Expert Reviews

First Drive: 2019 Mazda MX-5

MX-5 Miata owners are a fun bunch.

Mazda has done an excellent job of taking their most iconic machine and improving it just where it’s most needed.

Following our first drive of the updated 2019 Mazda MX-5, our small convoy of roadsters were piloted back to Mazda Canada’s headquarters in Richmond Hill, Ontario. There we joined a Cars and Coffee–style event to help celebrate Mazda’s 50th Anniversary here in the Great White North, and got to rub shoulders with a lot of current owners.

While there were ardent Mazda fans in attendance showcasing all sorts of models from tuned-up Mazda3s and rotary-powered machines, the Miata, er– MX-5 owners were such an eclectic and fun group of folks, that it makes joining the group of owners all the more enticing.

It should be no surprise that the MX-5 drivers are fun-loving, since the cars they’ve chosen exist solely to put smiles on their owners’ faces despite modest accoutrements, tight quarters, and a general lack of practicality. It doesn’t matter what generation MX-5 or Miata it is – it’s fun to drive.

To remind us of this fact, Mazda provided a stunning, low-mileage, Mariner Blue NA (first generation) Miata to drive. Plus, a turbocharged, Mazdaspeed NB (second generation) car. And a 25th Anniversary NC (third generation) MX-5. Each of them shared the same hyper-puppy enthusiasm on the road, but with varying levels of safety, sophistication, and refinement, depending on the year.

There’s an immediacy to the steering that’s been maintained through the generations, and an almost effervescent steering feel. The ND (current, fourth generation) steering has a level of precision and sharpness absent from prior generations. Heck, thinking back through the hundreds of machines I’ve driven, the ND’s steering is as immediate and precise as the best of them.

For 2019, the steering wheel is adjustable telescopically for the first time in a Miata/MX-5, which means more drivers will fit behind the wheel to enjoy the little roadsters. This is just one of the aspects where driving all four generations has shown the steady progress in providing more comfort and safety for the occupants. The seats are infinitely more supportive and comfortable than those found in the first few generations, and now they’re easy to adjust thanks to revised levers.

The seats in the blue first-generation car came up to the top of my neck, leaving little whiplash protection. It had no ABS and no airbags, either. The 2019 model, by comparison, solves all of those problems, plus improves its i-Activsense safety suite with smart city brake, optional traffic sign recognition, and a standard back-up camera, plus high-beam control and lane-departure warning have moved down from the GT trim to the GS trim, which becomes the new entry level, with the elimination of the GX trim from the lineup.

And yes folks – this is what you’ve all been waiting for – the ’19 MX-5 has two USB ports instead of one. (gasp!)

So, the new MX-5 is comfier and safer, which is great, but those aren’t the sort of things that draw fun-loving owners to their car. Nor is it about heart-stopping power, either. But the biggest news for 2019 is an updated SkyActiv-G 2.0-litre four-cylinder that provides nearly 20 percent more power than last year’s engine, topping out at 181 hp (up from 155). There’s more torque, too, now up to 151 lb-ft, up only 7, but it reaches its peak 600 rpm sooner.

What Mazda has done to bump power is old-school hot-rodder technique, but with the latest technology, and without going to forced induction. First, there are pistons that shave 27 grams each, as well as lighter connecting rods, and a balanced crankshaft to allow for higher revs. Plus, the air intake is bigger, as is the intake manifold, exhaust manifold, and a less restrictive silencer to facilitate better breathing.

There’s a new dual-mass flywheel to keep vibrations in check with the higher revving characteristic of the new engine. It’s a low-inertia unit, so it won’t hinder the revviness of the MX-5’s character.

Driving the 2018 model first, I was reminded of just how brilliant the current-generation MX-5 is. Its minimalist mass makes it oh-so-frisky in all its reactions, and the combination of free-revving engine, and sensational shift-and-clutch set-up make it joyful to drive. The 2019 car is simply better. The aspects that needed no improvement are as good as they were, but now it’s just that little bit more exciting to drive thanks to its better soundtrack and increased power.

The improvements to the 2019 MX-5 are noticeable, but not overwhelming. The new car sounds better with a slightly deeper bass note underlying the exhaust sound. Where the ’18 car gets buzzy as it nears its 6,800 rpm redline, the new one remains melodic (and smooth) all the way up to the 7,500 rpm range. Best of all, unlike some sporty cars, the audible improvements to the new MX-5 have been made by tuning the exhaust and intake, not pumping digital noise through the speakers.

Of course, the new power numbers don’t suggest the new MX-5 will be a heart-stopping drag-racer, but with a mass of just over 1,000 kg – about as light as modern cars get – acceleration is definitely brisk. Specific times weren’t provided by Mazda, but if I were a betting man, I’d wager a half-second reduction in the 0–100 km/h time for 2019.

What makes the increase in performance even more impressive is that there is no cost for the improvements at the gas pump. In fact, due to the reduction of friction losses and inefficiencies in the engine, the 2019 enjoys a modest increase in fuel efficiency.

Mazda’s engineers determined that the ND-generation MX-5’s handling was already stellar and needed no improvement for 2019. They weren’t wrong, and so all the improvements have been directed at the engine and the aforementioned cockpit equipment.

There are some minor colour updates including a brown soft-top offering on top-trim GT models in addition to the burgundy top made available last year. Mazda Canada offers greater variety in terms of colour options and trim levels than many other markets since most MX-5 buyers in Canada make the car their second or third occasional-use machine (and can afford to wait for a special-order machine).

Mazda Canada has shifted the trim levels and equipment specifications around for 2019 with the elimination of the base-level GX model. Compared to last year’s GX, the new entry-level GS trim gets more standard content, in addition to the great new engine. A GS-P trim slots in as the track-day enthusiast’s choice with its limited-slip differential, strut tower brace, Bilstein shocks, and 17-inch wheels. The Sport Package option is still available with its Recaro seats, Brembo front brakes, and BBS forged wheels. The GT trim remains the more touring-oriented MX-5.

While pricing hasn’t been finalized yet, strong hints were dropped by Mazda personnel that there will be a modest increase, but that the 2019 car should represent a better value than before thanks to the new content and engine improvements. We shall see once it’s announced closer to the car’s on-sale date in Canada, in September of this year.

In chatting with some of the current Miata and MX-5 owners at the celebration, it was unsurprising to see them so excited about the new car’s improvements. Mazda has done an excellent job of taking their most iconic machine and improving it just where it’s most needed to keep the MX-5 as exciting and rewarding as it has ever been.

As if it wasn’t enough to enjoy the new MX-5 on its own merits, buyers of the new car also get to join the group of fun-loving owners around the world.