2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF Club Review: A Pinch More Power Only Makes the Sauce Sweeter
Mazda's fourth-generation MX-5 picks up a new engine, among other updates—but it's the MX-5 RF's folding hard top that still dominates the conversation.
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 2019 Mazda MX-5 RF Club.
The 2019 Mazda MX-5 RF Club, By the Numbers:
· Base Price (Price as Tested): $33,240 ($38,335)
· Powertrain: 2.0-liter inline-four, 181 horsepower, 151 pound-feet; six-speed-manual or six-speed automatic; rear-wheel-drive
· EPA Fuel Economy: 26 city / 34 highway
· 0-60 MPH: The lighter droptop does it in 5.7 seconds, according to Car and Driver, so call it an even six
· Curb weight: 2,453 pounds
· Quick Take: Mazda's fourth-generation Miata enters its fourth model year of production better than ever, thanks largely to a new, more powerful engine beneath its snub-nosed hood.
One Big Question: Does adding a fancy flipping top add anything to #MiataLife?
There was never anything wrong with the ND-generation Mazda MX-5 Miata. Lightweight, compact, and as well-balanced as a Balanchine-trained katana, the ND MX-5 exists solely to bring driving bliss to the lucky duck behind the wheel. Sure, it has its quirks, its foibles, its peccadilloes, but overall, it—like its trio of predecessors—stands as one of the best expressions of joie de conduire you can buy today. Speed, as editor Mike Guy once put it, is the only modern thrill, and there are few more accessible ways to grab it in all its glory than this cheap, simple Japanese roadster.
Apparently, though, that's not enough for some people. In 2016, Mazda rolled out a new version with a more substantial top: the MX-5 RF, an abbreviation that technically stands for "retractable fastback" but might as well just mean "roof." Much like the third-generation Miata with the optional power retractable hard top, the RF boasts a solid, multi-piece folding lid—but unlike that previous car, the RF is more targa than totally topless two-seater. The system works not too dissimilarly from the Porsche 911 Targa's roof; hold down a switch, and in a matter of seconds, the rear deck lid, B-pillars, and roll bar rise up and back as one so the hard panel above the occupant's head can slide into a slot behind the seats. Mazda being Mazda, the system doesn't actually add much in the way of weight; the carmaker claims it tacks on just 113 pounds to the car's dainty body. But that's still one size-zero supermodel more than the soft top model that weighs in around 2,300 pounds—or, to look at it another way, a five-percent increase in mass.
More importantly, it's also an enormous complication to a car that has often seemed to epitomize Thoreau's motto of "simplify, simplify"—an orchestra of electric motors and hydraulic struts designed to move weighty pieces of metal and plastic around on command, over and over again, for years to come. The soft top's operation, on the other hand, uses simpler, more reliable tech: the human arm. Throw a clasp on the headliner and give it a shove from either seat, and it flops away.
2019 Mazda MX-5 RF Club: The Pros
- It’s a Miata, so of course, it's a blast to drive. There's a reason automotive journalists love this car so much; when you're in and out of different vehicles on a frequent basis, a drive in an MX-5 serves as something of an inter-course sorbet, a palette cleaner that helps you reset. The steering is delightfully sharp, quick as lightning; the suspension makes the car buttoned down and nimble without delivering back-cracking stiffness over rough pavement; all three pedals are perfectly weighted and easy to
- One way the RF clearly has the soft-top MX-5 beat: aesthetics. Roof up or down, the flowing buttresses mounted astern of the cabin give the car an added visual punch, but the effect works best with the top securely raised, where the car takes on the look of a teeny tiny coupe. You might not even realize it's a Miata at first glance.
- The new, larger engine for the 2019 model year adds both power (26 horses of it) and much-needed usability, providing a wider torque curve and more power overall. That 181-pony power peak comes at 7,000 rpm, 200 revs past the old engine's redline; you'll want to keep spinning the tiny four-pot up to its 7,500 rpm limit over and over again, both to keep the motor on the boil and because it's just damn well entertaining.
- Tiny engine + light car = great fuel economy. I saw around 33 mpg overall, even while frequently winding it through the tight gears and engaging in a whooooole bunch of stop-and-go city driving. Out on the open road, the MX-5 racked up closer to 38 miles on every gallon of gas—well above the 34 highway miles per gallon the EPA rates the car at.
2019 Mazda MX-5 RF Club: The Cons
- That fancy-pants folding hardtop doesn’t seem to add any benefits. The Miata’s soft top is a thing of simple beauty; all it takes is one hand to flip it up or fold it down in seconds. The hard top, in addition to adding weight and complexity, creates giant, permanent blind spots with its B-pillars, and it can’t operate at more than six mph—a speed slow enough that it might as well not let you operate the top while moving at all. I realized this when I tried to put the top down at a light in lower Manhattan and couldn’t complete the task in time; keeping the car below six proved impossible, and there was nowhere to pull over, so I was forced to drive through the entire Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel with the top half-assembled, the rear buttresses aloft like the praise Jesus emoji.
- It may be sporty, but it's not fast. I was being out-accelerated by crossovers from stoplights; the only way to beat them would have been to launch it off the line, a full-rev clutch dump that would have chirped the tiny tires. Be prepared to cane the crap out of it.
- Actually, that adjective—"tiny"—applies to every part of the MX-5. That’s a boon from the outside, where it makes bobbing through gaps in congestion easy and parking a breeze—but still, those proportions make it SO cramped inside that six-footers and above will likely find themselves angrily bent at awkward angles. I joke sometimes about cars being so lacking in legroom that I could steer with my knees...but I actually pulled it off in the Miata. (Briefly, and in a safe place. Don't worry, Mazda P.R. people.) It's fine for a couple hours, but for longer trips, seek other transportation. Or be short.
2019 Mazda MX-5 RF Club: Value
I'll just say it: The $38,000-and-change-as-tested price of my car is way too much for a Miata. The tin top can't be blamed for the entire delta in base price between regular MX-5 and the RF; the buttressed version doesn't come in entry-level Sport trim, only arriving in U.S. showrooms in Club and Grand Touring trims that cost just a couple more grand than their soft-top equivalents. Autocross mavens and those looking to squeeze every drop of performance from their Mazda might be intrigued by one like my tester, which boasted a $4,670 package that added Brembo front brakes, BBS forged wheels, and heated Recaro buckets to the Club package and its standard limited-slip differential and sportier suspension tuning—but anyone interested in tracking their car on a regular basis will probably be better served by the likes of a Camaro 1LE 2.0T or V6, which can be snagged for a couple grand less than this test car.
Axe the fancy third-party brakes, wheels, and seats, and you can drive out of a showroom with an MX-5 RF for around $33,000, which seems a bit more reasonable for a car of this size, power, and (lack of) practicality. Still, "less is more" is kinda the Miata motto—and all the basic goodness suggested in the name is there in the base version that starts around $26,000.
2019 Mazda MX-5 RF Club: The Bottom Line
The MX-5 RF, in all its overly complicated glory, seems like a solution in search of a problem. It's an inexpensive toy that's not so inexpensive; it's a simple convertible outfitted with a complex electromechanical folding metal roof. All those tweaks do nothing to subtract directly from the inherent goodness baked into every piece of this car; it's still every bit as fun to drive as its soft-topped cousin, with the same easy-going charm and cartoon-character good looks. But between the added cost, weight, and complication of the RooF, the negligible benefits of the power lid don't seem worth it. Unless you're wedded to the looks—or one of the rare souls who not only dailies his or her Miata in the winter, but also parks it outside every night where sudden heavy snowfalls could hammer the lid with enough weight to cave in a soft top—all those MiataLife fantasies will probably be better served with the good ol' MX-5 ragtop.