By on March 16, 2017

2017 Mazda MX-5 RF, Image: © 2017 Seth Parks

Let’s get right to it. Retractable hardtop MX-5 owners will pay a 113-pound penalty for their motorized, targa-topped fun. 113 pounds. Mazda engineers and marketers do not take that sum lightly. But we can, because unless you are stripping down your Miata for competitive track work — in which case you will select the softtop anyway — you will not feel the difference.

The hardtop does absolutely nothing to diminish the balanced, driver focused, analog pleasure of the fourth generation MX-5. And for the purists, consider your baby may one day only be visible in the rearview mirror if Mazda can not expand the audience for this little icon.

2017 Mazda MX-5 RF, Image: Mazda

Last year, Mazda sold its one-millionth MX-5. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, it is the best-selling two-seat sports car in history. However, MX-5 sales have not rebounded since the recession. In the five healthy years leading up to 2007, Mazda shifted more than 34,000 MX-5’s across the world each year. Between 2008 and 2012, global sales averaged just 20,700 units annually. And since 2013, global sales have struggled to average 20,000 each year. Depressed volumes may not justify the high cost of maintaining and developing this storied nameplate. Mazda must broaden the MX-5’s appeal to amortize its investment across more units.

Roadster purist or not, we need the Fiat 124 and the RF to secure Mazda’s ongoing commitment to this legend.

The MX-5 was thoroughly redesigned for 2016. And the 2017 RF brings more change. There is, of course, the aluminum, steel, and SMC plastic motorized retractable hardtop that replaces the bubble top afterthought offered on the last generation car. Designer Julien Montousse did an amazing job integrating the new top into Derek Jenkins’s original ND design. Montousse worked within the KODO — Soul of Motion — design language to deliver a sleek solution wholly integrated into the car’s bodywork in a way that suggests it could have been its native form.

2017 Mazda MX-5 RF Roof Closeup, Image: Mazda

Changes to the RF versus the softtop are minor but run deeper than motors and sheet metal. The objective of these changes was to make the hardtop drive like the softtop. According to Mazda, engineers retuned the RF’s rear suspension bushings and bump stops to “smooth out the transition to oversteer, making it easier to balance the car right on the grip limit.” Mission accomplished. Steering calibration was also adjusted to reduce on-center friction. None to speak of. For all but the most hypersensitive and precise professionals, the RF continues to deliver the balanced, uplifting experience that makes the softtop such a laugh.

Depress the open/close button and the MX-5 RF roof actuates in 13 seconds. No latching or unlatching required. Just hold the button until you hear the tone. You may do so at up to 6 miles per hour. And the hardtop does little to reduce the volume of the softtop’s diminutive trunk.

2017 Mazda MX-5 RF Interior Through Rear Window, Image: Mazda

The RF adopts almost everything from the softtop, including its 2.0-liter SKYACTIV-G four-cylinder, delivering 155 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque, as well as its glorious six-speed manual transmission (and an optional automatic). But Mazda did not elect to make RF available in MX-5’s base Sport trim. Hardtop shoppers must move up to the Club, which starts at $31,555, or $2,955 more than its softtop cousin. The top of the line Grand Touring RF starts at $32,620 plus $875 destination fee, or $33,825 if you insist on the sacrilege of two pedals. All MX-5 RF’s deliver an EPA estimated 26 miles per gallon city. Manual transmission cars are good for 33 mpg highway, or 35 mpg for automatics.

2017 Mazda MX-5 RF, Image: © 2017 Seth Parks

Neither version of the MX-5 may be for you. Two seats may not suit your lifestyle, the brand may be too peripheral, or the styling may not be to your liking. Regardless, if you are an enthusiast, you must recognize its unique value proposition. MX-5 is one of very few cars designed narrowly and unapologetically for drivers. Mazda is nearly alone in carrying the torch of accessible performance, and the RF does nothing to diminish the MX-5’s balance and everything to broaden its appeal. Cheers to Mazda for getting the hardtop right.

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90 Comments on “2017 Mazda MX-5 RF First Drive Review – Adding Balance...”


  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    “You may do so at up to 6 miles per hour. And the hardtop does little to reduce the volume of the softtop’s diminutive trunk.”

    God I would have wayyyyyyyyyy too much fun doing that at a stoplight. Ownership of sweet shifting manual transmission car is on my bucket list. The ones I’ve driven have been economy cars that shifted like tractors.

    • 0 avatar
      WheelMcCoy

      The RF is on my radar too. Since I’m in the NorthEast, a hard top extends my driving to all year around… of course I’ll need to get heated seats, winter tires, and kitty litter in the trunk.

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        Sand is better especially if your snow is often wet. Kitty litter generally has a high amount of clay in it and makes the situation worse.

        When I had a V8 Cutlass Sedan with positrac, sandbags in the trunk, and all season tires I usually did better digging my way out of trouble with a folding camping shovel than trying to add a traction aid. (Just my two cents.)

      • 0 avatar
        BlueEr03

        When I had my NC, no sand or anything was required in the trunk. They balance the car perfectly so that there is enough weight over the rear wheels. The only thing you need is snow tires and you are ready to handle much more than the soccer-moms in their CUVs.

  • avatar
    chaparral

    PrincipalDan,

    Then do it! My $2800 Miata saved me so much money on maintenance costs relative to every other car my family had that it was a cornerstone of our financial success.

  • avatar
    CarnotCycle

    I know Mazda would be taking big financial risk, but MX-5’s offered with Renesis-something rotary engine powertrain as an option at least would expand potential buyer pool.

    • 0 avatar
      redliner

      The rotary engine:
      +Low weight
      +High novelty quotient

      However:

      -VERY inefficient.
      -Undesirable torque characteristics (i.e. none)
      -emissions compliance nightmare
      -Requires a caring attentive owner to religiously maintain fluid levels.
      -Complex casting to manage hot/cold spots on engine and prevent warping.
      -Fewer trained service technicians.
      -Higher maintenance requirements.
      -Higher production costs due to low volume compared with piston engine.
      -historically unacceptable levels of internal wear, leading to short service life. (if you get 100,000 miles, you got your moneys worth)

      Having said that, never say never… Mazda was crazy enough to do it in the past.

    • 0 avatar
      srh

      Literally *dozens* of people would be interested in buying a Miata with a rotary!

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        I would have wanted to buy an RX-8 with a SKYACTIV 2.5 over the rotary that it came with.

        I loved the amount of interior room the RX-8 had front and back for its fairly diminutive dimensions but was unwilling to put up with the rotary drawbacks.

      • 0 avatar
        tbone33

        And literally thousands of forum posters that would claim to be interested in buying a rotary Miata.

  • avatar
    S2k Chris

    God if only I could get this thing with 255hp instead of 155.

    • 0 avatar
      LS1Fan

      In all fairness ,this isn’t a sports car. Like the BRZ/86 ,it’s a RWD enthusiast car.

    • 0 avatar
      05lgt

      Get an older one and add a blower or swap in a bigger Ford 4.

    • 0 avatar
      redliner

      Edelbrock makes a bolt-on OEM quality roots supercharger system that fits under the stock hood, has a built in low-load bypass for better efficiency, is 50 states emissions compliant, can be tuned to run on different grades of fuel and comes with a 3 year/36k warranty.

    • 0 avatar
      Syke

      Why the constant whining for more, more, more horsepower? Have you folks got something against the concept of balance? I’ve yet to drive the ND, but examples of the three previous generations I’ve driven are some of the most delightful examples of balance that I’ve ever run across that doesn’t have a Porsche nameplate (and expense).

      And are you a hot enough driver that you could easily handle that extra horsepower? If you are, why don’t you have a professional contract?

      This constant whining for more horsepower reminds me of the sportbike crowd. No bike is ever powerful enough. And 99% of the owners would be hard pressed to handle a modern 300cc sportbike at full chat.

      • 0 avatar
        S2k Chris

        “And are you a hot enough driver that you could easily handle that extra horsepower? If you are, why don’t you have a professional contract?”

        Really? Handle the extra horsepower? 250hp? No one’s asking for 500hp+ here. Yes, I can handle the extra horsepower. No I’m not a professional driver. If you assume an additional 100hp costs 50lbs (pulled out of thin air) that gives the Miata a 9.34lbs/hp P/W ratio. By comparison, a Corvette has a ratio of 7.6. So do you have to be a pro driver to drive a Corvette??

      • 0 avatar
        White Shadow

        If this were 1985, then the Mazda would probably be perfectly acceptable based upon it’s performance (not necessarily it’s HP), but today it’s just a car that car barely get out of it’s own way. Even an additional 50 HP would make a world of difference on these cars.

        • 0 avatar
          Seth Jones

          The MX-5 was designed more for cornering speed than straight line speed. You can easily improve it by upgrading the suspension and tyres and possibly upgrading the flywheel. You don’t necessarily need more power to make it more competitive. Obviously power helps but it isn’t 100% required.

          If mazda made it faster in a straight line it would be more like any other sports car and it would take some of its character away from it which is one of its USPs.

          It would cost them a lot of money to design and conduct marketing for the new models and might not be profitable enough for it to be worth it. For mazda it may be that they are better off sticking with what they’ve got and leaving customers to get aftermarket parts to make them faster.

          It can also affect future alterations for the car e.g. naming of model variants. Look at what’s happened to porsche. For a long time they have had “turbo” models but since early last year all of their cars have been turbocharged in order to have better performance and fuel efficiency. If there are too many model variants then it can lead to confusion among customers and can lead to a higher risk of overproduction for some variants and too little being produced for others. With regulations and requirements for keeping sales figures high changing all the time it means that they would be more likely to endure these issues.

        • 0 avatar
          JuniperBug

          0-60 in right around 6 seconds (R&T has it at 5.9), the quarter mile in the low 14s… yeah, “barely gets out of its own way” the same way a 292hp Dodge Charger does.

          Honest question: have you driven a Miata, and what year?

    • 0 avatar
      sportyaccordy

      For about $4K and a willingness to void your factory warranty, you can have about 200 naturally aspirated. That is plenty in a 2300lb car…. better p/w than your S2K, and more torque period.

    • 0 avatar
      duffman13

      I always wondered if they would let me on track with it in RF guise rather than having to bolt in a 4 point rollbar.

      I already gutted the rear of my S2k for one, I’d like my next roadster foray to let me keep the car stock.

  • avatar
    slavuta

    For this money I can get something with more ponies, AWD even and 2 more seats. Or, something that will climb the rocks

  • avatar
    seth1065

    The RF is a 3k option if i read that correctly, that is a lot of dough for a folding top, I take mine w the soft top. If they sell more hard tops good for them. I may be getting to old for one, my Saab vert is a lot more confront able than a miata.

    • 0 avatar
      S2k Chris

      It’s honestly not too bad if you look at what a hardtop costs for many convertibles, which can easily be $2000-3000 and that’s for something that’s not motorized and attached to the car at all times.

    • 0 avatar
      JuniperBug

      That’s probably true. My Miata gets flustered and changes the subject whenever I try to confront it. The Swedes have always been more stoic.

  • avatar
    Drew8MR

    I’ve never understood why Mazda couldn’t bring in a stripper Miata at a subcompact price point instead of the midsize PP where it’s basically lived it’s entire existence. This thing should cost Yaris/Fiesta money, not decently loaded Camry/Accord money.

    • 0 avatar
      05lgt

      Because the don’t sell in Yaris/Fiesta volumes and development costs aren’t per unit.

    • 0 avatar
      redliner

      Expounding on 05lgt comment,

      Last year, the Nissan Versa (an aggressively bland vehicle) sold about 10k units per month.

      The MX-5 sold less than 10k units for the whole year.

    • 0 avatar
      Secret Hi5

      Re: Stripper – I don’t think the cost of a Miata is as much a factor of materials and production as compared to high volume models, so a stripped version would not reach sub-compact price levels. In addition, a stripped version would probably siphon sales from higher trims, rather than add to total volume.

  • avatar
    Kendahl

    I don’t understand why Mazda has never made a coupe with a permanent roof for those of us who aren’t into convertibles. A retractable hard top is an expensive, complicated and heavy alternative to a few square feet of steel or aluminum with a headliner inside.

  • avatar
    ScarecrowRepair

    Anyone have any idea how well this would handle four feet of snow? Since my 86 MR2 died, I’ve been pining for a two seater at a reasonable price. But it has to be able to take four feet of snow without the roof caving in.

    (For the jokers out there, no, I don’t mean driving in four feet of snow.)

  • avatar
    TMA1

    I’ll never understand the love for the RF, and the hatred of the old PRHT (power retractable hardtop). The RF doesn’t give you the experience of a lighter coupe or a fully retractable top. My NC may have weighed a bit more, but at least the top went all the way down. People used to crucify that car because of its weight gain, even though it was less than the RF in both absolute and relative terms (as a percentage of weight gained).

    As for selling Miatas, Mazda should do whatever it can. But the old hardtop made up about 50% of the car’s sales. I’m not sure who the RF is for. The people who don’t want a Miata softtop want a Miata coupe, and this ain’t it.

    ND – adds 113 pounds
    NC – adds 72 pounds.

    “the MX-5 RF roof actuates in 13 seconds”
    -The NC hardtop did it in 12.

    “the hardtop does little to reduce the volume of the softtop’s diminutive trunk”
    – A little? The old hardtop affected the trunk not at all.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      I think the RF looks very good while the old PRHT wasn’t especially attractive. It was just okay.

      Obviously styling is subjective, but I think the visual impact is a major appeal of the RF.

      • 0 avatar
        TrailerTrash

        but this design does add a high amount of winder buffering that drives a lot of reviewers mad.
        The old version did not.
        I think they are suggesting an easy fix to this by adding a wind screen…but now sure where or how.

    • 0 avatar
      WheelMcCoy

      I don’t want a coupe, so count me as someone who wants the RF. The RF also gets better MPG and looks sharp!

      That said, I never sensed any disrespect for the NC PHRT (except maybe for the awkward name), and as you mentioned, it sold well enough compared to the soft-top. In its day, I lusted for it too, but the timing wasn’t right.

      Here’s a video from Mazda on the PRHT that will cheer you up. Listen to it rev:

      https://youtu.be/43j-Nt-4ZWw

    • 0 avatar
      slap

      I’ve got an NC with the PHRT. It’s a 2012 SE, with the body in red, and the PHRT in black – it looks better than the body colored PHRTs on some MX-5s – in my opinion, of course.

      I’ve sat in a ND RF, and you still have huge blind spots when the top is “open”. And there is supposedly significant wind buffeting from the RF when open. When the PHRT is down, there is nothing to block your view, and the wind is just like with the soft top down. I drive with the top down all the time in the spring, summer, and fall, and on nice days in the winter.

      The ND RF is the better looking coupe, but the NC PHRT is the better convertible.

    • 0 avatar
      Jerome10

      Me either.

      I try hard to respect that different people want different things, but I’m with you. Other than the odd look while PRHT was up, at least you got the hard roof security, coupe-like benefit, and the car could be enjoyed fully open (which IMHO adds immensely to the genius of the MX-5).

      The RF is like a 1/2 convertible attempt and I don’t get it. It looks great, but the top doesn’t go fully down. What is the point? Miata’s with the top up are drastically reduced in the enjoyment department.

      I didn’t mind my soft top 97 nor my father’s 99 NB. I am interested in picking up a PRHT. I would NEVER buy the RF.

      I do want a rotary though.

  • avatar
    manu06

    There are plenty of slightly older, low mileage MX5’s for those who can’t afford to buy new.
    I’ve been driving a 2012 for the past 15 months and have put 18,000 trouble free miles on it.
    Great handling and nice on sunny days. Not the fastest car but certainly quick enough.
    It delivers on what it promised.

    • 0 avatar
      duffman13

      The Miata has the same problem as the Wrangler: the biggest argument against a new one is that there are no shortage of well cared-for used ones to pick from.

      Especially if you wanted a track car, a $32k can buy you a nice NC plus enough left over to do anything you want with it and still have change when you’re done.

      • 0 avatar
        Flipper35

        I would bet this has more to do with lack of sales than any thing else. There are quite a few of these for sale at any given time around here in the upper midwest.

        I would be willing to trade over to a Miata if it had more power. I would lose some performance but I would gain a top which would allow me to drive it more often, like if it might rain or snow. Of course, it has been a few years since I have driven one, but I don’t think power delivery has changed much in those few years.

        That said, I would take a 255hp MX-5 over a 600hp ‘vette.

  • avatar
    stevelovescars

    Why the need for the power top? While they did an amazing job of keeping the weight gain low, A fixed rear with a manually removable targa would have reduced complexity a lot.

    One of the joys of my older Miata is the simplicity of the top. Older convertibles with power tops just don’t age cheaply. I haven’t heard of many issues with the Miata PRHTs but Mercedes SLKs have issues as cars age and the parts don’t align perfectly. There is an entire industry grown to support Mercedes and Porsche convertible hydraulics as they age. I know this from my personal experience.

    • 0 avatar
      benders

      Removable targa top would also cut down on mainstream appeal. Saving 30 pounds still wouldn’t be good enough for purists and could chase away the buyer who wants a hardtop convertible.

      • 0 avatar
        stevelovescars

        My point was why the complex power mechanism? A simple removable targa could allow for a structural b-pillar and buttress area and reduce complexity.

        As for soft top wear, my 1990 Miata with around 80k miles STILL has its original top. My 1994 Mercedes E320 still has its original top material but I have had to spend a lot of time and money fixing hydraulics and control modules for the power mechanism. And with the power out, it can’t be lowered manually.

        A new top for an older Miata can be had, installed, for under $600. Every 25 years or so… not too bad.

    • 0 avatar
      TMA1

      I think any convertible top is going to cost you. Whether it’s replacing a softtop every couple of years, or servicing the hardtop. At least with the old PRHT, Mazda provided a crank mechanism to open and close it in case it ever broke. Although that’s a temporary measure (please see your authorized Mazda service center).

      • 0 avatar
        duffman13

        This. I have an S2000 and it eats a top every 8 years or so through general wear and tear. I put the first one on in 2012, and I guarantee I’ll have to do another one in 2020 or so.

        • 0 avatar
          S2k Chris

          I just stopped driving the car with the top up or in the rain. I “need” a new top, but for $1200+ on a car I never drive in the top up it isn’t worth it.

          • 0 avatar
            duffman13

            That’s fair. I also don’t drive mine with the top up, but I don’t have a garage either so it has to deal with general weather/sun wear. If I did I don’t think I’d ever put it up to begin with, but as it sits right now it still gets a cycle through the positions every time I drive the car.

    • 0 avatar
      slap

      Before I bought my NC/PHRT I spent time on the SLK and Z4 forums. Too many of the problems with the retracting hard tops required taking the car to the dealer. For the MX-5, the retracting hard top had fewer problems, and the forum members had fixes for the problems.

    • 0 avatar
      Secret Hi5

      It does seem that there’s not enough payoff for the complicated RF roof machinery. All that to get a targa-like experience. At least with the PRHT, the top fully folds.

  • avatar
    Willyam

    Now THAT is a classic design (admittedly awful reference to thread yesterday).

    I must admit that those posting about price have a point. In my life, cars must do multiple jobs, and two seats for $30k just doesn’t fit. Although if I were a baller I’d have two of these.

    I grew up in a weird little town full of corporate families and oil-engineer nerds that raced in their youth (see Lake Garnett Grand Prix http://www.lggpr.org/AboutUs.htm for some great stories). Yes, lots of American iron, but also MG’s (big and Midget), Triumph’s, Fiat 2000’s, Opels, and even my family’s weird little X1/9. They ran for mere minutes at a time, but they were cheap, fun, and you could laugh your arse off slowly passing a Country Squire with the top off and windows down, little motor screaming. The cops never looked up from their coffee.

    When the NA hit I was in college, and needed a reliable hatch instead. Still, I would love for those days to come back. Hey Craigslist…

  • avatar
    FBS

    The single greatest heartbreak I’ve suffered as an adult is the realization that I’m simply too tall to fit in a Miata with the roof up.

    • 0 avatar
      sportyaccordy

      Are you sure? Buddy of mine is 6′ 5″ or so and he *just* fits in his perfectly.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      Depends a lot on leg and torso length. I’m 6’2″ and the NA and NB are flat out. I can fit in a late NC but my eyeballs are level with the top of the windshield frame. S2000 was just big enough, but I had to scrunch to wear a helmet and couldn’t see stoplights.

  • avatar
    AK

    Looks cool.

    But give me the soft top, specifically the most base version that doesn’t have the big tablet hilariously tacked onto the dash

  • avatar
    akatsuki

    They should have made it a targa with a glass top that slid back over the rear window. Keep the trunk space.

  • avatar
    bikegoesbaa

    I know a few guys who love to gripe about how the additional weight of a sunroof or retractable hard top will “spoil the handling and purity” of a multiple-thousand-pound car.

    They’re all at least 80 lbs overweight.

    I figure if they actually cared about reducing the weight of the car they’re driving they’d cut back on eating and hit the treadmill.

  • avatar
    meefer

    Here’s all I want to know – is the headroom improved with the RF??

  • avatar
    incautious

    The best selling 2 seater sports car is the Corvette with over 1.6 million sold.

  • avatar
    legacygt

    This is a matter of opinion and taste but I think this is one of the best looking cars on the road. At any price. You will turn heads in this car. Every day. You will get more looks than the guy in the 911. The Corvette. Never mind the Mustang or other more comparably-priced sports cars.

    That said, I’d still go with the conventional convertible. The only thing cooler than the 16 seconds of eye candy as the RF roof folds is the 1 second simplicity of the standard soft top.

    Finally, this review kicks off with some discussion of Miata sales numbers. Here’s the real problem. The segment is small and may be shrinking. But for decades, the Miata has pretty much had the lightweight, RWD, affordable sports car market to itself. In the mid/late-90s the first versions of the TT, Boxter and Z3 may have poached some wealthier buyers but, by their second generations, those cars no longer comparable in price or in spirit. There was also some brief half-hearted competition in the Capri and later the Solstice/Sky. But for the most part, if you wanted this type of car, you were getting a Miata. Then the BRZ and FR-S/86 joined the party. And now we have have the Fiat 124 as well. If you’re looking for that same lightweight, RWD, affordable sports car, you now have 4 different cars to choose from. 4 times as many choices in a segment that is smaller than it used to be. Does the RF help grow the segment? I doubt it.

    • 0 avatar
      TMA1

      Your comment reminded me of this old Miata PHRT vs. SLK video, where they race to get their tops off first. The Miata wins, of course, and while the SLK is still going, another Miata rolls up behind it and throws down its soft top.

  • avatar
    timelesstraveler

    You call this a review? I could get all this information from the spec sheet.

  • avatar
    Irvingklaws

    Waiting for British green with tan interior.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      That is the best color combo to have a Miata be. :-)

    • 0 avatar
      TMA1

      Be prepared to wait for a long time, Mazda has applied a Germanic austerity to its available paint colors for the Miata. It’s pretty much all gray-scale, and red. There’s a really great blue, but only available on the Grand Touring trim, which means giving up all the performance enhancements from the Club trim.

  • avatar
    ErickKS

    Somehow, the lines, curves, and thus, the sexiness of the Miata seem to get better as time passes.

  • avatar

    This is a very attractive car. I am impressed that compared to the first generation this car is shorter, lighter and much more powerful. And the top does not take trunk space, unlike the German origami tops.

    Unrelated: the article notes that the Guinness Book of World Records considers the Miata the best-selling two seat sports car ever with over a million sold. The Corvette, which has always had two seats, passed the million mark in 1992 and is still going strong. Is this because some year the Corvette was not available as a roadster but only a coupe?

  • avatar
    Kato

    I just sat in one of these at the annual local spring car show. The RT is more attractive in the flesh than in photos. Seat, wheel, shifter and pedals all feel great and are perfectly placed. The windshield frame is thick, blocks visibility, and the top edge of it is too low and close to my head. I think you’d have to be around 5’8″ or so to feel comfortable in this thing. I’m 5’11”. I suspect this would be unchanged in the soft-top version.


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