Since its introduction in 1989, the MX-5 Miata has become a benchmark among affordable sports cars. Mazda offer the MX-5 as a cloth-top convertible (MSRP $27,525) and the more expensive RF (Retractable Fastback). We tested the MX-5 RF Club equipped with the 6-speed automatic (MSRP $33,645). Options included Soul Red paint ($595) and Appearance Package I (no charge). Adding the $920 delivery fee totaled up to $35,160. Significant standard and optional equipment on the Grand Touring: LED headlights, 9-speaker Bose audio system, alloy wheels, aluminum pedals, heated cloth seats, 7-in. touchscreen display, rearview camera, and a power retractable hardtop.
Mazda's all-aluminum Skyactiv-G 2.0L drives the rear wheels via a 6-speed manual or automatic gearbox. The dual overhead-cam inline-4 is rated at 181-hp @ 7,000 RPM and 151 lb.-ft. @ 4,000 RPM. The 6-speed automatic in our test vehicle has overdrive fifth (0.713:1) and sixth (0.582:1), mated to a 3.583:1 final drive ratio for more relaxed (lower engine RPM) cruising. EPA fuel consumption estimates for the 6-speed automatic are 26/35 MPG (city/hwy.). We averaged 32 MPG in mixed city and highway driving.
The Miata's front suspension design consists of double wishbones, coil springs, dampers, and stabilizer bar. At the rear is a multi-link layout with coil springs, dampers, and stabilizer bar. Bilstein dampers and limited-slip differential are included with the optional Grand Touring package. Brakes are all-discs (11.0-in. dia. front and rear rotors) with Dynamic Stability Control (DSC). Gloss black alloy wheels (17 x 7-in.) mounted with P205/45R17 Bridgestone S-01 summer performance tires are standard. Brembo front brakes and BBS forged wheels are an available option. A torque-sensing limited-slip differential is included with the manual transmission. Steering is a rack-and-pinion setup with electric power assist. The MX-5 RF with the automatic transmission weighs in at 2,493 lbs. Weight distribution front-to-rear is a nearly perfect 51:49.
Mazda continued its tradition of designing a compact cockpit for the Miata. Anyone taller than 6 ft. will likely find the interior confining and cramped, especially with the hardtop in place. The instrument cluster consists of a central tachometer, flanked by a speedometer to the right and a multi-function display on the opposite side. Coolant temperature and fuel level are shown via digital bar graph gauges on the multi-function display. The leather-wrapped steering wheel has integrated controls for phone, audio, cruise, and the vehicle status. Mounted on the dash is the 7-in. infotainment touchscreen. Climate controls knobs are mounted on the center stack within easy reach. Dual USB ports allow charging and audio input for mobile devices. A 12V power outlet is hidden under the dash in the passenger footwell. An aluminum and leather-wrapped shift lever connects to the 6-speed automatic. Infotainment system control knobs are on the center console next to the driver's seat. Mazda's engineers were unconcerned about cupholders: the driver's cupholder is between the seats, essentially unusable while driving. The passenger cupholder is cantilevered off the center console in the footwell, a more accessible location.
Comfortable and supportive seats are especially important in a sports car. The standard cloth seats have decent side bolsters, but are only adjustable for reach and seatback rake. Lumbar support and seat cushion height adjustability would be appreciated. Also, passengers with wider posteriors may consider the seats too confining. Opting for the more expensive Grand Touring model replaces the cloth with leather and adds seat heaters. As expected from the compact exterior dimensions, the trunk compartment is small, shallow, and best suited for soft luggage. A rolling carry-on suitcase will fit, but leaves room for little else. Trunk space remains unchanged if the retractable top is stowed.
The Skyactiv-G 2.0L is surprisingly buzzy engine, considering its small displacement. At cold idle, vibrations envelope the entire body structure, but subside as the engine warms up. We did notice that engine vibrations are better damped in the RF than the convertible, likely due to the stiffer body structure. Throttle response is linear up to the 7,500 RPM redline. The Miata's low curb weight contributes to sprightly acceleration; redlining the engine was rarely necessary even in spirited driving. Most customers will likely select the excellent manual gearbox, but the 6-speed automatic is certainly a viable alternative, and expands the appeal of the MX-5. The automatic shifts nearly seamlessly, and is calibrated to shift at higher RPM to maximize acceleration. We rarely needed to use the steering wheel paddles or the shift lever manual mode.
Driving with the top retracted and windows up is acceptable up to about 60 mph for short trips. Wind noise is tolerable, as the clear wind blocker between the seats effectively cuts turbulence. The solid B-pillar and buttresses behind the seats in the RF contribute to a significantly more rigid body structure compared the convertible. Another benefit is a much quieter cabin with the retractable roof in place. Long road trips are no longer an ordeal in the RF, in marked contrast to the vastly noisier convertible. Former convertible owners will also appreciate the increased security of a hard top.
The rigid chassis is the greatest contributor to the MX-5's much improved handling. Cowl shake, body shudder over bumps, and squeaks and rattles are impressively suppressed. As car enthusiasts know, it's not about maximum g-force, but the quick turn-in response and nimble reflexes that set the MX-5 apart from most other sports cars. Crank the steering wheel, and the MX-5 obediently follows the intended arc. Understeer in almost nonexistent; while mild power-on oversteer is a distinct possibility in 1st or 2nd gear. Steering feel is superb; the driver seems almost directly connected to the road. The Bridgestone performance tires deliver ample grip in warm weather. Although the short 90.9-in. wheelbase contributes to razor-sharp handling, freeway hop on some concrete surfaces is an unavoidable consequence.
Mazda has never wavered in its mission to continually improve its pure sports car. The MX-5 Miata is unquestionably a niche 2-seater, likely to be a second or third vehicle in an owner's collection. The RF adds enhanced highway touring capability and increased body rigidity, with nearly the same open-air experience as the MX-5 convertible. Despite its higher price, the additional versatility of the RF wins our recommendation as the Miata we would choose.