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.
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.
See trim levels and configurations:
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.
NHTSA safety ratings are not available at this time.
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.
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.
The most popular competitors of 2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF: