When the Mazda MX-5 Miata hit the streets in 1989, it showed the world that an affordable, reliable, and extremely fun sports car wasn’t an oxymoron. Consequently it sold like hotcakes, to the point where Mazda is unapologetic about the fact that the MX-5 saved the company. The MX-5 is in its fourth generation, known as the ND to Miataphiles, and the latest variant—the Mazda MX-5 Miata RF—is finally here.
RF stands for “retractable fastback,” which means this is an MX-5 with a hardtop that folds away. It’s not the first MX-5 with a folding hardtop; that was an option with the previous generation car. But this is the first one to look quite different from the regular soft top car. While the roof above your head can be stowed in seconds, the car retains its fastback shape thanks to the buttresses that slope down behind the doors.
The MX-5 Miata RF wowed everyone when we first saw it almost a year ago at the New York International Auto Show. Changes versus the soft top mostly amount to the new roof, which adds 113lbs (51kg) to the car. Beyond that, there have been a couple of tiny tweaks to the rear suspension and a slight recalibration of the steering, mainly to compensate for the small increase in weight and change to the car’s center of gravity. That means the same 16-valve, 2.0L inline four cylinder engine making 155hp (115kW) and 148ft-lbs (200Nm), which gets sent to the rear wheels either by a six-speed manual (the one you should want) or a six-speed automatic.
Snuggly ensconced in the driver’s seat, a few things become apparent. I hadn’t driven a recent MX-5, but I spent 14 happy years with a 1996 NA version, and although 21 years separate that car and this, the driving experience is all but identical. The steering wheel and gear stick perfectly located for your hands. The action of that gearshift is as sublime as ever; I’d use the “rifle bolt” cliche but for never having fired a bolt-action rifle. You feel the relationship between car and road surface, through the seat, the steering wheel, and pedals. And it’s pretty frugal doing so; a mix of freeways and back roads delivered 30mpg.
That means the new car is just as engaging on a twisty road—all it takes is 15 minutes driving on a good stretch of curves to realize why more than a million MX-5s have left the factory in Hiroshima, Japan over the past 28 years.
Roof goes up, roof goes down
Obviously the biggest difference with my old car is that new roof. It takes about 16 seconds to raise or lower, and you can do that at up to 6mph (10km/h). Any thoughts that the MX-5 Miata RF would be more cosseting with the roof up were dispelled within a few highway miles. Yes, you have a hard top shielding you from the elements, but that roof isn’t stuffed full of sound-dampening or insulation. Cruising at 65mph on concrete freeways remains as raw an experience as any MX-5, and wind and tire noise predominate, rather than the characterful growl from the exhaust.
Roof down, wind noise remains an issue. The problem is those buttresses behind you and your passenger; the air rushes in through the window aperture (or over the top of the glass if the windows are up) and resonates as it makes it way out the back again. No surprise why there are a pair of speakers embedded into both seats’ headrests. That wind also finds the seat belts on their way from the rear bulkhead to the seat, causing them to flap and flutter a bit at speed.
The buttresses also compromise rear three-quarter visibility; top up things aren’t any worse than the soft top, but unlike that car it doesn’t improve roof-down. Handy then that blind spot monitoring is standard to both the MX-5 Miata RF Club ($31,555) and MX-5 Miata RF Grand Touring ($32,620). However, the system is as over-eager as that found in the CX-5 we drove on the same trip. The view out the front is fantastic though; the creases along the hood help you place the wheels perfectly and the center of the hood drops away to give a perfect view ahead.
Both trim levels also get the same rear cross-traffic alert, but you have to go for the more expensive Grand Touring to get the lane departure warning, adaptive front headlights, and rain-sensing wipers. There is cruise control, but it’s the old fashioned kind that maintains a constant speed and there’s no lane keeping assist; this is no halfway step towards a self-driving sports car.
Trunk space is what you’d expect for a Miata. At 4.48 cubic feet (129L) it’s only fractionally smaller than the standard car (4.59 cubic feet/130L); if that seems minuscule it’s worth considering that the NA MX-5 only gave you 3.6 cubic feet (102L), thanks to that car keeping a spare tire (absent on the ND) and the car’s battery (now located in the engine bay) in the trunk. The MX-5’s tiny dimensions need to be a consideration for drivers and passengers taller than six feet, too. The taller you are, the more chance you’re going to be resting your knees on the dashboard and hunkering down in the seat as much as possible.
As has been the case for almost the entire history of Ars Technica, the default Internet forum response to “what car should I buy” remains “get an Miata.” The big question now is whether you should buy an MX-5 Miata RF, or save a little over $2,000 by picking the soft top. We think that might come down to aesthetics; if you prefer the look of the RF—which is certainly eye-catching—then that is the perfect MX-5 for you.