When it was first introduced 26 years ago, the Mazda Miata was a revelation — a back-to-basics, no-frills sports car in a time of increasing automotive technology. It was also an immediate hit because of its low price and entertaining performance. Although not fast compared to V8 (and even many V6) cars, it always felt fast because it was so small and low to the ground. And the thrills were even better with the standard soft convertible top folded down.
Although the Miata was upgraded over the years, it never veered far from its roots. The biggest change was a retractable hardtop, which opened and closed at the touch of a button.
So when Mazda announced it was redesigning the Miata for 2016, loyalists worried that it would end up bigger, heavier and less fun to drive. Instead, the new version was a little smaller and much lighter, thanks to Mazda's SKYACTIV approach of improving mileage by reducing weight wherever possible.
The result was a car that feels faster and more nimble than before, especially when ordered with the standard six-speed manual transmission, which is one of the slickest-shifting on the market.
And now for 2017, Mazda has introduced a second retractable hardtop version, called the MX-5 RF. Like the previous version, it goes up and down in seconds at the touch of the button. But this time it is a fastback style, which looks like a late 60s-early 70s targa top Corvette when up and down. The look is very attractive — and the mechanics are a guarenteed show stopper at the last third rises up and then sets back down to allow the center to move backwards into a storage space or forward into place.
The overall styling of the current MX-5 is more sharply angled than the last version, with slit-like headlights and tail lights. The interior is also more crisply designed, with very contemporary lines mixing with more traditional dials and gauges. And, of course, it includes a traditional hand brake, which should be required on any car that considers itself sporty.
On the road, the MX-5 is feels remarkably stable and well-planted for such a small car. Although convertibles have traditionally felt shaky because of the lack of permanent side-to-side upper support in the past, Mazda engineers have overcome that with a remarkably solid chasis.
The only engine is the 2.0-liter that Mazda has used in the MX-5 before and still offers in the other vehicles. While it feels a little underpowered in some applications, the 155 horsepower is more than enough for such a light vehicle. Pushed hard, it revs freely and shifts come quickly. The steering is very precise, the brakes are well-modulated, and downshifting through corners is a pleasure rarely found in cars these days.
But there's no question, the MX-5 is a specialty car. It is very small and difficult to get in and out of with the top up. There is relatively little storage space inside, with the coffee cup holder looking like an after market add-on. The CD player is located between and behind the front seats, which makes it impossible to change while driving. And if there are more than two members of your family, well, Mazda makes a lot of good second cars.
With a starting price of just $24,915 for the soft top convertible version, the MX-5 is a remarkable value. The RF version may cost more — starting at $31,555 — but many will consider the greater weather protection and entertainment value of the retractable fastback top worth it.
2017 Mazda MX-5 RF
Base price: $51,960
Price as tested: $$33,885
Type: Sports car
Engine: 2.0-liter inline 4 (155 hp, 148 ft-lbs)
Transmissions: 6-speed manual; 6-speed automatic
EPA estimated mileage: 27/26 to 27/34
Overall length: 154 inches
Curb weight: 2,332 to 2,381 pounds
Final assembly: Hiroshima, Japan