2018 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF Grand Touring – Road Test Review – By Ben Lewis



I say Miata, you say convertible.

Or roadster.

Drop top.

You get the idea.

For most people, a Miata is a 2-seater convertible with a folding fabric (or vinyl) top that lets you take in the sun, the stars, the breeze.

But there’s a percentage of people that like a Miata with a hardtop. Those that live in 4 seasons, but want to drive their Mazda year-round. Or those in environments where the added security of hard roof makes you less of target. Racers need them too – look at the prices for a hardtop – sans Miata –on Craigslist and they go for well over $1,000.

Mazda got hip to this with the last-gen Miata, and offered a power-folding hardtop model as an option. Much easier than having to remove your hardtop and store it like the first two generations.

So, it’s not a surprise that the newest 4th generation Miata is now offered in RF guise with a retractable hard top. What is surprising, is how different it is in look, feel – and even philosophy – than the previous model.

OK, it’s gorgeous

We didn’t come to this conclusion overnight. We remember seeing the RF at the auto show, and although in some ways it looked like a 7/8 scale Jaguar Coupe, we liked the more traditional lines of the cloth top roadster.

But we’ve noticed that sometimes a car looks different in the real world, and to our eyes the RF really pops, and even though this is a small sports car, the proportions are beautifully balanced.

Those sail panels behind your ears change the overall look, with a real coupe-like presence. And unlike the previous gen where the entire top went away, the sail panels stay in place – much like Porsche 911’s latest Targa top. With the top up, it reminds us of those special-built Fiat Abarth, Simca Abarth and Renault sports racers of the 60’s.

Beautiful, sculpted little gems.

Top up or down, you walk away and just take in the lines, and smile.

It’s like owning a piece of art.

One that you can drive around and get loads of compliments and thumbs up.

OK, it’s a Miata

Inside it’s all 4th gen Miata, which is fine. One thing when they introduced this current gen, they made the seat rails drop as they went towards the back of their travel, making the Miata comfortable for taller drivers. That pays dividends with the RF – you lose a little headroom with the transition to the hard top, but our 5’10” test driver never felt confined.

Well, at least for headroom. The Miata is snug, and you should be on good terms with your passenger as it’s easy to rub shoulders. Still we’d never say we felt cramped. Intimate, yes.

While Mazda is now offering super supportive Recaro seats on the convertible, it’s a no-go on the RF. The leather seats on our RF felt plush, but after we sampled the Recaro’s on Fiat’s 124 Abarth we tested, we’re sold on the added support.

There’s little else we were wishing for in our Miata – the driving position is near-perfect, with the wheel and shifter falling to your hands, and the rest of cockpit wrapping around you the way a sports car should.

The rest is familiar Mazda fare, the gauges, a tablet-like 7” color touchscreen with Navigation, center-console info-tainment control knob, and switchgear. No problem there, everything is simple, well-designed and within easy reach. Well, with the Miata’s interior dimensions, super-easy reach.

It’s also a treat for the eyes – the Soul Red Crystal Metallic exterior played off the light tan leather with black trim looking like something you’d expect in a Ferrari. Elegant and Sporty.

A surprisingly different drive

We expected the RF to drive like a Miata, and in most ways, it does. Press the starter button and the engine wraps up with a smart bark that says “hey let’s drive!” With the top up, that drive is notably quieter than the convertible version – Mazda added some noise insulation, and it’s surprisingly serene on the freeway. Not super quiet – hey, it’s a sports car – but easy enough to have a conversation, or enjoy the 9-speaker Bose audio system, with speakers built into both driver and passenger headrests. Very cool.

The 155 hp, 2.0-liter 4-cylinder remains happy, revvy, and with the slick 6-speed manual you zip along quickly, while the tight exterior dimensions make it easy to slice and dice your way through traffic. One thing that’s noticeable with the RF, those sail panels limit your visibility to the sides and back. Thankfully the Blind Spot Warning system is a good one, saving our bacon multiple times.

Handling is everything you want from a Miata – you drive it with fingertips and basically think where you want to go. Mazda has adjusted the power steering boost to deal with the RF’s additional weight, but it’s not noticeable.

What we could definitely feel was the softer suspension tuning on our Grand Touring model. No, it’s not floaty or flabby, in fact it’s surprisingly supple for such a short wheelbase, and along with the quiet top-up driving, makes it a good distance cruiser.

And if you want a more intense experience, there’s a Club model of the RF, and it features a more aggressive suspension tune and limited slip diff. Decide your mission and choose your weapon.

When you  go al fresco, tap a button on the dash, and 13 seconds later you have open-air driving. It’s interesting though, with those sail panels up, you don’t have the immersive, surrounded-by-nature feeling that the roadster has with the top down. It feels snugger – and a little more secure.

At higher freeway speeds, the topless RF may actually be noisier than the top down convertible as air gets whipped around the cabin. We’d rather be on smaller, curvy roads enjoying the Miata’s drive than the super-slab anyway. Or put the top up, and cruise in comfort. Decide your level of fresh air and choose your model.

How much to put a roof over my head?

Well, a quick apples-to-apples says that the Miata RF Club starts at $31,910. The convertible Miata Club, $29,155. Our Grand Touring RF started at $32,750. A convertible Grand Touring $30,195.

Our tester also had the Soul Red Crystal Metallic ($595), the Appearance Package ($1,550), and Interior Package ($425) for a grand total of $36, 215 including destination fee.

Competitors are few and far between. Subaru’s BRZ ts is $34,355. Toyota’s sibling 86 Black Edition $28,585. Both also excel at that lightweight sporting drive, but no convertible. Not even a sunroof is available. A 370Z Sport Touring Coupe is $38,090. No sunroof here either, but there is a Sport Touring Roadster – but you’ll need deep pockets at $49,400.

None of these offer the unique combination of coupe and convertible driving in one vehicle. The real competitor for the RF ultimately, is the Miata convertible. And we think that comes down to how much of a traditionalist you are – pure sports car, go for convert. For those who want something a little different, a little special, and perhaps a little more livable in the day-to-day, the RF would tempt us away.

The RF is a welcome member of the infinitely-enjoyable Miata family.

All fantastic sports cars, and with the RF, a special vehicle that adds an extra dash of panache. 

 

About The Author

Ben Lewis grew up in Chicago, and after spending his formative years driving sideways in the winter – often intentionally – moved to sunny Southern California. He now enjoys sunny weather year-round -- whether it is autocross driving, aerobatics, or learning to surf.