2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF Review

  • Best joy-per-buck on the road today
  • Retractable hard top adds welcome practicality
  • Standard tech gets a useful upgrade
  • No compromise on trunk space despite the roof
  • More expensive than the regular Miata
  • Trunk and cabin storage space are snug

Purists may argue over which generation of Miata is best, but few enthusiasts would disagree with the fact that Mazda's two-door is the epitome of the modern, attainable sports car. This fourth-gen "ND" version again sees the range split in two: the regular Miata, and this 2021 MX-5 Miata RF with a nifty folding hard-top roof.

It's not the Miata's first flirtation with an origami metal roof, but it definitely looks better than the third-gen's PRHT variant. Combined with the curvaceous lines and some clever (and cost-cutting) rear buttress design, the "Jaguar F-TYPE on a budget" aesthetics work beautifully.

Despite its reputation as a weekend toy, the standard Miata is unexpectedly capable as a daily driver. All the same, longer stretches of highway – or unpredictable urban parking – might make you give the soft-top second thoughts. That's where the RF comes in.

You still get the wind in your hair, should you so desire, but you also have the reassurance and better sound-proofing of a metal roof too. Mazda's mechanism unfolds it into place quickly, leading to a noticeable improvement in how much road noise makes it into the cabin. Dropped down, there's no hit on trunk space – which is a good thing, as at 4.6 cu-ft it's hardly capacious to begin with – though you could argue it's more like a targa top given how much remains behind your head.

Honestly, I prefer that – I'm pale and shy, and regular convertibles are a little too exposed for my liking – but the way it helps avoid buffeting may sway the less self-conscious, too. 

What doesn't change, thankfully, is the drivetrain. Mazda's glorious recipe of a straightforward 2.0-liter 4-cylinder gas engine with 181 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque, paired with a six-speed manual transmission is everything the breathless fans tell you it is. Sure, you can have an automatic version, but I can't in good conscience tell you to pick it. Even if you can't drive stick yet, the Miata's beautifully balanced clutch – neither too heavy, nor too light – would make it a good car to learn in. Just prepare to be spoiled for most other new manuals out there.

Though there's a little extra curb weight, you'd be hard-pressed to spot it on the move. Once you remember that chasing straight-line speed is a fool's game, and that the real fun is in the corners, the Miata's shortcut to fun is impossible to resist.

You don't need a race track to enjoy the MX-5's brand of whimsy. Nor, even, do you need the sort of winding mountain roads that automakers love to shoot commercials on. The point-and-squirt giddiness as you make the most of every corner, snick between second and third, and take full advantage of Mazda's excellent and reliable brakes cranks up rapidly.

Other cars corner flatter, and accelerate faster, and have motorsport-inspired dual-clutch transmissions that can shuffle their cogs before you've even pushed the Miata's clutch down all the way yourself. Somehow, though, none of the new metrics for stern, capable sports coupes and sedans seem to really apply to the MX-5. Even on the slightly stiffer Club suspension there's some roll in the corners, yes, but it's so distant from the electronically-massaged "perfection" elsewhere that you can't help but love it too.

It's enough to overlook most of the foibles of the cabin. As always, this is not a car for tall people: six-footers or above may have to slump a little. There's a stark absence of nooks and cubbies, and some of the switchgear feels a little plasticky.

Mazda has, at least, added Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard, along with a pair of USB ports. The 7-inch touchscreen is easy to use, and there's a 4.6-inch color LCD in the instrument cluster. Blind spot monitoring is standard on the RF, as are lane-departure warnings, air conditioning, cruise control, and keyless entry. Club trim gets cloth seats with heating; Grand Touring upgrades them to leather, but either way they're comfortable and supportive.

Snug but not spartan, then, and Mazda's flexibility carries over into filling the Miata up. Sure, the MX-5 would prefer premium gas, but it'll handle regular if that's all there is. The EPA says you'll get 26 mpg in the city, 34 mpg on the highway, and 29 mpg combined, but with a light right foot you can improve on that without too much effort.

The RF does carry a price premium over the regular convertible, though it's not quite as vast as you might think at first glance. MX-5 Miata Sport ownership starts at $26,830 (plus $945 destination), but there's no counterpart trim in the RF line-up. Instead, the entry car is the MX-5 Miata RF Club, from $33,045 (plus designation); that makes it $2,755 more than its soft-top counterpart.

2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF Verdict

Is the MX-5 Miata RF quite as "pure" an experience as the regular roadster? Probably not, but the few changes Mazda makes to add its retractable hard-top make for a car that's much easier to live with. Sure, you can do long highway jaunts in the soft-top, but being able to close the RF into a compact coupe has real, tangible benefits to your comfort levels.

That it doesn't really dilute the Miata's inherent charms in the process is a testament to how good the car is to begin with, and how delicately Mazda has wielded its modifications. The 2021 MX-5 Miata RF isn't a compromise, but a way to use the two-door more of the time. Once you've experienced that, you'll quickly see that the Miata is a small car that rapidly turns into a big addiction.