by Ian Wright
The Mazda Miata isn't the world's best selling convertible sports car by accident, and the fourth generation sticks to the recipe that keeps it successful: Two seats, a small footprint, rear-wheel drive, a naturally aspirated engine that delivers just the right amount of power, and a 50/50 balance of its minimal overall weight. As a result, the MX-5 is often held up as the epitome of a driver's car. But, for the most part, it's always been missing a hardtop coupe variant, which is where the MX-5 RF steps into the picture with a retractable hard-top rather than a cloth soft-top. The RF is to the regular roadster as a Porsche 911 Targa is to the 911 Cabriolet.
They're two sides of the same coin, with the RF adding a dose of refinement and noise insulation to an already exceptional package. Don't think the MX-5 Miata isn't a sophisticated car, though. In its latest incarnation, Mazda's 2.0-liter Skyactiv engine has been tweaked and given lighter internals and now produces 181 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque, which aren't big numbers. However, the MX-5 should never be defined by numbers. It's about the driving experience, and that's why we're revisiting the largely unchanged 2021 model to see how it holds up after six years on the market, especially when rivals like the Subaru BRZ and Toyota 86 are about to launch all-new versions.
There are no significant changes for the 2021 MY. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are now standard, while Apple CarPlay is available in wireless form, and there's a new white Nappa leather option. The 100th Anniversary model has also been dropped from the line-up in the US.
See trim levels and configurations:
The first thing you notice is just how tiny the Mazda MX-5 is. In an average parking lot, it looks like a comedy car. This is by no means a criticism, as the upside of its tiny footprint is a low curb weight. The RF variant (Retractable Fastback) we review here adds another dimension to the styling in the form of a power-retracting Targa-like tin roof, giving many buyers the hardtop Mazda Miata they've always wanted. With the roof up, it's a sporty coupe. Roof down, it's an old-school Miata convertible but with flying buttresses for added flair. The downside is that the roof can only be operated at 6 mph, and you never quite realize how slow that is until you think you can put the roof up in slow-moving traffic and the Miata RF starts screaming at you.
LED headlights, taillights, and daytime running lights are standard across all RF models, and both models come as standard with 17-inch alloy wheels. The Grand Touring adds automatic headlights and an adaptive front lighting system for added convenience, while the Club is a more sporty variant with a black front air dam and black rear lip spoiler.
The Miata RF's dimensions tell you everything you need to know about the ethos behind this car. Its overall length is 154.1 inches, while the wheelbase is 90.9 inches. That means minimal overhangs, resulting in most of the weight sitting neatly within the wheelbase. It's 68.3 inches wide, with a 58.9-inch track at the front and a 59.2-inch track at the rear. At less than 50 inches tall, the Miata is a prime example of keeping things tiny to save as much weight as possible. The results speak for themselves when you look at the curb weight figures. A manual weighs as little as 2,452 pounds, while the auto weighs in at 2,496 lbs. In case you were wondering, the RF weighs around 110 lbs more than the traditional soft-top Miata.
Mazda's available color palette is disappointingly small, but the available colors are excellent. No-cost options on the Club model include Jet Black Mica, Polymetal Gray Metallic, and Arctic White. Machine Gray Metallic costs an additional $495 while Soul Red Crystal Metallic is a $595 option and well worth the money. Like Scarlet Johansson, the Miata was born to wear red.
The Grand Touring model is also available in Snowflake White Pearl and Deep Crystal Blue, the former at an extra cost of $395. Arctic White is not available on this model.
Decades from now, we'll look back and realize that we were wrong about performance. Not that mundane EVs can sprint from 0 to 60 mph in four-or-fewer seconds, but that acceleration figures didn't really matter at all, contrary to what most muscle cars from the USA might try to prove.
What matters is the thrill of driving and speed doesn't play a significant role. The Miata is proof of this theory. When you think about it, automotive engineers already figured out how to provide the ultimate thrill decades ago. Think back to the most iconic driving machines ever. Examples include the original Mini, Datsun 240Z, Lotus Elise, McLaren F1, Ferrari F40, the Porsche 911, the original Golf GTI, and Lancia Stratos. What do they all have in common? The answer is low weight.
Weight is a car's main enemy. It impacts everything; performance, handling, and fuel efficiency. By sticking to the tried and trusted recipe of an engine up front, a driver in the middle, and right-wheel drive (also known as rear-wheel drive), Mazda built another driving icon. And it comes standard with a manual, which we maintain is an irreplaceable form of self-expression.
Yes, it only has 181 horsepower, and a Golf GTI will eat it for breakfast. But do we care? Not even slightly.
There's another big argument to be made regarding speed. With 300 hp being the average these days, the speed at which cars become fun is relatively high. A Miata is fun at all speeds - not just its top speed - and you can push it hard without breaking the law. It'll still break the law though, and 0 to 60 in around six seconds is still nothing to scoff at.
The Miata uses a naturally-aspirated 2.0-liter four-pot engine that delivers 181 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque. These figures don't matter. The power to weight ratio matters more, and the standard manual Miata has 0.074 hp for every pound it has to move around. That's roughly hot hatch territory. But, as we said earlier, it doesn't matter. Sure, a turbocharger would have made it faster, but then the joys of a naturally-aspirated engine would have been lost. The Miata's 2.0-liter four-pot is peaky but is perfect in this application. Maximum power is only delivered at 7,000 rpm, which means you constantly have to chase the redline for maximum thrills. It's addictive, but only in six-speed manual configuration. The automatic gearbox is clunky and has no place in a car like this. We feel so strongly about the Miata's automatic transmission that we'd physically go and protest its existence at a dealership. Some of the CarBuzz staff may even have done so already.
The current Miata is the lightest and most compact version so far. Add in a stiffer chassis, near-perfect weight distribution, and the wheelbase to width ratio that's supercar-like, and you have the perfect recipe for handling nirvana. Unfortunately, the RF adds 110 lbs to the worst possible place, raising the center of gravity. It is noticeable if you've driven the standard MX-5, but it's not a huge handicap if you want the benefit of a hardtop Miata.
Driving the Miata on the limit requires some know-how. Luckily, because the engine isn't that powerful, you can build up to it, learning the intricacies of Miata mobbing. If you jump on the brakes too early, the nose dips down, and the rear goes light. Get on the power too early, and it understeers. You need to find a rhythm with this car. It's not a get-in-and-go kind of performance car, as the margin for error is perhaps too slim. In the Miata, trust is earned.
The steering is sublimely weighted and provides loads of feedback. The standard brakes can take some punishment, but not a lot. They fade disappointingly quickly for a sports car like the Miata. Mazda offers a Brembo brake package to get around this, but we reckon it's just another reason to go for the manual. When the brakes start to fade, you can always rely on engine braking.
The upside of having a small engine is class-leading gas mileage. Few cars can match the Mazda's EPA-estimated figures of 26/34/29 mpg city/highway/combined with a manual gearbox. The automatic transmission is more efficient, with a rating of 26/35/30 mpg.
Mazda only gave the Miata a tiny 11.9-gallon gas tank, but given the impressive combined fuel consumption figures, it should be able to do 357 miles between refills. In our week of use, the MX-5 RF sipped fuel when cruising and gave us 26 mpg despite a lot of mountain cruising and spirited back road driving.
Mazda interiors are well-built and pleasing to the eye. The Miata's layout is minimalism at its best, with only three rotary dials and an iPad-like screen bolted to the top of the dash. Mazda doesn't want to distract from the driving experience. The instrument cluster is analog, and a large tachometer sits proudly in the middle. Sound insulation with the hardtop is much better than it is in the soft-top, but there are other compromises here such as less practicality, something we'll get to in a moment. The only real dealbreaker is the lack of space. Six-footers will struggle to get comfortable, and if you're any taller than that, you'll be staring directly at the edge of the windscreen. It's not much different in the soft-top, but it is more noticeable here as the cabin is more cramped overall.
You get two comfortable, low-slung, supportive seats in an MX-5 RF and, despite a lack of space, a well-judged amount of elbow space to be just enough. For most, the MX-5 fits like a glove, but tall people may want to test that. Our test drive pilot, in this case, is six-foot-one and was one haircut away from rubbing on the roof, and for those taller people, body proportions will make the difference between seating perfection and their forehead being part of the aerodynamics with the roof down. Once seated, the passenger is snug, and the driver is treated to perfectly placed pedals and an old-school feeling with a clear view of the road ahead. With the roof up, rear visibility is limited, but you don't buy an MX-5 to drive with the roof up the majority of the time. However the buttresses of the RF mean that even with the roof lowered, visibility still isn't great, as all it really does is remove the roof panel over your head.
Black cloth with light gray stitching is the only no-cost option on the base Club model. There is one other seating option available, however. Adding the Brembo/BBS Recaro Package adds Brembo brake calipers, BBS alloy wheels, and heated black Recaro sport seats with gray accents. The Grand Touring spec comes standard with black leather, while the all-new White Nappa leather option retails for $300. The leather trim is also used on the lower portion of the dashboard, while faux aluminum trim is used on the air vents and shifter surround. There are some cheap-feeling buttons, and the upper door trim is painted in the same color as the exterior. We would criticize Mazda for this, but we understand the motivation behind it. Saving weight on an already small car is no easy task, and the payoff is more than worth it.
Being small has its downsides. With the interior being cramped, there are no realistic storage spaces. The storage bin under the armrest isn't big enough to house a phone, and the removable cupholders only get in the way, regardless of whether they're placed in the passenger leg area or behind the center armrest - you can configure the flimsy clip-in options. There's a lockable storage bin behind the seats, but it's tricky to get to. Worse, still, in a soft-top, you can use the parcel shelf as storage when the roof is closed, but here, no such option exists, making the RF even less practical than the Roadster.
The trunk provides 4.5 cubic feet of space. Thankfully, the Miata is only a two-seater, as two soft bags is the most you can get in there. A weekend away is going to require some serious planning and packing know-how.
When a low curb weight is the ultimate goal, it's easy to sacrifice comfort and convenience features. Thankfully, Mazda was smart enough to realize that some might want to use the Miata daily. The RF Club gets manual air conditioning, push-button start, cruise control, a tilt-and-telescoping steering column, and heated seats with three settings. The Grand Touring trim adds automatic headlights, rain-sensing wipers, an auto-dimming driver's side mirror, automatic climate control, and an auto-dimming internal mirror. The MX-5 RF is still a sports car with an eye on safety, though, with standard driver assistance systems including blind-spot monitoring, automatic city braking, a rearview camera, lane departure warning, and, on the Grand Touring, traffic sign recognition.
Apple Carplay and Android Auto are finally included in the MX-5's standard features list. In the MX-5 RF's Club trim, they appear embedded in a seven-inch touchscreen display running Mazda's infotainment system and connected to a 9-speaker Bose audio system that includes a driver's side headrest speaker. Other features include Bluetooth streaming connectivity, HD Radio, Sirius XM capability, and two USB audio connections. Stepping into Grand Touring trim adds wireless Apple CarPlay, Sirius Travel and Traffic Link, and Mazda's navigation system.
The Mazda Miata hasn't been a part of the J.D. Power Ownership Survey since 2019, and in that year is scored a rather disappointing 73 out of a possible 100 points. But the lack of recalls relative to other brands is pleasing, and while early model years had a few, 2020 and 2021 models are recall-free. Each MX-5 Miata RF is sold with a three-year/36,000-mile basic warranty and a five-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty.
Neither the NHTSA nor the IIHS has a review of the Mazda Miata RF, which means there are no safety ratings available. The standard safety equipment should give prospective customers peace of mind, however.
Both models get four airbags, traction and stability control, ABS brakes, a rearview camera, and a tire pressure monitoring system. Standard driver assistance features include Smart City Brake Support, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and lane departure warning. Grand Touring models gain rain-sensing wipers, traffic sign recognition, and automatic headlights.
There's a reason the MX-5 has no real competitors in its class. It's an enthusiast's car at any level, whether it's a weekend driver, an everyday driver, or taken to the track for some more serious fun. You can spend much more on a roadster and even more on one with a retractable hard-top. You may get a faster car in a straight line, a swankier and more roomy interior, and something that impresses the neighbors, but the MX-5 delivers a pure driving experience with reliability and cost-efficiency that can't be matched. Now the MX-5 is well into its lifecycle, small issues have been ironed out, and the addition of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto completes the car for us.
But what of the RF? Well, unless you live in an area that needs the extra insulation, the RF is tough to sell. It looks damn good, but there's less practicality here, and the weight is in the wrong place. For us, the MX-5 Miata is about purity, and the RF isn't the purest distillation of the MX-5 ethos there is. Still, even an RF is better than no MX-5 at all.
The price of the Mazda MX-5 Miata RF Club starts at $33,045, while the top-spec Grand Touring retails for an MSRP of $34,525. These prices exclude Mazda's destination charge of $995. A six-speed manual transmission is standard, but adding an automatic transmission to the Club costs $600 and $525 for the Grand Touring.
The MX-5 Miata RF is available in two configurations: Club and Grand Touring. Both use the same naturally-aspirated 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed manual transmission. An automatic is also available, but only worth investigating for those with mobility problems with their left leg, Power is sent to the rear wheels only.
Both models get cruise control, keyless entry with push-button start, a tilt-and-telescoping steering column, leather-wrapped steering wheel/shifter/parking brake, and a seven-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, two USB ports, and a nine-speaker Bose sound system.
Grand Touring specification includes navigation, SiriusXM traffic, traffic sign recognition, leather upholstery, an auto-dimming rearview mirror with HomeLink, rain-sensing wipers, and automatic headlights with high-beam control.
Standard driver assistance features on both models include Smart City Brake Support, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and lane departure warning.
The Brembo/BBS Recaro Package ($4,670) adds Brembo front brakes with red calipers, 17-inch BBS alloy wheels, an aero kit in Brilliant Black, and heated Black Recaro sports seats with gray accents. This package is available for both models.
Mazda also offers an Appearance Package for both models, and in both cases, it adds some more aggression to the exterior. The Club's package costs $800, while the Grand Touring's costs $1,550.
You can buy the base model MX-5 with a soft-top and drive away happy if that's the only model that fits your budget. After all, you're buying the MX-5 to drive, and the chassis is the same across the board. If you're looking at the RF model, then you're looking for more refinement, and both the Club and Grand Touring provide exactly that. If you're planning on using your MX-5 for daily driving or long road trips, you might as well spring for the Grand Touring and feature benefits such as the leather upholstery, navigation traffic sign recognition, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, and automatic headlights with high-beam control.
If you're planning to drive mostly for fun and take advantage of the MX-5 as a pure driving machine, the Club trim ticks all of the boxes. We're not convinced about the appearance packages, but if you're going to drive the MX-5 RF hard, then the Brembo/BBS Recaro Package makes sense for the brakes alone. However, if you do want just the brakes to mitigate fade issues when driven long and hard, then the aftermarket has a plethora of options available for much, much, less than $4,670.
The RF MX-5 was introduced to offer a more refined daily experience. The hardtop roof provides better insulation against noise, and it has minimal impact on the dynamics. Better yet, you don't have to manually raise and lower it. Still, if refinement is high on your list, virtually any coupe out there will do a better job. The MX-5 has always been about the roof-down roadster experience, and in our opinion, the soft-top still does a better job, not least of all because the soft-top lowers the weight and improves the practicality.
A base Miata with a soft top, which you want, starts at $26,830. You only get the basics in terms of comfort and infotainment, but if you're in the market for an MX-5, it's the driving experience that matters. The entry-level soft top represents a massive $6,215 saving over the base price of the RF, but the latter comes in a higher standard spec. On a like-for-like basis, the RF is still nearly $3,000 more. We can't quite justify this, so we'd rather opt for the soft-top and enjoy the Miata the way it was meant to be enjoyed. But we wouldn't fault you for picking the RF.
While, historically, the Miata RF would've been a great comparison with the Toyota 86 due to its hardtop nature, in 2021, there isn't an 86. That's because the all-new 2022 GR 86 has just been unveiled, and things don't look good for the Mazda. That's because the 2022 GR 86 has a larger, 2.4-liter boxer engine, now generating 228 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque, with a better torque curve, too, which should make it counter its heftier weight to provide ample performance to rival the Miata RF. But it's vastly more practical, retaining a 2+2 seating arrangement and boasting a relatively spacious trunk. Compared to that, the Miata RF is completely impractical. However, for most Miata buyers, the ability to go topless is what will always matter, and the fact that the 86 is a fixed-roof coupe means that it'll never even cross their minds.
We'll have to wait and see how the new 86 drives, but the competition may now be closer than ever between these two rivals. And the fact that there may not be a new Miata for a few years means Mazda could be in for a tough time.
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