Road Test Review – 2019 Mazda MX-5 RF – By Carl Malek

Perfection, how hard is it to indeed update an icon that has been winning over the hearts of enthusiasts for the past several decades? Mazda engineers had the unenviable task of bringing even more magic into the ND platformed MX-5 (aka the Miata,) which already had the formula for fun sports car ownership firmly baked into its DNA when it originally debuted in 2016. But is it really worth it to trade up to a 2019 MX-5 versus its older predecessors? We were keen to find out, and see if this newly refreshed MX-5 does indeed have the tools necessary to convert hardcore MX-5 enthusiasts to the newest iteration or not?


Same Wrapper, and That’s Not a Bad Thing:

You would be hard pressed to find any new changes when you view the 2019 MX-5’s exterior styling. Here, Mazda designers chose to leave much of it alone, which is good, since it still retains a very high degree of styling flair, especially with its mean looking front fascia, sinister side profile, as well as the clean and tidy rear end which still does an excellent job of adding some cohesion to the broader design elements. With the winter chill firmly ensnaring Metro Detroit, Mazda chose to leave the roadster version on the proverbial bench, and instead sent a hardtop equipped RF to our office. Like before, the RF offers buyers a very visually appealing piece of visual origami when it comes to the way its roof operates, with the whole procedure being completed in less than two minutes up or down. Being a performance focused Club model, our base model tester also sported several package exclusive goodies, including black BBS wheels, red hued Brembo brakes, as well as a tasteful black infused lower body kit.

With many automakers often being tempted to radically change the canvas of a vehicle when it comes time for a mid-cycle refresh, it’s good to see that for now, Mazda has resisted the urge, and has instead stuck with a proven design formula that can still draw in stares from onlookers, while also being fresh enough to win over the hearts of fans that might be new to the MX-5 and its seductive charms.


Snug As a Glove, But a Bit More Headroom Please:

Sitting in the drivers seat of a 2019 MX-5 is an experience that is still largely unchanged from its 2018 counterpart. The cabin is snug and fits occupants like a leather lined glove. This helps create an intimate experience that puts the driver in greater harmony with the car, especially when the car is pushed through corners. While the standard sport seats are comfortable enough, our tester featured the optional Recaro sport seats which offered greater levels of support thanks to upgraded bolstering. This beefed up bolstering also makes entry and exit somewhat harder, and larger occupants may feel they are actually sitting on top of the bolsters versus being snuggled into place between them.

However, the biggest annoyance with the RF is its lack of headroom for taller drivers. While shorter occupants will not be bothered by it, taller occupants (this author included) are forced to slouch slightly to avoid hitting the roof. Normally, the easy solution is to lower the top, but since the cold weather prevented us from doing so, we had to embrace this quirk during our time with our tester. Thankfully, for such a tiny package, the ergonomics here are first rate, with many buttons and switches being within easy reach of the driver. Interior quality is also solid too, though we did occasionally hear a few creaks from the rear portion of the folding roof during the latter half of its stay with us. Thankfully the Bose stereo in our car did make up for this to an extent, especially with its trick headrest mounted speakers. Visibility from the front and sides is decent, but rear visibility is hindered by the tiny rear window as well as the thick rear pillars that are a key part of the folding Targa roof. It’s in this regard where we actually prefer the roadster, which allows occupants to solve this problem by folding down the top, but without the thick rear pillars and the massive blind spots they generate.

But its ultimately the finer details that made our tester stand out, with Mazda addressing some minor ones for 2019. A telescoping steering wheel is now available, and a rear backup camera has also been added to help the MX-5 comply with federal regulations. The telescoping assembly only adds a minimal amount of weight to the car, and it’s a relatively easy function to use too. Minimal weight gain is a recurring theme throughout our tester, with the fore-mentioned items as well as the engine modifications only adding a mere seven pounds to its over 2,400 lb curb weight.


Better Driving Dynamics Upgrade The Ownership Experience:

The biggest change for 2019 however, is found under the hood where Mazda engineers wanted to add more boldness to the ownership experience. It’s not like the old engine was a slouch by any stretch of the imagination, with the 2.0 liter helping create the quickest MX-5 yet. However, the problem lurked underneath the eager façade that the engine projected onto the world, with Mazda engineers openly admitting that they did not have the time or the resources to properly fine tune the engine into a true sports car application, especially since the MX-5 was designed around the less powerful 1.5 liter four cylinder seen in international markets. This led some critics to label the engine as being nothing more than a Mazda 3 engine that was turned longitudinally, despite its still respectable 155 horsepower and tidy acceleration.

No turbochargers or any kind of forced induction for that matter is found under the hood, with Mazda claiming that the upgrades it made for 2019 were “standard hot-rodding procedure.” This translates into alot of the fruits of their labor being found in the internals of the engine, with the throttle body, exhaust valves, intake valves, and the corresponding ports all being much larger than before, while the pistons and connecting rods are lighter too. When paired with the stiffer crankshaft, and the higher pressure fuel injection system, these revisions allow the engine to rev higher (with a new redline of 7500 rpm) and also produce more muscle with power now registering at 181 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque. That’s a gain of 26 horsepower and 3 lb-ft of torque respectively.

When compared with some of our prior encounters with the MX-5, the new enhancements help make the car a much more enjoyable drive. Buyers looking for more low end grunt will not find it here, with the MX-5 being beat handily by rivals such as the Ford Mustang and the Volkswagen GTI in this department. Instead, the magic happens when you rev the engine higher, with higher RPMs producing far more vigorous acceleration and a slightly harder nudge into the seat back when you punch the throttle. Buyers can also take pride knowing that the engine allows the MX-5 to make the sprint to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds which is slightly lower than the old engine, and the extra revs allow them to be in the more delightful elements of the powerband for much longer before it starts to taper off.


Our tester arrived with the standard six-speed manual gearbox (a six speed automatic is optional) but unlike other sportier offerings, we actually recommend the manual over its computerized counterpart. The 2019 suite of updates even extended to this already potent gearbox, with Mazda engineers tweaking the manual for smoother operation. While we did not notice any major differences during our tester’s week with us, we did note that the shifter appeared to have a somewhat smoother operation when rowing through the gears with more precision and accuracy than before. The H pattern style gear mapping is still the same which means newcomers will have to continue make sure the shifter is moved all the way to the right when shifting from 4th to 5th to avoid an unintentional trip back to third.

The real joy of driving an MX-5 however is the way it handles when pushed through curvier sections of tarmac. Mazda is keenly aware of this, and has left the suspension tuning untouched for 2019. It’s just as well, since the suspension already received a light tweak for the 2017 model year when the RF model first debuted, and again in 2018 when the RF’s setup was applied to the soft top. The unchanged underpinnings still allows the MX-5 to be a darling when thrown down a twisty road, and even when making quick passing maneuvers on the freeway. Our tester featured Blizzak snow tires to better accommodate the Michigan winter, and they proved very handy when a snowstorm blew through Metro Detroit during the first half of its stay. The snowy roads proved no match for these special tires which delivered potent levels of grip, and allowed our tester to still exhibit some of its handling charms. The slick roads did highlight how light the rear end was, with some occasional tail wiggle when going down slicker roads. This trait was easy to modulate with the throttle, and our tester was able to deal Mother Nature a very potent defeat.


Value Quotient:

Pricing for the 2019 Mazda MX-5 still retains the value oriented pricing that has become a defining trademark of its existence, with the base Sport model in roadster guise starting at $25,730. If you choose to go for an RF version like our tester, the base MSRP bubbles up to $32,345. This might seem a bit pricey at first glance, but considering its the Club model, and that Bilstein shocks are standard issue, some of that initial skepticism melts away. Buyers looking to add more sportiness to the Club can opt for the very wordy but very distinct $4,670 Brembo/BBS/Recaro package that adds Recaro sport seats, slick BBS wheels, as well as the fore-mentioned Brembo brakes.

This package as well as the $595 destination fee helped push our tester’s final sticker price to a total of $38,335. This is deep into territory occupied by more powerful sports cars such as the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro, and even the Toyota GT86, though all three cannot quite match the precision handling and the tidy proportions offered by the spunky Mazda. The Camaro in particular undercuts the RF easily, but owners have to contend with an equally small trunk and laughable rear visibility to achieve the low price.


Overall the 2019 Mazda MX-5 lineup is certainly worth a second look, as well as a worthy upgrade for current ND era car owners. While the engine lacks some of the turbocharged punch that has rapidly infiltrated the sports car experience as a whole, its naturally aspirated charms as well as the modest improvements in both fuel economy and mid range power delivery should please those looking to add a subtle but very effective pinch of power into their MX-5 driving experience.