2017 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF: First Drive

It weighs 113 lbs more than the ragtop and costs a few thousand more, but the RF's hardtop doesn't ruin the Miata's soul.

Mazda. GIF by R&T.

Back in 2003, Mazda converted , but only in limited numbers, and only for the Japanese market. The roots of that car actually go back to an American Miata coupe concept from 1996, and aftermarket hardtops have provided an easy upgrade since the early days. But the RF was born in part because the NC-generation Power Retractable Hard Top actually outsold the soft-top for several years. Therefore, the ND was designed with the retractable fastback body in mind from day one.

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Simultaneously, Mazda is trying to go upmarket. So instead of directing its limited resources towards expanding production capacity (and thus cutting waiting times), all the money will be poured into the engineering and design departments to make future Mazdas look, feel and drive better than anything for the price.

So far, Mazda's naturally-aspirated engine strategy has worked out just fine, and with the new "Kodo" design language hitting the spot for more and more people, Mazda is aiming for the same levels of customer emotional attachment that most premium brands enjoy. The Miata RF, and its roughly $2600 price hike over the soft-top, fits right into that picture.

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Mazda says only a quarter of Miata soft-top buyers would consider going for the transforming coupe. It's no secret that the RF targets a completely new audience, perhaps an older generation looking for more comfort than the Colin Chapman fans, without giving up on the roadster experience.

Mazda clearly didn't try to beat Fiat in the horsepower game either—the Italian's 164 hp turbo Miata, known as the Abarth 124 Spider, will always be the torquier twin. If you want more power, Mazda recommends looking into the mirror, and repeating "balance, balance, balance" for as long as it takes to chase your demons away. That being said, I was hesitant to believe that the RF would drive as nicely as the soft-top. While 113 lbs. might be a surprisingly low weight penalty for a proper roof, 155 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque doesn't offer much of a reserve to cope with the added mass.

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The good news is that the RF drives just like a regular Miata. I didn't have the opportunity to drive them back to back, but if we look at the figures, it's pretty clear that the luxurious hardtop and the super-pure roadster are approximately as far apart in weight as a McLaren 570S is from a 570GT. A hair, if that.

To balance out the extra weight, Mazda engineers raised the pressure in the shocks. They also dialed the front stabilizer bar and rear springs to make the RF ride just like the convertible, so if you belong to those who believe the soft-top Miata has too much body roll for a sports car, note that the RF is probably not for you. Personally, I think the MX-5 rides just like an under-tired lightweight roadster should, and the same goes for the RF. And if that's not enough for you, two pairs of Bilsteins can always take care of the issue.

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More importantly, Mazda did some upgrades both to the Miata's dual-pinion electric steering and the brakes. Through the wheel, you get more assist when you begin to turn, which then gradually fades out as you apply more lock. And when it's a bit too much and you step on the middle pedal, the RF provides a more linear brake feel thanks to an optimized booster. It's a noticeable improvement right where you want it the most.

Of course, I tested the RF in Europe. Is there bad news for America? I guess the only downside is that the smaller, 1.5-liter engine, the one that's only available in Europe remains the better of the two Miata motors. Yes, the 2.0 has more power, more torque and an equally lightweight flywheel, but that can't make it as peppy as the Miata's base unit with its featherweight rotating mass. Think of it as the age-old argument between first-generation NA Miata owners, who can never agree whether the 1.6-liter or 1.8-liter engine is superior.

Of course European MX-5 fans know that the 2.0 has a Torsen-style limited slip differential to make up for itself, but that's a part you can order from Mazda and jam under the 1.5 as well. In fact, Mazda sells that specification on the Japanese market. Typical!

Good news for America? While I intend to keep my left foot just as fit as the right, those who did try out the automatic RF told me at the launch that it's nearly as much fun as the manual. What's for sure is that Mazda's torque converter has lockup control from second gear upwards and slip control from third gear, and it also lets you hold a gear and rev the living hell out of the car. It's reasonably quick as well, even if it adds a little time to the RF's 0-60 sprint. So, if you're missing a leg, there'll be no judgement from our side for choosing the automatic, although, tellingly, the automatic isn't available with the cloth-top Miata in Europe.

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But while you buy a soft-top Miata for its magnificent stick shift, cheerful character and relatively low tire costs, the RF's main selling points are comfort and the style of a coupe with the perks of a roadster.

Mazda had to go with the fastback design because they soon realized that the ND's body just couldn't swallow the entire roof and still offer some kind of trunk. The new Miata is smaller than the NC, and since the car has zero usable storage places in the cabin (apart from the floor itself), cutting from that already tiny trunk was not an option. After trying out the NC's retractable roof mechanism only to find it too big for the ND, Mazda experimented with, among other things, a seven-piece folding hardtop before coming up with the RF's compact unit you see here. It's mostly made of aluminum and also the fastest of its kind, opening and closing automatically in 13 seconds at speeds up to 6mph. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's the most naked mechanism you'll find on any modern car:

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The whole roof adds only 113 lbs. to the package.
Máté Petrány/Road&Track

The unpleasant side effect of the flying buttresses is that the RF generates quite a lot of drag and wind noise with the roof open. On the side, it also makes the rear look much wider than the soft-top's, despite both using the same sheet metal. The optical illusion is further enhanced by Mazda's chosen launch color for the RF, Machine Gray. It's the second of Mazda's signature hues, after the recently updated Soul Red, and they developed it parallel to the car's design process for maximum effect.

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What Mazda calls the Takuminuri paint technique is a three-coat finish with a uniform pattern of aluminum flakes in the ultra-thin reflective layer. Its job is to provide more contrast, and you can even go one step further by choosing the 2017 Launch Edition, with a piano black roof insert. That goes pretty nicely with the optional 17-inch BBS wheels.

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But lightness has its price, and with or without a hardtop, the MX-5 remains barely more than a sports car chassis with some shiny aluminum bolted to it for legal reasons. I love that fact, and I'd daily both versions without hesitation. Even if at 6' 2", I'm much taller than Miata program manager Nobuhiro Yamamoto (who has since retired, and now serves as Miata brand ambassador), so my knees often clunk against steering column. I'll also admit that I'd prefer to take more than one standard size carry on bag and a normal backpack on a longer road trip with my significant other in the passenger seat, but if you say , I'll accept. Like every Miata before it, the RF isn't for everyone, and that's kind of the point.

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Mazda's still got this.

This will also work in snow.
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