Looking for muscle? Read no further. Looking for fun? Mazda’s sporty MX-5 RF is a fun-sized 2-seater.
The MX-5, known in the U.S. market as the Miata, has added muscle to be sure. But easy driving and economical fun is what has set it apart from everything else on the open road.
A couple years back the soft-top MX-5 was revamped and an RF (Retractable Fastback) model added. It looks slicker and more exciting than the soft-top, and yet, it’s still affordable and a blast to drive. It was odd for me to have one to test in winter (yes, we had snow), but that didn’t spoil the drive.
First, it’s rear drive, so that doesn’t help much in snow. But let’s face it, until front-drive cars became the norm 30 years ago, we all drove rear-drive behemoths in winter. I remember doing a 360-turn in a rear-drive Camaro about 30 years ago taking the kids to gymnastics. They laughed, I nearly swallowed my tongue.
I had no such difficulties with the Mazda. It’s feathery light at 2,453 lbs. but had sufficient grip with its R17 tires that filled up its flared wheel wells. Yes, I could get the tail wagging if I tromped the gas pedal on slick streets. But easing onto it and then having a bit more fun in second, third and fourth gear allowed the roadster to keep its footing.
But with the retractable hardtop, the car is quieter and warmer in winter. And for 2019 Mazda’s engineers somehow managed to find an additional 26 horsepower in the trusty SkyActiv-G 2.0-liter I4. It now boasts 181 horses and a 151 torque rating.
That SkyActiv technology also coaxes excellent fuel economy from the powerplant. I got 29.5 miles per gallon in cold snowy weather, while the EPA rates this at 26 mpg city and 34 mpg highway. In warmer weather I’ve managed 32 mpg with its predecessor.
You’d expect good gas mileage from a lightweight two-seater though, but now it has some zip. Always easy to have fun with its slick, short-shifting 6-speed manual transmission, the new MX-5 now jumps up to highway speeds with more ease. Redline has advanced 300 rpm to 7,500 rpm and the car simply feels more capable, not stretching so much to hit 65 or 70 mph.
Handling remains quick and precise, the Mazda easy to toss into tight turns and power out the other side, now with more oomph. The car feels perfectly balanced.
Ride is still that of a small car, which means a bit jiggly. But with every iteration the Miata seems a bit better at handling crummy Midwest roads. West Coast and Southern drivers with their smooth blacktop would enjoy a better ride.
Plus the test car came with the GT-S package, which is only available on MX-5s with a manual transmission. It adds a limited slip differential, sport-tuned Bilstein shocks and front shock tower brace to make the RF racier. That likely doesn’t help ride, but improves handling. A black retractable hardtop is part of the $750 upgrade too.
Speaking of which, there is no easier top to drop in the market. Press a toggle on the dash’s center stack and in just a few seconds the Miata’s top powers down. That’s not to say a soft-top MX-5’s canvass top is hard to lower. It can be flipped back with one arm, although I’ve always found I had to get out of the car to latch it in place.
Inside, the metallic gray test car featured auburn Nappa leather seats, that color upgrade being part of a $600 package. The dash remains black over the auburn (I’d say chocolate brown) leather trim that extends into the door panels. Tops of those panels are a silvery gray plastic to match the car’s exterior and there’s a carbon-fiber look trim on the driver’s door armrest and control panel. The leather steering wheel and ball shifter feature red stitching.
This year a manual tilt/telescope steering wheel is standard in all MX-5s, a help to taller drivers in particular. I think the steering wheel needs to be a racy D-shaped version too.
Mazda’s dash is well laid out with easy climate controls on the stack below the infotainment screen. While this GT has an automatic climate system I found it best to manually crank up the fan and aim the air to defrost the front window, which clouded quickly otherwise.
That info screen is easy to see and over time you learn how to adjust channels, etc. The Grand Touring model also includes a navigation system. Yet there’s still a knob on the console to adjust the infotainment system and it remains moderately confusing, not easy to use as one drives. Yet isn’t driving ease and pleasure the point of a Mazda MX-5?
The GT features Recaro seats, which means they are well contoured and comfortable, plus they have three levels of heating. A knob on the driver’s seat’s side allows you to lift the angle of the seat’s front edge too. Yet because the car is so low and the cockpit snug, crawling in and out can be a bit of an effort, especially for aging drivers, whoever they are! I found flipping the tilt wheel up and locking it before exiting the roadster was a big help.
There are plenty of cruise and info controls on the steering wheel hub, all easy to figure out and use. But sadly there are still just tiny stationary sun visors overhead. Space is limited, obviously, but these could use some reworking.
This compact, tight cockpit also has no glove box and just one cup holder that a driver could reach, extending from the passenger’s side of the console. There’s another behind the driver’s elbow in the console, but best for a passenger to use that one. The tiny trunk also will hold just a couple small soft-sided overnight bags, so unlikely you’d use this car for more than a short weekend trip.
The GT model does come with quite a bit more than the Club model of the RF, everything from that nav system to Smart City brake assist, an automatic climate control system, leather seats and lane departure warning and sign recognition system. There’s also automatic adaptive headlights with an automatic high beam and automatic day/night mirror, heated outside mirrors (a Wisconsin must), rain-sensing wipers and fancier dark silver aluminum alloy wheels.
Then there’s the pricing, just $34,230, including delivery, for the GT RF model. A base Club RF starts at $33,240, so really the GT makes more economic sense considering all those extras that come in GT trim. The test car, with its short list of options hit $36,005, still below the average new car price these days.
For those living in a less inclement climate and who don’t mind a bit more wind noise, the soft-top original Miata arrangement is even more economical. It comes in three trim levels, starting at just beyond $26,500. So snagging one of those remains the most fiscally sound way of ensuring driving fun in what remains the cutest two-seater on the market.
Hits: Cutest 2-seater on the market, great handling, quick acceleration, superb 6-speed manual gearbox, good gas mileage, power hardtop. Easy climate controls, heated well-contoured seats, blind-spot warning & other safety devices.
Misses: Moderately confusing infotainment controls, small sun visors, rear-drive not perfect for snow, small trunk, and ingress and egress a bit tight and low.
Made in: Hiroshima, Japan
Engine: SkyActiv-G 2.0-liter I4, 181 horsepower
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Weight: 2,453 lbs.
Length: 154.1 in.
Wheelbase: 90.9 in.
Cargo: 4.6 cu. ft.
MPG: 29.5 (tested)
Base Price: $34,230 (includes delivery)
Machine gray & auburn Nappa leather seats, $600
GT-S package (limited slip differential front shot tower brace, black roof, sport-tuned suspension w/Bilstein shocks), $750
Interior package (alloy pedals, red engine oil cap, stainless door sill trim plates), $425
Test vehicle: $36,005
Sources: Mazda, www.kbb.com
Photos: Mark Savage