Review: Carving Canyons in the Mazda MX-5 Miata RF

Purists might scoff at the retractable hardtop Miata, but it’s still wonderful.

Arthur St. AntoineWriter, PhotographerThe ManufacturerPhotographer

I was zipping along Little Tujunga Canyon Road, a tightly wrinkled mountain two-lane that rises out of L.A. 's San Fernando Valley up into the Angeles National Forest. Above me: cloudless blue sky. All around me: scrub brush-covered ridges and peaks, an endlessly uncoiling ribbon of tarmac, and not another car in sight. In my ears: the happy bark of a newly enhanced twin-cam, 2.0-liter four gunning for its 7,500-rpm redline. In my hands: the leather-wrapped steering wheel of the latest edition of Mazda's fabulous, now-classic Miata. Oh, and I was getting paid to do this.

Thirty years ago, I wrote the first-ever review of Mazda's then-new two-seat convertible. I gushed about the groundbreaking roadster then, and I'm gushing about the most recent update to the gen-four model now. The Miata was and still is pure driving poetry: a lightweight, super-nimble, driver-focused open-air sports machine without a hint of pretense or flab. It's no wonder the little Mazda remains the chariot of choice for racers and autocrossers across the country. It's just that good. And in 2019 form, it's better than ever.

While the soft-top Club versions are preferred among weekend track warriors, the Miata RF (for "retractable fastback") is a compelling option for buyers who prefer the added security and sound isolation of a power-folding hardtop. My RF test car arrived in full-luxe Grand Touring trim, boasting such standard extras as a lane-departure and forward-obstruction warning systems, navigation, heated outside mirrors, automatic climate control, and heated leather seats. The few options included the GT-S package ($750) with a limited-slip differential and Bilstein sport dampers; the Appearance package ($1,550) with a front air dam, side-sill extensions, and a rear spoiler; and the Interior package ($425), which adds aluminum pedals, stainless-steel door-sill plates, and a red engine-oil cap (I mean, how can anyone live without a red oil cap?). I was also very, very pleased to note that my car was equipped with the six-speed manual shifter.

The purists who hurl their Miatas around racetracks and autocross cones might scoff at the notion of a folding-hardtop version—much less one equipped with leather seats, navigation, and other "cushy" extras—but I'm here to tell you: Unless you're measuring your driving pleasure with a stopwatch, the Grand Touring RF still delivers all the motoring goodness of its slightly leaner siblings. Partly that's due to the newly enhanced four-banger under the hood. Reworked to breathe better than before, and with a redline upped by 700 rpm to 7,500, the 2.0-liter mill now makes 26 horsepower more (now 181 hp at 7,000 rpm) and delivers its slightly increased torque peak (151 lb-ft versus 148) at 4,000 rpm—600 rpm earlier than before. Remarkably, despite the 2019 being the most potent Miata ever, EPA highway fuel efficiency with the manual shifter has also increased, from 33 mpg to 34.

The result is even more behind-the-wheel bliss. The Miata pulls hard, winds out willingly to its lofty redline, and sounds great doing it all. This is no wallflower: The exhaust note is loud. This is performance you can actually use, too. Sure, there are tons of sports cars that, in a race, would leave the Miata in the dust. But out on a public mountain road, the Miata's 181 horses are plenty. Here, the focus is not on outright speed so as much as it is on the joyfulness of the experience, the mechanized harmony of countless parts whirling and whizzing together to make moving across the tarmac as fluid and graceful as a dance. The manual six-speed has been improved for 2019, too, and it snicks up and down through the cogs brilliantly—aided by well-placed pedals that make heel-and-toe shifting a breeze.

The GT-S package was previously available only on Club models, but has now been made available on the top Grand Touring trim. Now you can have your sport-tuned Bilsteins and leather-lined navigation, too. The same chassis DNA that makes the Miata Club an autocross champ is evident here: The Grand Touring is light on its feet, quick to respond to steering inputs, and nicely balanced—with a touch of oversteer evident when you're really hustling. The ride is well-controlled but compliant, even a little soft. Highly tactile steering delivers all the road info you could want directly to your fingertips. Your everyday concerns? Oh, those got left behind miles ago. Now it's nothing but grins.

Dropping the folding hardtop couldn't be simpler: Press one button and the central roof panel (along with the rear glass window) unlatches and disappears under a deck between the rakish rear pillars in about 12 seconds. It's a marvelous feat of engineering. Top down, the cabin is well-isolated from wind, aided by a transparent deflector that remains behind the seats.

The cockpit is a beaut, outfitted with easy-to-read analog gauges, simple climate-control knobs, and useful systems buttons on the steering wheel. The infotainment screen is on the small side, and the map display isn't as detailed as some rival designs, but the really important stuff is all done well. The steering wheel now tilts and telescopes—a big plus. The seats are great. The standard active safety systems—blind-spot monitoring, new traffic-sign recognition, lane-departure warnings, and more—work helpfully without being intrusive. A rear-backup camera (now required) is standard, as well.

Any downsides? Not really. The sticker has climbed over the years—my loaded Grand Touring edition topped $37K—but that's still a steal compared with many less-charming sporting rides that cost far more. The same artfulness and passion that created the original Miata—a simple, two-seat roadster that stirs the soul without leaving oil stains on the garage floor—is conspicuously on display in the updated 2019 edition.

Now, time to brake and downshift for the tight left-hander coming up fast…

2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF Grand Touring Specifications
ON SALE Now
BASE PRICE $34,255/$37,070 (base/as-tested)
ENGINE 2.0L DOHC 16-valve I-4; 181 hp @ 7,000 rpm, 151 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual
LAYOUT 2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD convertible
EPA MILEAGE  26/34 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 154.1 x 68.3 x 48.6 in
WHEELBASE 90.9 in
WEIGHT 2,325 lb (est)
0-60 MPH 5.7 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 140 mph (est)
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