Review: The 2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata is a steal if you want a sports car for about $30,000

Key Points
  • The Miata is the most fun, exciting roadster that you can get for less than $60,000
  • It handles great and the open-top experience makes it even more compelling.
  • However, the Miata is too small to work as most people’s only car.
2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Mack Hogan | CNBC

When we last sampled a Mazda MX-5 Miata in 2017, in retractable fastback (RF) guise, we called it "pint-sized perfection" and raved that it was the best drop-top you could get for under $60,000.

Given that it costed closer to $30,000, that was impressive.

Now, Mazda says they've made it better. Power has risen from 155 horsepower to 181, the federally required backup camera has arrived and a few other quality-of-life improvements are available. It was already one of our favorite cars, but for 2019 the Miata gets even better.

2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Mack Hogan | CNBC

The good

The Miata is about as simple as cars get. It's a two-door, rear-wheel drive roadster that weighs just 2,339 pounds. For reference, a Toyota Camry with all of the options weighs 3,572 pounds.

It's also got a slick six-speed manual transmission, though an automatic option is available. The engine is a four-cylinder unit that soldiers on without turbochargers, superchargers or any other complex nonsense.

The result of this simplicity is a predictable and delightful driving experience. Weight, in driving, is the enemy. More weight means less acceleration, longer braking distances, less agility and more inertia. Take all of the weight off, balance it perfectly between the two axles, and suddenly you realize what a sports car should feel like.

2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Mack Hogan | CNBC

Steering is telepathic, communicating clearly how much grip you have and what each of the front tires is doing. Handling is also phenomenal, with quick turn in that gives way to the trademark Miata body roll. Essentially, the car leans into turns. While it's not the most neutral behavior, it gives a sense of drama and excitement to twisty driving even if you never exceed the speed limit.

It's far from the fastest thing we've tested, but it's one of the most fun cars out there. Especially with the top down; this thing is a riot. The only car we've tested that can match the fun factor of the Miata is the BMW M2 Competition. Since we called that a performance "bargain" at $67,045, the Miata is an absolute steal at $33,050.

Plus, it's quite a pleasant thing. The interior is lovely, with simple controls and an intuitive layout. The top is manual but can be dropped with one hand in about five seconds. Genuinely, it's easier than the power top on the RF model, cheaper, lighter and less likely to need maintenance in the long run.

Speaking of which, Miatas are beloved in the racing and performance driving communities because of how little care and attention they need. Because they're simple and light, track day fanatics in Miatas end up spending less on gas, brakes, tires and maintenance than those who bring heavier rides. Because the Miata is so predictable, it's also a great place to learn.

2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Mack Hogan | CNBC

The bad

The other reason that these often see duty as track day weapons is that it's hard to imagine the Miata as your only car. Our tester had the $550 Grand Touring Package M/T, which included "sport-tuned suspension" with Bilstein shocks, which made the ride far stiffer than the last Miata we tested.

That was annoying around town, but on the highway, the Miata has a different problem. Even with the top up, you can't get around the fact that Miatas are loud. You'll have to talk noticeably louder than you normally would to any passengers.

Well, the one passenger you have. The downside of all of that simplicity is that the Miata is tiny. Buyers over 6 foot 3 inches need not apply and nobody should bring a lot of luggage. There's no parcel shelf or back seat to throw things in, so your only option is the 4.59-cubic-foot trunk.

The center console is literally smaller than an iPhone Xr, the "glove box" is actually tucked between the two seats, there are no door pockets and the sole 12-volt power outlet is hidden in the passenger footwell.

Taken as a whole, the Miata is a brilliant second car. We just don't think it's practical enough for most people to use it as their only car.

2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Mack Hogan | CNBC

How we'd option it

Since it's best thought of as a second car, we don't think a kitted-out Grand Touring model is your best bet. No matter how much equipment you add, you can't make a Miata feel like a luxury car. You might as well keep it simple and save some money so that the Miata can be a second car.

Start with a Miata Sport. We think the manual transmission suits the character of the car and makes it more engaging, so go with that. We'd skip the only option, the active safety package, as we wouldn't be using the Miata for a lot of commuting or driving in lots of traffic.

Add in the destination charge and the total is $26,650.

2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Mack Hogan | CNBC

Final thoughts

If you've always wanted to own a true sports car but haven't had the money for a Porsche or Corvette, the Miata is your cheapest way into the club. Whether you want to do backroad driving or actual track days, the Miata is up to it.

It's too small to be your only car, but among weekend cars its value is unparalleled. That's why, a year after testing the last Miata, CNBC's auto reviewer bought his own used Miata. Some cars stick in your mind like that.


Exterior: 5

Interior: 3

Driving Experience: 5

Value: 5

Overall: 4.5

Price as tested: $33,050

*Ratings out of 5.

2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Mack Hogan | CNBC