The affordable sports car is dying, but driving a Miata made us forget that.
Another year closer to the end of combustion as we know it, and still, the Mazda Miata lives on. Unlike anything else in its simplicity and purity of purpose, the Miata is figuratively a dinosaur in the industry, and yet there exists no better palette cleanser for a world filled with crossovers and dull premium sedans that isolate you from the world entirely. To cleanse our palettes for 2022, we were sent the Miata in RF guise. For the uninitiated, that's 'Retractable Fastback,' which means a hard-top coupe with the roof closed and a targa-style convertible with it open.
But at circa $35,000, this is just about the most money you can spend on a Miata, and the little sports car has some much cheaper competition in the form of the Toyota GR86/Subaru BRZ twins that are now much newer, and crucially, much more powerful than ever before.
Does the Miata, especially in hardtop form, still tickle the senses in all the right ways? Lest we forget, this is a car that's been around for nearly a decade with only minimal updates. But at under $40,000, could this be the perfect sports car combination?
Let's get one thing straight. There is no better red than the Soul Red Crystal Metallic on this Miata. We love this paint so much that we'd pay Porsche $11k+ to Paint-to-Sample a 911 in this color. It is, quite simply, one of the best shades of paint ever made, and it works particularly well on the coupe styling of the RF.
On that note, let's talk roofs (not the Porsches). The RF trim means a powered targa-style hardtop in the Miata, and we think it looks killer. From the rear, the Miata has terrific presence, showing itself to the world as a car twice its price. From the side, it looks every bit like it was designed to be a coupe, but drop the roof, and it stands out in all the right ways with pronounced buttresses.
The proportions are perfect and make the small-by-industry-standards 17-inch wheels look just right.
Mazda knocked this design out of the park, even more so when you factor in its age. While we're big fans of the Toyobaru twins in their second generation, the Miata RF, especially dressed in Soul Red, is aesthetically unbeatable at this price point.
Performance is one category the Miata draws the most debate on. Some say it needs more power, while others say it's all about the chassis. Whichever camp you reside in, I defy you not to get out of the driver's seat with a massive grin on your face. The slow-car-fast principle resonates here more than almost any other car on the market.
The Miata's 2.0-liter naturally-aspirated four-cylinder produces 181 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque and is paired by default to a six-speed manual gearbox. You can get an automatic, but we'd caution against it as it's not in keeping with the Miata's character.
In comparison, rivals are vastly more robust. The GR86 now makes 228 hp and 184 lb-ft, which would seem like game over. But it's heavier than the Miata, at 2,811 to 2,452 lbs, and that 300-pound-plus difference is massive at this end of the market. It's for that reason that you're looking at around six seconds to 60 mph. The rag-top saves you a little more, but in Colorado at least, the solid roof is a boon and goes a long way to making the Miata RF a four-season car with just a change of tires.
Other important performance items of note are Bilstein shocks and a limited-slip differential, plus something new for 2022 called Kinematic Posture Control to help refine its handling dynamics even further. But at its core, it's remarkably simple, and a case of "what more do you need?"
That sentiment carries over to the Miata's driving dynamics well. However, one thing surprised us after driving the competition - something we haven't felt in a sports car in far too long-body roll. The Miata moves under cornering. Flat and level is great for race tracks, but when you're trying to have fun, having some movement to let you know where the car is at is imperative.
It lets you feel the limits of grip before they're exceeded and teaches you much about driving quickly as a result. This little bit of roll also means the Miata can ride more softly than the GR86, making it more bearable on harsh surfaces.
That's great for driving in the city, and so is the fuel economy. We nailed 32 mpg over our week with the car, including two trips to the canyons, where the revs never dipped below 3,000 rpm.
Those canyons are where the Miata is at its best; this is just as much because of the gearbox as anything else. It's a love letter to the manual, and one of the best on the market, only eclipsed by Porsches and Honda Civic Si/Type R.
The knob itself is beautifully weighted and shaped just a little small. It feels delicate and precise, much like the rest of the Miata. Sliding the shifter into its gate exemplifies that tired "bolt-action" stereotype. More accurately, it feels like what you'd imagine that first shift on a car you've lusted after for ages does - so indescribably perfect you'll find yourself moving your arm back and forth, looking for a better way to articulate what it feels like.
That shift makes wringing out the engine a pleasure. The little 2.0 moves effortlessly through the rev range because it has so little weight to move, and heel-toe downshifts let out a small bark of induction noise from the front end. The soundtrack isn't particularly tantalizing, but it's gloriously old-school, and we love it for that alone.
This parade of excellence continues on to the steering. Much like a good joke, there's no fat here, no padding. The wheel is perfectly sized, the weight is near as light as the car, and its precision can't be overstated. The Miata drives like that kid who was annoyingly gifted in class - it's always got an answer.
We would, however, appreciate some padding or softer materials near the knees. A small cabin is a fact of life in the Miata, but banging our knees around against the transmission tunnel isn't great when coming into a corner and trying to pick a line.
Obviously, the Miata isn't fast. It's brisk, as another staffer described it. Just quick enough that you think you won't lose that race at the lights. You'll be smiling too much by the time you hit second to care that you have. Rather infuriatingly, no one has come up with an answer to this car. Toyota gets close, but Mazda still wins out for a car that just makes you feel happy.
Mazda rebranded itself shortly before the launch of this ND Miata. It went more upmarket, which largely paid off for the Japanese marque.
We love the little flash of paint on the door uppers, which matches the exterior hue and makes the cabin feel more spacious. But it's a small place, and while Mazda's movable cupholders make the most of the tiny cabin, they're a little flimsy as a result and can easily get in the way of knees and elbows.
Six-footers will have a problem fitting, predictably. But the seats are comfy, and because of the cabin's size, you don't need massive bolsters. That means ingress and egress are easy, too.
The Miata has a tiny trunk, but it's actually not as small as you'd think. A person living by themselves will fit their groceries for the week without using the passenger seat. We even threw a flat-pack dresser into the passenger seat.
But it's not practical by any stretch, and while a GR86 will fit a mountain bike with a bit of Tetris-ing, or at least a set of wheels and tires when you hit the track, the Miata will have no such luck.
There is zero doubt in whether the Miata is a great sports car or not; Mazda has simply nailed the recipe as it always has. But against the newer company, we have to ask if the Miata still feels as special. The argument can be made that the Miata, and particularly the Miata RF, feels more special now than it did when it came out. The small but meaningful updates to its powertrain, and for 2022, its chassis have made it more Miata than ever. It's sharp, it's playful, it feels premium, and most importantly, it puts a smile on your face. It has flaws - like a lack of practicality, or a dated infotainment system - but it's one of the few cars that can make you forget those flaws by simply doing its job better than anything else out there.
As the auto market transitions to electrified solutions, the Miata's place in the world at large is drawn into question. There'll be a Miata for the next few years - we know a facelift is incoming - but after that, electrification will take hold, and the Miata may never be the same again.
For now, there's still some choice in the segment. Miata is by no means the answer. Pinch a few pennies and you're up into Civic Type R and GR Corolla territory- both amazing machines in their own right. If you need more room, the GR86 offers a similar experience to the Miata with some caveats and asterisks.
But the Miata is a mountain. It looms large in our consciousness and has become an automotive institution in much the same way as Wrangler, F-150, and S-Class have come to define their segments. A few days ago, a friend asked which car we've driven this year that we'd take home forever. The Civic Si, GR86, Nissan Z, and Bronco Raptor all loom large. But the tiny Miata? It may not be a forever car, largely due to the size that makes it so appealing as a sports car, but it's certainly a car we'd happily ride off into the sunset with, at least until the sun comes up again. And if it doesn't, well, Miata may just be the answer.