2017 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF: Driving nirvana with an asterisk

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The Mazda MX-5 Miata is the best-selling and most polarizing roadster in history. It’s driving nirvana for its vast fan club. For others, it’s a too small, overrated phenomenon.

But the MX-5’s numbers give credence to its enduring popularity. Since its debut in 1989, sales have averaged slightly more than 37,000 units per year through 2016. That’s minimal compared to top yearly sellers like the nearly 800,000 Ford F-150 trucks sold last year.

The 2017 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF has a new look inside and outside plus a retractable hardtop
The 2017 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF has a new look inside and outside plus a retractable hardtop. All images © James Raia/2017

Yet the little two-seat sports car has retained its loyal following for nearly three decades. The overriding reason: The soft-top convertible, hardtop and new RF (retractable fastback) define motoring fun at a fair price. The MSRP for the RF trim, my test vehicle, is $33,825. The RF trim isn’t a full convertible. Only the overhead roof panel and rear window retract; the bodywork buttresses and horizontal bar behind the passengers are stationary.

It’s hard to fully understand the MX-5 Miata craze. It has a small trunk, minimal leg room, tiny storage areas and oddly placed, flimsy cupholders. For jockeys, flyweight boxers or anyone else similarly petite, the restyled Mazda is manageable. For everyone else, it’s hard to enter and more difficult to exit.

For some, it doesn’t matter. A few months ago, while driving the MX-5 Miata soft-top convertible, I parked at a local grocery store next to a guy who was getting into his MX-5 while I was exiting my vehicle. I smiled and commented that he was pretty tall for a little car. His response: “I’m 6-foot-4, but this car is worth every second of it.”

Powered by a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine with 155 horsepower, the MX-5 Miata is offered in Sport, Club, Grand Touring trim and the RF. It’s called the MX-5 Miata only in the United States market to maintain its longstanding traditional name. It’s MX-5 in other markets.

A six-speed manual transmission is standard; a six-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters is optional. The 0-60 miles per hour standard is accomplished in 6.5 seconds. With its six-speed automatic transmission, the MX-5 Miata is rated at 26 miles per gallon in city driving, 35 miles per gallon on the highway.

Standard equipment includes: LED headlights and taillights, air-conditioning, push-button ignition, a height-adjustable driver seat and cruise control. Blind spot monitoring in cross traffic alert, a lane departure warning system and heated side mirrors are also standard as a nearly a dozen other technology features.

Slit-style headlights and tail lights are new as is the overall sharply angled body. The interior has more modern lines as well as traditional dials and gauges and a manual handbrake.

Maneuvering a small, rear-wheel drive car with precise steering while a few inches off the ground provides the Mazda’s appeal. Press a small lever on the left of the console and the Japanese carmaker promotes that the hardtop retracts in 13 seconds. That’s three seconds faster than any of my many attempts.

But what’s a few seconds when to goal is to drive MX-5 Miata with its top down on a winding country road?

The Mazda convertible lineup is impractical for much else. As a 6-foot, 200-pound driver, I struggled to get in and out of the car. There’s little room to stretch out or even to slightly extend limbs. There’s a substantial blind spot for drivers looking over their left shoulder.

What Others Say:

“This is an easy car to feel connected to when you’re driving it. The driving position is near ideal, save for the lack of a telescoping steering wheel. The position of the pedals, the wheel and the shifter are in harmony with one another.” — edmunds.com

The Weekly Driver’s Final Words:

“The MX-5 Miata is the antithesis of elegant driving. But with RF trim, the roadster has a new trait: It’s an ideal weekend getaway year-round. It’s for drivers who enjoy driving.”

Facts & Figures: 2017 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF

Acceleration: 0-60 mph, 6.5 seconds.
Airbags: (4)
Fuel economy: 26 mpg (city), 35 mpg (highway), 29 mpg (combined) six-speed automatic transmission.
Horsepower: 155.
Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price: $33,825.00.
Manufacturer’s Web site: www.mazdausa.com.
Price As Tested: $34,960.00.
Warranty: Bumper to bumper, 3 years/36,000 miles; Powertrain, 6 years/60,000 miles; Corrosion, 5 years/unlimited miles; Roadside Assistance, 3 years/36,000 miles.

 

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