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Road Test: 2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club RF Is Fun Even With an Automatic

A Miata is still a great prescription for happiness, regardless of who does the shifting.

Billy RehbockWriter, Photographer

When a manufacturer offers a sports car available with either a manual or an automatic transmission, nearly every automotive writer on Earth says the manual is the only way to go. Such was the case when this 2020 Mazda MX-5 RF hardtop was scheduled to land in my parking garage. "Please be a manual, please be a manual," I chanted in my head.

No luck. A quick peek inside revealed two pedals and a PRND-M shift lever. I decided immediately to take a drive, because maybe it wouldn't be so bad—perhaps I would be pleasantly surprised. I had the top down within minutes and cruised toward the coast with a huge grin on my face; it turns out an automatic Miata in the hand is much better than two manual Miatas in the bush.

2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club RF: Base But Not Basic

Mazda's trusty six-speed automatic gearbox is plenty responsive for street driving, and it failed to cloud the two weeks I spent in the driver's seat of the Machine Grey sports car. This MX-5 Miata arrived equipped at the base Club trim level: heated cloth seats, Apple CarPlay, and ever-convenient keyless entry are all included as standard, so there's plenty of creature comforts to go around the tiny roadster's cabin.

We've reviewed the ND-generation Miata plenty of times, with the car participating in our Automobile All-Stars testing as it received updates and new variants. And with the weather beginning to get really nice in Los Angeles—spring is warm but not too warm—there's never a better time of year to drive a convertible.

2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club RF: Impossible Not to Enjoy

I spent most of the two weeks with the Miata keeping the top stowed. Thanks to the RF's rear wind-deflector, not much buffeting penetrates the cabin until you really get going. The compromise of driving a convertible is further reduced thanks to speakers in the seats' headrests, so you can easily take a call with the top down and also hear music from the sound system even when it's a bit blustery outside.

Raising the roof reveals another side of the 2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club RF's character. Doing so cuts out much of the external sound, allowing occupants to better hear the engine note. In fact, with the top up the RF feels a lot more like a baby GT car, particularly as its relatively long hood protrudes ahead.

As our own Todd Lass noted when he first drove the updated MX-5, Mazda "converged chassis tuning" for the traditional convertible roof and hardtop models, meaning the RF feels fairly forgiving over bumpier road surfaces and exhibits a fair amount of body roll during cornering. However, the car still feels plenty balanced and eager to turn into a bend.

The Miata is Better Than Ever

Certainly, the MX-5 feels at home on winding roads. I popped the shift lever over to the manual setting and used the paddle shifters to click through gears at my own pace. Although not nearly as much fun as having three pedals on the floor, I appreciated the fact Mazda doesn't force gear changes upon you to override your personal preference.

For example, during much of my drive route I was able to hold the transmission in second gear for the windiest parts. In sweeping bends, I toggled between third and fourth; the gearbox was responsive and predictable, and I was able to keep the roadster's 2.0-liter inline-four engine in its sweet spot to power out of corners.

With the ND-generation Miata's 2019 power bump, it produces 181 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque, both of which are competent for a car with a mere 2,452-pound curb weight. Unlike Toyota, which punishes those who buy automatic-equipped 86 coupes by delivering a 5-hp reduction compared to the manual-transmission version, the automatic and manual MX-5 both produce the same output.

The revised Miata also benefits from a 7,500-rpm redline, compared to the previous 6,800 rpm; the drivetrain is more delightful than ever. This is especially satisfying in a world where naturally aspirated sports cars are starting to become rare.

What Could Be

The one spot where automatic buyers really lose out with the 2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club RF—aside from the maximum amount of fun possible—is in the packaging. Mazda offers a sweet "Brembo/BBS Recaro Package," but sadly only for manual-transmission cars. This adds Brembo front brakes with red calipers, Mazda rear brakes with Red calipers, BBS forged 17-inch aluminum-alloy wheels in Dark Gunmetal, an aero kit with side sill extensions, a black rear bumper skirt, and heated Black Recaro sport seats. From what I experienced, the car doesn't necessarily need all of this, but it's unfortunate you can't opt for it in order to spice up the Miata by just the right amount.

This 2020 Mazda Miata MX-5 RF wears a final price tag of $34,890 after its only option, Machine Gray Paint for $300; it's not a cheap car but neither is it eye-wateringly expensive. For what it's worth, every soft-top model is significantly less expensive, lighter, and a bit more fun to drive. Still, this roadster delivers more than enough features and fun to keep most people happy—even if it does have the lesser transmission choice.

2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club RF Fun Facts

  • Peak power from the 2.0-liter engine is available at 7,000 rpm
  • The 2020 MX-5 Miata Club RF weighs 2,496 pounds, while its soft-top sibling weighs just 2,381 pounds.
  • A slick animation appears when the convertible top raises or lowers
  • Cupholders can be placed between the driver and passenger at the elbows or by the passenger's left knee
2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF Specifications
PRICE $34,590/$34,890 (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 automatic
LAYOUT 2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, 
RWD convertible
EPA MILEAGE 26/35 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 154.1 x 68.3 x 48.8 in
WHEELBASE 90.9 in
WEIGHT 2,496 lb
0-60 MPH 5.8 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 135 mph