The 2024 Mazda MX-5 Miata Makes for an Even Better Benchmark

The 2024 Mazda MX-5 Miata Makes for an Even Better Benchmark

Subtle improvements make one of the best sports cars on sale that little bit sweeter.

You learn a lot about a car in Lime Rock Park’s first corner. It’s called Big Bend, a sweeping third-gear right-hander that’s spat its share of driving royalty—both men and their machines—out smoking and sideways. In the new Mazda Miata, you can trail brake on the way into Big Bend, the roadster’s rear end following obediently as you float down toward the corner’s apex. 

Right here, smack in the middle of Big Bend, the Miata feels perfect.

If you can believe it, the fourth-generation Mazda Miata (called “ND”) is closing in on 10 years old, an eon when most models are redesigned every four to six years. So, the ND Miata just got its second facelift to keep things fresh. Consensus is that it’s called the ND3.

There are expected changes—a new infotainment system, a redesigned front bumper, new lights, new wheels, and new paint color and trim choices. Yet by far, the most important tweaks for Miata people are a revised steering system and a new limited-slip differential. The diff has different locking factors, on and off throttle, which helps stabilize the car under braking and on corner entry and reduces understeer on corner exit.

We couldn’t resist taking the updated roadster to Miata Country, those roads in northwestern Connecticut that flow gently through farmland, along rivers, and through stands of red maple, birch, and beech. And right in the middle of it all sits Lime Rock, heaven for sports cars and the people who drive them.

I always thought the ND Miata had very good steering, but with its extra heft and more natural off-center response, the ND3’s rack represents a huge improvement. Combined with the ND Miata’s talkative chassis, the car shouts what’s happening on the road surface. When driving on the road, the chassis is wonderful. As ever, the soft suspension setup means the car needs a moment to take a set after you turn into the corner, but once it’s there, you can drive the car on the throttle.

Mazda’s noble commitment to reducing weight—this car comes in at 2,341 pounds—pays dividends in the country. The car does that classic sports-car thing of breathing with the road, working with the surface beneath, rather than trying to beat it into submission. It’s remarkably rigid for an open-top car, and while roll is more pronounced than something like a BRZ or GR86, it’s in service of better ride quality.

Mazda North America’s head of vehicle dynamics, Dave Coleman, always likes to point out that the best driving roads are among the least traveled, and thus, least-well maintained. Here, stiffer suspension just makes for an unpleasant experience at best, tires that lose contact with the road at worst. 

And while the drivetrain remains unchanged for the ND3, it still bears mentioning. This four-cylinder delivers instant throttle response and perfectly smooth power delivery up to its 7,500-rpm redline. In a world of anodyne four-cylinders, this one shines. It feels like, and indeed, is, a true sports-car engine, meant to live in the upper half of the tachometer. Sounds sweet, too.

The transmission is sublime. There’s no beating a rod straight down into the gearbox, and the shift action is perfectly weighty and notchy. Careful calibration of engine response and a light, short-travel clutch ensure quick, smooth shifting, and the ideally spaced pedals and light flywheel make this the easiest car to heel-and-toe in. The sum of all of this is that you just shift all the time for the sake of it.

On Lime Rock’s six rights and one left, the changes made for the ND3 become even more obvious. Coleman says that closer to the limits of grip, about half of what you notice is down to the steering, half to the differential. 

The new LSD makes the ND more precise, though without sacrificing its playful nature. A short wheelbase and prominent body roll mean that weight transfer in the Miata feels a bit more exaggerated than it does in other cars, and you need to drive with that in mind. But more than before, you can trail it in, knowing the rear will remain faithfully behind you. And as you get back to maintenance throttle and start adding power, the differential loosens up and gives you more options for how you get through the turn. The Miata is still eager to rotate, though, and an aggressive lift in a fast corner will provoke a slide. 

It’s still a car you steer with your right foot as much as the wheel. Still, Mazda hasn’t made a convertible GR86 here. Staff Writer and BRZ owner Chris Rosales wants fewer body motions. “You turn in, then the car turns in, you correct, the car responds, you recommit, and the cycle restarts until you settle it with the throttle,” he says. 

Editor-in-Chief Travis Okulski, who owned an ND2 Miata, says he much prefers the steering on this ND3. In fact, everyone who drives it agrees. The steering in the older car was never an impediment to fast driving, this updated rack just makes things even more enjoyable, enhancing the dialogue between the driver and the car. 

“An excellent sense of where the tires are pointed, real talkativeness that loads and unloads the steering with yaw, sliding, and curb-hopping,” Rosales says.

Ideally for track work, we’d have tested a Miata Club with the optional Brembo brake package, yet this Grand Touring always stopped fine, and we had plenty of brake life left after our test. Another benefit of the lightness—these small brakes only have so much car to stop compared with basically everything else out there.

Mazda also added a new track mode for the stability control, a useful feature. It’ll still allow for plenty of yaw angle, but eventually, it’ll intervene in a subtle way. The only time it’s unwelcome at Lime Rock is over the track’s Uphill rise, where you could feel it ever-so-slightly nibbling at the front brakes, trying to pull the back car down as it gets light over the crest. But it isn’t so bad that it requires turning off fully.

There’s something so wonderfully scrappy about this car. The changes here are ultimately small, but impactful. Mazda is a tiny company, relatively speaking, and the Miata might be its halo, but it’s still a small part of its business. So when updating the Miata, engineers have to do a lot with a little. And they have, without fundamentally altering what was already so good about this car.

On the day of our track test, we also have a new BMW M3 CS and a Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 RS with a Manthey Racing handling kit on hand. Both brilliant track tools, costing nearly $100,000 and well over $200,000 more than this $36,220 roadster, respectively. The Miata still shined. 

Since the beginning, I’ve held up the ND Miata as a benchmark. Fundamentally, this is the ND Miata we’ve grown to love, a rolling example of all the virtues of light weighting, with perfect handling balance, a willing naturally aspirated engine, and the best manual transmission in any car on sale today, possibly ever. 

There are faster cars out there too, but in terms of pure fun, it’s diminishing returns from here. This is the benchmark, made better.

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Gallery: 2024 Mazda MX-5 Miata Grand Touring Review


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