The market for sports cars has eroded recently, and nearly every two-seat convertible sports machine has taken a big hit — most are down by double-digit sales since 2015. But Mazda’s classic roadster, the Miata, bucked that trend. Last year, Mazda moved nearly 10,000 of the new sports car, making it the best year for Miatas since 2008.
That shouldn’t be a big surprise. Everyone loves the Miata, and that includes us. Back in 2015, we said, “Do you call yourself a driving enthusiast? A car guy? Are you breathing? Then of course you want one.” We still feel that way.
But Mazda wants you to want one even more. “The last retractable hardtop was 50 percent of the Miata sales,” says Dave Coleman, manager vehicle dynamics engineering for Mazda North American Operations. The old hardtop shared the same roofline profile with the soft top. “This time, we decided, if we’re going to do all this work to re-engineer the back half of the car, let’s make it look unique,” Coleman says.
One look at the new MX-5 RF (Retractable Fastback) from the rear, with those cool flying buttresses, and it’s clear this is perhaps the best-looking Miata in the sports car’s 28 years. More importantly, the experience of living with a Miata as an everyday driver should be much easier.
In other words, if you were on the fence about buying a Miata, the RF means you’re officially out of excuses.
The retractable fastback is a new take on the hardtop Miata theme. The last Miata with a solid roof became a full convertible at the push of a button, but the RF is essentially a targa: Press the button on the center console and the rear hatch section with those sexy flying buttresses raises and moves slightly rearward. The roof then slides back and disappears into the trunk. The process is mesmerizing to watch and takes just 13 seconds.
If you guessed that a hard roof and the assorted mechanicals adds weight, you would be correct. Mazda says the RF is 113 pounds heavier than the ragtop MX-5. That’s not an insignificant number. However, most of that extra poundage is located over the rear wheels, and because the Miata was such a featherweight to begin with, the RF still weighs less than 2,500 pounds.
Oh, and let’s not forget that Mazda is obsessed with driving feel, so it’s not about to let a little weight gain ruin the fun.
“We did a bunch of spring and damper tuning just to get the car back to the same place it was before it had the extra weight on it,” says Coleman.
To combat the added heft of the new roof, the company installed firmer springs and new dampers. But it also replaced some of the bushings in the rear suspension with new units and changed the bump stops.
“The new bump stops and bushings make it easier to balance the car on the grip limit,” says Coleman. “It’s always been a really neutral and balanced car on the limit, so we just kept on focusing on making that transition smoother.”
Although it does weigh more, the RF is stiffer. Coleman says they tuned the soft-top model up to the edge where you start feel cowl shake. But on the RF, the improved chassis stiffness allowed them to push that limit even higher.
“Handling is a very subjective thing, but it’s what I do, says Coleman. “And I think it’s a better handling car.”
Few cars feel as simple and unfussy as a Miata. Compared to most vehicles, the Miata is a minimalist with only the buttons and knobs you really need. As before, those leather buckets in our test car were snug-fitting and very comfortable.
Fancy roof aside, it’s always great to be back in a Miata again. Driving this car quickly is not only easy, it’s also so much damn fun. The slickness of the Miata’s manual transmissions over the years has been seared into our brains; the Miata’s box could be the benchmark for the way manual transmissions feel, and the one in the RF is no exception. The throws are so light that you can move the shifter with your fingertips. And the steering is just as precise as we remember in the soft top.
Put the new retractable roof down and the experience is mostly like an open-air Miata. There’s plenty of sun and plenty of good noises to help you get lost in the experience. However, there is a bit of wind buffeting around those buttresses.
Put the top up and the RF instantly becomes more civilized than the ragtop. It’s quieter, calmer. But more importantly, that new hardtop adds stiffness to the structure you can feel. The hard roof solidifies the chassis and erases the slight wiggle in both the steering column and windshield frame. We spent much of our three-hour mountain drive near San Diego with the top in place simply because the experience was better.
The 2.0-liter makes just 155 hp. That’s the same as the roadster, yes, but it’s more than enough to keep you smiling. Even with another 100 pounds of roof to lug around, you won’t yearn for more power unless you decide to take an RF to grudge night at the local drag strip.
The RF is everything we liked about the soft-top Miata in a package that’s easier to live with. It also feels just as capable on a canyon road.
But it’s not cheap. The least expensive RF is more than $6,500 more expensive than the least expensive soft top. And 6K buys an awful lot of sweet aftermarket parts for a less-expensive car. Still, if we had to drive an MX-5 daily, the RF would be the one.
– Ben Stewart has spent the past two decades reviewing cars and reporting on automotive culture and technology.
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On Sale: Now
Base Price: $32,390
Drivetrain: 2.0-liter I4, six-speed manual or automatic
Output: 155 hp at 6,000 rpm and 148 lb-ft of torque at 4,600 rpm
Curb Weight: 2,455 lb (MT), 2,485 lb (AT)
Fuel Economy: 26/33/29(EPA City/Hwy/Combined)
Pros: Supple, smooth, benchmark athleticism
Cons: Small trunk, pricey compared to soft top