The Mazda Miata MX-5 RF wasn't a car we were asking for -- but we loved it anyway

PROS: It’s still the same old Miata, but its hardtop makes for a more versatile ride. It’s brilliant to drive and is less noisy than the soft-top. All in all, it’s an incredible cost-to-joy ratio.

CONS: It’s still sort of underpowered and sort of noisy. It has an awkward infotainment system setup.

The Mazda Miata is the platonic idea of a fun car to drive. The original MX-5 roadster, which arrived at the tail-end of the 1980s, brought back the classic, unadorned, open-air motoring experience, minus the iffy reliability of the British MGs and Triumphs from the 1960s and 1970s.

Fans of the simple pleasures of driving loved those rides, so the Miata was welcomed with a passion almost never seen in the automotive world. And that enthusiasm has endured for decades. We’re now up to the fourth generation of the MX-5, and the core DNA is unchanged, although Mazda dropped weight from the Miata and returned the design to its roots, making the new car look more like a roadster and less like a convertible sports car.

After the fresh soft-top hit the market, Mazda pulled the cover off a retractable hardtop version, the RF, whose shape was less roadster than fastback coupé. Fans were excited. I was concerned: Would messing with a winning formula and adding extra weight to a car that’s supposed to be light by design undermine what has always made the Miata magnificent?

Mazda let us borrow a $US34,310 MX-5 RF Grand Touring to find out:

The MX-5 Miata RF arrived at our suburban New Jersey test center wearing an absolutely gorgeous 'Soul Red Metallic' paint job. The interior for the Grand Touring trim level was 'Tan Red,' a succulent leather.

Matthew DeBord/BI

Like the regular soft-top Miata, the RF has a sleeker design that harks back to the original Roadster from the early 1990s. I owned one of those, and the new MX-5 is my favourite Miata since those glory days.

Matthew DeBord/BI

Read my review of the new Miata here and here.

The big difference from the regular Miata is that the RF features a fastback coupé shape with an automated folding hardtop.

Matthew DeBord/BI

Here's the top up ...

Matthew DeBord/BI

... and here it is down. The lowering-and-raising process consumes about 10 seconds.

Matthew DeBord/BI

The result isn't a convertible, but a targa roofline.

Matthew DeBord/BI

The roof folds into a compartment while the RF retains the sloping fastback pillars on either side.

Matthew DeBord/BI

Open-air motoring is a joy! Well, it's mostly open. The RF lacks the fully drop-topped vibe of the soft-top MX-5. But you can hear your tunes through a tasty 9-speaker Bose audio system, thanks to speakers in the headrests.

Matthew DeBord/BI

As with all Miatas, the two-seater provides not much in the way of extra passenger space. The seats are heated, a welcome thing on cooler top-down days.

Matthew DeBord/BI

There's barely room for a standard violin case! Don't ask why I have a standard violin case, by the way ...

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The trunk, as expected, can absorb a case of wine and little else. The Miata is optimised for driving fun and is perfect for weekend getaways, as long as you travel light.

Matthew DeBord/BI

The 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine is no beast, generating just 155 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. But it revs high, and you can get into all those ponies. Notice as well that you can see the motor. There's no plastic shrouding, which is common these days with many cars. Fuel economy is great: 26 mph city/33 highway/29 combined.

Matthew DeBord/BI

For the driver, the view of the instrument cluster is no-nonsense. There's a seven-inch infotainment touchscreen, but Mazda's system isn't the best. It gets the job done, though. It features Bluetooth capability, USB integration, and navigation.

Matthew DeBord/BI

The six-speed manual is outstanding. It's crisp and delivers a nice, positive feeling as you snick through the gears. The Miata's clutch is taut without being heavy. The combo is basically perfect.

Matthew DeBord/BI

An annoying thing about cramming a modern infotainment interface into a car that's more about old-school driving: the controls are right behind the shifter, meaning it's easy to accidentally input something with your forearm.

Matthew DeBord/BI

This leads to an awkward shifting position. It's doable, however.

Matthew DeBord/BI

So what did we think of this mighty little monster?

Matthew DeBord/BI

I'm an unabashed fan of the Miata. I owned a first-generation model and spent many happy days and nights with the top down, winding through the canyon roads around Los Angeles and flying down the Pacific Coast Highway with the wind whipping all around me, working the car's little motor for all it was worth.

The new MX-5 is my favourite Miata since the original roadster, a return to the svelte, lightweight design that made the first-gen car such a blast. Of course, not everybody wants a full-time soft-top, despite the general excellence of that version of the MX-5. For those buyers, the more versatile and burly RF fastback is a good option.

The retractable hardtop adds about 100 pounds of weight, but in actual driving, I didn't notice much difference from the regular Miata. If anything, the extra heft over the rear wheels (the MX-5 is a front-engine, RWD layout) made the back end feel more planted -- Miata's have rears that can easily be made to wiggle -- and when raised, the top cut down on wind and road noise.

Yes, you might ask yourself, 'What's the point of that?'

But for some folks, a quieter Miata is a better Miata, and being able to push a button to drop the top, rather than having to do it yourself, will be appealing.

I'm so at-one with the way the Miata drives that I might not be the best person to ask what it's like behind the wheel because my answer is it is perfection, bliss, and joy all at the same time.

But the MX-5 is a brilliant driver's machine. It isn't blisteringly fast -- the 0-60 mph time is about 6 seconds -- but you shouldn't care because with the top down and the small motor surging toward its redline, you'll feel speed more than witness it. The thing is a feather in the wind, the most defiantly tossable car in the world, stylish and free-spirited, and unlike the British roadsters that inspired it, utterly reliable. Every time I slide back into the driver's seat, I think I should have one of these babies in my garage at all times.

Technically, the MX-5 RF is biased toward oversteer, and how much depends on how much you push it and how aggressive you get with the light but firm steering. Because the power isn't Titanic, it isn't necessary to have massive brakes to keep this all in check. A sub-7,000-rpm redline screams 'Weak!' to proponents of beefier powerplants, but you can really wind the RF out and launch from shift to shift, creating a truly visceral driving experience.

With the folding Targa hardtop, you can have this pleasure on tap and still use the RF as an all-weather daily driver (you might want to stay out the snowstorms, obviously). The RF is the heaviest Miata, and probably the stiffest, but the main effect from behind the wheel is a sense that car is more planted, especially at the back end, which in turn invites bolder corner turn-ins and slightly less need to drop down a gear to find more torque or grip. Of all the Miatas available, all of which make a wonderful amateur racing platform, the RF is perhaps the most race-car-like.

In the end, the RF -- which debuted on the 2016 auto show circuit -- wasn't a Miata we were asking for. Mazda had done automated retractable tops before, but the Miataisti have always been devoted to the original soft-top concept, even as the actual soft top has gotten bulkier and more durable.

But the RF, even with its oddball elements, was still a freakin' Miata, every bit of it. We couldn't help but love it.

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