Great cars seem to have a few things in common. But it really boils down to this – a great car always creates a sense of occasion, every time you drive. And that’s something you can say about every Miata since the first one came ashore in 1990.
Yep, 30 years. While you can argue which model is best, there’s never been a mis-step, they’ve never tried to change its mission…a Miata is not a luxury car. Or an SUV. Or heaven forbid, a minivan. It’s a sports car, pure and undiluted. Let’s celebrate the MX-5’s big 3-0!
You can say Mazda has stayed true to the simple sports car design – which owes a lot to the early Brits, like the Lotus Elan, and even the MGB. Starting with the previous generation (Miata’s 3rd), they’ve gone one better and offered a folding retractable hardtop – much easier to use than the removable one you could put on the earlier versions.
And while the 3rd gen Miata hardtop looked like the roadster – top up, or down – for the current gen, they made them a bit more different. There’s still the traditional convertible model, but the RF (for Retractable Fastback) now keeps the C-pillar in place, even with power metal roof dropped. The lines are different, and in fact, the RF is stunning. It looks like a miniature Jaguar. It was so stunning, that in our tester’s Polymetal gray people kept asking us what it was.
It has wow factor!
Classic Driver’s Environment
Inside, the Miata’s snug cockpit has become familiar, but that never breeds contempt – this is everything you could ask for in a small sports car. It’s an impressive bit of engineering, while it’s about the same size of the original Miata, it manages to squeeze in all the modern conveniences and safety gear, and still offer impressive room for taller drivers.
This is not a wide car, but you don’t feel pinched, just cozy, and our tester’s red nappa leather seats looked great, felt great and smelled great. Add in the two-tone interior and it’s also welcoming – and all-black Miata interior can look a little dark.
While the upscale trim does bring some luxury to the interior, this cockpit is still about the drive – the steering wheel and shift lever are perfectly placed – just reach out, and there they are. You sit low and reclined, like you’d expect in some exotic, but it’s really about keeping the weight low for better handling.
The gauges are big clear analog units – please Mazda, don’t go the digital route! The 8,000 rpm tach is dead center where you want it, and the ancillaries on one side, and the speedo on the right. All easily visible through the gorgeous 3-spoke leather wheel. There’s a 7-inch color touchscreen display, perfect for the standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and on our tester, Mazda’s Navigation system. If you don’t want to tap the touchscreen, there’s a convenient circular knob on the center console, like Audi to access the key features.
All the better to enjoy, speakers built into the headrest make it easy to hear your favorite tunes to-down at speed. It also uses the headrest as you speaker when making a call – nice! Storage is usable, but it is compromised…the major storage is in a large box between the seatbacks, a twist to get to. And the slide-in cupholders eat up space, and they don’t really hold drinks very well.
The Grand Touring trim is indeed grand, and stuffs in a lot of goodness in a small package. Included are heated leather trimmed seats, heated mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, auto climate control, auto headlights, auto-dimming driver side and rearview mirror (a lifesaver in a low car, trust us!) and adaptive front lighting. It even has traffic sign recognition that can warn you of speed limits and stop signs on the gauge cluster. Amazing stuff, and while you think you don’t need any of it on your sports car, once you’ve had it, you’ll never want to go back.
Classic Sports Car Enjoyment
All the little luxuries may spoil you, but it never dilutes the pure joy of driving. Under the hood is a high-revving, four-cylinder 2.0-liter jewel, producing 181 horsepower at 7,000 rpm and 151 lb.-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. It’s interesting that in the sibling Fiat 124 Abarth, they went for a smaller turbo engine, which gives a more on-off feeling when the boos kicks in.
In the Miata, it’s a very linear experience with a nice pull to the redline, and close gearing that gives a lot of punch for a small vehicle. And it’s just such a thrill to row through the gears, thanks to one of the industry’s best 6-speed manual gearboxes – tight, direct, with just a little click as you engage each gear to give you some feel.
Mazda also does us a solid this year, with manual- transmission Grand Touring models receiving the limited-slip differential, Bilstein shocks, sport-tuned suspension and front shock tower brace formally only found on the focused Club model.
And it works beautifully, it raises handling to the next level, with a near telepathic turn-in that dives into a corner like a shark into a school of tasty fish, and there’s easily modulated cornering with millimeter-like precision of the accelerator. It happily racks up the G-forces, but with the excellent sport seats and cozy dimensions, the Miata comfortably holds you in place during your cornering antics.
Even better, there seems to be no detriment to the ride – while this is a short wheelbase sports car, the ride is supple and comfortable – top up on the freeway is surprisingly serene.
Well, this is a Mazda. If you’re after budget thrills, you can get into a Miata with a convertible top for $26,580. It’s far from bare bones, with all sorts of niceties, including air conditioning, power windows and locks, 7-inch infotainment screen, even Blind Spot Monitoring, Rear Cross Traffic Alert and Lane Departure warning. A far cry from the original Miata with roll down windows, and non-power steering!
Getting into the even more beautiful RF retractable roof model starts at $33,045 for the Club Model. Considering that our Grand Touring model now has all the Club’s performance goodies, it’s a no-brainer to pay the $34,425 for all the extra luxury including climate control, leather seats, navigation, the cool traffic sign recognition system, adaptive front lighting system and more.
Competitors to the Miata would include the Fiat 124 Spider – different engine, different styling, but otherwise a very similar car. There’s no retractable hardtop model, but a loaded Lusso will run a bit over $32,000. Drive and decide. If you can live without a convertible, the Toyota 86 is a true sports car, and comes in at $31,185. We love drop tops, though.
After 30 years, the equation remains true. Small sports car = huge driving enjoyment. And no car does it better than the 2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF!
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, and learning to surf.