2020 Mazda MX-5 RF: The best ‘affordable’ sports car in the world

BOSTON — Mazda loves to remind us that it makes the best-selling two-seater sports car in history. The company mentions this in just about every press release it issues on the Miata. It’s even certified by the Guinness Book of World Records.

With more than a million units sold over the past thirty years, the Miata — or MX-5 in the rest of the world — has been a reliable pick for folks looking for an authentic sports car experience at an affordable price. Lotus founder Colin Chapman said his theory on race car design was to “simplify, then add lightness.” Mazda’s engineers have remained more-or-less faithful to that idea over the years when it comes to the MX-5.

Small cars don’t need a ton of power, and they’re a joy to drive. The 2020 MX-5 sports a 181-horsepower, 151 lb-ft four-cylinder engine paired to a six-speed manual (or a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters, but what you really want is the manual). My test unit this week — a luxury-focused MX-5 Grand Touring — came with a limited-slip differential, a sport-tuned suspension with Bilstein shocks, front- and rear-stabilizer bars, and, of course, rear-wheel drive. It’s not necessary to understand what all that stuff does to enjoy the car, though it’s an impressive list of tech.

There’s a running joke in car journalism that when someone asks which car they should buy, the answer is always “Miata” regardless of whether the buyer is a 70-year old retiree or a housewife with three kids. I don’t know if that’s strictly true, but the MX-5 will put a smile (and a sunburn) on your face regardless of who you are.

My fully-loaded manual transmission Grand Touring RF test unit priced out at a a whopping $35,345, but included a wide array of lux features like automatic windshield wipers and high beams, leather everything inside the (tiny) cockpit, and a nine-speaker Bose stereo system that included speakers built-in to the headrests so you can hear your tunes even with the top down.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support is new for 2020, though there’s no good place to put your phone. Or a cup of coffee. Or a handbag or really anything else except for two humans. It’s really tight in there. The cupholders are two bits of plastic that go behind your elbow on the center armrest, requiring a stretching maneuver that wouldn’t be out of place in a yoga studio to retrieve your beverage. There’s also a diminutive “glove box” behind the cupholders that’s good for holding a tube of sunscreen, your car registration, and very little else.

The trunk isn’t spacious but it’ll swallow a rollaboard suitcase easily enough, and the RF’s hardtop doesn’t affect the trunk at all which is a big plus.

The ride is firm but pleasant, with a far smoother and more refined ride than the similarly sized Toyota 86 that I reviewed a few weeks ago. This is the car for people who think comfort is a feature, and are willing to trade a bit of time in the slalom or g’s on the skid pad to not have their spine ruined.

The six-speed manual transmission is a delight, reminding me why it’s fun to have a stick shift. Not many folks will use their MX-5 as a commuter car, so there are almost no downsides to the manual tranny. Gear changes are quick and easy, and the clutch is incredibly forgiving. Third gear is particularly wonderful, as is the rev-happy naturally aspirated Skyactiv-G engine that scores an EPA-estimated 26/34/29 city/highway/combined.

The exhaust isn’t noisy, but it make a nice burble, particularly with the top down. And I do have to call out that top. The RF — or Retractable Fastback — is the MX-5 to buy. Not only is it stupidly good looking, but you get the best of both worlds: When the top is down, you get 93 million miles of blue sky. But when you put it back up, you’re in a sports coupe that’s almost quiet and refined.

The roof can open and close in just 13 seconds, though you do need to be stopped for it to operate. It looks especially good in Mazda’s Polymetal Gray paint scheme.

I love convertibles. I love the MX-5. I love the RF. I love 93 million miles of blue sky. And if you go take one for a test drive, I promise you’ll love it too.

Photos courtesy of Mazda
About Jordan Golson 61 Articles
Jordan Golson is North State Journal's automotive reporter. He covers cars - both foreign and domestic - from around the globe.