In the automotive world, there are a few cars that are sort of royalty, cars that are beloved by car enthusiasts, almost unanimously. The Ferrari 250 GT California, Jaguar E-Type and the E30 BMW M3 are all among automotive royalty. Another car among the royals is the Mazda MX-5. Don’t snicker.
Known to American enthusiasts as the Miata, the Mazda MX-5 has always been sort of a car enthusiast hero, as it’s always offered superb dynamics and driving thrills at an affordable price. So enthusiasts from all walks of life could enjoy the fun and joy that the MX-5 brings, without having to break the bank. But, I must admit, I was a bit skeptical as to how much I’d like the MX-5 when Mazda dropped one off at my house for a week. It’s not that I was skeptical of Mazda or the MX-5. It’s that, the week before, I had just tested an Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio and the week before that was an M3 Competition Package laden with M Performance parts. So I had become accustomed to very powerful, very fast and very capable sports cars.
With the MX-5, I was getting into a car with a naturally-aspirated 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine that only made 155 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque. I had high hopes for the car but was nervous I had been jaded by big power and blistering speed. Turns out, though, that the little Mazda MX-5 charmed the hell out of me and made me completely forget about the previous super sedans. Which was actually impressive because not only did the MX-5 have to follow bonafide super sedans but this specific car was off to a bad start, in that it was very expensive for an MX-5, ruining the value aspect, and was the heavier variant.
The specific car we tested was a 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF Grand Touring with a six-speed manual. RF stands for “Retractable Fastback” which means this MX-5 had a power-folding hardtop, rather than the standard MX-5’s manual-folding soft top. Essentially, it’s a targa top, as the A and B-pillars are still in place with the roof down. So it basically just gives you a massive sunroof. Still, a rear-wheel drive sports car with a targa top in the middle of summer is pretty awesome.
It also looks cool as an RF model. I had numerous bystanders come up and ask what I was driving, while walking back to the car in parking lots or at gas stations. I actually had a few people ask if it was a Porsche. With the roof up, especially, it does have a sort of “baby Cayman” look to it. It looks sporty, dynamic and exciting. Most importantly, though, it doesn’t look like anything else in the segment. Mazda has taken a bit of flak for the MX-5’s design lately, as some aren’t fans of its extra squinty headlights and smiling-mouth grille. Though, I actually like it and think it looks fun. I also really like its taillights and rear end as a whole.
Being a Grand Touring model, the MX-5 was loaded with heated leather seats, satellite navigation, Bose 9-speaker surround sound with speakers in the headrests, LED headlights, 17″ dark silver alloy wheels, blind-sport monitoring and many, many more options. It was as loaded as it possibly could have been. Which is a bit odd in a Mazda MX-5, as it’s supposed to be the epitome of simplistic lightness. It also had the Advanced Keyless Entry package, which is the only optional package available. All in, our Mazda MX-5 RF tester wore an MSRP of around $33,000. That’s a lot of money for a two-seater convertible with less than 160 hp.
Especially when you actually poke around inside the MX-5. Mazda employed what it calls the “Gram Strategy” to make it as light as possible. In a nutshell, Mazda left no bolt untouched when attempting to lighten every aspect of the MX-5, without reducing quality, even if it only saved a gram. A gram here, a gram there, throughout the entire car actually ends up working really well. Even with the mechanical folding hardtop and all the options, the Mazda MX-5 RF still only weighs around 2,400 lbs. That’s astonishing in this modern day of sports cars. By comparison, the equivalent 2 Series is over a thousand pounds heavier.
But the downside of that lightness is that there are quite a lot of cheap-feeling areas. For instance, the sun visors are especially thin and cheap feeling, the trunk liner seems like it’s made out of egg cartons and as the metal top folds away, you can see every greasy gear and mechanism that makes it work. Though, I actually liked that last bit, as I’m a bit of a mechanical nerd. Once you look past some of the weight-savings (notice I didn’t say cost savings), the cabin is actually quite nice. Almost all of the materials are soft-touch and feel premium. The leather on the steering wheel feels great, the seats are superb for small-ish people such as myself and everything feels very well put together. In fact, I thought it was better screwed together than the Alfa I had recently tested.
However, literally none of that matters once you slide into the fantastic sport seats and thumb the starter button. Once in the driver’s seat, you realize just how low the MX-5 sits. Toyota Corollas seem like SUVs on the road next to you. It feels like sitting on a skateboard in the middle of the road. For someone like me, who likes sports cars as small as possible, it feels great. There’s none of the superfluous tech, unnecessary luxury and just excessive bulk of modern cars. The MX-5 is such a breath of fresh air among the bloated sports cars of today. Even the M3, which isn’t a big car, feels absolutely enormous by comparison.
That feeling of lightness is a big part of the MX-5’s charm and necessary to its performance. Even though it’s incredibly light, the Mazda MX-5 still isn’t fast. Or maybe it just doesn’t feel fast. Modern turbocharged engines have so much torque that even small displacement engines feel punchy. But the MX-5’s naturally-aspirated engine and only 148 torques means that you have to rev the bolts off of it to get it going. Thankfully, that’s no chore.
The buzzy little four-pot loves to rev, freely runs to redline and makes a good noise doing it. It’s nowhere near as smooth as the turbo four-cylinders you’ll find in BMW’s lineup, but that buzzy feeling is part of the charm. You feel this car. Its every pulse, vibration and movement is felt through your hands, feet and butt. There used to be a common trope among automotive journalists about pure driving cars, used constantly, that it felt like the car was wired directly to your brain. That’s how the MX-5 feels. Every subtle nuance is felt in the background of your brain as you drive, allowing you to constantly understand what it’s doing, entirely, all the time. It’s wonderful.
Plus, revving it all the way out, feeling it buzz as it nears its redline, allows you to use that shifter more. This is not an exaggeration when I say the MX-5’s manual is the best I’ve ever used. I haven’t driven older Porsches or Civic Sis, so maybe it’s not the best out there. But it’s better than every other modern manual I’ve ever driven. The throws are short, precise and mechanical feeling. Rowing through the gears feels like operating a well-oiled bolt action on a rifle. It’s such a joy to use over and over again, you’ll find yourself shifting up and down, needlessly, just to feel it again and again. The clutch is also light and has a nice engagement, making it easy to use.
If there was a complaint, the pedals aren’t placed as well as they could be for heel-and-toe. I don’t have big feet, so I typically use the left and right side of my foot while heel-and-toeing, rather than my actual heel and toe. Though, I couldn’t reach comfortably in the MX-5, either way. Though, it wasn’t too bad and by no means a deal-breaker. By comparison though, BMW pedal boxes are almost perfect for heel-and-toe, which is ironic because all BMW’s have auto rev-matching and the MX-5 does not.
On the road, the Mazda MX-5 RF is a joy to drive. The spindly-thin steering wheel provides a light weight but good feedback and direct response. Chuck it into a corner, the front end bits well, the car rolls just a bit and the rear end rotates on throttle in a beautifully linear fashion. It’s refreshing to drive a car that just gives you exactly what you put in. No variable steering or adjustable drive modes. It’s just a great-driving car, with one setting and one type of response. I wish BMW would make cars like this. Plus, it’s so light and nimble that it feels unflappable. It seems as if you can put it into a corner at any speed and you’ll come out the other side unharmed. It helps that it has an as-standard limited-slip differential.
Despite the high praise, the MX-5 RF isn’t perfect. With the top down, wind noise is unbearable past 65 mph. It gets too blustery, thanks to the targa top rather that just having a topless convertible. With the top up, there’s far too much road and wind noise in the cabin at any speed. So this isn’t a good highway car or cruising car. Which is a shame because it rides well, thanks to it weighing about as much as a roll of quarters, and would be great fun to slice through traffic with.
After driving the BMW M3 Competition Package and Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, the Mazda MX-5 RF was a breath of fresh air. A simplistic delight that engaged all the senses. Personally, if I were to buy a Mazda MX-5, it wouldn’t be an RF model. Give me the regular soft-top in Club trim (limited-slip diff and Bilstein shocks) and with cloth seats. That runs just under $30,000. In that spec and at that low price, I don’t think there’s a better driving sports car on the road. Take notice, BMW, and the rest of the auto industry, you can learn a thing or ten from the Mazda MX-5.