Welcome to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff car review consisting of impressions, jottings, and marginalia regarding whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: the 2017 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF.
The Mazda Miata: What's not to love? Since this little puppy showed up in 1990, it has been the darling favorites of the automotive press, drinkers of white zinfandel, and people who appreciate classic Italian roadsters done the Japanese way—that is, packing all the fun of an Italian roadster, but with the engineering chops and long-term reliability of a Japanese car.
Hell, we've got a 1992 Miata downstairs in the DIY Lab right now with 165,000 miles, and all it needs a little bit of rust removal. We've got a second '92 Miata headed into The Drive's collection of shop vehicles, and that one we're going to turn into a race car. And of course you already know this, but MX-5s are by far the most-raced cars in the United States. The Miata roadster: among the most reliable sports cars on the road, one of the most ready-to-race platforms, and arguably the most fun for the money.
It's been that way goes for all these years. But when, the new MX-5 Miata came out in 2015 as the fourth generation of the venerable car, it marked an awesome refresh. The automotive world gushed over it at the time. Then our jaws positively dropped to the floor when we first got a look at the fastback MX-5 Miata RF, which trades in the regular model's hand-folding soft top for a power retracting targa roof, in the spring of 2016. I spent three weeks in a few different Miata RFs recently—both manual and automatic versions—and I got to know the newest MX-5 quite well...both the good and the bad.
- The fourth-generation Miata is, simply put, a great all-around little sports car. Both models look great, they sound great, and they drive great. Mazda did a particularly great job choosing the colors for this model, too—a fact chief auto critic Lawrence Ulrich and I were discussing after both spending time with the car.
- Both the manual transmission and the (gasp) automatic are great gearboxes. Seriously, you lose very little fun by opting for the automatic, and it's much better in traffic to boot.
- The price is hard to beat. It's impressive that you can get a car this fun and capable for around $30,000—especially when most sports cars costs far more (and are less fun).
- The Miata is a little lacking in features. Cooled ventilated seats would be much-appreciated, for example. Introducing seat heaters was awesome, because now people can started driving with the top down in March and keep driving around until the last leaves fall in November. But man, top-down in the summer sun on the open road, some ventilated seats would be heaven.
- The Mazda infotainment system has gotta go. It wasn't great when it showed up a few years ago, in this writer's opinion, and it hasn't improved much since. Hopefully to something upgradable and a little future-proofed, so that 15 years from now Miata owners aren't stuck with a 20-year-old user experience.
- The HVAC system is both annoyingly loud and underpowered, while the Bose stereo lacks depth. The standard headrest speakers are a must, but you'll have to dial up the stereo to send about 80 percent of the volume to the headrests to make it work acceptably.
- The cupholder situation is comically bad—more so when you imagine the designer showing off how "clever" the system is. There are two removable cupholders that either click into a notch in the back of the center armrest or into a slot right by the passenger's left knee. But the back position just leads to a lot of slamming your funny bone into the cupholder, while simultaneously burning your elbow with hot coffee...and staining your shirt in the process. Putting the cupholder in the front position really only works when there's no passenger there, because it encroaches into the passenger's space.
- The instrumentation design makes it hard to see how fast you're going. You have to really look at the speedometer to read it; a quick glance won't do.
But perhaps the RF's biggest issue is that gorgeous, electrically-retractable roof. It looks good open, it looks good closed, and it looks good in motion. When shut, it's closed tight and as sealed up as it gets. Here's the problem: The fastback's operation is slow. Annoyingly slow. Slow enough to close that you can't safely open or close the top at a stop light unless you hit the switch the split-second the light turns red. I had to drive around in a state of partial opening or closing at least three times because the roof's motors didn't operate fast enough.
Further, the fastback introduces a lot of rearward visibility problems. One of the joys of the Miatas over the years was that when the top was down, you were out there: You could look around, all the way around, and that was part of the appeal. The fastback blocks out a tremendous amount of the light and view in a way I found unappealing. So much so, in fact, that I think I'd prefer the standard top.
The Bottom Line:
There are a few other downsides to the MX-5 Miata RF. It could have more power, sure, and I don't particularly like the headlights, but that's a personal issue. And there's one last thing for the wish list: Adaptive cruise control, please. Just...please.
But otherwise, this fourth-generation Miata is admittedly awesome and impressive. The core product—that basic, affordable, fun-to-drive sports car—is as good as it has been for the last 25 years. The fact that this little roadster now offers a sexier folding hard top just means it has even broader appeal, especially to anyone who lacks the strength or dexterity to operate the manual soft roof.
Mazda, if you work out those little problems, a future Miata has my name on it.
By the Numbers:
Base Price: $31,555
Powertrain: 2.0-liter inline-four, 155 horsepower, 148 pound-feet of torque; six-speed manual or automatic; rear-wheel-drive
Fuel Economy: 26 city, 33 highway (manual); 26 city, 35 highway (automatic)
0-60 mph acceleration: 6.1 seconds (Car and Driver testing)
Car looks best: From the side with the roof up