Most automakers have sport packages, but how many offer genuine sports cars like the Miata? Modern Mazdas generally deliver sportiness in an attractive package, and those two traits work well together in the 2017 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF. “RF” stands for Retractable Fastback, a body style that elevates the Miata’s visual appeal. But how does the driving experience change when you opt for a six-speed automatic transmission? We drove 2017 MX-5 Miata RF automatic and manual models during the Pebble Beach car week to find out.
The RF is the more exclusive body style, right?
Actually, no. So far this calendar year, Mazda tells us the traditional Miata softtop body style is selling about evenly compared to the RF.
The traditional Miata is the way to go if your budget is tight. The $25,790 Sport base model isn’t offered on the RF, which carries a base price of $32,430 in Club form. That’s $2,755 more than a non-RF Miata Club. Go for the slightly more relaxed Grand Touring trim, and the price climbs to $33,495, or $2,555 more than a non-RF Miata. If you want to appreciate the Miata’s sporty rear-drive package without the six-speed manual transmission, a six-speed auto is $1,480 on the soft-top-only Sport, $730 on the Club, and $1,205 on the Grand Touring.
It Auto Be Good …
Before you enter the Miata’s Sport mode, the six-speed automatic is already responsive in most situations. The shift knob itself looks a bit like a manual transmission shifter, although if you were looking to hide your Miata’s automatic transmission, the PRND to the left of the shift boot gives it away. I wish the manual modes didn’t auto upshift—there’s a manual gate on the shift stalk, and the car has quick-reacting paddle shifters—but overall, this is a good automatic.
… But You Should Still Consider the Manual
Depending on your situation, however, the manual still deserves consideration. The automatic is good, but it highlights the engine’s limits. Instead of being more involved in the driving experience and using a superb shifter, you put your foot down on the accelerator pedal and wait for the car’s 155 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque to go to work. I didn’t find the Miata RF as underpowered when I drove the manual-transmission model because I wasn’t as focused on acceleration.
So far, 59 percent of RF buyers have chosen the manual, which Mazda says is much more than the last-gen Miata’s hardtop model. Softtop buyers (since January) have gone with the manual about 65 percent of the time.
Motor Trend has tested the Miata softtop accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds and the RF in 6.4 seconds. Both of those cars had six-speed manuals; a Grand Touring softtop with a six-speed auto reached 60 mph in 6.8 seconds, so a Miata RF with an automatic might take more than 7.0 seconds to hit 60 mph.
The MX-5 Miata in RF form is way more of a boulevard star than the regular model. While at dinner off Highway 1 in Monterey one night, I watched as another diner parked his car and, mesmerized, walked straight to the Machine Gray Metallic Miata RF I was driving (and not to the beautiful Jaguar E-Type droptop he had to drive past to park).
I like the Miata RF’s styling, too, but could do without the predictable effect those extra panels have on rear visibility. What would be a blind-spot-free lane change on the regular Miata with its top down requires a tad more work on the RF for drivers who look behind themselves to supplement what the mirrors show.
Is It Ready Yet?
Part of the Miata’s appeal is its two-second manual top operation. On the Miata RF, the top takes a respectable 13 seconds to stow or return back to its coupelike form. That’s fine, but I really wish the top could be operated at speeds higher than its 6-mph limit. Softtop convertible competitors with tops that function up to about 30 mph provide the freedom of going top up/down at a stoplight without worry of a green light appearing faster than you thought it would—just accelerate slowly, and the car will continue its folding or unfolding. When Motor Trend first drove the MX-5 Miata RF, Mazda told us that the low maximum speed helps eliminate the possibility of long hair getting swept into the mechanicals.
Double Check This Before You Buy
The Miata wouldn’t be the fun-to-drive sports car it is if Mazda tried to cater to all body types and heights. That’s why I’m not going to fault the Miata for not fitting me (I’m nearly 6’5″), but anyone over 6 feet should really take care to find a comfortable driving position before driving away from the dealership and toward your favorite curvy road. Really, though, this is something consumers should do on every car, whether it’s a Miata, CX-9, or F-150.
The RF model, by the way, has 36.8 inches of headroom to the regular Miata’s 37.4 inches, but they both have about 4.5 cubic feet of trunk space.
The Miata I’d Buy
If I were interested in the Miata and could fit my above-average-height self inside easier, I would skip the RF model. I can see why it’s already so popular within the Miata lineup, with a hard top that provides more security and added style. Even so, I want the ability to drive top-down and, at a whim or the sight of traffic ahead, put the top back up at speed.
“My” Miata would be a manual-transmission, softtop variant in either the Club or Grand Touring trim. And as much as I like Mazda’s new signature Machine Gray Metallic exterior color, I’d opt for a brighter color to maximize the appeal of the body-colored panels on the tops of the interior door panels.
Read more about the Miata:
See more of the 2017 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF here: