When Mazda introduced the MX-5 Miata in 1989, it represented a major step forward in the automotive world. Here was a two-seat droptop that took all the best characteristics of classic British roadsters and felt like a modern car. Now, after 30 years and four generations, Mazda has kept the car up-to-date while finally adding some extra horsepower under the hood. The 2019 MX-5 Miata RF is a substantial departure from the cars first built in 1989, but remains true to its roots where it counts.
Mazda wanted me to drive this MX-5 Miata RF so badly that they dropped one off with a full tank of gas and asked that I drive it in the Old Town Alexandria Scottish Christmas Walk parade.
What Is It?
The 2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF is a two-door, two-seat “roadster.” I put the word in quotes due to the “RF” bit. Most roadsters have a fully retractable roof made of vinyl or cloth. Some have a removable or folding metal hardtop for added insulation and security. The Miata RF has what Mazda calls a “retractable fastback,” in which the center panel of the metal roof folds away with the rear window, leaving two buttresses in place. It feels more like a targa top than a full-on convertible, and retracts in roughly 13 seconds without occupying any trunk space. The 2019 Miata is also available in standard soft top guise.
Aside from the fancy roof, the 2019 Miata RF (everywhere but America, the Miata is an MX-5, but they’re Miatas, dangit) subscribes to the classic formula that Mazda has followed since the first “NA” generation debuted in late 1989 as a 1990 model. Communicative steering, a responsive chassis, and a slick gearbox are all prioritized over outright power. A slightly-obsessive focus on weight helps the car feel light on its feet. My Miata RF “Club” weighed in around 2,400 lbs.
While power has never been a focus, Mazda made changes to the 2.0 liter SkyActiv four-cylinder for 2019. New pistons, connecting rods, valve springs, and exhaust all contribute to the extra 26 horsepower added for the 2019 model year, for a total of 181. My test car came with the standard six-speed manual transmission, and a six-speed automatic with paddles is optional (and slight sacrilege).
My test car was equipped with the $3,770 “Brembo/BBS” package. This included larger front brakes with Brembo calipers, black BBS wheels that would look better in gray, heated, black leather seats and some aerodynamic tweaks thanks to a little body kit. Total MSRP on my test car was about $37,000.
The 2019 Miata RF as a Car
Let’s start with the elephant in the room. The Mazda Miata has always been a small car, and the 2019 RF is no exception. Removing your winter coat substantially increases the interior volume. I’m also a somewhat tall human at 6’1″ and have never been massively comfortable in any Miata of any generation.
That said, the seating position is good. Seats adjust in several directions, including height, and the steering wheel can both tilt and telescope, the latter adjustment also new for 2019. This is easily the most adjustable Miata driver’s seat I’ve experienced.
Mazda’s decision to rework that SkyActiv engine for more power is appreciated. The engine still rewards full use of the tachometer, but doesn’t have to be worked quite so hard in day-to-day driving. The clutch and transmission work together for an almost telepathic feel. This is an easy car to drive.
At speed, the suspension and electric power steering are both communicative. Ride quality was acceptable given the dampers are not adjustable and must be good for both city driving and back-road fun. Steering feel was very good, though it would consistently and markedly firm up around 30 mph.
Infotainment is very good, allowing both a knob a-la-BMW-iDrive and expected touchscreen. The system is older than that of the 2019 Mazda3 I drove earlier this year, but was simple and usable. The touchscreen occasionally failed to register my finger, but I preferred using the knob regardless. Sound quality is very good and speakers are amplified such that music can be heard at highway speed with the roof down. Standard headrest speakers helped with that effort, too, and phone calls were automatically routed to the headrests for easy listening.
The power roof was a hit with passengers and passers-by alike, and I had it down as much as possible. With windows up, the car felt fairly cozy and retained enough heat, allowing for highway drives in 40° weather. I appreciated Mazda’s use of large buttons and knobs, which allowed me to control everything in the cabin while wearing gloves.
The 2019 Miata RF as a Miata
I’m not new to the Miata world. My aunt drove a Montego Blue 1994 when I was a kid. I learned to drive stick in a family friend’s Mariner Blue 1990. I bought a Brilliant Black 1995 as my first car and drove it through college. My dad owns a Dolphin Gray 2013 with retractable hardtop, which he purchased new. A friend purchased an Arctic White 2016 when the “ND” Miata launched. Several friends have owned second-generation “NB” cars that I’ve driven, too.
I had the chance to compare this 2019 Miata RF against a very early example of the first-generation Miata. My friend Taylor picked up a Classic Red 1990 recently, with matching removable hardtop and just 96,000 miles. The car was built in August 1989 and has been maintained but not modified.
Driving the 1990 Miata back-to-back with the 2019 Miata was a neat experience. The older car actually had more headroom, despite a less-adjustable seat and non-adjustable steering column. The steering wheel position was too low and I longed for the adjustable column of the 2019.
The older Miata’s sound system was never a high point, even with the upgraded offerings throughout the first-generation run of cars. The nicest thing I can say about the 1990 is that it produced sound. Heat in the older Miatas was always strong and Taylor’s car was no exception. It still had functional air-conditioning, which worked to keep the glass clear on a rainy night.
Early Miatas had a 1.6 liter four-cylinder producing about 110 horsepower – an engine actually lifted from the Mazda 323 and turned sideways to support rear-wheel-drive. It has to be revved to produce power. Although the NA Miata is lighter (about 2,100 or 2,200 lbs), the car never feels fast. It is the total definition of “momentum car.” The 2019 Miata, with its 181 horsepower, has to push 5 lbs less weight per horsepower. This goes a long way in making the car feel quick. It’s still not “fast,” but it can hold its own.
Regardless of the extra power, amenities, and fancy folding hardtop, the 2019 Miata RF is absolutely still a Miata in how it drives. Both cars are eager to turn in, a little oversteer-y but easy enough to catch. Some body roll is expected but never feels excessive.
Who’s Buying the 2019 Miata RF?
The biggest question that I got while driving the 2019 Miata RF was about the price. And then, when I revealed the $37,000 MSRP, it was followed by a “well who’s buying that?” comment.
Yes, the Miata RF comes across as expensive. But it pays to break the numbers down a bit. The 1990 Miata had a base price of $13,400, which translates to about $28,000 when you account for inflation. Mazda’s cheapest 2019 Miata, in “Sport” trim, shows a base price of $25,730. So the new car, on the whole, is cheaper, more powerful, safer and has more amenities than the 1990 Miata.
Looking at the Miata RF, which only comes in Club and Grand Touring trims, a buyer could save $3,770 by skipping the Brembo/BBS package. Standard brakes are likely fine for most buyers, and aftermarket wheel options are plentiful. The cheapest Miata RF, then, comes in around $33,000.
The buyer for a Miata RF is not the same buyer of a $2,000, 30-year-old first-generation NA Miata. But, there are plenty of consumers who either owned an older Miata or knew someone who did. They want a Miata and are willing to spend new-car money for something with modern amenities, safety and technology. My dad was one of those buyers in 2013. And the good news is that as the years have passed, the Miata has only been made better.