Mazda Says Turbocharged Miata Best Left for Tuners

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

mazda says turbocharged miata best left for tuners

With reports of Toyota developing a turbocharged version of the GR86, many are wondering when Mazda is going to release a boosted variant of the MX-5. Toyota’s coupe already delivers a smidgen more oomph and so does the Subaru BRZ. So it seems plausible that the Miata might see a bump in power to remain competitive. 

However, Mazda doesn’t seem to think there’s any need and has suggested that chasing power would risk spoiling the model’s sublime balance. 

"The Miata is a system; the whole car is optimized for [the current] power," Dave Coleman, the engineer responsible for the Miata, told CarBuzz in an interview. 

"Suddenly, we [would] have to add a stronger drivetrain and bigger brakes. The snowball effect that [would] happen if we did something like that [would] make it not feel like a Miata … It's not that having more power, within itself, would be bad, but there [are] trade-offs. The value that we get out of [the Miata] being so incredibly light is something that you [would] lose."

There’s truth to those words. But the Miata has seen generational improvements since the original 1.6-liter was cranking out 115 horsepower in 1989. The Toyobaru twins have also seen a bump in power, with peak output jumping by over 20 hp between generations. The duo’s naturally aspirated 2.4-liter motor now produces 288 hp. 

While the MX-5’s 2.0-liter engine now makes 181 ponies, it’s the lighter vehicle by roughly 400 pounds. But Mazda’s power bump was never about nailing a target number. The company allegedly just wanted a more free-revving engine to satisfy the person behind the wheel. 

"The whole purpose of that engine upgrade was to raise the redline for the driving experience and the flow of running through the gears up to 7,500 rpm," Coleman explained. "The 26 horsepower [after 2019] was just what happens when you extend the power band up to that redline; it was never even mentioned in any of the planning or documents internally. At the end, we all just said, 'Oh look... 26 more horsepower.'”

"We're always looking at what our options are," Coleman responded when asked if Mazda would ever consider turbocharging in the Miata again. "At the beginning of the ND program, when we decide what [engine] to put in it, we had to look at the sort of the essence of what what we're going for in a lightweight sports car, which is that Jinba Ittai feeling: that directness of the response and the response of the of every part of the car, including the powertrain, being so direct and so intuitive that you don't even think about it. It just becomes an extension of yourself."

From CarBuzz

Coleman then went into even deeper detail about why a high-revving engine is so integral to what makes the Miata so fun to drive.
"[Mazda] was looking for a powertrain that can stretch the high rpm and pull progressively stronger and stronger because that's part of the enjoyment of going through the gears. At the same time, we want throttle response that is so immediate, you don't have to think about it.
"Turbos have gotten so much better in the last decade, being able to deliver more power over a wide power band. But that's still a really difficult challenge to achieve with a turbo. To have the responsiveness that is in line with the responsiveness of your own body," Coleman continued.
Essentially, turbos would result in a compromise in one area or another. "If we want really good responsiveness down low, we end up having to make the turbo so small that it chokes off the top. And if we want it to stretch to the top, we lose something down low. In the CX-90, we did go to a bigger turbo to get the top end and use the electric motor to help fill in the turbo lag."

While it’s not clear that turbocharging anything within the segment makes good financial sense for the companies that have to build them, a subset of fans have been demanding forced induction for years. There are cases to be made both for and against the concept that ought to be considered. 

Mazda offers several models that offer desirable levels of performance within their respective segment. But the MX-5 Miata has arguably fallen into the same trap as the Subaru WRX. Both models spent years without much direct competition and have been allowed to do their own thing. 

This is still true for the WRX. As the only all-wheel drive sport sedan you can realistically obtain for under $31,000, it ends up getting stacked against a slew of sporty, front-wheel drive vehicles and lightweight, rear-drive coupes it probably shouldn’t be compared to. Being different has allowed the model to persist with Subaru focusing on optimizing existing powertrains, instead of chasing peak power, because the model’s all-wheel-drive system helps ensure competitive 0-60 times. 

Meanwhile, the Miata has remained true to form with Mazda having incrementally increased its power. Today’s MX-5 may only produce 181 horsepower. But that’s been more than sufficient to help improve acceleration times on what’s still a featherweight roadster. The car is much faster than its predecessors and that’s undoubtedly helped keep it in the fight after the Subaru BRZ and Toyota GR86 (below) arrived. Unlike the WRX, Mazda’s little roadster has a couple of direct rivals that only lack a convertible rooftop. 

However, none of these cars were ever about straight-line acceleration. While they all manage to hit 60 mph in under six seconds, they’re supposed to prioritize nimbleness and delivering cheap thrills off the expressway. Those seeking to engage in a lot of side-by-side racing (roll or drag) would probably be better suited looking at some of the domestic muscle that’s about to be discontinued. 

Ultimately, Coleman said Mazda wants to keep the Miata focused on simplicity, responsiveness, and remaining lightweight. Whatever technologies that serve those ends in a cost-effective way will be what ends up being bolted onto the platform. 

If enthusiasts don't like it, they’ll have to take matters into their own hands. But that seems a fair enough compromise considering how robust the aftermarket community is for the MX-5 — and the same could be said for the Toyota GR86 and Subaru BRZ. 

These are all comparatively affordable vehicles with reasonably simple motors the modding community has proven can make more power before destroying themselves. Individuals who want a turbocharged MX-5 can have one if they’re willing to engage in some D.I.Y. or throw a few thousand dollars at a performance-focused garage. It’s not like we don’t have loads of boosted Miatas already in existence. Hell, there are even widebody LS-swapped roadsters pushing the boundaries of what Mazda's platform can handle. 

"There's a robust and healthy aftermarket, and we're happy to see it out there. We're happy for this car to be a canvas for people to do those crazy things. But, as a car that we have to sell, getting that core value of the car requires a whole vehicle approach of everything working together at the same level. That's how we managed to make a car that's modern and safe and can be sold in 2024 to be as light as a 1993 Miata. We did that by resisting temptation and focusing on the feeling that we're after in the value of lightweight itself. And then leaving the big power stuff to guys in their garage."

Coleman pointed out that he already owns a turbocharged MX-5. He also has a supercharged version and one powered by a motorcycle engine. But he said those types of vehicles are probably best for tuners to build (or commission) for themselves.

[Images: Mazda; Toyota]

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2 of 52 comments
  • Daniel Daniel on Jul 30, 2023

    Mazda is too small of a maker to invest much into the small market the Miata occupies especially when they mostly sell SUV's now. Even though they are doing pretty well pumping out CX-5's and has some nice offerings in their very latest larger SUV's, they still don't have the extra money to just play around with limited R&D funds to upgrade the Miata much. Now, Toyota, with an even more storied motorsports history, can afford to play around a bit with all those profits from massive volume sales of their beige-mobiles to offer up things like the GR Corolla now on their own and not have to rely on BMW and Subaru to help develop sports cars. Maybe Mazda can add some non-weighty tech they have developed in newer engines and apply it to the 1.8L to give it a little more power to keep it interesting enough to keep enough volume going to justify it until they electrify more. Or, they maybe they can convince Toyota to sell them the 1.5t 3 cyl from the Yaris/Corolla GR in a cheaper/lighter config with less power for the Miata: maybe smaller IC, radiator and less heat generating tune to match.

  • Analoggrotto Analoggrotto on Jul 31, 2023

    I bet the press, fanbase and most people commenting here would applaud Mazda for removing 20 hp from this car for "added balance". SMH.

  • Tassos Your title says FORD to offer blah blah, but on the photo there is a DAMNED KIA instead What gives?
  • Dukeisduke There were aftermarket ac/c systems for these - they used a plastic duct with vents that sat atop the transmission tunnel.
  • GrumpyOldMan I had a '73 for around 18 years. It had a foot operated windshield washer pump, four grease fittings (one on each each door hinge), and coil spring rear/transverse leaf front suspension. No trunk, but a good size luggage area behind the seats. Almost made it to 200K miles, but the tin worm got it.
  • Dukeisduke As far as I'm concerned, the jury's still out on the new Tacoma. I've read about too many new Tundras with mechanical problems like failed wastegates. I'm not confident these won't have similar teething problems. Toyota should just stay away from turbos.
  • TheDrake I owned a ‘69 GT back in the mid seventies and it was a great little car. The 1.9 liter engine in a rwd car that weighed around 2,000 lbs made for a fun ride. Maybe the best handling car I ever drove, felt like it was on rails.