Late last year, Mazda reached out and asked if I’d like to spend a week with the 2019 MX-5 Miata RF. My answer was a resounding “um, duh, of course” and I enjoyed a week of roof-off driving in mid-December. Scarf flying, heater cranked, heated seat turned to maximum-attack, the “ND2” Miata RF was an enjoyable car with its slick-shifting six-speed manual transmission. Though changes from 2019 to 2020 were minimal, the 2020 MX-5 Miata RF I sampled had something entirely new to me in Miata-world: an automatic transmission.
I’ve been around Miatas forever. My aunt had a ’94, I learned to drive a manual in a ’90, I owned a ’95, friends have owned nearly every model year, and my dad still has a ’13. In all of my time Miataing, I’ve never once driven one with an automatic transmission. It was time to change that, and see how good – or not – the two-pedal Miata experience could be.
What Is It?
The 2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF is the same “retractable fastback” setup I reviewed last December. Mazda eschewed the full folding hardtop of the prior “NC” Miatas for what amounts to a power-folding targa top. It’s slick, looks great, and is a very unique way to do an all-weather roadster. If you want a more classic droptop experience, Mazda will sell you a manually-operated soft top, now in black or a luscious dark red.
Mazda sent me a Miata Club, which is the lower of the two trims offered on the RF. Vice my 2019 Grand Touring tester, this Club was more sparsely equipped, though not “basic” by any means. I had heated cloth seats, Apple CarPlay paired to a Bose sound system (Android Auto is also included), LED headlights and some basic driver assistance gear like blind spot monitoring and lane departure warning.
Unfortunately, choosing the automatic transmission removes three key items from the Miata’s calling card – Bilstein shocks, a front strut-tower brace, and limited-slip differential cannot be had with an automatic Miata. Past that, the automatic Miata has the same 2.0 liter Skyactiv four-cylinder, producing 181 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque. My 2020 Miata RF Club came with an MSRP around $34,500 – the automatic adds roughly $600 to the sticker.
This Beat is Automatic Supersonic Hypnotic Funky Fresh – Or Is It?
Ciara’s lyrics might be apt for other two-pedal “fun cars.” Plenty are offered with quick-shifting torque-converter automatics, and others can be had with dual-clutch automated manual transmissions. The torque-converter automatic found in Mazda’s Miata, however, does not feel funky fresh and shift times aren’t quite supersonic. It’s a six-speed unit that’s got a manual shifting mode, paddles on the steering wheel, and a little Sport mode toggle below the shifter.
Older Miatas (first- and second-generation models) came with a four-speed automatic that was so uninteresting, most buyers avoided it for the excellent five-speed manual. The NC Miata, released in 2006, took a significant leap forward for two-pedal buyers, offering the same basic transmission setup as in our 2020 Miata RF.
In 2006, this transmission was pretty good as automatics go. Manual shift modes were becoming more popular, but dual-clutch ‘boxes and super-snappy “regular” automatics either didn’t exist or weren’t available in most vehicles. The issue is that what was relatively good in 2006 feels relatively behind 14 years later.
Left to its own devices, the automatic shifts are fine. Shift times are likely as quick as you’d be able to fiddle with a clutch and manual shifter. The transmission wants to be in higher gears for fuel economy, but not so much so that the engine is lugging around. But Miatas aren’t torque monsters, and when shifting myself, I often end up leaving a Miata in a lower gear so there’s power on tap immediately. The automatic ends up feeling a bit busy as it’s upshifting and downshifting quite a bit around town, but it does an okay job of doing so in a responsive way. Revs are pleasantly low on the highway, with 75-80 miles per hour turning somewhere around 2,200 rpm – my old 1995 “NA” would be screaming around 4,200 rpm by comparison.
Sliding the shifter to manual mode reveals two things – the transmission will hold a gear as long as you want, but the gear changes that come at the driver’s request feel s-l-o-w. Not upshifting or downshifting mid-corner (unless you hammer the kickdown switch) is excellent, appropriate behavior. Shift times aren’t egregious, but given how fast other automatics can shift now, this older six-speed unit can’t hang.
How’s the Rest of the 2020 Miata RF?
Lest it seem like I’m spending hundreds of words ramble-whining, let’s talk about some good. This 2020 Miata RF is still a good car. It’s still lightweight, nimble through corners, tossable, chuckable, flingable, and so on. It’s less sharp than the manual-transmission variants, by nature of how the power gets put down and the various bits not offered with two pedals. The top still goes down and there is still a generally pleasant Miata-ness about the whole package, even if that whole package is a bit more relaxed and cruiser-y.
But (you knew this was coming) the automatic is not good enough in The Year of Our ZF8 2020 to hang. If you’re physically unable to drive a manual transmission, the automatic Miata is a great car. It hits all of the Miata basics and is still pretty good to drive. If you’re able to drive a manual and somehow contemplating both transmission choices – the manual wins. If you’re looking to learn how to drive a manual – buy a Miata with three pedals and learn on it. The transmission is that good and that easy.
Mazda has a newer six-speed automatic that feels more or less like a DCT. It shifts quickly, locks the torque converter in any gear, and is really good to drive. This SkyActiv-Drive automatic is found on their front-wheel drive vehicles (and front-biased all-wheel drive) and would likely change 99% of my feelings about driving a two-pedal Miata. Mazda needs to put this automatic, or a true dual clutch, in the next generation of two-pedal Miata if they want the car to stay competent among a field of other affordable sporty options. As it is, the current automatic Miata is fun enough, but falls short of the full Miataness that I and countless other enthusiasts have appreciated since the first cars were launched 30 years ago.
Roughly half of new Miata purchases these days are automatic. Buyers are clearly okay with the options available today. But what a world it would be if the two-pedal Miata was just as good as the three-pedal Miata, and the choice between the two was legitimately difficult to make? I’ve faced that conundrum with Porsches, and I’d love to face it with a Mazda.