Mazda MX-5 Miata RF review: Pint-sized perfection

Out on the roads in this perfect little whip
Mack Hogan | CNBC
Key Points
  • CNBC test-drove the Mazda MX-5 Miata RF for a week
  • RF stands for retractable fastback model
  • There's some compromise on the interior, but we love it

Miata is always the answer.

It's the reply to every forum post, every tweet and every sheepish teenager asking the age-old enthusiast's question: "I want a fun, reliable car that won't beat me up or take all my money. What should I get?" Everyone hoping to uncover some hidden gem they never thought of, only to have their hopes dashed when everyone replies the exact same thing: Miata.

For good reason, too. Mazda's been building the roadster for over 25 years, and there's never been a bad one. The Miata's concept was based on the classic British roadster. Those old Triumphs and MGs were respected worldwide for their enthusiast experience, but the cars weren't reliable, so they didn't really catch on here.

Once Mazda added Japanese reliability to the established formula of low-weight, little-power, rear-wheel drive and a manual transmission, it created a icon.

Nearly 30 years later, the company's still adding new ingredients to the mix to keep things interesting. Today's hottest item is the RF, or retractable fastback model. Rather than the manually-operated, one step top of most Miatas, the RF is a targa-style power-folding hard top. The idea is to add more luxury and more style without ruining the driving dynamics.

I spent a week with the RF to figure out whether that's worked.

Exterior: Pint-sized and perfect

Trying to capture its size on a highway in the forest
Mack Hogan | CNBC

I would usually build dramatically to the point where I reveal that Miata has created an absolutely stunning piece of design. But you probably came to that conclusion as soon as you saw the thumbnail photo, so I suppose it isn't much of a spoiler.

What may not come across as well in photos is just how brilliant Mazda's "Soul Red" paint is, with lovely golden flecks shining in the sun that bring life to the whole shape. Given that a Grand Touring RF will set you back $32,620 anyway, spending $300 on the brilliant candy-apple paint should be mandatory.

Mack Hogan | CNBC

What's particularly enchanting about the Miata's styling is that you effectively get two great designs in one. With the top in place, it looks like a sleek and low sports coupe. Drop the power top — a feat that takes 12.5 seconds and must be performed under 6 miles per hour — and you'll be rewarded with an equally stunning, classically-targa side profile.

Lean in close to spot the details and you may just hit your head, as it's easy to assume the pipsqueak Miata is further away than it actually is.

The RF is comically small; small enough to alter perceptions. For example, two separate friends driving SUVs commented that I was following awfully close to them when we convoyed to a concert. That's two more than have ever told me that before, and I think the reason is that the 4" 1' Miata just disappears under truck bumpers at normal following distances.

Interior: A willing compromise

Interior of the MX-5 Miata RF
Mack Hogan | CNBC

Believe it or not, I wasn't aboard the Titanic when it sank. Yet, going from the gargantuan Volvo V90 to the Miata, I got a feel for what it must have been like to get off the Titanic, and into one of its life boats.

I knew Miatas were small, but when I turned to sit in the driving seat I still panicked as I sat down.

It felt like elementary school, when I went to sit, and discovered mid-flight that a devious little gremlin had swiped the desk chair out from under me. Splat, on my butt, right in front of the class.

Except in this case, I landed softly in the Miata's seat, lying about 6 inches below where I expected to be.

The aggressive weight and space trimming at Mazda's design studio was evident everywhere in the interior. There's no glove box; your owner's manual and documents are in the trunk. The 12v outlet is tucked under the passenger-side dashboard, making the Miata the first car that's ever made me Google where I can plug in my phone charger. There is a USB charger front and center, but I'm stubborn and didn't want to go inside. All of this is tolerable.

Who wants to race?
Mack Hogan | CNBC

What's not tolerable is the cup-holder situation. Rather than fixed cup-holders, the Miata lets you move them between a storage cubby, a mounting spot behind the gear shift or hanging off of the center tunnel into the passenger area.

I learned, in a deeply inconvenient and unpleasantly sticky way, that this cup-holder can't really hold back drinks while accelerating gently up a hill. No, that's how you get Gatorade all over your phone, notebook, pants and loaner vehicle.

Luckily for Mazda, I don't have cup-holder section.

And the rest of the Miata's interior is nice enough that you forgive its size-constrained sins. After all, you can't get a lightweight sports car without sacrifice. To make the pill easier to swallow, Mazda coats the interior with lots of leather and lovely materials. The exterior of the door even wraps over the top and into the interior, giving you a charming strip of brilliant red metal in the tan and black interior.

Mazda's infotainment remains one of my favorite mainstream systems, even though it constantly notified me of text messages that I didn't actually get. Despite a more complicated folding top, the RF has also managed to keep the same sized trunk as the Miata rag-top.

By same size, I mean still tiny, but it's the little victories in life, right?

Driving Experience: The benchmark

A peek under the hood of the MX-5 Miata RF
Mack Hogan | CNBC

It's unbelievable. Not in the watered-down, common vernacular way that means really good. In the way that means I truly didn't believe making something drive this well, ride this comfortably and cost this little was possible.

The chassis, with a perfect 50-50 front/rear weight distribution, is a lecture in balance and composure. At an autocross event — think race course, but at 1/10 scale and 1/5 speed — the Miata made me look like an absolute hero. The car's trademark body roll signals to the driver exactly where the weight is transferring, allowing you to hang the tail out in slow corners and gently pull away from them. You can even pretend, as I did, that it has something to do with your skill and not the car's ability to flatter.

Photo break!
Mack Hogan | CNBC

You'd expect the tremendous handling to make the Miata a basket case in normal driving, but the soft-sprung roadster is just as comfortable on Ohio route 83 as it is on Mid Ohio. I left my house and just drove off down a winding road one day, discovering roads and places I had never even heard of in my 17 years in the Cleveland area.

It's a chassis that makes you want to throw the top down, turn on some Bob Seger and just fly off into nowhere.

While you may encounter that feeling in a Porsche or a Corvette, you can't act on it. Because four seconds of flooring it in a top-end Porsche, and you're on the wrong side of every speed limit in the United States. With the Miata and its puny 2.0-liter four cylinder pushing out 155 horsepower, you can cane it on every back road between here and the Kentucky line.

Value: Pretty good for the money

The color is called "Soul Red," baby
Mack Hogan | CNBC

The model reviewed here is a Grand Touring Miata, which starts at $32,620. Add $300 for soul red, $130 for keyless entry and the $875 destination fee and the total cost is $33,925. A base Miata can be had for smidge under $25,000, but the RF option is only on the top trims. That means that if you want the hard top, you'll be shelling out at least $31,555.

There are two direct competitors to the Mazda Miata: The Toyota 86 and the Subaru BRZ, both of which are actually the same car underneath. If you want a four-cylinder, manual sports car for under $35,000, those are the options. If you want the car to have a ragtop, folding hardtop, satellite radio, blind spot sensors, automatic high beams or a navigation system, your only option is the Miata.

In fact, if you want the next cheapest roadster that drives as well as a Miata, you'll probably be spending upwards of $60,000 on something with a Porsche badge on it.

Final Thoughts

The Miata in my driveway
Mack Hogan | CNBC

The Miata is an easy car to dismiss. Anything that receives so much constant adoration and is recommended so often becomes something of a trope, a meme. You almost want to hate it.

But you'd have to have a heart made of Tungsten and a brain made of GoGurt to not be absolutely enthralled with this little car.

It's beauty is captivating, its driving experience almost transcendental and its charm unavoidable. It's as near to perfect as any sports car ever made, and I'm saving every penny until I can get one for myself.


Exterior: 5

Interior: 3

Driving Experience: 5

Value: 5

Overall: 5

Price as configured: $33,925

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