How to satisfy your craving for automotive thrills at a shockingly low cost.
It was the 20th century all over again, a sunny day in Northern California with Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration” streaming out the aftermarket subwoofer of a friend’s 1999 Mazda MX-5 Miata, sans top of course. Long hair was being combed by the wind but there was no care, just excitement because, full disclosure, Mazda paid air and hotel fare for me to venture out to sunny San Diego to drive the 2017 MX-5 RF, making my 99’ Miata airport shuttle all the more fitting.
The first signs of trouble in paradise had already begun. Prior to arrival, a wicked storm had fallen and exposed cracks and potholes after the water evaporated and took with it a good portion of San Diego’s tarmac. Later during our pre-drive presentation, a 3.6 magnitude earthquake rocked neighboring Salton City, but that didn’t distract for long because we were busy learning the recipe to Mazda’s secret sauce for success. Mazda, however, was not content with just explaining how each triviality added up to make the new MX-5 RF such a great toy, it wanted us to taste it firsthand. And so it sent us on a journey through the hills of Southern California with plenty of miles of city, highway, and mountain road available to experiment with.
A glance at the specs sheet gives the impression that the RF has hardly changed over the soft-top MX-5, and thanks to clever engineering, that’s mostly true. The same 2.0-liter SKYACTIV four-cylinder remains intact with all 155 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque, as does the six-speed manual and optional six-speed automatic that sends power to the rear wheels. Even the nine-speaker Bose sound system that embeds a set of noisemakers in the headrest remains. The only changes that are noticeable to the driver are a swap to a 4.6-inch full color display infotainment system (does the 7-inch display from the soft-top MX-5 add too much weight?) and the obvious addition of the retractable fastback roof.
Given how low the MX-5’s horsepower budget is, the main question to answer concerns weight gain. Mazda’s talented engineers toiled to keep that at a minimum, drilling holes in the tunnel member and using aluminum for the front portion of the retractable roof, with the reward being a net gain of only 113 pounds over the soft top for a grand total of 2,445 pounds (2,485 for the six-speed auto). If you find this off-putting, then maybe neither MX-5 is for you because the spunky little cars are defined by their ability to plaster a smile onto their drivers’ faces, not leave the track with a hot new lap record. While that thirst for fun previously meant making some compromises, the hard top on the MX-5 RF does away with most of those.
With the roof up at highway speeds, road noise is apparent but subdued enough to carry a conversation without raising your voice. Discussion between my driving partner and me was so fluid that we missed the exit and didn’t notice until we had traveled another 20 miles down the freeway. So now we had to hurry, and if there’s a gearhead fantasy that must be lived out a few instances per lifetime, it’s the one where you’re behind the wheel of a sports car and in need of some quick driving to meet a time crunch. The comically smooth clutch pedal and short throw shifter, all a result of Mazda’s human-centric design philosophy, takes zero time to get acquainted with and forgives even the most novice of clutch pedal users.
And so on we rowed from first through sixth, all the way into Southern California’s canyon roads where it became immediately apparent that Mazda had done its homework. Prior to diving into the canyon, we had to shed the top, a feat completed in 13 seconds as long as groundspeed does not exceed 6 mph. An engineer later told us the speed limit was in place because Mazda didn’t want lawsuits from customers with long hair that got stuck after being blown into the roof mechanism. Once the sun began tanning my face, the rift in my lips grew wider, unraveling a larger grin with each corner. The RF's skill as a purveyor of thrill can be attributed to the suspension, which has been reworked to account for the extra weight.
After the tune, Mazda benchmarked the RF to match the feel of the soft-top Miata and the result is that the RF still makes a driver feel as if they were a component bolted into the car, not just a sack of meat along for the ride. The electronic power steering isn’t the most communicative, but the information the steering shaft doesn't convey, the chassis does, enabling a telepathic relationship between car and driver. As a vehicle that places its entire identity on emotion, Mazda manipulated a few variables to ensure that the MX-5 feels fast even at low speeds. A downward-sloped hood keeps a driver’s eyes low so that the center of focus is on the road near the car, which appears to pass by more quickly than the tarmac closer to the horizon line.
Meanwhile there’s body roll present, not enough to put a damper on the fun, but just the amount required to make a 40 mph corner feel like 60 mph of G-force. After a long volley through California’s quaint retirement paradise, it was time to switch with my driving partner, which allowed me to take in the interior. During Mazda’s shift to become a more premium brand, it acknowledged the fact that sex sells and moved forward with an attractive interior to compliment the gorgeous styling the driver sees reflected when passing glass buildings. Controls are laid out in a logical manner and it’s easy to quickly find a comfortable driving position. It was nice to see a mechanical handbrake near the shifter, tempting us to tug in exchange for oversteer.
Our MX-5 RF was spec’d with the range-topping Grand Touring package that includes heated leather seats and an extensive suite of driver aids such as adaptive front lighting with high beam control, lane departure warning, rain-sensing wipers, and auto dimming mirrors. However the second best option, which is also the only other option on the RF since the Sport trim is only for the soft-top, is the Club trim. That still comes with blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert along with the standard back-up camera. Meanwhile the Club trim drops the base price of the manual MX-5 RF to $31,555 over the Grand Touring’s $32,620 base price (automatic versions cost $730 and $1,205 extra for the Club and Grand Touring respectively).
Package options are slim with the $130 Advanced Keyless Entry option being available for those who didn’t get it standard on automatic, Grand Touring, and Launch Edition models. Speaking of the latter, there will be only 1,000 Launch Edition units sold in the US, each receiving a hand-painted black top, an Auburn Nappa leather interior, Machine Grey Metallic paint, and a base price of $33,850 for the manual and $34,925 for the automatic. Our only complaint regarded the infotainment system, which feels slow and unintuitive compared to recent attempts from a handful of other automakers. While not a luxury car, the cumulative effect is that the MX-5 RF can double as both a midrange grand tourer and a weekend sports car.
Thanks to the light clutch and unobtrusive B pillars, the RF can also be pleasant city companion for those who travel light and have no friends. Enthusiasts should be aware that Mazda made the manual Club model the sports car of the group by adding a limited-slip differential and offering the performance-oriented Brembo/BBS package exclusively for the entry-level pick. We're positive anyone with a real taste for track work will opt for the soft-top MX-5. Despite having a ball behind the wheel one of those, we'd opt for the RF any day, if only because it looks better, does away with the soft-top's compromises, doesn't lose an ounce of fun (or trunk space), and makes you feel like a movie star when the top goes down in traffic. Zoom Zoom indeed.