 MX-5 over the 2018 model, and the majority of this weight increase lies in the dual-mass flywheel. The heavier flywheel seems like it would be counterproductive with a higher-revving engine, but the majority of that mass is concentrated at the center of the flywheel, again lessening vibration sent through the drivetrain.

In my testing, the new engine does feel a touch smoother, and yet felt just as willing to run up the tachometer as the old engine. Plus, that extra headroom before the rev limiter is incredibly enjoyable, with a lovely sound as the engine sings over 6000 rpm. Mazda says the exhaust is re-tuned for a deeper tone over last year — I’d need more time back-to-back with the two cars to agree, as I thought the 2018 sounded marvelous as well.

One other significant change that added a bit of weight? A telescoping steering wheel. Yes, the Miata finally adds a feature that has been standard in so many cars for decades. The new telescoping column adds a whopping 203 grams of weight, but the ability to bring that steering wheel towards me a bit makes a big difference in driving comfort, as I can slouch in the seat slightly without rubbing my thighs on the wheel.

In my own 1991 Miata, I’ve resorted to installing a smaller aftermarket steering wheel, as well as carving foam out of the seat to gain clearance. Such drastic measures are no longer needed.

Mazda continues with three basic trim levels for the roadster: basic Sport, the sport-focused Club, and the plush (for a Miata) GT. The RF eschews the Sport trim, wearing only the Club or GT packages. Like previous years, the Club trim can be had with either a BBS/Brembo package — obviously with the lovely BBS wheels and Brembo brake calipers — or a BBS/Brembo/Recaro package, adding the sporty Recaro seats. However, Mazda has acknowledged that some drivers may want the lux bits on the GT with the sport suspension and limited-slip differential from the Club trim. This year, the GT-S package marries the two, adding the sport suspension — including Bilstein shocks, the LSD, and a shock tower brace. Further on the RF model with the GT-S package, the roof panel is painted black.

I’ll admit, I cursed Mazda briefly during our drive for a decision made by many automakers: the elimination of the on-board spare tire. While tire quality has indeed improved to the point where flat tires are rare, they do still happen, especially when low-profile tires meet large stones just past the apex of a blind corner somewhere beyond cell-phone range on the mostly-deserted Angeles Crest Highway far west of the City of Angels.

For the record, I wasn’t driving when the rock popped the right front tire.

However, we were surprised to find that Mazda has taken yet another opportunity to minimize mass. As our rescuers arrived with a new wheel and tire, we learned that even the lug nuts have been reduced in size — and thus weight — by moving from a 21mm hex to 17mm. Unfortunately, our roadside assistance only had a 21mm socket. Off to a hardware store.

While I’m rolling on the complaint train, let it be known that the redesigned cupholders still suck. The attachment points are redesigned to make moving the cupholders simpler, but they lack sufficient depth to keep larger cups or bottles from flopping over.

The locations are unchanged — a pair of cupholders between the seatbacks near the occupant’s armpits, and one right where a passenger’s left knee might want to reside. But, as Coleman notes, “Let’s get our priorities straight — it’s a sports car.” Shifter position is much more important than the occasional Big Gulp.

One concern lies with the retractable fastback “RF” trim, and only really applies to those of us taller than average. I find that the hard C-pillar obviously gives more of a blind spot during lane changes to the left — one that I can’t mitigate with the mirror. My typical move when dealing with such a lane change is to physically lean forward, moving my view of traffic a bit in the mirror. Unfortunately, when I tried this in the MX-5 RF, I thwacked my temple on the A-pillar.

It’s not like I’ve never hit my head before.

But the hard roof does legitimately limit the flexibility found in the soft top, meaning I absolutely cannot drive the RF with the top raised. I’m 6’4”, with a long upper body, so drivers under 6’2” or so would likely be fine in the RF. I’d have to stick with the standard roadster.

The two cars I drove were the Soul Red roadster in Club trim fitted with the Brembo/BBS/Recaro package, and the Arctic White RF in the new GT-S trim. For the spotters, the GT-S package can easily be distinguished on an RF by the presence of the handsome, hand-painted black roof panel. Otherwise, the only cue is under the car, as the GT-S wears the yellow Bilstein shocks also found on the Club trim.

Interestingly, though both cars I sampled were fitted with the sport suspension package, there is a clear difference between the RF and the roadster in road manners. While both are competent and compliant in spirited driving, I noted a bit more harshness in the roadster while cruising on the interstate. A touch of cowl shake was also noticed on the roadster, but not on the fastback. When pressed, Mazda engineers clarified that spring rates and suspension tuning do vary between the two body styles — after all, the RF carries a bit over 100 pounds more than the soft top.

Otherwise, the cars drive brilliantly. The added flexibility given by the added low-range torque and higher redline meant I could remain in third gear in the canyons — roads that I’m sure would require more shifting in the earlier car. Further, while on those mindless interstates, I didn’t need to shift as often when encountering slight grade changes. Dropping to fifth was still needed to pass the ubiquitous five-under-the-limit hybrids clogging the middle lanes, but otherwise the Miata makes an excellent commuter.

While hitting those canyons, however, I found myself turning around and hunting the same apexes over and over again. The ease at which the MX-5 can be placed in corners makes every turn a joy. The shifter remains the best I’ve ever encountered, with just enough notchiness to ensure you’ve grabbed the right ratio, and short, quick throws allowing the fun to resume promptly.

The seats are quite comfortable — I loved the drivers’ perch in the Recaro-equipped Club roadster. However, though the Recaro bolsters are a bit lower on the passenger side, I preferred the standard leather seats fitted to my RF tester when I was riding. The even-lower cushions made negotiating the hump where my left size 13 might go a bit less taxing than on the Recaros.

I’m growing to appreciate Mazda’s infotainment system more. While I’m still not a fan of the knob interface — a more responsive touchscreen is a bit more intuitive to me — it worked flawlessly, giving clear directions as we attempted to get lost in the hills. Sound quality through the headrest-mounted speakers was quite good, as well.

Yeah, I’m a little biased toward Mazda’s plucky roadster. I’ve owned three of them over the past 15 years. But, really, how can someone who enjoys driving not enjoy the MX-5 Miata? It’s the essence of a sports car — very nearly the bare minimum one needs to get from here to there, distilled for maximum joy.

Mazda’s done something remarkable with the 2019 car: it took a nearly perfect car, and amplified it.

[Images: © 2018 Chris Tonn/TTAC]

Join the conversation
4 of 33 comments
  • Jerome10 Jerome10 on Aug 13, 2018

    Wanna try, but afraid I'll love it too much and be too tempted. Definitely see no point in the RF unless you're all style. These cars are magical with the top down and miserable with the top up. And the RF gives you half the experience with more wind buffeting. Why?

    • See 1 previous
    • MBella MBella on Aug 13, 2018

      @TMA1 The NC power folding hardtop design is truly impressive. I also haven't heard of anyone on the forums complain about issues with it. They seem to be reliable. I love the efficiency of the softop though. It takes me like ess than two seconds to open it and there are no automated parts to fail. My short hair also touches the headliner of the softop, so the hardtop would make me crouch down.

  • Peeryog Peeryog on Aug 13, 2018

    The rear shot of the white RF looks so glum.

  • Tassos The EQS is the best looking BEV, better than even the only Tesla I would ever consider (the S) and more luxurious inside etc etcThe self driving features will come in handy when I'm 110 and my eyesight and reaction times start to suffer.But that's four decades away, and only Tim recommends 40 year old "used cars"
  • Tassos "Baby, Baby light my fire!""Oh God please give me a Kia Forte" --Janis Joplin
  • Tassos The fugly looks of any Subaru, and especially the non-sporty non-elegant, fugly, low-rent looks and interior of the WRX are alone a sufficient turnoff to never want to own one.One can be a 100% car enthusiast but ALSO demand a beautiful AND luxurious vehicle one can be truly proud of and which makes one very happy every time one drives it.The above is obviously totally foreign to Subaru Designers and managers.Αnd who cares if they sell all they make? this is 100% worthless bragging, since they hardly make ANY. ALL of Subaru's models together, all dozen of them, sell less than the top selling Toyota or Honda or even Tesla sells. ANd furthermore, if you have the intellectual horsepower to understand it, bulldude, which I am 99% sure you sure as hell do not, it is NOT about the sales units, it is not even about the sales revenue.It is all about the P R O F I T S.Am I going slow enough for you, bulldude?
  • Thehyundaigarage Am I the only one that sees a Peugeot 508?
  • Lou_BC I realized it wasn't EV's burning by the absence of the usual suspects.