A debate continues to rage in Miataland, that Hobbit-sized shire in which every driver is carefree and happy, whether or not hair sprouts atop their accelerator foot: Should you choose the traditional soft top Mazda MX-5 Miata, or the hardtop RF?
That debate has consumed The Drive’s office as well, with Will Sabel Courtney casting a recent vote for classicism and canvas. (I’m not sure why it matters, because lanky Will barely fits in a Miata anyway). The soft top’s key advantages are less weight—the RF’s hardtop adds 113 pounds—and less mechanical complexity: In a one-handed maneuver, a driver whips the roof open as insouciantly as a nudist flings off a Speedo.
My personal vote hinges largely on geography: If I’m living in Laguna Beach, and there’s no downside to four-season Miata driving, then sure, give me a soft top. But maybe because I grew up in Detroit, where I once owned a second-generation Miata—and because I live in Brooklyn today—my frigid northern heart leans toward the hardtop. Its pros and cons became clear when I drove a 2019 Miata RF Grand Touring (shod with Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires) to the Skip Barber Winter Driving Clinic in northern Connecticut on a miserably rainy, foggy day in early January.
First, a sad disclaimer: After more than 25 years of driving Miatas, this was my first-ever test car with an automatic transmission. I took my first sight of that PRNDL console lever as a personal affront—I had assumed the Mazda would be a manual model—and the Miata’s plastic, wafer-thin paddle shifters weren’t much consolation. But I realized that this particular Miata take was about choosing a favorite topper, not a favorite transmission. (Any Miata fan knows the correct choice there). And my first woodsy run in the Miata reminded me that this is a momentum car, anyway—an ultimate training machine for rookies who think they’ve got track driving all figured out, but actually don’t know shit about how to go fast. I see them all the time, the ones who show up to club tracks in their freshly-purchased 911s, and can’t understand why drivers in, yes, Miatas, are dusting their superior Porsches. So while I dearly missed having a clutch pedal in the wilds of Connecticut, I also realize that I can run just about everything in third gear, with a little bit of second in slower corners; if you’re preserving momentum right, there’s really not much shifting involved.
That’s even more true with the Mazda’s new-for-2019 engine, which has improved punch that lets you run in lower gears more often through the twisty stuff, while requiring fewer downshifts on the highway. I drove a fancy, leather-wrapped RF Grand Touring edition, which starts from $34,320 and hit $35,900 with extras. For 2019, every Mazda adds a standard rear-view camera, and the telescoping steering wheel (in addition to tilt) that fans have begged for since the car’s debut 30 years ago. Those stick-shift loyalists will definitely want the new GT-S pack—offered only with manuals—which adds the Mazda’s most critical performance bits—Bilstein dampers, a limited-slip differential and a front shock tower brace—for just $750. The RF GT-S adds a hand-painted black roof as well (and it looks great).
But the new 2.0-liter inline four is the real draw for 2019, with 181 horsepower versus 155 for the old engine. A 26-hp gain may not sound huge, but in a roughly 2,332-pound car (in manual soft top trim), a 17-percent power bump is significant. Pistons and connecting rods are lightened, the crankshaft stiffened; a reworked exhaust manifold cuts engine pumping losses by 30 percent, while new fuel injectors and intake ports heighten combustion, and a dual-mass flywheel aids smoothness and response. By the imperfect metric of stoplight acceleration runs, the Mazda isn’t markedly faster: You’re looking at a roadster that can spool out a 0-60 mile-per-hour run in about 5.7 seconds, one or two tenths quicker than before. The heavier hardtop is about 0.2 seconds slower than the soft top to 60 mph. But it’s the way the Mazda makes its newfound power that makes the difference: Where the old engine felt pretty gutless below 3,500 rpm, and turned laggy and thin as it approached redline, the new engine has real mid-range punch. The Mazda now pulls eagerly to its 7,500-rpm rev limiter, 700 rpm higher than before, with no sense of strain. It sounds better, too, with a new exhaust system bringing a rowdier four-cylinder bark.
Call me superficial, but the visual transformation brought by the hardtop can’t be denied; it’s not quite caterpillar-to-butterfly, but it’s close. With its body-colored roof and flying-buttress rear, the RF just looks sexy. The soft top Miata has been called many things—cute, adorable, or more-sexist jibes—but never “sexy.” As happens every time I drive an RF, people came to drool all over it—including Danny, my Mini-driving neighbor—yet expressed total surprise that this was a Miata, or even a Mazda. The RF looks like a car that Alfa Romeo or Jaguar might have conjured, especially in flattering colors like my tester’s candy-apple Soul Red Metallic, a $595 upcharge.
In cooler climates especially, even convertible fanatics would acknowledge that the majority of driving is done with the top raised: at night, in uncooperative weather, or even when the midday sun would fry you and a passenger. During those uncountable hours, the hardtop is easily the better Miata, because it’s nearly as quiet and vibration-free as a conventional coupe. Long drives and urban commutes are relaxing instead of wearying, and you can hold a conversation without raising your voice. With rain and sleet pelting my RF, I was grateful to have the hardtop roof over my head. The RF’s pretty C-pillars do create blind spots, but the raised soft top is no better.
I’ll absolutely concur with Will that the soft top Miata stakes its claim on top-down driving, with the beautifully minimalist simplicity of its fabric roof. The RF’s targa-style arrangement doesn’t offer the full al fresco exposure of the soft top. A bit annoyingly, its complex roof won’t open or close at speeds above six mph, because Mazda was worried that some passenger’s long, windblown hair might get snagged in the machinery. But the RF’s biggest demerit is how its exposed C-pillars act as giant wind collectors: Picture an open catcher’s mitt, with just a bit of webbing in the form of a small rear backlight to let air through. Above 70 mph especially, the turbulence can get heavy, though some owners swear that certain side-window elevations will alleviate the issue.
Fortunately, whichever model one chooses, the Mazda is a star among reasonably priced cars. The shifter-clutch combo rises to Porsche heights of perfection. The chassis balance is that of a 95-pound Olympic gymnast, twirling and flying, yet fully in control. Body roll is surprisingly ample, but that’s part of the old-school charm. And the Miata seems to take up barely more lane space than a motorcycle, so there’s always more room to go faster and push harder.
Having spent most of a day drifting and slaloming at Skip Barber’s school, I departed the track with my confidence high and this balanced, forgiving Miata at my disposal. I immediately realized, first, how easy it is to slide the Miata on moistened pavement, and second, how I should probably stop sliding, before some Connecticut cop with no sense of adventure spotted me.
Now, some reviewers insist on citing a $6,600 upcharge for the RF—but that’s BS, because they’re comparing a base soft top to an RF that’s only offered in up-level Club or Grand Touring models. On that apples-to-apples basis, the RF Club (at $33,240) and RF Grand Sport (at $34,230) add an average $2,650 to the soft top’s price. Are the RF’s arresting style, quieter cabin, and all-season advantages worth the extra $2,650? Only your heart—and perhaps your zip code—can answer that.
Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence.firstname.lastname@example.org