2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF Driven
A magical machine that only keeps improvingby Brady Holt, on LISTEN 13:15
It’s so difficult to make a truly special automobile, and so easy to lose the formula over the years. If a great car succeeds, automakers are tempted to further expand its appeal — often diluting its original glory. And if a great car fails to attract buyers, well, that “problem” usually solves itself as the model fades into obscurity. But the Mazda MX-5 Miata has escaped those pitfalls, remaining stubbornly true to what’s always made it glorious. It’s tiny, it’s light and it’s relatively affordable. It’s low and rear-wheel-drive in an era where tall front-wheel-drive cars dominate. It’s an open-top sports car that’s devoted to driving pleasure rather than spec-sheet victories. It’s a survivor that only manages to improve, rather than be diminished, as the years go on.
2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF Driven
The 2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata, the mid-cycle update of the circa-2016 ND generation, draws yet another sigh of relief. This is still the same magical automobile as the first Miata three decades ago. Its revised 181-horsepower engine has the highest output of any stock MX-5 in history, but the increase from 155 horsepower makes the car livelier without damaging its unique character.
And newly available creature comforts, such as a telescoping steering column and a backup camera, don’t detract from the package in any way — just make the car more livable for driving aficionados who’d have already wanted to own it.
Our test car was the RF, the semi-retractable hardtop variant that first debuted back in 2017. It adds an extra dash of visual flair to a Miata generation that’s abandoned the cute and bubbly looks of the first three iterations, along with the extra security of having a rigid roof. Prices start at $26,650 for the soft-top convertible and $33,265 for the RF. When told of these prices, some folks scoff. This is a small car with a small engine. Small cars with small engines should be cheap! Otherwise, the reasoning goes, why not buy a big, roomy car with a big, powerful engine?
True, obviously the Miata isn’t for everyone. It’s a specialized performance machine, not just a cute little open-top car — one that makes driving a thrill, but that also forces you to squeeze yourself down into a tiny cabin with two seats, little extra legroom and headroom, and dinky removable cupholders. It’s also a sports car that’s more about a visceral connection to the driving experience than about numbers. On the flip side, at those prices, the MX-5 Miata is also an amazing value. Especially with the newly improved engine, it’s a car that could be desirable even at twice the price Mazda charges.
2019 MAZDA MX-5 MIATA RF - DESIGN
The current 2016-present Miata ushered in a newly aggressive and upscale design for the little roadster, which continues through to the 2019 model. Rather than a rounded, friendly visage, its narrow, angular headlights are more like fiercely glaring slits than wide-eyed cheeriness. And around back, the taillights continue to evoke a Jaguar.
This tested RF model, meanwhile, adds a partially retractable roof — two panels above the seats can stow away for an open-air experience. It takes an elaborate dance to stow that relatively small amount of roof: the C-pillars and part of the rear deck lift off the car, revealing the storage area for the roof.
That means the RF never gets a full drop-top look, but at the same time, it looks like a flashy coupe with the top up, not merely like a convertible that’s being protected from the elements.
The RF’s hardtop also provides a measure of security compared to the standard fabric roof if, for example, free-spirited teens decide to toss rocks from an overpass onto passing traffic — as they did to the tested RF on Maryland’s Baltimore-Washington Parkway. (They only caught its nose, but the solid roof was a great psychological comfort.) Neither the hardtop nor the soft top takes up any trunk space, leaving a petite but usably shaped 4.5 cubic feet. The manually operated soft top opens and closes in a couple of seconds, with an easy one-handed motion.
Another key Miata attribute, easy to overlook in photos, is its size. It’s tiny even for a two-seat convertible. At 154 inches long, it’s 18 inches shorter than a Porsche 718 Boxster and nearly two feet shorter than a Chevrolet Corvette. You can tell in person, though, whether you’re seeing it dart through traffic or — even more so — if you’re inside, your eyes even with the door handles of nearby Civics and Priuses. The dimensions haven’t budged in the MX-5’s 30-year lifespan, a rarity in the automotive world.
|Track front/rear (Inches)||58.9/59.17|
The MX-5 Miata’s interior continues to be minimalistic, with a slim dashboard that stays out of the driver’s way.
It’s the perfect approach for the Miata’s personality, rather than the upright economy-car looking dash of the previous generation. Some critics will never like the idea of an infotainment touchscreen mounted atop the dashboard, but this design approach lets the dash itself stay smaller — incredibly valuable in this tiny Mazda. Designers also moved the glovebox to a vertical cubby between the front seatbacks, further shaving down the dashboard and also carving out extra passenger-side legroom. That being said, a number of other vehicles have also begun to offer extra-clean dashboards, and while the MX-5 Miata’s overall interior design is tidy, a few busy details have begun to stand out. That’s especially true if you’re shopping it against luxury-brand sports cars, though Mazda doesn’t embarrass itself even in that context. The 2019 MX-5 Miata adds an overdue backup camera as federally mandated standard equipment; it’s especially valuable on the RF, given its permanent and prominent blind spots.
The seats are comfortable if you fit; while the Miata has grown more space-efficient over the years, it’s still a tiny car that you have to drop into and clamber out of, and which will prove too low-roofed and narrow for some would-be devotees.
This isn’t one of those relaxed-fit performance cars like a Corvette or Ford Mustang — cars with incredible performance capabilities that also have the leg and hip space for most body types. The newly standard telescoping steering column, a Miata first, will help some drivers feel comfortable behind the wheel, but they still must meet the maximum size requirements.
2019 MAZDA MX-5 MIATA RF - HOW IT DRIVES
It’s rare to find a modern automobile with such an intimate connection to the road. In an era with NVH meticulously expunged from even the cheapest cars, you’ll hum smoothly and quietly in a Kia Rio, insulated from everything outside. The Mazda MX-5 Miata is entirely different. It’s one of the few cars left that lets you feel you’re going fast while you’re going slowly, even when the opposite is true.
Your low perch gives you a close-up view of the pavement rushing past, while the steering and suspension keep you informed about what’s happening below you.
The 2.0-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine booms happily, striking the perfect balance between being too subdued and too obnoxious.
The six-speed manual transmission has short, precise throws (the available automatic throws a rare bone to buyers who’ll trade some involvement for convenience). Get moving from a stop and you feel like you’re in a street race, even if you’re only keeping pace with normal traffic. This year’s newly upgraded engine is even heartier off the line than before, and the car’s extra-light weight means it’s not slow even on paper — 0-60 comes in less than 6 seconds. But the car’s main standout quality is that you don’t need to risk a ticket to enjoy driving it; you can grin just while accelerating normally between urban stoplights.
Handling thrills are the most famous Miata forte, and as much as we love the powertrain, it’s not something to take for granted. Extra-quick, perfectly weighted steering and balanced handling are a delight when you get to tackle a winding road, and the car is alert even at lower speeds. Mazda has not neutered this car over the last 30 years, even with the current generation’s electronic power steering. Some prospective buyers might find it frenetic — those who just want the wind in their hair, rather than a highly capable sports car. And even some driving enthusiasts might prefer a car that’s more willing to settle down and relax for a long highway slog; the manual keeps engine revving high (about 3,000 rpm at 70 mph), and there’s a lot of cabin noise even with the top up.
One thing quality that’s welcome in daily use is the MX-5 Miata’s fuel efficiency.
The EPA pegs it at 26 mpg in the city, 34 mpg on the highway, and 29 mpg overall with the manual transmission. The optional automatic is better geared for the freeway and improves slightly to 35 mpg highway and 30 mpg overall. The tested manual RF topped the EPA ratings to achieve 35.3 mpg during a weeklong test. Despite the extra power this year, the manual MX-5 achieves slightly better EPA ratings than the 2018 model, while the automatic holds steady. Mazda recommends premium fuel for maximum performance but states that regular is also acceptable.
|Engine||SKYACTIV-G 2.0L DOHC 16-valve 4-cylinder with VVT|
|Horsepower||181 HP @ 7,000 RPM|
|Torque||151 LB-FT @ 4,000 RPM|
|Curb weight||2,453 Lbs|
|Fuel economy city/highway||26/33|
|0 to 60 mph||6.0 seconds|
|Top Speed||135 mph|
2019 MAZDA MX-5 MIATA PRICING
The base Miata soft-top Sport trim costs $26,650 including the mandatory destination charge. Standard equipment includes plenty of good stuff: keyless entry with push-button starting, 16-inch alloy wheels, the new tilt/telescoping steering column, Bluetooth, a six-speaker sound system, a 7-inch infotainment touchscreen with the new backup camera display, and leather on the steering wheel, shifter, and handbrake.
It would be easy enough to stop there, but the sporty Club ($30,510) and luxurious Grand Touring ($31,700) models offer their own appeal: upgraded upholstery (cloth on the Club, with available partial leather on the optional sports seats on our test car; leather on the Grand Touring); a Bose sound system; seat heaters; 17-inch wheels; and a blind-spot monitoring system. The Club has a sport suspension and available Brembo brakes, while the Grand Touring has extras like rain-sensing windshield wipers and automatic emergency braking.
The RF is available only in the Club ($33,265) and Grand Touring ($34,255) trim levels, a premium of roughly $2,500 over a comparably equipped soft-top model. All Miata versions come standard with a manual transmission and have an optional automatic.
2019 MAZDA MX-5 MIATA KEY COMPETITORS
The Fiat 124 Spider is the closest thing you can buy to a Miata — because it basically is a Miata. They share a platform and interior, though Fiat has its own turbocharged engine, a different transmission (still from Mazda) and a few tuning tweaks. There’s no RF version of the 124, and the upgraded 2019 MX-5 engine advances even farther from the Fiat’s turbo.
Read our full driven review on the 2019 Fiat 124 Spider
The Mini Cooper is another rare convertible that’s affordable and fun to drive, whose driving-pleasure focus persists despite the front-wheel-drive architecture. Mini even squeezes in a tiny rear seat. But it’s more expensive than the Miata, especially once you start adding Mini’s infamously expensive options, and its base engine makes just 134 horsepower to the Miata’s 181. The good news is you can get the Mini as a fixed-roof hatchback, adding a welcome measure of practicality for a small sporty car.
Read our full review on the 2019 Mini Cooper
The Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ were co-developed with the same mechanicals and nearly identical styling. Both offer delightful steering and handling, with crisper responses even than the Miata. But they’re sold only as two-door fixed-roof coupes, and they’re comparatively crude and tinny compared to the latest Miata.
2019 MAZDA MX-5 MIATA RF IN A NUTSHELL
The Mazda MX-5 Miata has always been a thing of joy — an exuberant ode to driving that can thrill you on any drive, from a five-minute errand in town to a day of blasting around mountain rounds. The current generation’s more sophisticated style, particularly on the RF hardtop, makes it clearly more than just a cheeky, cheery little ragtop. And this year’s increased power and useful new features make it the best Miata yet.
Read our full review on the 2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata 30th Anniversary Edition.
Read our full review on the 2016 Mazda MX-5.
Read our full driven review on the 2017 Mazda Miata RF.