A Review of the Mazda MX-5 Miata RT, Part 1

I recently had the pleasure of logging nearly 800 miles behind the wheel of a brand-new Mazda Miata. This is Part 1 of my review, where I’ll focus on the experience of driving the car. In Part 2 I’ll get into the design and the UX.

Note: Mazda didn’t approach me to write this review, I approached them. Another major auto manufacturer had offered me a performance car to take on a roadtrip in exchange for a review–and I was disappointed to learn that that company’s entire fleet consisted of automatics, which I consider mechanical blasphemy.

When I reached out to Mazda instead, asking if they had any six-speeds available, their response was “As a company that truly believes in the driving experience, [stickshifts comprise] a majority of the MX-5 makeup that we have in our press fleet.” In other words, they get it.

For the trip, Mazda set me up with a 2018 MX-5 RF, the latter designation standing for “Retractable Fastback.” (That’s actually a misnomer; the car has a power retractable targa top.) The Miata has a 2.0-liter naturally-aspirated four-cylinder good for 155 horse and 148 lb-ft of torque. With four valves per cylinder it redlines at nearly 7,000 RPM, and I was eager to put it to the test.

Experience of Driving, Highway

The first leg of my trip was six hours at highway speeds on an interstate expressway. Accelerating out of a rest stop, I found that first and second gears undersell the car’s potential, giving you about what you’d expect. Third, fourth and fifth gears provide a pleasantly surprising amount of torque above 3,000 RPMs; not neck-snapping turbo acceleration, but that steady, confident push on the lower back that makes you feel it was worth it to go for the 91 octane at the pump.

I spent most of this leg of the trip in 6th gear, occasionally downshifting to briefly pace a bypassing lawbreaker (for testing purposes, of course). The Miata’s got no problem keeping up with the big dogs.

The road position is low, which I enjoy as a recreational driver on the open road. If you’re a city or interstate driver constantly hemmed in on all sides by SUVs and delivery trucks, you may find the position intimidating.

The RF is functionally a hardtop, and though the road noise is louder than in an actual hardtop, it’s quieter than any softtop convertible I’ve ever driven. With the stock stereo I could hear every word of a podcast, though I did have to set the volume high.

My father, an auto enthusiast who has owned a variety of different car styles over his lifetime, warned me that a multi-hour highway trip in a car this size would be uncomfortable. “You’ll feel every last bump,” he warned me. Thus when I approached, at speed, the first patch of missing asphalt with exposed concrete beneath, I braced like I was about to hit a wall–and was surprised at the mildness of the recoil. After six hours on the highway, during which time I racked up a proportionate amount of pothole strikes, I was none the worse for wear. I call the suspension well-balanced.

The seat position was comfortable for all six hours. There are only three adjustments possible: Forwards/backwards, seatback tilt, and seat bottom tilt.

How I Adjust My Seat

I think proper seat adjustment goes a long way towards comfort, particularly with long-distance driving. Here’s the sequence I always follow in a new-to-me car:

1. Forwards/Backwards: I press my ass into the crease between seatback and seat bottom, snake my right toe beneath the brake pedal, and ensure the seat is forward enough that my foot can reach all the way to the firewall without having to straighten my leg completely. This ensures you can bottom the brakes out with plenty of force in an emergency. And of course, on a stickshift you check that the left foot can bottom out the clutch.

2. Seatback Angle: I learned a trick during a rally lesson from Rauno “The Rally Professor” Aaltonen during that Mini-sponsored trip to Finland. To correctly set the seatback angle, you take your right hand and cross it over the steering wheel to grip the 10 o’clock position, as if twisting the wheel. At this point your right shoulder should be firmly against the seatback. You do the same check with your left hand at 2 o’clock and the left shoulder.

This keeps your body firmly in position even during hard cornering. It also places you a bit closer to the steering wheel than normal. Because I am not doing any actual rally driving, I typically do Rauno’s trick, then kick the seat back an additional one or two clicks. I find this provides the perfect position for me in terms of comfort and control.

3. Seat Bottom Angle: Largely a matter of personal preference, but I set mine to the steepest possible angle that does not interfere with me straightening my leg for the brake-bottoming test.

Experience of Driving, Country

For the final one-hour leg of my trip to rural country, I had to navigate a series of idyllic country two-lanes full of twists, turns and elevation changes–you could not dream up a better test track for this car.

And this is where the Miata really shines.

Due to the Retractable Fastback, the front/rear weight balance is a perfect 50/50 (the softtop convertible comes in at 53/47) and it practically handles like a mid-engined car. It’s sure-footed in hard corners, sticking with you faithfully through each twist, and I didn’t feel any worrisome body roll.

The acceleration and braking were obedient, instantaneous and thrilling; together the whole package confers a supremely confidence-inspiring level of control. The stickshift is fun as all hell to drive. Putting the car through its paces on a lively route is divertingly interactive without being exhaustingly demanding.

Although I could not reproduce this every time, I found that putting your foot down in third and fourth gear produced not only the desired engine growl, but occasionally a pleasing and subtle high-pitched whine that made me feel like I was accelerating in a jet. If Mazda’s engineers added this as an option, I’d order it purely for the smile factor.

It’s telling that after six hours on the highway, this seventh hour spent on these country roads felt too short. If you enjoy spirited driving and your daily commute or weekend jaunts are anything like this rural route, the Miata is the car for you.

Conclusion

This is a car for people who love to drive, and have the space to do it in. While it’s small and nimble enough to navigate urban traffic well, I feel city life would be a waste of the Miata’s talents, and it really shines in a rural environment with room to work your way through the gears. It’s fast enough to be fun without veering into a-hole territory, it’s easy to control and offers excellent road feel without wearing you out. You feel connected to the road, and when it’s time to go somewhere you’ll look forward to reaching for the keys.

If you’re considering a Miata and are interested in Core77’s brand of design minutiae, stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview, where we’ll get into interior design features and the UX.