by Roger Biermann
The Mazda MX-5 Miata RF (Retractable Fastback) is an even more stylish version of the Japanese brand's enduring - and endearing - lightweight convertible that has proved for decades that driving fun need not be the preserve of high-powered exotics. Not a true coupe, the MX-5 Miata RF comes close by replacing the regular model's soft top with a retractable hard top. The result is a more refined Miata with an undeniably unique, appealing design. Two trim levels - Club and Grand Touring - are both fitted with the willing 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine producing 155 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque. While both trims are well equipped and the MX-5 Miata RF is excellently constructed, this is a car that's less about practicality and more about old-school driving thrills. From the superb engine response to the brilliant manual gearbox (an automatic transmission is also available) and chuckable handling, the little Mazda continues to be one of the best driver's cars at any price point. At around $2,000 more expensive than an equivalent MX-5 Miata soft top, the RF's distinctive design seems well worth the additional outlay.
The MX-5 Miata RF continues in 2018 with only minimal changes. Inside, the Club now gets heated cloth seats, while manual transmission models get advanced keyless entry as standard. The color palette also gets an update, with three colors dropped in favor of three newer shades (Soul Red Crystal, Snowflake White Pearl, and Eternal Blue). The Brembo/BBS optional package now includes leather-trimmed, heated seats.
The MX-5 Miata RF's distinctive silhouette is all thanks to that slim roof panel and rear window, both of which fold away in only 13 seconds to provide a partially open-air experience. The buttresses lend the RF a sporty stance from the rear and rear three-quarter views. The exterior is further enhanced by standard LED headlamps, LED daytime running lights, 17-inch dark gunmetal aluminum alloy wheels, side mirrors in a piano black finish, and dual silver exhaust outlets. The hood, trunk lids, and front fenders are constructed from lightweight aluminum.
The squat, purposeful MX-5 Miata RF is 154.1-inches long, 68.3-inches wide, 49.0-inches in height, and with a 90.9-inch wheelbase. Dimensions are identical to the soft top Miata, although the RF is 0.2-inches taller. The RF is around 100 pounds heavier than the equivalent soft top models due to the heavier and more complex retractable roof - the automatic transmission RF weighs in at 2,892 lbs, which is 30 lbs heavier than the manual. By comparison, a Subaru BRZ (with its more traditional coupe body) weighs around 100 pounds less than the MX-5 Miata RF.
The 2018 MX-5 Miata RF is available in a selection of seven exterior colors: Soul Red Crystal, Jet Black Mica, Ceramic Metallic, Snowflake White Pearl, Machine Gray, Eternal Blue, and Arctic White. Colors which have fallen away for the 2018 model year are Soul Red, Crystal White Pearl, and Blue Reflex.
The MX-5 Miata RF is powered by the familiar 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine which produces 155 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque. Power is sent to the rear wheels via either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission with manual shift paddles. In manual form, the RF accelerates from 0-60 mph in seven seconds, which is marginally down on the time achieved by the lighter soft top. While performance expectations aren't high considering the fairly low 155 hp power output, it's similar to what you'll find in a Subaru BRZ. The six-speed manual is one of the best transmissions of its kind, making it easy to execute quick, fast shifts - it is easily the preferable transmission choice. While many cars offer more power at the Mazda's price, few can match the overall driving experience.
While many enthusiasts lament Mazda's decision to stick with a modestly powered, naturally-aspirated four-cylinder engine, it means the MX-5 Miata RF stays true to the original ethos of a lightweight, fun sports car. The Skyactive 2.0-liter engine produces 155 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque. While the six-speed automatic is an effective unit, it can't match the alacrity and sensations delivered by the six-speed manual. Around town, the 2.0L benefits from the MX-5's light weight to deliver peppy acceleration from a standstill - throttle response is excellent. The lowish power output means that there are many opportunities to rev the 2.0L to its redline without getting into serious trouble, and although you won't be going very quickly, you'll certainly be having a blast. The engine delivers power in a linear fashion without the sudden surge you'll experience with a turbo. Even in manual guise, town driving isn't too much of a chore thanks to the lightness of the clutch. On the highway, the engine's lack of grunt can sometimes be a frustration, but for the most part the MX-5 RF is a capable performer and once up to speed, a surprisingly competent cruiser.
Dynamically, the RF sparkles. Without needing to toggle through a myriad of driving modes, the MX-5 Miata is ideally set up to instantly get in and drive, as the basics are just as they should be. The 2.0L produces just enough power to have fun but lacks the fireworks to upset the rear axle, ensuring that the MX-5 Miata always feels composed and controllable. The steering system is excellent, with the RF responding keenly and accurately to driver inputs. While some may prefer more heft to the steering system, it does mean that the Miata is a superb daily driver and doesn't feel taxing after an extended period behind the wheel. The car is at its very best through a series of smooth, flowing curves, when you can ring the motor to its limit and appreciate the rorty exhaust sound.
In a more civilized setting, the RF surprises too. A small convertible designed to excite isn't a recipe for ride comfort, but the RF effectively deals with minor imperfections and certainly isn't overly harsh. Larger potholes will be felt through the body, but this isn't unexpected in a car of this kind. Cruising with the RF's hardtop closed reveals another benefit of this variant: it's quieter than its soft top cousin. The difference in road noise isn't enormous, but it's enough to make the RF the slightly more relaxing cruiser.
EPA-rated estimates for the MX-5 Miata RF are 26/33/29 mpg for the manual model on the city/highway/combined cycles, equating to a range of 344 miles from the tiny 11.89-gallon gas tank. The automatic model returns a nearly identical 26/35/29 mpg. These figures make the Miata RF more fuel-efficient than the Subaru BRZ - its fuel economy numbers are 21/29/24 mpg. Recommended fuel type is premium unleaded 91 octane or better.
Snug, well-finished, and smartly designed, the MX-5 Miata's interior is a pleasant place to be (provided you aren't too tall). Being a small car, all the controls are easy to reach and ergonomics are simple and clear enough not to be a detractor to high-speed driving. The driving position stops just short of ideal because the steering wheel doesn't offer telescopic adjustment and the seats aren't height-adjustable either. Drivers and passengers over six-feet tall will also feel cramped, but those less lanky will love the snug, cocooning feel of the cabin. Both trims offer a competitive level of standard features, with heated seats, a Bose sound system, and a comprehensive infotainment system all being standard equipment. The power hardtop can be opened or closed in just 13 seconds, requiring no effort from the driver to instantly transform the RF from a coupe into a stylish convertible.
The MX-5 Miata RF seats two passengers low down in a manner that makes them feel part of the action. The seats are attractively finished in either sporty cloth or leather and strike a good balance between comfort and support. Headroom and legroom are not overly generous, however, and taller drivers will need to decide if they're willing to live with the compact cabin's dimensions on a day to day basis. There's no problem with frontward visibility, but the RF's side pillars do impede the driver's rearward view to an extent.
Interior colors and materials differ depending on whether you opt for the Club or more luxurious Grand Touring. Club models are only available with a black interior, and seats are trimmed in cloth with red stitching. Grand Touring models get leather seats in either Black, Sport Tan, or Auburn Nappa. The three-spoke steering wheel and shift knob are both leather-wrapped, while the door trim uses vinyl. In general, the RF's interior feels sporty and suitably high quality.
As sports cars go, the Miata suffers from a lack of significant trunk space. There is just 4.48 cubic feet of cargo space available (marginally less than the soft top). At least the trunk opening is a generous size for easy loading.
Storage space in the cabin isn't much better, with no glove box and no rear seat to allow for extra packing space. There is a bin between the front seats to accommodate items like mobile phones and wallets. Removable cupholders are appreciated but can interfere with shifting when in place.
Both Club and Grand Touring models are decently equipped, with the former placing an emphasis on sportiness and the latter being more on the luxury side of the spectrum. Both trims come standard with heated bucket seats, advanced keyless entry, push button ignition, cruise control, the power folding hardtop, power windows and mirrors, and air-conditioning (manual for the Club and automatic for the Grand Touring).
The Grand Touring packs in a few extras such as an auto-dimming rearview mirror, rain-sensing wipers, auto on/off headlights, and leather-trimmed seats.
The MX-5's infotainment system is user-friendly and falls under the Mazda Connect designation. Both trims use a seven-inch color touchscreen and linked to the system is voice command, HD radio, SMS text message audio delivery and relay, Sirius satellite radio with a four-month subscription, USB audio input, Bluetooth handsfree and audio, and a CD player. Aha, Pandora, and Stitcher internet radio integration are included, but unfortunately both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration have yet to make their way into the MX-5.
For music lovers, both models use a Bose nine-speaker audio system which includes a subwoofer and speakers in the headrests. Sound quality is very good with the roof closed, but loses some of its punch with the roof open. Only the Grand Touring model gets Mazda's navigation system - the setup is easy to make sense of and to control using the effective touchscreen or a dial positioned in the center console.
Mazdas are inherently reliable and the MX-5 Miata RF is no different. The model has a predicted reliability rating from J.D Power that ranks above average, although the RF's more complex roof mechanism may require more maintenance as the car ages. One safety recall has been issued by the NHTSA for the 2018 MX-5 Miata for transmission software issues that can cause abrupt downshifts. The MX-5 is covered by a three-year/36,000-mile warranty and a five-year/60,000-mile warranty on the powertrain.
The NHTSA and IIHS have both not tested the MX-5. Euro NCAP, which uses its own crash test parameters, rated the soft top version of the current MX-5 at four stars when first tested in 2015, hinting at what is a solid safety cell.
Along with dual front and side airbags, the MX-5 Miata RF also comes standard with a tire pressure monitoring system, blind spot monitoring, and rear cross traffic alert - these are especially useful considering the RF's reduced rearward visibility. The Grand Touring model also has additional safety features such as an adaptive front lighting system, high beam control, and a lane departure warning system. An anti-theft alarm is surprisingly omitted from the Club, but standard on the Grand Touring.
The Mazda MX-5 Miata remains one of the purest and most entertaining driving experiences available at any price. In RF form, Mazda's little sports car gains even more style and provides greater insulation and refinement at speed. Dynamically, the RF shines as much as the soft top - rear-wheel drive, sharp steering, compact dimensions, and one of the best manual gearboxes on the market make this a true driver's car. The engine plays its part too, but one can't help but wonder what level of driving nirvana an MX-5 with more power would provide. Despite a focus on being a sporty performer, the MX-5 is also well-appointed inside, with most of the features you'd expect and comfortable seating. Taller people will however feel cramped and both storage and trunk space are poor. The RF's hard top appears to be a well-engineered piece of design and folds away quickly without reducing trunk space. Overall, Mazda should be commended for maintaining the hallmarks of the MX-5 that have made this model so popular for decades.
The MX-5 Miata RF starts with the Club variant at an MSRP of $31,910 before tax, registration, and licensing. The price also excludes a destination and delivery fee of $890. Offering more luxury is the Grand Touring model at an MSRP of $32,750. Overall, the RF commands a price premium of approximately $2,000 over the equivalent soft top versions.
The MX-5 Miata RF range comprises just two trims: the Club and the Grand Touring. Both trims share the same 155 horsepower 2.0-liter engine, rear-wheel-drive, and a choice between either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission.
Club models come standard with manual air-conditioning, LED headlights, 17-inch dark gunmetal alloy wheels, heated cloth bucket seats, a nine-speaker Bose audio system, a seven-inch color touchscreen, blind spot monitoring, and rear cross traffic alert. With an emphasis on a sportier drive, the Club variant with manual transmission also gets a limited-slip rear differential, Bilstein shock absorbers, and a front shock tower brace. The more comfort-oriented Grand Touring lacks these suspension additions but gets leather-trimmed seats, dark silver 17-inch alloy wheels, automatic air-conditioning, and Mazda's navigation system.
One of the most appealing packages available for the MX-5 Miata RF is the Brembo/BBS Package on manual-transmission Club models. Costing an additional $3,770, it adds Brembo front brakes with red calipers, an aero kit, side sill extensions, rear bumper skirt, and special forged gunmetal alloy wheels. The package also upgrades the seats from cloth to black leather. Several Appearance Package options are available and these add sporty bits such as side sill extensions and a rear bumper skirt in black. For just $300 extra, Grand Touring models can be specified with even more luxurious Auburn Nappa Leather. If you can stretch to the Brembo/BBS Package, this add-on best complements the inherent sportiness of the RF.
Mazda keeps things simple with just two trims, the more driver-focused Club and the more comfort-oriented Grand Touring. Our first suggestion would be selecting the manual transmission, as this significantly adds to the enjoyment factor from behind the wheel. There's no wrong choice between Club and Grand Touring trims, although the additional suspension upgrades (such as those Bilstein shock absorbers) of the manual Club will be appealing for true enthusiasts.
Much like the MX-5, the 86 is Toyota's attempt to offer driving thrills at an affordable price. In that sense, the 86 gets off to a good start because not only can it be had for over $5,000 less than the Club MX-5 RF, but it also offers more power from its flat-4 2.0-liter engine. However, the MX-5 provides similar performance and just about has the edge for the driving experience with its better-sounding engine and exceptional manual gearbox. A traditional coupe with seats at the back, it's the 86 that offers more space, practicality, and refinement at speed. However, the MX-5 fights back with smarter interior materials and a more modern design. Plus, there's no doubting the novelty of the RF's eye-catching folding hard top.
A less mainstream competitor, the Fiat 124 Spider is based on the fourth generation Mazda MX-5 Miata. As such, it provides admirable dynamics, with pleasantly weighty steering and a slightly better ride quality than the MX-5. The Fiat also benefits from a more powerful turbocharged engine. However, the MX-5 remains the more sprightly feeling of the two, and while the 124 is certainly a bold design, the MX-5 - especially in RF form - is the tauter, sportier looking machine. The interiors are nearly identical, but the 124 is a longer car and therefore manages to provide almost half a cubic foot of additional space - this may not sound like much, but it matters considering the very tiny trunks of each car. While the 124 is an excellent small convertible, the MX-5 Miata - and even more so in RF guise - remains the more emotive offering.