Test Drive: 2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF

Immediately recognizable, but now with more power

There are only a handful of vehicles that have achieved eternal pop-culture status thanks to their distinctive, immediately recognizable design—and a name that stays on the tip of almost anyone’s tongue. In this class you have legends like the Mustang, Camaro, 911, Testarossa, and Countach, to name a few. They are verified icons, hallmarks of 20th century design and they’ve each spawned entire subcultures. But, there’s another: the Mazda MX-5 Miata. Commonly known as Miata, this car took the automotive world by storm when it arrived on the scene in 1989 and has maintained a rabid fanbase throughout its four-generation run.

Of course it has also been the butt of many a bad joke; seen by many people as being “too cute” to be a sports car, or even more misogynistic; dismissing and reducing it to “a woman’s car.” Not only has the intention always been for the Miata to be a car for everyone, but also to not be just one thing. All anyone needs to do is look at the wildly varied 30-year history of the two-seater and they’ll see how successful Mazda has been in their pursuit. Whether in use as a daily driver, racecar or weekend tourer, the baseline of the Miata is joy. That’s the secret to its success and longevity. In both form and function this car delivers joy and—now with key updates for 2019—the fourth generation “ND” Miata is the most joyful iteration of the Miata yet.

The look is the same and the features are the same, which is fine because Mazda had both nailed when they released the ND in 2015. What’s changed for the 2019 model year is power. The superb chassis is now paired with a more lively variant of Mazda’s excellent two-liter inline four-cylinder that now makes 181 horsepower instead of 155. The bump in power is immediately noticeable, whether making a right on red to get in front of a long line of traffic or merging onto the highway. The extra shove is most welcome.

On the winding roads around Pebble Beach and Monterey, California the methods by which Mazda’s engineers gave the car its extra juice become very apparent. A lightened crankshaft, flywheel and other key internals allow the revised engine to sing at a higher pitch, up to 7,500 RPM to be exact. The old engine ran out of breath around 6,000 RPM and that really held the ND back from living up to its full potential. But now, with that power spread out over a broader range, the ND makes a strong case for claiming the title of best Miata yet, especially in RF (Retractable Fastback) form.

When it was unveiled at the New York Auto Show in 2016, the RF variant of the ND Miata was immediately divisive. Many who weren’t fans believed it messed with the near-perfect silhouette of the roadster, while those who liked it voiced their approval of the modern take on a classic “targa top” look. If nothing else the RF gives an already sharp-looking car an air of sophistication usually reserved for vehicles in a much higher price bracket. It just looks expensive, but it remains affordable with the automatic transmission equipped Grand Touring model starting at $34,410.

Heated leather-trimmed seats, rain-sensing wipers and automatic headlights are standard equipment—all fitting for a car in this class, but perhaps surprising to those who still think of the Miata as a stripped-down, little car. While that was once true, it’s hardly the case anymore. The ND Miata is a great all-round car because its form and function are finally in perfect harmony, and this is what Mazda engineers have been chasing since the original Miata.

What bodes particularly well for the brand is that what’s present in their best-known vehicle seeps into the rest of their line-up. Lots of automakers make a big deal out of making vehicles that are fun to drive, though few actually deliver. Mazda overwhelmingly does so across their line-up of vehicles. There’s a little bit of the Miata in every other Mazda, but now there’s a bit of other Mazdas in the Miata as well.

You can learn more about the Mazda MX-5 Miata here.

Images by Andrew Maness