2022 Mazda Miata RF review: showing its age
I love the current Miata, but it's nigh time for a new one
2022 Mazda Miata RF Club review with The Road Beat
Words and pictures by Mitchell Weitzman
What is it?
The Mazda MX-5 Miata, the venerable roadster that invented the modern and affordable RWD sports car. The ND-generation, now on sale since 2015 already, or, when Avengers: Age of Ultron came out, now sees updated rivals and a changing landscape that make Miatas the old guard of the bunch. This RF has the power-folding hard targa top, so it's not quite a real roadster like a standard MX-5, and has the refined Grand Touring package rather than the Brembo and Recaro-equipped Club models. Oh, and this one has a six-speed manual and stickers for $36,015 with destination factored in.
The Miata remains a driver-focused sports car to the fullest, thanks to its mission of giving you more by the way of less. It's light on mass, with an estimated curb weight of around only 2,500 pounds, an enchanting number in an age of heavyweight vehicles (did you read that the new C63 AMG weighs damn-near 5,000 pounds?!?). The Miata is physically tiny, too, at just 154" long to make use of compact parking spots to great effect while also making it incredibly easy to place on the road. Behind the wheel of any new Miata gives you the innate sense of being completely in command of your machine and craft - not a bad trait for a sports car.
As I've said before of past Miatas, this RF impresses with its sweet yet playful handling, letting the driver carve whatever line they choose through a corner. The steering is quick and precise, and isn't annoyingly light either, adding some substance to the controls. The gearshift is easy to learn and the shifter rod slots into each gear with textbook definition and tactility. Some might find the throws a little long, but I rather like the old-school feedback obtained from the shift pattern. Heel-toe downshifts and throttle blips are done like second-nature, being hard to resist at any and every opportunity, especially to display that you chose right and bought a manually-equipped example #savethemanuals.
Throw the Miata into a series of bends, and with some authority (speed), and you'll be delighted by the moderate grip on offer and soft suspension, both working together to give endearing feedback to the driver. By having some body roll and non-sticky tires, it gives the chance to really lean on a corner and approach the limits of adhesion with ease; Grippy tires and no roll would actually ruin the character and rip the fun right out of this car. When you do go a little too hard, or if it's damp out, rotation can come a little abruptly due to the short wheelbase and dimensions, but it's always calm and effortless to either hold it or bring back in line. Traction control can (thank the heavens) be disabled at any time when you so please. When you think of how a sports car should behave in the curves, Miatas continue to set a stirring and sterling example in the traditional sense. There's no electronic wizardry happening here, just plain, old-fashioned fun and balance.
Fuel economy is great from the 2-liter engine, too, averaging a commendable 32 MPG during my week with the little Mazda. If you're looking to save on gas, a Miata can also be your answer for that as well.
What can be improved
The Miata delivers such amazing goods in the driving department, but there are many, many flaws that are growingly worrisome as 2023 is now here.
It just isn't that fast. Sure, Miatas received a power update two years back that raised horsepower to 181, but it just never feels that quick. Don't get me wrong - you can have TONS of fun in one as it is, but after driving the new Toyota 86, it's closest competitor, the Miata's lack of outright oomph is definitely a weak link, made even more apparent by the legions of fast new hatchbacks that are all embracing turbocharging. I like naturally-aspirated engines, so maybe what can be done is either a small electric motor can be added for a substantial 50-horsepower boost, though that would bring unwanted weight, or let engine capacity grow to an 86-matching 2.4-liters as well. I vote the latter. An extra 30-horsepower everywhere would let the Miata sing the same tune, but better, for the rest of the decade. Kind of like the Taylor's Version of her seminal Red album.
The interior is decent for a Miata, but there are many cheap and flimsy bits that now fall short of what I would want in a brand new car in 2023 costing this much. It's quite cramped, too, a given with a Miata, so just be sure you are able to sacrifice this much space and practicality in your own purchase. Trunk space is actually quite usable at least, even with a folding roof eating up volume. There is a storage between the backs of both seats, but this is awkward to use and with rickety plastics as well. A GR86 isn't necessarily a nicer car on the inside, but it is definitely more solid and modern, and one with less rattles.
In the center of the dash is a small infotainment display screen that is not touch-sensitive, so lovers of touchscreens will have to resort to the rotary dial that works pretty well at least. However, the display itself can lag and be slow to respond, often times needing a full second or more to load the next screen. This electronic performance in particular ages the Miata significantly, like bad CGI in older movies.
Even though I praised the soft suspension of the MX-5 that allows for greater driver confidence, the reality is that the ride quality itself is rather poor, being stiff and jiggly on many roads, even emitting a few rattles for a brand new car. You would hope for a cushioned ride because of the featherweight narrative and exhibited body roll, but it's bouncy and rigid on rough roads.
Also of note, in relation to the folding roof, were windows that do not automatically go all the way back up upon putting the roof in place. So, when I had the roof off and the windows up, folding the panel back into the closed position sees to the windows slightly lowering during operation, likely to help make room for and make a better seal against the roof piece upon completion. However, the windows do not go up back once the roof is firmly in place, meaning you have to then roll the windows up yourself. This is very weird considering I had the windows all the way to begin with. Furthermore, I noticed that the windows didn't always go all the back up after simply opening and closing the door. I often would start driving and hear some wind whistles and, sure enough, the windows were cracked (it's normal for two-door cars to have the windows drop a half inch any time the door is opened as they usually don't have a frame around the glass like sedans and other cars usually do). So again, the windows drop a tiny amount, but then didn't go up after closing the door and setting off.
Another item that cannot be ignored is how loud the Miata is. Please be sure you know what you're buying into, as the Miata, with roof up or down, is not a quiet vehicle. With the roof panel folded away, I noticed a strong buffeting behind my left ear for example, and music has to be turned up to surprisingly strong levels to even hear it at all. The RF itself has a roof that can only be electronically operated at walking speeds, so be prepared to slow all the right down when changing your mind or when you want to sing along to Blink-182, but don't want the neighborhood to hear it out of embarrassment. You can forgo the electric roof of the RF for the soft-top standard Miata as well, using simple and effective manual labor instead to tune of only a few seconds.
A confusing verdict
What the Miata does well, it does almost extraordinarily well. For no-frills motoring, wind in your hair, a real mechanical connection between you and the road, the Miata provides all the thrills. But, and this is a big but, the competition for a budget RWD driver's car has surpassed the performance and refinement greatly in the shape of the new 86 and BRZ. And it's not like they're boring now because they're all 'grown-up.' In fact, it's quite the opposite; They're better than ever. And for a totally different flavor of performance car, add to that the arrival of the completely unexpected and impressive Hyundai Elantra N, a FWD sedan with stonking power and an attitude that gets you sent to the Principal's office. However, none of those give the pleasure and sensation of wind-in-you-hair motoring. Actually, with that in mind, the Miata has no rivals except the significantly more expensive BMW Z4 and Porsche Boxster. If you want an affordable convertible sports car, the Miata remains the only choice. For those looking for extra value and want a bare bones, but still mightily fun experience of one, the soft top Miata starts at under $30,000 for a base Sport model.
2022 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF Grand Touring
As-tested price: $36,015
Pros: Fantastic handling; Driver connection
Cons: Unrefined compared to new and updated rivals