New Mazda MX-5 RF continues to excite roadster fans

By Peter Hubbard

(November 20, 2017) Writers — even auto writers — need a spark of inspiration every so often, to get their motors running and creativity flowing.  But for this review, lack of inspiration will not be an issue.  After all, if you can’t get inspired after a weeklong fling with a Mazda MX-5 Miata, you may be brain dead … or possibly German. 

But even in such extreme cases, this sensuous little roadster has been known to create the kind of spark that it brings folks back to life.  

If you suspect that I having a liking for Miatas — and the new retractable hard-roof RF version in particular — I can confirm those suspicions right up front. 

Let me start by admitting to possessing a pre-existing bias in favor of the cars, having owned a first-model-year 1990 Miata for nearly 18 years; more about that later.  For now, let’s just dig right in and start dissecting this lovely fourth-generation MX-5, RF edition. 

There are just two trim levels, Grand Sport and Club.  

Last year Mazda reinvented the car once again, now that it’s approaching its 30th birthday.  The newest version is smaller, has lost about 150 pounds, and is more fuel efficient than before. What it didn't lose were its sexy good looks and nimble driving manners.  It’s still the zesty and willing adult-sized slot car it’s always been, easily putting grins on the faces of anyone with a pulse. 

Forget the alphanumeric MX-5 moniker, its known to its fans as simply “the Miata.” And over the years Mazda has perfected the modern two-seat roadster concept pioneered by little British (and Italian) roadsters like the MG, Triumph Spitfire, Lotus Elan, Austin-Healey 3000, Alfa Romeo Spider and Fiat 124, among others. Its small, lightweight, rear-wheel drive and equipped with one of the best 6-speed manual transmissions money can buy.  An automatic is optional, but why bother? Even with few direct competitors in its price range, the 2017 Mazda MX-5 continues to improve.

Powertrain : This car is no drag racer, so don’t go challenging Corvettes and Hellcats. The only engine available is a SKYACTIV-G 2.0-liter 4-cylinder that delivers 155 horsepower and 148 lb.-ft. of torque.  While that may not sound like much, it’s quite an improvement compared to the 115 hp and 136 lb.-ft of torque delivered by the 1.6-liter powerplant on the first generation models.   

It’s mated to a slick 6-speed manual transmission. And for those of you who’ve never driven a stick (and sadly, that number gets bigger every year), it's worth learning how … just so you can enjoy how well this one works. The action is light, the shifts are short, and the clutch operation is spot-on. If you must get the automatic due to city traffic or commuting issues, know that and it's the sole carryover component from the previous version of the MX-5.

Like most automatics these days, you can switch 

over to manual mode.  But what’s the point, since it also adds more weight.  But no matter which tranny you choose, it’s best to go with premium unleaded for the added performance.  Fuel economy is quite decent — EPA city/highway fuel economy numbers are 26/33 mpg for the manual, 26/35 mpg with the automatic — so filling up is not very painful given current gas prices.

Exterior: This latest MX-5 probably represents the most radical styling departure yet from the original Miata, which saw its pop-up headlights vanish in 1998 with the arrival of the gen-2 car. At just over 154 inches long, it’s actually three inches shorter than the previous model. Like most other sports cars these days, it boasts small little LEDs for headlights, complemented by taillights that appear to be transplants from the sleek and powerful Jaguar F-Type.

The profile keeps the classic long-hood/short-deck proportions. With the top in place, the MX-5 RF is a sleek coupe. When the power-operated center roof panel gets tucked away (in a scant 13 seconds), it looks like nothing on the road, with the possible exception of a Porsche 911 Targa.

While the last-gen Miata was available as a retractable hardtop, the new RF is very different, and dare we say more rakish. The RF is a
sleek and sexy coupe with the roof in place, and a stunningly unique open-air fastback when it’s down.

Interior: Given the size of the MX-5, the cabin is not designed for 300-pound linebackers, or gangly moose-sized types.  However, the leather-lined and heated seats offer snug support for most average body types. In addition, Mazda managed to find an additional smidgen of room in the new MX-5 in terms of the seatback recline. It only amounts to one additional click on the recline mechanism, but for taller drivers and those preferring a more relaxed driving position, that extra click makes all the difference. 

The cabin of our test unit featured the usual modern in
fotainment unit, contained behind an upright 7-inch color touch screen.  You can use it to control the HVAC unit, navigation system, and a 9-speaker Bose AM/FM/CD/SiriusXM radio functions. Yes … while many cars now feature only an input jack for your smartphone, the Miata still allows  you to play your favorite band’s CD.  Yeah! 

There are also USB ports, as well as the hands-free Bluetooth audio set-up for your smartphone. Cruise control is also standard, and the little steering wheel is packed with audio and cruise-control buttons.

It also features a push-button start button and a surprising amount of soft-touch materials.

Mazda says it designed the car with the driver’s comfort in mind — and it shows.  The MX-5 RF offers excellent steering-wheel, pedal and s
hifter placement, though we’d prefer a steering wheel that telescoped in addition to tilting.  Despite its modest size, it's surprisingly accommodating for tall drivers, with more than adequate headroom.

Safety features include ABS brakes, tire pressure and blind-spot monitoring, a rear cross-traffic alert, auto-dim rearview mirror, plus power steering, brakes and sideview mirrors. Rain-sensing wipers and a rear window defogger also come standard. All in all, comfort and functionality are first-rate.  

Drivability: The Miata’s magic lies not in its straight-line speed, but in how adroitly it handles narrow country roads with an abundance of twists and turns. That's where it truly shines … as well as when cruising along coastal highways or for
ested parkways. Grip is excellent thanks to the car’s 17-inch alloy wheels, shod with P205/45R-17 high performance tires. The MX-5 lives for such experiences, and you will too, if you ever have the chance to experience such a car. 

The car’s suspension helps it stick in the corners, but isn't not so stiff it rattles your fillings. 

Steering feel is direct and precise, and the power assist helps make the Miata feel a bit less nervous than its predecessor. With an approximate 50:50 front/rear weight balance, the car has nearly neutral handling. Inducing oversteer is easy and very controllable, thus making the MX-5 a popular choice for amateur and stock racing, including the Sports Car Club of America's (SCCA) Solo2 autocross and Spec Miata race series.

Conclusion: Yes, you can put a price tag on fun, and we're happy to report it's within reach. A base 2017 Mazda MX-5 convertible has a Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) starting at $25,750 for a manual-transmission Sport model. Mid-trim Club versions start higher at $29,635, while the Grand Touring model begins at $30,900.

The new Mazda MX-5 RF starts at $32,390, while our Grand Touring RF test models had an asking price of $32,620. With freight charges, it totaled out at $33,885. An automatic transmission adds roughly $700 to $1,500, depending on the model. 

The MX-5's closest rival, the Japan-built, Miata-based Fiat 124 Spider has more classical looks and a 1.4-liter turbocharged engine in place of the 2.0-liter Mazda engine. Pricing on the Fiat starts just slightly higher, at $25,990, and no RF version is available — just the ragtop.

While Fiat 124 Spider is a decent competitor, it’s not likely to hold its resale value as well as the Miata. And the Miata clea
rly outshines similar small sporty convertibles such as the Mini Convertible and Fiat 500 Cabrio. 

While even a base MX-5 is a hoot, we recommend stepping up to the Club trim if you get the ragtop, which nets extra amenities and safety features, including the Mazda Connect infotainment system with its touch-screen display and multifunction knob, Bose premium audio system with HD Radio and a secondary USB audio input. Manual-transmission versions come with sport-tuned suspension and limited-slip differential.

New for 2017 Club models is blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert. Club models can also be had higher-performance Brembo brakes.

If you've ever dreamt of owning a lithe, responsive 2-seat roadster with the spirit of a classic British roadster — but one that's thoroughly modern, safe and reliable — look no further than the 2017 Mazda MX-5. This award-winning little roadster has earned dozens of trophies over the years and made Car and Driver  magazine's annual Ten Best  list 14 separate times.

In the December 2009 issue, Grassroots Motorsports  magazine named the Miata the most important sports car built during the previous 25 years.

Now getting back to my old white 1990 Miata … I had it for 18 years and ran it until it died. However, instead of shipping it off to the bone yard, I sold it to Miata tuners and specialists who gave it the retirement I’d hope to provide, but couldn’t afford.  They dropped in a new engine, added a role cage and new paint, and turned it into a Spec Miata racer, where it’s living out it’s “retirement” years running around Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis.

Know that the first-generation Miata was so wildly popular that Mazda sold over 400,000 units between 1989 and 1998, and the car’s continued popularity has made it the best-selling two-seat convertible in sports car history, with sales topping the 1 million mark in April 2016. 

Finally, I’d like to apologize for offending the Germans in my opening remarks.  It seems most not only come equipped with a pulse, they also appreciate good sports cars (as BMW, Mercedes and Audi drivers will attest).  In addition, the word “miata” is loosely translated from Old High German as “reward.” And that’s exactly what you’ll get every time you drive one.  So if you don’t need a practical car, reward yourself with a new Mazda MX-5.