Mountain Wheels: Mazda’s targa-topped Miata MX-5 RF provides multi-season fun
As we get close to what I might imagine being the end of a very long winter season in the Central Rockies, thoughts turn at long last to vehicles with less all-season practicality.
Oddly enough, I got a chance a few months ago to drive what one would normally consider the epitome of warm-weather-only motoring, the perennial Mazda MX-5 — better known as the Miata — with a set of honest-to-goodness Blizzak snow tires.
Oh, if only I had been so lucky with the dozens of less-appropriately shod vehicles I tackled passes, whiteouts and mid-winter miseries by the dozen.
I was gifted with a Grand Touring edition of the Miata’s 2019 RF edition, which substitutes a targa-style, power-deploying micro-roof for the diminutive sports car. Throw the switch and the entire rear quarter of the car’s beautifully sculpted roofline magically lifts off the body, allowing the two-piece, over-the-cabin roof to be electrically stowed away — all in about 13 seconds. There are heated seats, heated windows, heated side mirrors and rain-sensitive wipers, all potentially useful winter driving additions.
However, with a dedicated rear-drive setup, as magically old-school roadster groovy as that might feel on hard, dry pavement, the slight issue of the Miata’s under-2,500-pound curb weight led me to believe that making a run up to the tunnels in a blinding blizzard was a terrible, terrible idea. And you know that I am usually one to welcome a terrible driving idea.
Conceivably, the very small vehicle could offer some mid-winter excitement, but I also look back on a photo I took of my test vehicle parked between two full-sized pickups — making it look more like a Radio Flyer wagon than a collision-proof, winter survival machine — and I am glad I did not take my chances.
So let us flash forward to the time I spent on an unseasonably sunny early February day in the Longmont and Lyons area, hauling ass in the car but happily equipped for any low-drama traction issues.
The most recent edition of the fourth-generation MX-5 has been considerably reimagined, in an almost heretical fashion, with the addition of a 181-horsepower, 2.0-liter Skyactiv-G engine. My last outing was in a 2017 model with the older 155-horsepower setup, and the difference is quite tangible when you have so little car to begin with.
It’s a transformational change, switching the car from a usually topless roadster that needed patience and coaxing to access top highway power, to one where big-car-worthy boost is always on tap and can be revved to 7,500 rpm.
To keep things extra sporty, I had a Miata RF with a six-speed manual transmission, and a few pieces of optional equipment — a limited-slip differential, a tuned suspension with Bilstein shocks, plus attractive alloy pedals – all provided additional splash and dash, bringing the total MSRP to $35,405. Yes, with brand-new winter tires, the handling was subsequently a little less crisp than a set of high-performance summer tires, but the little Miata still cornered and cruised in impressive fashion.
Overall mileage is impressive, up to 34 mpg on the highway, but the objective in Miata is consistently sporty cruising, so don’t expect Prius-styled returns at all times.
To that end, Miata remains a pure enthusiast vehicle, with cabin space that is not at all forgiving (or welcoming) to drivers accustomed to full-sized rides. Bred and equipped like a track car, you’ll find maybe an inch or so of wiggle room in the seats, and feel more like you’re an actual part of the car than a simple operator, especially if your journey stretches more than a couple of hours. Even cupholders are an afterthought, and need to be popped into slots in the center console — mine were hiding in a locking, vertical storage box between the seats.
It’s an awfully sharp-looking vehicle, however, and mine got a black roof and stainless steel door sill plates, just to add to the overall appeal.
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