The current-generation (informally called the “ND2”) Mazda MX-5 is one of the best sports cars you can buy today, at any price. There, I said it. To date, it is my favourite car I’ve driven this year. It was my favourite car of the year back in 2015, and it has always been in the back of my mind as something I would actually own. We’ve all known the ND MX-5 to be already an excellent benchmark, but Mazda’s brilliant engineers have been hard at work, behind the scenes. For 2019, the majority of changes are under the skin. Mazda sent over a fresh 2019 Mazda MX-5 GS Sport, technically the “GS-P”, equipped with the optional Sport Package.
From a distance, you’d be hard-pressed to spot the differences between the “ND1” and the new “ND2” MX-5. Practically speaking, the easiest way to tell between the two, is to look at the rear bumper. Mazda has added a reverse camera to the bumper cover, in order to meet new federally-mandated standards elsewhere in the continent. The MX-5 is an easy car to see out of (the RF, not so much), but it’s handy for when you want to park right up against the wall behind you. The ND2 MX-5 remains a sharp-looking car, with the RF (reviewed here) taking the overall win for how good it looks.
One major change for some is the addition of a new telescoping steering column, which is a first for the MX-5 in almost its 30-year timeline. It is built out of aluminum (versus the previous steel unit), and there’s now 42mm of travel, which can be really handy if you need the extra adjustment. Mazda has also added active safety assists to the MX-5: namely the Smart City Brake Support, which includes a low-speed emergency braking function, as well as a lane departure warning system. There’s also an updated cupholder design, which is easier to latch into its socket, but they still remain in sub-optimal locations (behind the driver’s elbow or immediately to the left of your passenger’s knee). The 12V auxiliary power outlet is still secretly buried in the passenger footwell, and there’s still no Android Auto or Apple CarPlay integration.
The big news, however, is the addition of more horsepower to the ND2 MX-5. Mazda has refined and massaged many aspects of the 2.0L “SKYACTIV-G” engine: lighter pistons, lighter connecting rods, revised valve angle and lift, a larger diameter exhaust manifold, revised intake ports, and new direct fuel injectors. Pumping loses are down by a significant 30%, and these changes are paired up with a new engine computer calibration. All in, these updates add up to an enhanced output of 181 horsepower at 7,000RPM, and 151 lb-ft. of torque at 4,000RPM. The other big number is the increased redline: now at 7,500RPM (compared to 6,800RPM).
The updated engine is paired up to the same transmission, though the rear differential final drive on automatic transmission models has been shortened, from 3.454 to 3.583, improving acceleration. A new dual-mass flywheel improves vibration transmission through the driveline, without a sacrifice in free-revving drivability. The lack of “rev hang” is certainly refreshing for 2018, considering that so many new cars with sporting intentions, are hamstrung by sluggish engine transitions. If you pay close attention, quickly lifting off the accelerator at speed produces a quick “burp” from the exhaust. My guess is this is Mazda’s way of reducing the dreaded “rev hang”, but also a good way of improving emissions performance – by way of quickly pulling ignition timing (hence the ‘burp”). The exhaust system is also new – it’s unclear whether it contributes to the increased horsepower number, but it certainly sounds better. It produces a deeper tone, and thankfully, I’m happy to report that there’s no exhaust drone at highway speeds.
Thanks to all the engineering-focused improvements under the hood, the 2019 ND2 MX-5 actually produces more horsepower than the turbocharged Fiat 124 Spider. The forced induction in the Fiat allows it to produce more torque, but I’ve never been a fan of its excessive turbo lag. From the driver’s seat, the ND2 MX-5 still isn’t a dedicated drag racer, but I feel the added power can be felt most right in the middle of the rev range. There’s a new and noticeable sense of urgency from about 3000RPM to about 5000RPM, and the updated engine loves to pull strongly, right up to its 7500RPM redline. The previous ND1 engine, while it was responsive and flexible, didn’t quite feel as sweet at the upper end of the rev range.
The rest of the ND2 MX-5 lives up to the hype. This particular tester, equipped with the Sport Package, adds some pretty BBS lightweight wheels, Brembo fixed-caliper brakes at the front (standard floating calipers in the rear), and those excellent Recaro seats – complete with speakers in the headrests. For my body type, the seats are just perfect, but it would be a good idea to see for yourself. One thing that we noticed is that the driver and passenger seats feature different amounts of bolstering, in both the seat bottom and seat back. The seats are not identical – the passenger gets a much “milder” seat bolster configuration. The soft top is also largely unchanged, and is one of the easiest to operate with just one hand. It is light enough that you won’t pull a muscle in your shoulder trying to operate it. The MX-5 RF does have a fast power-operated roof mechanism, but the soft-top is about as fast and as simple as it gets.
The ND2 MX-5 really is the best example for why “driving matters”. The electric power steering is one of the best systems out there today, at any price. The accelerator and brake pedal are perfectly placed for seamless heel-toe downshifting, and the gear shifter has to be the best in the business. All these items that make up the driver’s interface really speak to me, in such a simple yet effective way. There’s not much in the way of clutter (some may not like the fixed infotainment screen or the volume knob placement), so it’s really just everything you need, and not much that you don’t.
One of the big benefits of the low curb weight is the generally excellent fuel consumption ratings. Mazda Canada hasn’t yet published their estimates on the ND2 MX-5 as of yet, but I expect the figures to be roughly in-line with the previous ND1 MX-5: 8.9L/100km in the city, 7.1L/100km and on the highway. During a beautiful week with the ND2 MX-5, I managed to squeeze out an indicated 7.5L/100km average. 91 octane is recommended, and the fuel tank will hold 45L of it.
Pricing was recently announced for the ND2 MX-5, and as expected, there’s a very modest bump. A few tweaks change up the formula: the “base” GX model is no longer, as it has been replaced by the GS ($32,900), and it gains Mazda’s active safety gadgets on top of the usual standard kit. The mid-range GS-P ($36,900) will be what enthusiasts will want, as it adds the excellent Bilstein dampers, limited-slip rear differential, front strut tower brace, Bose premium audio, leather-wrapped steering wheel, satellite navigation, heated seats and mirrors. Our Soul Red Crystal MX-5 GS-P Sport Package tester rings in at $41,750, as-tested, before taxes and additional fees. The fully-loaded GT model ($39,900) adds automatic climate control, Sirius XM satellite radio leather seating (as opposed to suede), adaptive headlights, and an additional layer of noise insulation in the soft top – which you can get in a unique “Dark Cherry” colour on the MX-5 GT.
There are only a few cars available on the market today that will have me out exploring the empty streets of Toronto at 3AM. This Mazda MX-5 one of them. I love all how all the changes are the product of engineers who were allowed to do what they wanted to do: shaving off weight here, reducing friction there, and arriving at a result that is not only impressive on paper, but also noticeable to the driver. The most impressive thing to me is how all these updates only amount to a 3kg (7lb.) increase over the previous ND1 MX-5. Mazda is an engineering-focused company, and while the MX-5 was never a straight-line hot rod, nor was it ever really a good value, the updates for the ND2 make a sweet car, that little bit sweeter. Remember how I said this was the best car I’ve driven this year? This is the best sports car for one to be in search of sunrise.
2018 Mazda MX-5 RF Grand Sport
Long-Term Test Update: 2017 Mazda MX-5 GS Sport