Prepare for lift off
Thirteen seconds between me and the sky, sounds like an advertisement for space travel or a title song from some indie band. In fact thirteen seconds is the time it takes me to open the roof on the 2017 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF. Which ironically is eight seconds slower than a soft top Miata takes to open my view of the heavens. Well the sun’s light travels in eight minutes to reach my eye, so it seems petty to complain about the additional eight seconds the Miata RF takes to fill my eyes with sunshine. However in addition to the Miata RF’s slower opening time, the RF cost roughly 2,000 dollars more than a similar equipped manual top Miata and it weighs just over 100 lbs more (2,445 lbs vs 2,332 lbs). The Miata has thrived as a sports car because its simplicity, low weight and relative inexpensiveness, but the RF seems to go against those values that define the Miata, so is the RF worth it?
Our journey begins with a press of a button, not for the roof but for the engine on this 2017 Grand Touring spec Miata RF delivered in Machine Gray courtesy of the Zoom Zoom loving folks at Mazda. The Grand Touring spec has black leather wrapped seats a 4.6 inch color instrument screen and a large rear view mirror that impedes visibility slightly. Grand Touring spec Miatas seem counter productive in Mazda’s mass reduction strategy but some people require a bit of luxury and if that sells a few more Miatas then so be it. But I digress lets return to the engine start button, press and hold until the engine roars to life or rather purrs to life. Next guide your right hand to the roof switch, hold for Thirteen seconds and either watch the world above you slide into view or watch the opening animation on the left meter cluster regardless of where your eyes fall the whole process is mesmerizing like watching a space shuttle launch, it never bores.
Someone once said if you don’t look back at your car and smile when you walk away, then you bought the wrong car. Every time I walked away from the RF I just stood and stared or even took pictures. The exterior of the Miata RF is simply stunning it makes every parking lot a photo session and for a few days my Instagram feed was only the Miata RF. In reality even the soft top Miata is gorgeous but the rear haunches of RF’s roof add an exotic flare that is missing in the soft top. For some people the looks alone inspire the purchase of the RF, but the interior and driving dynamics matter more for me so lets continue.
I daily drove a NA Miata for a few years in college, it was my autocross car, my bed between classes, occasional date car, and I could even fit a 9ft long board in my Miata. The NA Miata was like a big bathtub inside it was sparse but functional. When Mazda began developing the new Miata they benchmarked the NA Miata and the bathtub feel has been maintained but now its like a bathtub with some soapy bubbles and jets, however I doubt the Miata RF will carry my surfboard.
Mazda really understands how to design a car around the human body not just for comfort but to engage the driver in the act of driving. Americans are generally larger than our roadster loving friends in other parts of the world and Mazda acknowledge this by placing the parking brake on the right side of center console to provide American drivers more hip room. In addition to extra hip room, the parking brake location improves the flow of movement from steering wheel to shifter. Speaking of the steering wheel, airbag suppliers have done wonders in packaging to fit within this small diameter steering wheel. The new Miata’s small diameter steering wheel provides more leg room, greater visibility, and more direct steering, my NA felt like a school bus in comparison. My favorite feature in the interior is the door upper panel because it is a perfectly shaped armrest as my hand flows through the accelerator induced wind.
There are a few flaws in the interior, first the Mazda infotainment controls are easily bumped by my right arm as I shift between gears. At other times if I tried to control the system the knob is in an awkward place that forces me to crane my arm back unnaturally. The ails of the infotainment system can be remedied by opting for the entry level model. The second issue is the seat, I daily drive a Scion FRS which in many ways can be considered a competitor to the Miata, but the seats in the FRS are far superior to the Miata seats. The Miata seats are missing bolsters behind the shoulder blades that support the arms and reduce fatigue from driving at 10 and 2. Mazda can fix the seat issue by offering the Recaro seats available in other markets. These flaws are not specific to the RF but one minor flaw is specific to the RF.
The RF being more of a Targa limits the near 360 degree view offered in the soft top Miata. The soft top Miata is like riding a bicycle with a normal helmet, while the Miata RF is like riding a bicycle with a full face motorcycle helmet, still good but kind of isolating and generally overkill.
In the end the interior is a medium where driver and car interface and regardless of a few minor short comings the Miata RF interior is one that exemplifies the joys of driving.
The Miata is like free form dancing, you don’t really think so much you just flow and respond to your partner. From the steering wheel, the shifter and the pedals everything is working in unison to get me down the road smiling. Shifting gears in a Miata is probably my favorite thing to do, each shift is met with subtle mechanical resistance as the shift fork engages and readies the transmission. This resistance is translated directly into my hand through a golf ball sized leather wrapped shift knob. Sliding through gears is such a joy I find myself shifting and dancing on the pedals just because. Drivers around me probably think I am either trying to race them or I do not know how to drive because every downshift is precluded by a blip of the throttle, no I am not racing I am simply communicating with this lovely little machine.
As we zip and dart through the streets of LA we blend in with exotics and other over priced status symbols so rampant in this area, however a key difference between these other cars in the smiles on our faces. In the early morning hours before the traffic giant begins to stir every on ramp feels like the main straight on a racetrack, pedal pinned to the floor, grin ear to ear even though I just barely passed the speed limit.
Cruising on the freeway, the cabin is in a flurry I can feel the air rush in and sweep around me. The sensation of driving a roadster on the freeway is not lost in the RF but I would agree it is a few decibels quieter than a soft top Miata. In truth a Miata on the freeway is never fun, freeways are straight, people drive their SUVs too fast and I have few reasons to down shift, I cannot wait for the off ramp…
Exiting towards La Canada Flintridge, I blip the throttle and down shift through the gears the engine responds like a cat getting its ear scratched. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is near here, but we have other heights to ascend. The Angeles Crest Highway offers stunning views and sublime curves as it snakes its way through the Angeles National Forest. As we begin to ascend the mountain, the air becomes crisp and I move the temp gauge a little to the right. The road curves and the steering responds despite being electronic the steering transmits a fair amount of information however it does not speak to me on the same level that the FRS/BRZ twins do. The wheel is thin, maybe too thin but its size is a reminder that the Miata is not a 500 horsepower , 4000 pound beast but rather a lithe machine that requires subtle inputs to generate the largest smiles.
We continue to climb, a sinister looking black Honda S2000 passes in the opposite direction its driver waves as we pass, mutual respect on this fine road. The Angeles Crest continues on for several more miles but we cut off and head up to Mount Wilson Observatory. There are even less drivers up here and the road is littered with tire piercing rocks from earlier rock slides. Edwin Hubble used to visit here and peer through the Hooker Telescope, mimicking Hubble we peer through the RF’s open top at the pale blue sky. The beautiful thing about Los Angeles is that just a few miles from a gridlocked concrete maze exist silent wooded hills and stunning views.
Reflecting on the Miata RF as we drive down the hill, I can honestly say I love this car but is my love specific to the Miata RF or the Miata in general? The Miata represents all that is good in the world, I know that seems like a stretch for a car, but the Miata engages and communicates with people. The Miata’s openness connects us to the natural beauty of the world. With its lack of interior space we occasionally bump shoulders with our passengers reminding us that we are not alone and sure we might have to speak up so our voices don’t get lost in the wind, but because of this the Miata makes us better listeners. The Miata is about going places, not for the sake of going but for the journey that ensues when we put the roof down and let the stars guide us. I applaud Mazda for maintaining the essence of the Miata in the RF, but in doing so Mazda gives no real reason to buy the RF over the soft top. So Mazda I will take a Miata Club with the BBS Package and can you make it Mariner Blue please?
Pricing for the 2017 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF starts at $31,555 for the Club version, while the top Grand Touring trim starts at $32,620. If you choose the six-speed automatic version, pricing starts at $32,285 for the Club and $33,825 for the Grand Touring.