Mazda Miata RF Club Automatic by The Road Beat -
Sports car brilliance disarmed by a drowsy automatic
Words and Pictures by Mitchell Weitzman
I’m not a good bowler, never have been. In fact, I’m lucky to crack 100. Luckily, most of my friends aren’t talented at the Dude’s favorite game either. But, what we never do is put up the bumpers. Why? It makes it boring and takes away the skill and drama of it. Plus, I rather enjoy seeing my bud hit the gutter so hard it jumps into another lane. Disarming a brilliant and pure sports car with an automatic slushbox is the automotive equivalent of putting up the bumpers.
Miatas are not for everyone, I get it. There are legions of fans throughout the world though, followed by legions of animosity towards them, but who also have not driven one. I for one have always been a fan of their simple purity and delicious handling. Yes, they’re not fast, but they’re more than just about raw power. The Miata was a second-coming of the traditional British roadster, with a focus on lightness, driver connectivity, and powering the rear wheels at a time when most affordable cars all switched to front-wheel drive. Fast forward twenty years to the current ‘ND’ generation Miata, and we have this RF Club before us.
This new model would seem as sacrilege in the eyes of its grandfathers. What, with a heavy folding hardtop in place of the regular canvas soft-top, and an interior anointed with creature comforts like heated seats, bluetooth, Apple Carplay/Android Auto, and even a lane departure warning system, it all adds extra pounds. But, let’s be real here, as the RF’s metal roof only adds morsels of weight to the car. In fact, this car as equipped is still under 2,500 pounds. And that’s a modern car with all sorts of safety equipment and new crash standards. It is one of the lightest new cars you can buy today.
And, the RF looks downright svelte in this rightfully-named Soul Red paint. Looks are subjective, but this is a very good looking ride either top up or top down. The flying buttresses on the rear deck harken back to classic Italian coupes, as does the fastback profile. It’s a very graceful looking bit of kit, being neat and tidy, like a well-trimmed bonsai tree cut by a katana. Graceful is hard to come by in Japanese cars currently, with more adopting the aggressive, (and at times, vulgarity) of new Civics and Camrys.
The inside has enough to make it modern, but this is not the luxury that Mazda bestows on its 6 sedan and CX SUVs. But hey, compared to the original, it’s a penthouse draped in George Costanza’s favorite velvet. The seats offer a lot of support even if it feels like the top half curves away from your back. Hands on the leather-wrapped wheel and it just feels like it’s exactly where your body belongs. An interesting touch are the inside upper portions of the door, which have body-matching Soul Red. This looks cool when viewed from outside, but it can cause unwanted reflections while driving. Not sure I would want one with that option.
Mazda’s infotainment is easy to use with its rotary-knob controller, but can be somewhat laggy sometimes if we’re nitpicking. But in the middle lies this Miata’s one weakness: an automatic gearstick. Just as I got excited to get under way in this new Miata on my favorite local roads, I underestimated the disappointment that came with slotting it into ‘D’ and letting the old 6-speed torque converter automatic slush me away.
You’re already buying an uncompromising, impractical, and noisy sports car, so why have an automatic in one? It betrays the entire ethos of this vehicle. Even with the greatly precise and tactile steering, neutral and adjustable handling, it feels neutered. You know the dementors in Harry Potter, the ones that suck out your soul? Exactly. It’s not even a terrible automatic - a dual-clutch would be better - but this is not how a Miata is meant to be driven.
Okay, automatic gripes out of the way, let’s get on then. Yes, it’s got a fabulous chassis. What’s even more delightful on the road though is the lack of harshness. The suspension is almost soft, allowing more body roll than one would expect of a sports car. However, on the road this allows more adjustability and forgiveness, as well as the ability to lean harder on it and explore the limits at non-outrageous (illegal) speeds. Overall grip isn’t huge with skinny 205 width tires, but the way the car breaks away is so natural that it seemingly encourages hard cornering at every conceivable opportunity. On the track, which Miatas are known for, it would be too soft, but that’s nothing a set of sway bars can’t fix if Laguna Seca is in your future.
For a comparison of this car’s handling prowess, I daily drive a Nissan 370z, which isn’t perfect by any means. But, as similarly priced sports cars go, the Miata has an immediacy and eagerness to the steering and chassis that a 370Z lacks. The 370z also weighs nearly 1,000 pounds more and you can feel it, lumbering around lazily and sloppily as you push it harder. This is why weight is so important. And, because it’s so light, you don’t need ludicrously stiff suspension to attempt to control it, which is why the Miata has a better ride quality.
Powering the RF is is an inline-four like all Miatas before it, but now with a lot more horsepower at 181. The ND originally launched with 155 in 2015, but a mid-life update gave a decent 26 horsepower boost. Redline is a high 7,500 RPM from the the high-compression SkyActiv engine, but it doesn’t exactly beg for revs. It’s surprisingly torquey at 151 foot-pounds, giving it decent enough oomph at lower RPMs. And for a four-cylinder, it’s reasonably refined, avoiding the nauseous buzzing vibrations and agricultural sound of other manufacturers’ similar engines. Freeway mileage was excellent, teetering right on 41 MPG and averaging 31 in my commute without even trying.
As far as raw measurements go, that leisurely automatic prevents hard launches and snappy gear changes, so 0-60 took 7 seconds with 50-70 passing needing 3.7. The standard manual allows for far quicker acceleration, shaving a full second off this automatic's 0-60 time as seen in prior testing. Either way, it just doesn’t feel fast enough in 2020, and just frankly not fast enough to make the automatic interesting in any way. Other cars have moved on to be so much quicker now that it really exposes the need for more power. 220 would be perfect. Normally, I’d defend a naturally-aspirated engine, but this one, while smooth and flexible, lacks the charisma of older, screaming V-Tec Honda engines. A turbo Miata is likely the way forward for the next generation.
Now, the road manners. With a folding hardtop, one should expect this RF to be quieter than the rag-top brethren. And you would be correct, but don’t think it’s now some luxury cruiser. While not silent in any sense of the word, it is noticeably less loud with the roof up on the freeway next to the rag-top. I tried the roof folded open on the freeway one morning and instantly regretted it, such was the wind noise, so I’d reserve the roof down more for cruising at 60 or less.
The Miata RF Club is a sports car through and through, albeit one blighted by the dreariness of an automatic transmission in this example. That aside, I will be grading this car’s star rating with the automatic not considered. As a manual, it’s a solid 4 star car. The automatic…don’t ask me what I’d give it.
The biggest shortcoming of this Miata, though, is the price. As equipped, it’s $35,185. That’s a lot for a Miata, or anything this impractical and with a little four-cylinder. A Mustang GT and LT1 Camaro start at essentially the same price. Heck, a Nissan 370z starts at significantly less. It’s a lot either you look at it, but none of those offer wind in your hair thrills while carving up the twisties. And if you do want that, there aren’t any other real roadsters to choose from besides the wildly more expensive Boxster and Z4.
While the Club is seen as a top-tier trim on the regular Miata, the RF is only offered in Club and Grand Touring (add another grand…) trims. It just doesn’t seem like good value compared to the soft-top that comes in over $3,000 less for the equivalent Club. But, whatever you do, just please buy one with a manual and enjoy the open top thrills the way it was meant to. If you’re planning on a Miata with an automatic, you might as well go for the superb and dynamic Mazda 6 sedan instead.
-The Road Beat
2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF Club
As-tested Price: $35,185
The Road Beat Rating (manual): 4/5
Pros: Wind in your hair motoring, keen and resolved chassis
Cons: Needs more power to keep up with hatchbacks, RF is expensive
Verdict: As long you get the manual, the Miata retains its open-top thrills in a sexy, but expensive package.