We spent a week with the RF to see how it compares to the soft top MX-5.
The excitement was palpable when Mazda dropped off a 2017 MX-5 Miata RF. As the owner of a 2006 NC MX-5, driving the new hardtop RF was going to be a very interesting experience. That was until I stepped in and saw that something was missing; a clutch pedal. Our 2017 MX-5 RF Grand Touring was fitted with the six speed automatic transmission. We could have spent all week weeping over the lack of a manual transmission, but we decided to hop in the RF and see if it remains the ideal sports car. Automatic and all.
The first thing that we noticed is that the current ND generation MX-5 is by far the most livable generation yet. Our car was the Grand Touring, which came with heated leather seats, Bose audio with headrest speakers, navigation, blind-spot monitoring, lane departure warning and push button start with passive keyless entry. It felt a bit strange to be driving a Miata with all of these bells and whistles. It's still possible to order a bare bones MX-5 Sport, but the hardtop RF is only available in the sportier Club trim or the luxurious Grand Touring trim. We prefer the Club trim with its available BBS wheel and Brembo brake package for $3,400 and standard Bilstein shocks and limited-slip differential on manual models.
No matter which MX-5 you choose, you will be getting a car that is far more practical than any generation before it. The new SkyActive engine averaged around 33 mpg in the city and 39 mpg on the highway during our testing. The engine loves to rev, but doesn't constantly drone on the highway as it does in the old NC. The RF adds more refinement for highway cruising, but the passengers will still have to raise their voice slightly to have a conversation. The hardtop on the RF helps wind noise, but that's not reason enough to select it over the soft top MX-5, which now has a much thicker roof in the ND generation. The hardtop does help insulate the cabin, so hot days are much more bearable in the RF.
The second thing that we noticed very quickly about the RF, is how much people notice this car. The Soul Red paint may have had something to do with it, but there is something about the MX-5 RF in particular that makes people come up and ask questions. We think that the RF is the most macho Miata ever built, and many people mistake it for something more expensive like a Porsche or BMW. The retractable fastback makes the MX-5 look far more expensive than the $35,385 price tag of our fully optioned Grand Touring model. The MX-5 has always been an attractive car, but the RF is the first model that can sit next to premium European sports cars without looking out of place.
We had no fewer than a dozen people ask us about the RF during our week with the car. People wanted to know how the roof worked, how fast it was, and the obligatory "can we trade?" comment. We think that the combination of the roof design and the front haunches make the RF feel a bit like a mini-Corvette. This may anger Corvette enthusiasts, but sitting behind the wheel of the ND does invoke feelings of GM's iconic sports car. The Miata is easy to place through corners thanks to its haunches on either side of the hood, which is a typical trait of Corvettes over the years.
Our third realization is an important one that won't go down well with enthusiasts. The automatic transmission does not ruin the fun of the MX-5. We would never recommend this transmission over the wonderful six-speed manual, but after driving the car for the week we must admit that the fun is still there. Shifts are moderately quick, but we feel that it's time for Mazda to introduce a dual-clutch for the MX-5. We found that taking control of the transmission with the steering-wheel mounted paddles helped the experience a little, but the MX-5 is the type of car where you really want to be in full control at all times. When we pulled the paddles, the RPMs dropped and we couldn't take advantage of the car's modest power.
The 2.0-liter SkyActiv four-cylinder engine only produces 155 hp, which means that the driver can really wring it out to its full potential. We noticed that controlling the transmission with the shift-points on the gate felt closer to a real manual experience. The ND's manual mode has a very tight shift-zone that feels like a short-shift kit on a manual car. Shifting the car this way felt much more natural than pulling the paddles. Pulling the shifter down engaged an upshift, and pushing it forward engaged a downshift. This gave us a better sensation of controlling the car and made the experience more enjoyable. Having an automatic RF is like swimming in a tuxedo, it's still fun to be in the water, but it isn't quite as enjoyable.
One of our biggest realizations about the MX-5 RF is that Mazda still knows how to do fun better than any other company. The ND MX-5 is the first to feature electric power steering instead of hydraulic. We could nitpick and say that the steering in the NC had a bit more feel and a heavier weight, but the benefits of the electric steering outweigh these tiny complaints. The MX-5 no longer feels like a car that you have to grip too tightly. The NC's hydraulic steering is very communicative, but can sometimes be annoying when it rains or at high speeds. The RF feels like a much more stable car in bad weather and on the highway without sacrificing steering feel. This is one of the best electric steering racks in the business.
It isn't just the RF's steering that proves how fun this car is. The SkyActiv engine is more efficient than any previous generation and is easily the best engine ever put into an MX-5. We managed to beat the EPA's 27 mpg city 36 mpg highway estimates in our testing. This is also the best sounding engine to ever be under the hood of a stock Miata. The MX-5 has always been special despite its engine, but the ND is special because of its engine. The SkyActiv powerplant really sings when you get on the throttle. The MX-5 finally has an engine that sounds throaty instead of just creating a dull, uncharacteristic four-cylinder hum.
Finally, we discovered that though the RF is a fantastic car, we don't prefer it over the standard MX-5. We admire everything about the RF, the way it looks, the way the roof operates and the comfort that it adds. For our tastes, we just don't think that the RF offers enough refinement over the standard MX-5. The MX-5 has always been about simplicity, and the RF goes in an entirely different direction. We love being able to drop the top in an instant on the standard MX-5. The RF can deploy and retract its roof at up to six mph, but it is still more of a hassle than the manually operated soft top. We can live with the 120 pounds of added weight, but we'd rather save the $3,200 that the RF trim adds.
We think that the RF is meant for a different type of driver than the regular MX-5. The RF only lets in a bit of sun compared to the standard car, but still has plenty of wind buffeting at high speeds thanks to a rear window that drops out when the roof is off. The RF would be perfect for very hot or cold climates where the driver doesn't plan on putting the top down as often. For those who enjoy the sun, the soft top is the better option. By the time our MX-5 was fully optioned, it was around the same price as a lot of used sports cars that offer more power. That all said, the MX-5 is certainly worth a look with its impressive technology and unparalleled driving experience.
The 2017 MX-5 RF Grand Touring is an intriguing choice for anyone who wants sports car feel without sacrificing the creature comforts of a normal car. No MX-5 before it has been as suited to a daily driver, while still retaining Mazda's motto of Jinba Ittai, the "symbiotic relationship developed over time by a horse and rider." Even with an automatic transmission, the MX-5 RF is still a delight, but if you fancy yourself a true enthusiast, get the Club trim with a manual transmission and thank us later. Photos courtesy of @magarifilma on Instagram.