2017 Mazda MX5-RF

Ted LaturnusRecently, Mazda announced that it would be embarking on a factory-approved vehicle restoration program. Bring your old MX-5/Miata in and the company will do a complete stem-to-stern restoration, using OEM parts and factory technicians.

But there’s a catch. The program only extends to first-generation models made between 1989 and 1997, and, so far, will only be offered in Japan. Pity.

Still, it’s an indication of just how good an automobile the MX-5 is and how well-loved it is by enthusiasts. Right from the beginning, it was obvious that Mazda had got it right with the Miata and it’s gone on to prove itself both on the track and on the street. Affordable and reliable with a huge fun quotient, the MX-5 still punches above its weight and the first generation version is now actually viewed as a vintage racer by some enthusiasts.

I’ve driven the Miata in all its iterations and have enjoyed every one of them. Furthermore, this is a car that’s definitely worth preserving. If you want the “classic” sports car driving experience, but balk at the thought of sinking money into an MGB or Triumph, the Miata is a happy compromise. Hopefully, Mazda will extend its factory restoration to North America.

In the meantime, however, the latest version of this popular little runabout – specifically, the RF – carries on the tradition of accessibility and driving entertainment. It’s faster and a little bigger than the original, but still as much fun as you can have with your clothes on.

A few specs. Power for the MX-5 RF is provided by a two-litre four cylinder that can be matched to either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. Power output is 155 hp and with a vehicle weight of around 1100 kilos ( 2425 lb.) it is still a brisk performer. Brakes are discs all-around, of course, and the base model starts at just under $39,000 before extras.

Here’s why I like this little car so much:

– The engine, with an easy redline of 6000 rpm, is as free-revving and torquey as you could ask for in this market. Willing, well-behaved, and thrifty, it’s a gem.

– The transmission, with rifle-bolt precision and beautiful short throws, this gearbox is a masterpiece. It keeps you in touch with the engine and is pretty much bulletproof.

– Tossability. Right out of the box, the MX-5 is track ready. You could take it straight from the showroom floor to an autocross or gymkhana and acquit yourself well. Brakes are top-notch and the car sticks to the asphalt like you-know-what to a baby blanket. My car had 205/45R/17 wheels and tires and was sticky and grippy enough for the most ardent boy/girl racers.

– Heritage. Mazda has remained true to the original idea behind the Miata. True, it has been slowly creeping up in size, but is still a stoutly-built pocket rocket. The RF has a one-touch Targa-type hardtop, and from the moment you press the dash-mounted button ‘til it’s safely stowed away behind the seats, a mere 20 seconds will elapse. Slick.

On the other hand, a few things to quibble about. Number one is the frickin’ radio. This set-up is standard issue throughout the Mazda line and it’s totally counter-intuitive. Changing stations, for example, is much more complicated than it should be and Mazda really needs to do a re-think with its audio system.

Second, the six-speed manual is a bit crowded. The gates are tight and you can easily get lost downshifting from fifth to fourth, for example. More than once, I found myself in second…..but this is one of those things that you’d probably get used to.

My RF had the “sport package” and this bumps the price up to over $45,000 before taxes and extras. That’s getting up there, but more than that, this package has a bunch of stuff that I can really do without, including a lane-departure warning (disabled this ASAP), blind spot monitoring, and Bluetooth, among other things. I prefer my sports cars to be a little less pampering, thank you.

But, minor annoyances aside, the MX-5 still offers one of the most entertaining driving experiences on the market. New or freshly restored.

Engine: 2.0 litre four cylinder
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Drive: Rear-wheel drive
Horsepower: 155 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 146 ft. lb. @ 4600 rpm
Price: $42,200 (base); $45,195 as tested.
Fuel Economy: 8.9 L /100 km (city) & 7.1 (hwy.) Regular fuel.

Alternatives: Nissan 370Z Roadster, BMW 2-series Cabriolet, Mercedes SLC Roadster, Ford Mustang Convertible.

Manufacturer’s Site: Mazda

Ted Laturnus has been an automotive journalist since 1976. He has been named Canadian Automotive Journalist Of The Year twice and is past president of the Automotive Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).

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