by Roger Biermann
As far as sports cars go, the Mazda Miata is a legend. In just three decades, Mazda sold as many of its lightweight roadsters as Porsche has sold 911s in nearly six decades - you tell me which sports car is the most iconic? Now in its fourth iteration, the MX-5 Miata has returned to its roots, being the lightest and smallest iteration since the original. Unlike previous generations of the Miata in the US that were only offered in rag-top roadster form, the ND generation offers buyers a second style. Dubbed the RF - or Retractable Fastback - you get 911 Targa-like buttresses and a solid roof panel that opens up the sky above. For many, it's the coupe MX-5 they've dreamed of for years. But in the US it's also become a softer version of the Miata; seen as the grand tourer model, the RF sells as many automatic-equipped RFs as it does manuals. So we got behind the wheel of a Mazda MX-5 Miata RF with the six-speed auto for a week to see if an auto 'box can do the hallowed name any justice, or if it would ruin the allure of a naturally aspirated 181-horsepower motor and rear-wheel drive.
Mazda has made a couple of suspension and feature upgrades to the MX-5 for 2020 while maintaining the car's lightweight architecture. The MX-5 Club trim now features both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard equipment. In manual guise, the top-of-the-line Grand Touring trim now also gets a range of performance upgrades previously reserved for the Club - these include Bilstein dampers and a limited-slip differential, along with other tweaks like a shock tower brace in front and a suspension that is sport-tuned. The Grand Touring also gets enhancements like SiriusXM (including a trial subscription for three months) and door sills in black/stainless steel. All models receive additional safety features for 2020, too, with a full suite of i-Activsense safety features including blind spot monitoring, automatic emergency braking, and lane departure warning. A new color option, Polymetal Gray, has been added to the existing palette.
2.0-liter Inline-4 Gas
2.0-liter Inline-4 Gas
2.0-liter Inline-4 Gas
It's hard not to smile when you first set eyes on the cheeky Miata RF. In a world of excess, the Mazda's simple lines and compact proportions are a breath of fresh air. The RF (retractable fastback) adds another layer of appeal - at the touch of a button, the roof can be electrically lowered or raised in 13 seconds - but only at speeds of up to 6 mph. Up or down, it's a unique alternative to the more familiar MX-5 soft-top. The sporty exterior gets standard LED headlights and taillights, LED daytime running lights, and at the back, a subtle rear lip spoiler is fitted. Both trims get 17-inch alloy wheels, but the Grand Touring also adds an adaptive front-lighting system.
Whether slipping into a tight parking space or quickly slotting into gaps in traffic, it's all made easier by the Miata RF's tight dimensions. It's just 154.1 inches long and rides on a 90.9-inch wheelbase. The width is 68.3 inches and height is a low 49 inches. The RF's minimum ground clearance works out to 5.3 inches. Not many sports cars are as lightweight as the little Mazda: the manual model weighs 2,453 pounds and the automatic tops out at 2,493 lbs. Both models are just over 100 lbs heavier than their soft-top counterparts.
For 2020, Mazda has introduced a new color: Polymetal Grey. It joins a fairly basic color palette featuring Soul Red Crystal Metallic ($595), Jet Black Mica, Ceramic Metallic, Machine Gray Metallic ($300), and Arctic White. The Grand Touring trim replaces Arctic White with Snowflake White Pearl Mica ($200) and gets an additional color choice - Eternal Blue Mica. Our Grand Touring tester arrived wearing a shade of Snowflake White, which glinted and glimmered in the sun but didn't suit the rear-end styling of the RF. A darker shade like Machine Gray Metallic does a better job of hiding the rear profile, but Mazda's Kodo: Soul of Motion design language really deserves just one color - Soul Red Crystal. It's one of the most alluring paint colors on the market right now and the MX-5 Miata RF was born to wear it.
It's telling that Mazda doesn't publish performance figures for the MX-5 on its website, a gentle reminder that this iconic sports car has never been about spellbinding acceleration. Nevertheless, last year the MX-5 range received a welcome boost in power. It was nothing drastic, but just enough to reduce the 0-60 mph time to around six seconds in manual guise. Unfortunately, our automatic was slower, managing the feat closer to seven seconds; but recent sales results have shown that 48% of RF buyers purchase the auto, unlike the 24% of Roadster buyers electing for the same. Considering the Mazda MX-5 Miata was always intended to be low on power and big on fun, it seems a crying shame to order one with the auto 'box. Being rear-wheel-drive - just like the Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ - and with only 181 hp, the effort of rowing the gears one's self is part of the allure to the Miata. We can't say we'd recommend buying the auto; if it's a pure sports car experience you're after, then nothing but three pedals will suffice.
The Miata continues into 2020 with a naturally-aspirated 2.0-liter four-pot delivering 181 hp and 151 lb-ft. Last year, modifications like a new exhaust, reworked intake ports, and a reduction of internal masses saw a gain of 26 hp. Happily revving to over 7,000 rpm, the Mazda continues with the same deliciously sharp throttle response and the availability of a six-speed manual gearbox, but our test unit was equipped with the six-speed automatic.
The engine itself is a lively companion, and thanks to 2019's updates it's now more suited to the MX-5 than it was before. It revs higher, sounds better, and delivers a sweeter punch than before, but it still doesn't sound truly inspiring - at least not like MX-5s of old. It's got a fair bit of punch, though, and the fact that turbochargers are absent means that you've got to run it out 'til past 7,000 rpm to get the good stuff. It's an addictive sensation, hanging on to a gear to hear the engine sing, carrying speed through corners and then tearing away with the engine wrung out to its fullest, and it's a sensation best savored with the six-speed manual gearbox.
Unfortunately, the automatic we tested does a poor job of savoring the work the engine does. Shift times are slow and it always responds a moment too late after tipping into a corner, upsetting the weight balance of a very sensitive sports car. There is a Sport mode that more readily pre-empts downshifts, but it's merely adding a Band-Aid to an amputation site as the gearbox itself is too dimwitted to be truly enjoyed. You can also swap things into manual mode where a pair of paddles behind the steering wheel let you take control. Still, the responses to inputs are sluggish, and when you're hammering the redline midway through a corner, the gearbox upshifts when it's not supposed to. We've driven the manual version of the Miata RF before, and the automatic is truly a disappointment by comparison.
Being the lightest and most compact Miata since the original, there are obvious merits to the ND generation. With more power and less weight it feels more potent than it is, and with a near-perfect 51/49 weight balance front/rear, the RF was made to handle. The RF also benefits from the hard-top roof, which, when closed, adds more rigidity to the chassis, but unfortunately counters this by adding the 100-pound weight gain high up on the body, raising the center of gravity. It's not vastly noticeable compared to the soft-top, but the RF lacks the fluidity and predictability of the Roadster.
Balance the car right coming into a turn and you'll feel supernaturally talented - it'll carry speed and deliver a little bit of slip on corner exit just like a good sports car should. But the margin for error is slim and the tolerances of the chassis form a narrow window of operation. Come in slightly too heavy on the brakes and the suspension dips too much, the rear becomes too light, and you oversteer on corner entry. Jump on the throttle too early and the nose lifts, pushing the front end wide with understeer. The line is too fine for a sports car supposed to be enjoyed by the layman, and the unpredictability of it means you can never dive headlong into a corner with complete trust in the machine.
Contrary to this lack of trustability, the steering is sublimely weighted. There's also a surprisingly large amount of feedback from the road surface, with dimples delivered to your fingertips. But when pushing on at eight-tenths or more, there's very little communication as to where the front tires are in terms of their limits. The same can be said of the brakes, which feel great under general use but tend to lose their luster when pushing on too much. There is an available Brembo brake package to improve this, though, and with a manual gearbox, the added limited slip differential improves handling slightly.
It's a strange combination of traits endowed upon the Miata RF, and it stands at odds with the original ethos. Yes, it's enjoyable - but only to a point, and the lack of predictability is at odds with the firm suspension that seems to ride a little too harshly over broken surfaces. Old MX-5s had a bit of bounce and were a lot more forgiving; the ND takes itself too seriously, losing the whimsicality of the old cars but without having the raw talent at full blast to back up the seriousness.
Despite the RF's heavier roof, it returns the same excellent EPA-rated economy figures as the soft-top. It's the automatic that's the most fuel-efficient with figures of 26/35/30 mpg on the city/highway/combined cycles. The manual models aren't too far behind, though - you should manage 26/34/29 mpg with the stick-shift quite comfortably. A tiny 11.9-gallon gas tank is fitted, but this is still sufficient for a mixed driving range of 357 miles with the automatic model. By comparison, the best that the Toyota 86 can do is 24/32/27 mpg when equipped with an automatic transmission.
That's all in theory, though, and in the real world, things do differ. Admittedly, the nature of the MX-5 Miata family implores you to drive it in a spirited manner, and doing so will yield combined figures closer to 23 mpg. With care, you could get close to the EPA estimates, but then you wouldn't be enjoying the car as it was intended to be driven.
Mazda interiors have come a long way and the Miata RF's is no different. It's solidly constructed and the switches feel robust, while a pleasing mix of leathers and trim colors brightens up the environment. Like the Porsche 911, a centrally-mounted tachometer is a sporty touch and the traditional analog dials look great. On the downside, there simply isn't enough space for taller occupants. If you're over six-foot-two tall, the lack of space is likely to be a dealbreaker. For those who are able to fit, they'll appreciate the sporty bucket seats and standard features like heated seats, the new addition of Apple CarPlay/Android Auto integration on the Club models, and a Bose surround-sound audio system. What you won't appreciate is the lack of in-cabin storage.
The MX-5 Miata RF is strictly a two-seater, but there are caveats to that as taller occupants won't be able to fit. The limit for comfortable driving is pegged at 6'2", and with limited seat adjustability (fore and aft sliding adjustment, thigh support, and backrest reclination only), it's difficult to get truly comfortable. There's a fair amount of headroom, even with the roof closed, but taller drivers will find their knees rubbing the steering wheel frequently. It's a narrow interior, too, so chunkier drivers and passengers will struggle, and the low seating position means it's tricky to climb in and out gracefully.
The buttresses responsible for the stylish fastback design impede visibility tremendously, creating huge blind spots. Unlike the Miata Roadster, which has wonderful sound insulation with the roof down, opening the roof in the RF comes with a number of compromises. One - it can only be operated at 6 mph, which is excruciatingly slow, and two - at speeds higher than 30 mph, the wind catches the buttresses and makes casual conversation sound like verbal warfare.
The two RF trims each wear different upholstery, with the Club trim sporting black cloth with red stitching, while the Grand Touring gets regular leather as standard in a choice of two colors. Sport Tan leather gets matching stitching, while the black leather in our test unit inherits red contrast stitching from the Club model. The Grand Touring also gets a new option for 2020 in the form of red Nappa leather, but for us the black is just fine. Those looking for something a little sportier can equip the Club model with Recaro sports seats as part of the Brembo/BBS Recaro Package.
The leather is soft and the stitching is carried through to the dash and doors, where soft-touch materials dominate a stylish design. Faux aluminum is scattered throughout, with tactile dials and buttons looking great but feeling a little cheap. You can blame the 'gram strategy', shaving down plastics and metals by micrometers to save weight by the gram. This is also apparent on the doors, where the uppermost panel is plastic painted to match the exterior paint color. It seems cheap at first, but the lines run straight through to the front wheel arches and it acts as a clever means of drawing the exterior of the Miata RF inside.
As with the tight cabin, there's very little room in the RF's trunk. A mere 4.5 cubic feet of space is only sufficient for one carry-on or a couple of soft bags, but that's about it. The space is surprisingly deep as there's no spare tire, but the lower section has a small cutout, so it's tricky to load larger items, and the aperture to the trunk is small.
Interior storage is dismal, however. There's a tiny storage bin under the center console armrest that's incapable of holding a smartphone, and the notion of door pockets is limited to two tiny pockets in the armrests. There are no genuine door pockets, no traditional glovebox, and only two removable cupholders that feel flimsy and get in the way more often than not. The only semblance of practicality comes in the form of a lockable storage bin behind the seats, but it's awkward to access and isn't very big.
Thankfully, the MX-5 RF isn't some stripped-down sports car that is unsuited to daily use. Mazda has included enough standard features to keep most happy. Starting with the RF Club, it gets air-conditioning, heated seats (with three different heat settings), push-button start, and a keyless entry system for added convenience. A tilt and telescoping steering column helps with finding a suitable driving position. On the higher-spec Grand Touring, the air-conditioning is upgraded to automatic climate control and the Club's cloth seats are replaced by leather trim. This top-spec trim also gets a more comprehensive safety specification with features like high-beam control and a driver aid that's more often found in pricier vehicles, namely, traffic sign recognition.
The Mazda Connect infotainment suite in the Miata is beginning to show its age. The seven-inch touchscreen only operates by touch when standing still, and the graphics seem dated and low res. However, most of the requisite functionality is present, including AM/FM/HD Radio, Aha, Pandora, and Stitcher integration, and SiriusXM satellite radio and the rotary controller makes the system easy to use. Media can also be streamed via the auxiliary input jack and two USB ports, and new for 2020, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard on both trims. Navigation is added from the Grand Touring, but we found Android Auto's use of Google Maps to be a better navigation companion. Both RF trims are equipped with a nine-speaker Bose sound system. It packs plenty of punch, and headrest-mounted speakers help counter wind noise with the top down, while also acting as dedicated speakers for hands-free calling.
Surprisingly, the MX-5 Miata RF holds a rather poor J.D. Power rating of 67 out of a possible 100 (for the 2019 model). This is some way below the Mini Cooper Convertible's 80/100. On the plus side, there has been only one recall over the last few years. 2016-2019 MX-5 models had an issue whereby the automatic transmission may downshift unpredictably, causing a sudden deceleration.
Although we expect the MX-5 to be reliable, Mazda's new vehicle limited warranty covers most issues and runs for three years or 36,000 miles, whichever comes first. The MX-5 is also covered by a five-year/60,000-mile limited powertrain warranty, while 24/7 emergency roadside assistance runs for three years or 36,000 miles. A five-year/unlimited-mileage warranty covers the Mazda for body rust-through.
The MX-5 hasn't been evaluated by the IIHS or the NHTSA for crashworthiness, so no safety ratings are currently available for this Mazda, although a decent level of safety kit provides some peace of mind.
Out of the box, the Miata RF Club is fitted with four airbags (dual front and side-impact bags) to protect both occupants. Keeping things in check is standard dynamic stability control and traction control systems, along with tire pressure monitoring.
As part of Mazda's i-Activesense safety suite, the Club also gets equipment like smart city brake support and rear cross-traffic alert, along with the important lane departure warning system, some of which were only standard on the Grand Touring last year. Improving driver awareness is a standard blind-spot monitoring system. The range-topping Grand Touring adds an adaptive front-lighting system (with high-beam control) and another driver aid in the form of traffic sign recognition. This trim also gets an auto on/off function for the headlights and windshield wipers with a rain sensor.
The MX-5 Miata has grown up; despite being smaller and lighter than it's been in decades. In no model is this more apparent than the RF, which adds the tranquility of a coupe roof and sells nearly half of all units with an automatic gearbox. In its newly-found middle-age, the Miata has lost the whimsicality that made more than a million people love it over the last three decades - it's become more focused and less playful, and yet the seriousness is belied by a lack of consistency when pushing its limits. It's more refined than before, and lack of storage space aside, more practical to live with on a daily basis, but we can't help but feel the RF loses some of the magic of the soft-top Miata Roadster. Don't get us wrong - there are few cars that will have you smiling this much after a stretch of twisting road is left in your rearview mirror, but you'd have more fun in the soft-top, and for the love of the car gods, make sure you don't get the automatic.
The RF range starts with the Club trim at an MSRP of $33,045, increasing to $34,425 for the Grand Touring. These prices are exclusive of tax, licensing, and registration. Mazda has also announced a revised destination and handling charge of $945 (up by $25) this year for all regions besides Alaska, which is subject to a charge of $990. Both trims are fitted with a manual transmission but an automatic is an option on each and will cost $600 extra on the Club and $325 on the Grand Touring.
The Miata RF range comprises only two trims: the Club and the Grand Touring. Both are powered by the 181-hp 2.0-liter engine which is mated to either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic. Rear-wheel-drive is standard.
The Club trim gets 17-inch alloy wheels and LEDs for both the headlights and taillights. When equipped with the manual gearbox, a sport-tuned suspension with upgraded Bilstein shocks is fitted. The power-retractable roof can be lowered or raised in 13 seconds. Inside, the Mazda Connect infotainment system makes use of a seven-inch touchscreen display that now includes both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The black cloth sports seats feature three-level heating and air-conditioning, Bluetooth, and a more robust safety specification with smart city brake support are all standard.
For 2020, the manual Grand Touring model now also gets the Bilstein dampers and limited-slip differential that were previously reserved for the Club trim. A new Red Nappa leather interior is a further available addition to this trim. The more luxurious cabin gets the leather treatment (replacing the Club's cloth-upholstered seats) and automatic climate control. While this trim shares the Club's nine-speaker Bose sound system, it gains Mazda's navigation system. Outside, adaptive front-lighting and rain-sensing windshield wipers are standard, while the 17-inch alloy wheels get a unique Dark Silver finish.
One of the most appealing packages is available on the Club trim when equipped with the manual transmission. Called the Brembo/BBS Recaro Package, it replaces the standard cloth seats with black Recaro sport seats. Other upgrades encompass BBS forged 17-inch alloy wheels in a special Dark Gunmetal finish, and behind them, you'll find Brembo front brakes with red calipers. An aero kit adds another touch of aggression, including a rear bumper skirt in a Brilliant Black shade, complemented by a hand-painted black roof. At $4,670, it is a bit pricey though. Another new option for 2020 is a red Nappa leather interior - exclusive to the Grand Touring, it'll cost $300.
Last year, Mazda also offered an Appearance Package and an interior lighting kit, but at the time of writing, it was unclear whether these options had been retained for 2020, so it's best to consult with your local dealer.
We still stand by the assertion that you should get an MX-5 Miata Roadster rather than the RF, but if those stylish lines and the allure of a tin-top coupe are irresistible to you, then we'd look no further than the Club specification.
Technically forming the middle-ground of the Miata lineup, the Club is well-specified with a range of updated safety features for 2020 as well as a comprehensive infotainment suite including Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and a nine-speaker Bose sound system. It misses out on items like navigation, adaptive front lighting, and traffic sign recognition, but in our opinion, these are frivolities that aren't necessary. We'd also be happy without the leather upholstery. However, certain options are must-haves for the Miata RF. These include the six-speed manual gearbox, not just for the enjoyment of rowing your own gears but for the limited slip differential, Bilstein dampers, sports suspension, and shock tower braces that make it a better car to drive. We'd also opt for the Brembo/BBS Recaro Package, adding better brakes, stylish 17-inch BBS wheels, Recaro sports seats, and striking black aero addenda to the exterior. Finish it off with the $595 Soul Red Crystal Metallic paint and it's the best RF you can lay your hands on.
The soft-top may be the default choice, but does that mean it's still better than the RF? It's certainly the more affordable option since the base Sport trim isn't available on the RF. This means that you can get into an MX-5 soft-top for as little as $26,580, whereas the cheapest RF is the manual Club variant at $33,045. In the RF's defense, the roof has no discernible impact on performance and handling, yet offers extra refinement when closed, along with even sportier styling. With the roof up, the RF is more refined, but the Roadster has a little more storage on the rear parcel shelf. With the roof down, the Roadster is vastly more refined, and there's less weight carried high up. While the RF looks spectacular, we'd still recommend the soft-top, not just for better visibility and a little more practicality, but because it stays truest to the Miata formula.
Like the Miata, the Toyota 86 aims to offer RWD thrills in an affordable package. The 86 also uses a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with 205 hp, a solid 24 hp up on the Mazda's output. The MX-5 fights back with a lighter weight, though, so the two end up being similarly matched in a straight line. There's no drop-top 86, so the Mazda adds a bit more glamor to its sporty dynamics, but the Toyota does have a more accommodating 2+2 interior layout and trunk that make it the more versatile choice. If you aren't too tall and you can actually fit into the Mazda, you'll find that its cabin is more elegant than the Toyota's, with a nicer layout and a better infotainment system. Despite its downscale interior and lack of a convertible roof, we'd pick the 86 this time out as a purer RWD sports car, but it's a close call between these two Japanese rivals, and on any other day we might feel differently about it.
Check out some informative Mazda MX-5 Miata RF video reviews below.