A hidden cost of living our lives inextricably intertwined with technology is that most of us are perpetually tense. So, put your phone down—unless you’re reading this article on it, of course—and close that spreadsheet on your laptop. Relax your jaw, drop your shoulders, and breathe in; it’s time to bask in one of autodom’s few remaining singular experiences, the 2021 Mazda MX-5 RF, a four-wheeled convertible manifestation of unplugging from the grid.
An Affordable Exotic
Indeed, in 2021, a genuinely simple performance car with under 250 horsepower is a rare thing. And although the friendly MX-5 Miata is still kicking after more than three decades, it’s become a bit of an iconoclast, its simple, analog experience standing in stark contrast to the billion-hp V-8 DemonBees and mega-EVs with a zillion lb-ft of torque that define the performance car zeitgeist.
That makes today’s Miata an exotic car in our book—more so, in fact, than many modern supercars. And among Miatas, the most exotic might be the RF version, with its retractable hard roof panel and funky buttresses. Our review RF was a Grand Touring trim with the standard six-speed manual transmission, which means it also had the limited-slip diff, Bilstein dampers, front tower brace, and the sportier suspension of the MX-5 Club. (Six-speed automatic versions skip all that in favor of a plusher, more chill vibe.)
You might think the RF’s intricate latticework of motors, struts, and extra sheetmetal might pile on the pounds against the standard Miata’s dead-simple manual canvas top, but careful engineering means the difference between a 2019 Club roadster (the last soft-top model we tested) and this more feature-rich, 2,427-pound RF GT was just 109 pounds, according to our scales.
All 2021 Miatas scuttle around with a 2.0-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder that was updated for 2019 to make 181 hp—26 more than before—and 151 lb-ft. It always feels a bit disingenuous discussing this roadster’s test data, given it’s just about the furthest thing from a “numbers car” as possible, but the post-update Miata’s gutsy, free-breathing acceleration belies the two-seater’s enduring reputation for being slow. Down our strip, the RF GT cracked off a stellar 5.8-second 0-60-mph time and a 14.5-second quarter mile, just 0.1 second off the current Club ragtop’s pace in both tests. Compared to the 155-hp RF GT we tested in 2018, the sophomore ND is a rocket sled, cutting a clean 0.5 second from both metrics.
Neither the 2019 Club roadster nor this 2021 RF GF had the BBS/Brembo package, which brings lighter wheels and uprated brakes, and despite the weight delta, both the softie and the hardtop came to a dead stop from 60 mph in 112 feet. The parity fades in our figure-eight test, where the RF GT registered a 26.1-second time at an average of 0.67 g against the Club roadster’s 25.2-second and 0.73 g results. Similarly, the RF GT’s 0.90 g performance on the skidpad trailed the Club roadster’s 0.95 g.
It’s All About Sensation
Of course, the numbers are really best left to forum nerds and engineers. The Miata is—and always has been—about the wide smiles you crack while taking the long way home or going on your daily errands. Our test crew was smitten from the first clutch press. “So great to be in this thing again. Great shifter with short throws,” effused associate road test editor Erick Ayapana after whipping it down the quarter mile. “Not much low-end grunt, but otherwise a joy to wring out.”
G-meter guru and road test editor Chris Walton was similarly giddy. “If I ran a driving school, I would stock it full of Miatas. It’s such an excellent teacher, responding to every little thing you do,” he noted. “There’s now just enough muscle to power-slide it. Fun, fun, fun.” The only complaint he had was for the tires. “The Bridgestone Potenzas went away after four laps,” he said. Not ideal, but those who plan to track their new MX-5 likely will have a column of fresh, tacky rubber stacked in their garage.
Commanding a Class of Its Own
On the endless serpentine canyon passes squiggling through the greater Los Angeles area, we attained something like zen. Nothing—and we mean nothing—available in the 2021 model year drives like the ND Miata, RF or otherwise. By merit of both the Miata’s lightweight construction and its elemental approach to driving, all inputs are anachronistically delicate and simply a joy to execute. The short-travel shifter is in the same league of tactility as the best sticks from Porsche or Honda, and the beautifully thin-rimmed steering wheel is one of the best in any car today. The clutch is light and snappy, inviting unnecessarily quick shifting when holding a lower gear would do just fine: “Yeah, that’s a red light, but can I nail that second-to-third shift before I hit the brakes? If I do, then I get to heel-toe!”
Part of what makes the Miata feel so alive is its body motions: It doesn’t so much carve the corners as it sashays through them. Even with the standard stiffness hardware from the Club, the RF GT pitched and dived and rolled its way up and down the mountains. The softly spring Miata is outrageously friendly and communicative, and we had a grand time chasing the rear end—this is one of the more tail-happy cars around, regardless of horsepower count—but, as fun as it is, we suspect a moderate decrease in body roll wouldn’t unduly affect the overall driving experience. The vast aftermarket for the Miata can also help with that, but from the factory, if you’re overly concerned about such things, it’s probably best to get the lighter cloth-roof version and pull some pounds off the top of the car.
So, calm the body motions but keep everything else, especially that 2.0-liter engine. Mazda proves removing sound deadening and upping the audible volume of intake snort is a great way to wake up an otherwise mundane powertrain. Power is decent from a dig, and the mid to high range is a rush. It’s worth noting the 5.8-second 0-60-mph run is quicker than a DSG-equipped MkVII VW GTI’s, and that’s plenty punchy.
Here for the Long Haul? We Hope So
The RF’s solid roof somewhat dulls the interior roar of the soft-top car, while at the same time introducing a bit of additional wind noise. Which is to say it’s still a loud car, but just in a different way; even so, the noise isn’t overwhelming and certainly wouldn’t stop us from hopping in the saddle for a long, winding trip up the coast.
But really, any trip in the 2021 Mazda MX-5 RF is a breath of fresh air. It’s unclear what comes next for this wonderfully old-school and deeply experiential sports car—for example, will it be electrified? Will it even see a new generation? Thinking about a world without the Miata is making us tense; we’d better go for another drive.
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