Drive to Five Review: 2017 Mazda MX-5 Retractable Fastback

Odometer (Legend):  554,341

Odometer (MX-5):  5,261

Going topless in Phoenix in July is risky business – you’re likely to get burned.  This weekend, I didn’t care – I’ve never owned a convertible and I wanted to enjoy the wind in my hair a time or two while I still have any hair at all.

Mazda has aced the formula of what it takes to build a fun-to-drive, budget-friendly sportscar.  The MX-5 that showed up at my house last Wednesday was the 4th generation of a car that launched in 1989 as simple two-seater with a modest 116 horsepower engine and a light chassis.

Today’s version has grown in size and stature, but it holds true to the original objective.  This generation debuted in the fall of 2014 for the 2016 model year.  And just last fall, a special version of this latest MX-5 — the RF, or Retractable Fastback — came to light.  And isn’t it a looker?  “Soul Red Metallic:”  It’s a paint color that’ll cost you $300 additional, but it’s worth it.

These days, it doesn’t seem like 155 horsepower gets you very far (that’s only about 20 more than a Toyota Corolla).  But when you’re in a car that only weighs 2,300 pounds and has dimensions as tight as this one, it’s more than ample.  Besides, this car is all about handling and that’s where its abilities really shine through.  The overall driving feel reminds me a lot of my Integra GS-R, and it made even my little urban 3-mile work commute seem like a theme park ride.

I’d like to simplify this car review into lists.  I’m a list person and I’ve gotten in the habit at work of summarizing things with just bullet points for my senior leaders who are very busy.  So let’s look at a few paragraphs for Love It, Hate It, and Would I Buy It (at $33,885 as-tested).

Love it:

  • Fun Factor.  The MX-5 is like the go-kart I rode at Fiesta Family Fun Center in St. George, Utah when I was growing up.  It’s just so easy to toss around.  The short wheelbase lends itself to an ultra-tight turning radius – maybe even as good as the Prelude 4-Wheel-Steering I had back in the day.  Shift action is crisp and the clutch is easy to get the hang of.  And the convertible top is seriously a one-touch operation.  Cake.
  • Style.  I appreciate that this car sets itself apart from the sea of midsize sedans clogging up the roadways.  It’s something different, something sporty, and something fun to look at.
  • Compact Stature.  Mazda’s “Zoom Zoom” tagline came to mind as I was busting down the 51 freeway, easily able to zip in and out of traffic with a blip of the throttle, a few revs of the Skyactiv 2.0 liter motor, and a turn of the wheel.  And parking at Scottsdale Fashion Square was done lickety-split.  Having a car like this makes you appreciate being the little guy.
  • Audio Experience.  In a cabin as small as the Miata’s, it doesn’t take much audio power to blast your ears.  And the Bose 9-speaker system truly does rock.  Aside from the music, the sounds from the exhaust are equally pleasant – just enough growl at low RPM to give it a sports car feel, but low enough intrusion at highway speed to not give you a headache.  The retractable hardtop seals out most of the road and wind noise with ease.
  • Community.  In this case, the incentive for buying a car has nothing to do with the actual car itself.  People who own these cars love them.  Consider my friend Jeff, who’s owned 6 of them, including the red 2008 in the lead photo of this blog entry.  Or Sofyan, who even though he’s reviewed hundreds of cars on his YouTube channel, chose to buy an MX-5 for his own vehicle. Look at the Sahuaro Miata Club here in Arizona – over 100 active members and regularly-scheduled meet-ups.

On Saturday night, I was driving northbound on Central Avenue in Phoenix and was passed by another Miata.  We exchanged “Nice car!” and head nods.  It’s awesome to think that something as simple as a car could enable someone to meet friends and engage socially, but in this case it’s true.  I love that about the Miata and its tight knit family of enthusiasts around the globe.

Hate it:

  • Ergonomic challenges might make this a tiresome driving experience on a daily basis.  Ingress and egress even for someone of my average height are a challenge, especially if you have a backpack to toss in or other cargo.  The driver’s door swings wide and you have to really reach for it.  And certain placement of the controls made for awkward body contortions.  The volume knob is located down on the console instead of the instrument cluster.  To get to the knob, I kept hitting my elbow because it’s located so far back.
  • Storage limitations.  Along those same lines, I found a tough time even carrying a laptop bag in the car when I had a friend riding with me.  The passenger side footwell is extremely narrow and the small storage compartment in the center console armrest is barely large enough for my work badge and a pair of sunglasses.  Though I guess it would teach people to simplify and not collect car clutter?
  • Visibility.  Those pillars in the driver’s blind spots – though nice to look at from outside – are not easy to overcome when it comes to seeing what’s going on around you.  Even backing out of my own driveway – knowing how many dog-walkers and bicyclists we have in the neighborhood – was a little scary.  I suspect the ‘traditional’ convertible would have better all-around visibility than the RF.

Would I buy it?

Averaging upwards of 45,000 miles per year, my driving patterns for my primary daily car consist of more long-haul than short-haul.  A Miata doesn’t make sense for me because it lacks the cargo capacity, low-RPM cruising, and comfortable touring ride that I need when I’m driving coast to coast (or to Alaska).

However, if I had the money and space for a weekend cruiser – a car to take up the Catalina Highway on occasion or to blast around town on a Saturday night date, during our 8 or 9 months of prime (AKA not scorching hot) weather, I would absolutely consider an MX-5 as the right fit for the bill.  I’d like to call it “the cure for the common commuter.”  A Miata drive every few days is just what the doctor ordered for injecting a little bit of fun in the driving experience.

Many thanks to Mazda for tossing me the keys to this little dose of sunshine.  I appreciate it.

7-minute video here with some observations, driving scenes, and demo of the top operation:

2013 – with my friend Mark’s “NA” Miata

2016 – when James was sampling the ND for the first time (and next to my NSX)

Cabin perspective

Tight quarters in the center armrest console

Cruising around with Hy – though, this shot was in the 2008 model and not the 2017.

Red shirts to match red cars.

2008 and 2017 MX-5s, side by side

Which do you prefer?

“Driving Matters” on the license plate frame – truly a Mazda Mantra.

2.0 liter Skyactiv 4-cylinder with 155 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque

Evening cruise with my friend Rob

Quick pic near my office on Central Avenue in downtown Phoenix

Headlight cutoff as seen at night

Red rockets!

21 Responses to “Drive to Five Review: 2017 Mazda MX-5 Retractable Fastback”

  1. Thanks for a “funday” drive…

    I think the MX-5 is one of those cars you need to personally drive to appreciate. Watching vids and reading reviews are helpful but nothing conveys the same feeling as actual sea time.

    That said, I must agree there would be too many concessions for me to consider this a daily driver. But if you can afford to have a fun little puppy dog of a car… this would be it.

    • There you go. Glad you were able to experience it. And I totally agree – there is no substitute for a ‘real’ test drive. To anyone who’s ever really considering buying a car, you have to get out of the office chair and into the driver’s seat. I like the idea of having a weekend convertible for our prime weather months. I wonder if Honda will ever make good on all these rumors about some kind of S2000 successor in the next few years.

      • An S2000 successor would be good… another Civic Del So not so much.

        But it could be worse. Can you imagine Honda doing a CR-V covertible ala Nissan Murano Cross-country Cabriolet? 😉

  2. Great review! I remember reading the original review of the Miata in Car and Driver magazine when I was a little kid- the CD staff sang the praises of the small, agile, fun little sports car. Glad to see that it hasn’t lost any of its sporting character! Kind of makes me wish Honda would bring back the S2000.

    One other thought- as I said previously, from the rear 3/4 view, the new Miata definitely reminds me of a Nissan Z.

    • I thought the same (about the Z comparison) from a styling perspective. I think my least favorite angle of the ND MX-5 is from dead center of the rear. When following the car it almost seemed like the wheels needed to be pushed out a little further. Also, I wish they’d left the exhaust tips split further apart (as in the prior generation) as opposed to bringing them together. Still a handsome little car.

  3. Brad Heffran Says:

    The MX-5 sure looks great in that red. I’ve never driven one, but I bet the sharp handling and small size make the car ideal for urban fun.

    • It really is a hoot. One of these days you’ll have to get your hands on one. I love the red color too. I noticed while driving the MX-5 for a few days that Mazda seems to put it on EVERYTHING, though. SUVs, sedans, etc. It might get played out.

  4. Awesome stuff. Such a great little car for weekend entertainment. In the video, it seemed almost that the 2008 ND had a much quicker retractable roof.

    • It might just be! We didn’t time them specifically. Still my favorite convertible top operation might be the ‘regular’ Miata soft top that you just click that switch, grab it with your hand, and pull over your head. Literally just a few seconds.

  5. I love these cars. Any generation. Mine was a 1995 but they all have the same kind of soul to them. Dad has a 2013 PRHT now (power retractable hardtop, in Miata-speak) with three pedals and the Bilstein/LSD upgrade package.

    You definitely “wear” the car, and the small size/lack of storage really teaches you to only bring the essentials. Your luggage will soon be made up entirely of soft-sided bags as they “cram” better into whatever space you have. I remember coming home for summers in college with so much stuff packed into mine – trunk, passenger seat, and the “well” where the top stowed – drove home with it up for more space.

    I’ve actually grown a bit since owning mine at 18, and have a really hard time fitting comfortably enough to own another. But I always enjoy getting some seat time when it’s offered. Glad you got to experience the ND and have some weekend fun!

    • Love the idea of the PRHT in the sense that it gives maximum ‘all-weather’ protection as well as road/wind noise abatement, but you can still drop the top for full convertible experience as needed. Your dad’s ’13 sounds like the perfect setup especially with those suspension updates. Has he ever hit the track with it?

      • It’s a good setup for sure. He hasn’t tracked it at all – most convertibles require a rollbar installed before we can legally let you out. The NC’s have roll hoops behind the seats but they are not considered structural (only a few cars’ are, mostly German stuff and I believe the S2K).

        He could definitely autocross the car, though. He and Mom have both done that a few times and enjoyed it. I need to get them back out!

  6. Another great article Tyson. Some thoughts…

    I own a pristine 2003 AP1 S2000 – with roughly 15,000 miles on the odometer. I simply love the thing. But, I must admit that I have been following the threads over at the MX5 forum and reading about how wonderful these new ND MX5’s are. The RF is quite the looker and an amazing car. While I have never driven one, I have been reading a lot about it. Too bad I don’t live near Phoenix, otherwise I would have been at your door with my S2000 🙂

    Your observations about power, weight, size, nimbleness are very well understood. There is just something very special about a small lightweight convertible. Like you I share the same overall feeling about ergonomics and how small these cars can be but just like a reply above states, one “wears” a car like this. I concur 100% with that statement. My S2000 does have a trunk but it is very small. I love the car for what it is, but as you discovered, a daily driver it is not.

    My S2000 does not have a 9 speaker system – instead my soundtrack comes from the 9000 RPM redline. I suppose the MX5 is more “usable” because it does not need to be wound up so high as the F20C to get the real power out… Different animals I suppose.

    Would I give up my S2000 for an RF? Not likely. But then again, I was very lucky to have found mine with such low mileage. The RF however, is an amazing modern machine. It will be very, very interesting what the used market yields in a few years once these cars become available for resale.

    Well I suppose this has grown to be a long reply. Sorry to have taken up so much bandwidth…

    • Joe, definitely, would have loved to have you see & experience the RF if you lived closer. To date I’ve driven two S2000s in my life – I think one AP1, one AP2. I liked them for the same reasons that I liked the Miata. You talked about the difference in power delivery – I suspect the Miata has a little more low-end grunt taking off from stop lights (especially with the A/C on, which you specifically asked me to evaluate). The S2000 excels at the higher end of the rev range and would probably annihilate the Miata in a freeway chase. Would be an interesting comparo. Anyway, glad you enjoyed some of my thoughts and comments. How many miles are on your S2000 these days?

      • Two different engines for sure. Lower end grunt would be appreciated but then again a drag car the S2000 is not. Never meant to be, instead it excels in the handling.

        Regarding mileage… My AP1 was bought from an estate sale back in 2012. The suits handling the estate had no clue what they had and I made a stupid offer – much to my surprise, they took it. The car had 4726 miles when I picked it up. Mileage from my last fill-up was at exactly 15,549. So I’ve driven it roughly 2000 miles per year, no pun intended.

        I plan to keep her for a long time… The only thing missing is having an NSX like yours sitting next to my S2000! LOL!

  7. Chris Green Says:

    Enjoyed the review, Tyson! This may be the only Miata review where the reviewer is wearing an Acura shirt! 😉 I really like Miatas and secretly or not so secretly want one someday. The 2008 really seems to hold its own against the 2017. it certainly looks great!

    • Ha! I didn’t even think about that – I was just wearing that NSX T-shirt out of habit and it didn’t even cross my mind that as a journalist I shouldn’t be showing any kind of brand preference. Too funny. Truly though, the car was a hoot and I wouldn’t mind having the keys to one. Thanks for reading, Chris!

    • Never mind, I was actually wearing the white Legend shirt from NALM this year in the pics. I think I might have worn the red NSX shirt in the video, though. Haha. Either way. I have way too damn many car T-shirts for my own good 🙂

  8. Midnight Mystery Says:

    Nice, love the color!!!

    That may be the first convertable I’ve liked looks of… Well, I love the styling of the S2K, but the bubble roof that almost all convertables are a bit of a turn off… The fastback gives it new lite for me…

    • Glad to hear that you dig it – and you really need to drive it to fully appreciate it. Styling wise it’s attractive, but as I discussed in the blog, that design language with the roofline comes with a price. I went back to driving my 1992 Integra this week and realized how much I LOVE those slim rear C pillars. You can see everything around you so clearly. Hope your week is going well!

      • Midnight Mystery Says:

        I enjoy being short for the fact I can drive what I want!!!

        As much as I like the idea of this Mazda… I probably never would go smaller than like an Acura RSX…

        But I want fours doors… Haha…

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