Road Tests

2017 Mazda MX-5 Miata Cup Racer and Miata RF: A Tale of Two Roadsters

Sampling the furthest ends of both sides of the spectrum

It was the raciest of Miatas, it was the most comfortable of Miatas. This past summer gave Automobile’s Detroit Bureau a chance to drive two of the latest variants of the ND Mazda MX-5 Miata—the Cup spec racer and the RF, with its power retractable targa-style top. They are the most disparate versions of the sports car – one is built for the track, while the other is the most luxurious version. Neither car threatens the Miata’s status as one of our all-time favorite cars. In all its forms, the MX-5 is probably the most pure expression of a modern sports car you can buy today.

With that, full disclosure is necessary. Between my wife and me, we’ve owned three Miatas; currently we have a 2008 model with the power-retractable hardtop, Sport package and six-speed manual.

The Raciest

Former Road Test editor Eric Weiner and I each got a few laps in the Miata Cup car at the tight, second- and third-gear M1 Concours in Pontiac, Michigan.

“I’m happy my first time driving a fully prepped and kitted-out racecar was with the MX-5 Cup,” Weiner said. “Although I wasn’t in the ideal position because the seat is bolted down, and I needed to be a little closer to the pedals (short-guy issues), it was overall a very approachable cabin given how serious it is. Love the center digital gauge readout, as well as the green and red shift indicator lights. The netting, the roll bar, the naked cabin – this is probably the coolest Miata I’ll ever drive.”

I found the Cup racer remarkably similar to the roadgoing Miata. Even crawling in through the rollcage was relatively stress-free, and there’s something liberating about sticking your helmeted head under the roll cage of an open race car.

“The MX-5 Cup was right at home,” at the M1 Concours, Weiner says. “It’s satisfying to carry high speed through the twistier sections where other cars might have to brake. Once the tires get some heat in them, there’s none of the tail-happy personality of the street car – just massive grip and the same beautifully responsive steering.”

The Miata Cup car comes with more than 250 motorsport-specific parts, including its springs and adjustable dampers. Earlier this year, Mazda added a Cup-specific gearbox to address complaints about the production six-speed’s reliability while racing, specific engine brackets, differential bushing inserts, a fuel-pump out kit, and updates to the engine control unit software and hardware. The upgrades raised the price of the Cup car by about $5,000.

Although I got just three hot laps in the MX-5 Cup, I felt at-home in the race car from the warm-up lap, though I’m not sure either of us became so familiar that we could experiment with the Miata’s ability to rotate through tight turns. A bit more confidence – with the track, not the car – might have had either of us steering with the loud pedal through some of the tighter corners. In fact, I didn’t think to turn off the traction/stability control, (Eric did), something I usually do before I shift a Miata road car into first gear.

Overall, the Cup felt to me pretty much like most any other street Miata but with much more tire. This comparison includes my own NC, though not my old, seriously harsh ’94 R-package. The Cup yaws into turns to transmit the very nature of the corner to the driver through his/her backside, takes a set, and stiffens up to get out of the apex efficiently. Steering is so organic and quick that you won’t think about how effortless inputs are on the track.

Weiner also praises the Miata’s pedal box, “perfectly placed for heel-and-toeing,” though if he had had as much time as me in the street versions, he wouldn’t even think to mention this.

“Most of the time you can cruise in third gear, with the exception of the hairpin and maybe turn 1 onto the big front straight (second gear),” Weiner continues. “If you carry enough speed on the main straight you can get up to fourth, but you quickly need to downshift back to third. Overall the car feels extremely capable and entertaining, although it weighs about as much as the street car. Despite all the extraneous stuff you have to take out (the driver’s interior door handle is cut in half), the rollbar and seats make up for that.”

Weiner’s only serious complaint is the lack of power, an issue we’ve all had since the 116-horsepower 1990 Mazda MX-5 Miata.

“It does like to rev, but there just isn’t a ton of oomph. I know that’s not the point, but if there’s a weak part of the car, that’s it.”

It’s mild criticism that has me wondering whether I’d ever grow or improve on the track if I could scratch together the $58,900 plus delivery price, based on location, plus a driver’s seat and spares, to make one of these babies my weekend driver. I figure that whether you’re young and just starting an amateur racing career, and might even be thinking about a professional future, or you’re somewhere north of mid-life and want to finally experience some real competition, the Mazda MX-5 Cup will help you grow as a racer, despite its comfort and intuitiveness.

2017 Mazda MX-5 Cup Specifications

ON SALE Now
PRICE $58,900/60800 (base/as tested)
ENGINE 2.0L DOHC 16-valve I-4/155 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 148 lb-ft @ 4,600 rpm
TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual
LAYOUT 2-door, 1-passenger, front-engine, RWD convertible
EPA MILEAGE N/A
L x W x H 154.1 x 68.3 x 48.8 in
WHEELBASE 90.0 in
WEIGHT N/A
0-60 MPH 4.6 (est)
TOP SPEED 125 mph (est)

The Most Comfortable

The Mazda MX-5 RF Grand Touring would seem to be on the opposite end of the current Miata spectrum. When the ND Miata premiered in the 2016 model year, it was easy to see that Mazda would not be able to duplicate the magic of the NC’s power retractable hard top (PRHT). The ND’s front cowl has been moved back into the wheelbase to adjust the balance and lower the center of gravity (with a lowered engine, moved back almost to a front-midengine configuration). This makes the rear cowl – the space between the seats and the inside edge of the trunklid – too narrow to package both the horizontal top panel and the top’s rear window and frame.

So when you press the button to lower the top – now, conveniently, without a mechanical latch that needs to be pulled – the flying buttress rear pillars lift up from the body to allow the horizontal panel of the top, and the backlight, to lower into that thin space, with all the fussiness of a Porsche 911 Targa. Unlike the NC PRHT, the ND RF does not become a full Miata convertible when you lower the top.

It does give you an open-air feel, while the rear top structure manages the wind in your hair a bit. Also, with this configuration, you won’t feel like you always need to lower both windows along with the top – I never roll up the windows on a full convertible. Top up, the RF gives you a PRHT feel, meaning there’s no noise attenuation advantage. You might not accept this in a BMW 3 Series or Mercedes-Benz C-Class cabrio, but you should expect this in a two-seat sports car designed to be as lightweight as possible, no matter its configuration. Think of how much noisier it would be with side-curtains, your inner-purist should respond.

The RF weighs about 113 pounds more than a similarly equipped Miata ragtop, and Mazda has tweaked steering and rear suspension calibrations. But to my backside, the Miata RF Grand Touring rides and handles pretty much like a Miata Grand Touring ragtop, which is to say, pretty well. It’s compliant, yet its direct, organic electronic power steering and understeer-averse chassis virtually begs you to power it through every corner between work and home. It’s as good as the Grand Touring convertible, so if you like the styling and don’t care that the rear-pillar blind spots don’t go away when you lower the top, the RF is a worthy Miata.

My complaint is the same as with the traditional ND Miata ragtop, which is that you can’t order a Grand Touring with the Club model’s Bilstein suspension and limited-slip differential. On my 2008 NC Grand Touring, it was just a $500 option, and well worth it. On the ND, the Bilsteins and LSD (ah, so many abbreviations) tighten things up just enough to make the Miata that much more satisfying on snaky roads.

Oddly, even on the Club package ND Miata, the Bilsteins and the LSD come only with the six-speed manual. If you want that car with the six-speed automatic, you don’t get these chassis enhancements, but then frankly, I don’t care.

The ND Miata Club’s handling is so crisp without disturbing the car’s inherent ride-handling balance that the Bilstein/LSD combo ought to be standard across the board (with the manual, at least), and this shouldn’t dissuade even the fashionistas and dilettantes who simply like the way the car looks. Just because you want heated leather seats and a nav system doesn’t mean you don’t want dynamics as close to the Cup car as possible. Oh, and while I’m at it, Mazda, the ND Miata needs more vibrant paint colors (think BMW M4). Bring back Marina blue.

2017 Mazda MX-5 Grand Touring Specifications

ON SALE Now
PRICE $33,495/$33,885 (base/as tested)
ENGINE 2.0L DOHC 16-valve I-4/155 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 148 lb-ft @ 4,600 rpm
TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual
LAYOUT 2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD convertible
EPA MILEAGE 26/33 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 154.1 x 68.3 x 48.8 in
WHEELBASE 90.0 in
WEIGHT 2,445 lb
0-60 MPH 6.4 sec
TOP SPEED 125 mph (est)

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Buying Guide
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2005 Mazda Miata MX-5

2005 Mazda Miata MX-5

MSRP $22,098 Base Convertible

EPA MPG:

20 City / 26 Hwy

Horse Power:

142 @ 7000

Torque:

125 @ 5000