Behind the Wheel

2020 Mazda MX-5 RF Review: A sports car for those who think comfort is a desirable feature

The Mazda MX-5 RF is one of the better-rounded sports coupes you can buy.

Photo courtesy of Mazda North American Operations

Mazda loves to remind us that it makes the best-selling two-seater sports car in history. The company mentions this in just about every press release it issues on the Miata. It's even certified by the Guinness Book of World Records.

With more than a million units sold over the past thirty years, the Miata — or MX-5 in the rest of the world — has been a reliable pick for folks looking for an authentic sports car experience at an affordable price. Lotus founder Colin Chapman said his theory on race car design was to "simplify, then add lightness". Mazda's engineers have remained more-or-less faithful to that idea over the years when it comes to the MX-5.

2020 Mazda MX-5 RFThe fierce design and unique drivability of the MX-5 help make it a desirable commodity.Photo courtesy of Mazda North American Operations

Small cars don't need a ton of power, and they're a joy to drive. The 2020 MX-5 sports a 181-horsepower, 151 lb-ft four-cylinder engine paired to a six-speed manual (or a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters, but what you really want is the manual). My test unit this week — a luxury-focused MX-5 Grand Touring — came with a limited-slip differential, a sport-tuned suspension with Bilstein shocks, front- and rear-stabilizer bars, and, of course, rear-wheel drive. It's not necessary to understand what all that stuff does to enjoy the car, though it's an impressive list of tech.

There's a running joke in car journalism that when someone asks which car they should buy, the answer is always "Miata" regardless of whether the buyer is a 70-year old retiree or a housewife with three kids. I don't know if that's strictly true, but the MX-5 will put a smile (and a sunburn) on your face regardless of who you are.

My fully-loaded manual transmission Grand Touring RF test unit priced out at a a whopping $35,345, but included a wide array of luxe features like automatic windshield wipers and high beams, leather everything inside the (tiny) cockpit, and a nine-speaker Bose stereo system that included speakers built-in to the headrests so you can hear your tunes even with the top down.

2020 Mazda MX-5 RFThe hard top of the MX-5 RF gives the convertible a sleek look.Photo courtesy of Mazda North American Operations

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support is new for 2020, though there's no good place to put your phone. Or a cup of coffee. Or a handbag or really anything else except for two humans. It's really tight in there. The cupholders are two bits of plastic that go behind your elbow on the center armrest, requiring a stretching maneuver that wouldn't be out of place in a yoga studio to retrieve your beverage. There's also a diminutive "glove box" behind the cupholders that's good for holding a tube of sunscreen, your car registration, and very little else.

The trunk isn't spacious but it'll swallow a rollaboard suitcase easily enough, and the RF's hardtop doesn't affect the trunk at all which is a big plus.

The ride is firm but pleasant, with a far smoother and more refined ride than the similarly sized Toyota 86. This is the car for people who think comfort is a feature, and are willing to trade a bit of time in the slalom or on the skid pad to not have their spine ruined.

The six-speed manual transmission is a delight, reminding me why it's fun to have a stick shift. Not many folks will use their MX-5 as a commuter car, so there are almost no downsides to the manual tranny. Gear changes are quick and easy, and the clutch is incredibly forgiving. Third gear is particularly wonderful, as is the rev-happy naturally aspirated Skyactiv-G engine that scores an EPA-estimated 26/34/29 city/highway/combined.

2020 Mazda MX-5 RFThe interior of the MX-5 is well-designed, but cramped.Photo courtesy of Mazda North American Operations

The exhaust isn't noisy, but it make a nice burble, particularly with the top down. And I do have to call out that top. The RF — or Retractable Fastback — is the MX-5 to buy. Not only is it stupidly good looking, but you get the best of both worlds: When the top is down, you get 93 million miles of blue sky. But when you put it back up, you're in a sports coupe that's almost quiet and refined.

The roof can open and close in just 13 seconds, though you do need to be stopped for it to operate. It looks especially good in Mazda's Polymetal Gray paint scheme.

2020 Mazda MX-5 RFThe Mazda MX-5 RF has the same design attributes as the MX-5, just with a hard top.Photo courtesy of Mazda North American Operations

I love convertibles. I love the MX-5. I love the RF. I love 93 million miles of blue sky. And if you go take one for a test drive, I promise you'll love it too.

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The CX-50 is surpsingly capable off-road.

Mazda

I have driven all of the Mazda vehicles that have been sold in the US market over the past three decades. On everyday roads and on racetracks. I’ve appreciated their “zoom-zoom”. Good power. Punchy torque just where it was needed. Well-balanced and sporty handling. A bit of growl for the versions that called for it. Plus, tasteful-but-modest styling and more or less elbow room, depending on the model. Mazda’s have been made for sports-car enthusiasts and to ferry families. But, I had never known a Mazda called an “overlander”. Until now.

2023 Mazda CX-50Towing capacity extends to 2,000 pounds.Mazda

The 2023 Mazda CX-50 moves this traction-sophisticated automaker into the lands where the pavement ends and now takes the brand ‘off-track’. Although it’s not a new thing for many of today’s carmakers to add a backcountry model or two to their lineup, it’s new for Mazda. I traveled to Santa Barbara, California to check out this all-new crossover built on Mazda’s seventh-generation small SUV platform that is shared with the smaller CX-30. This 5-passenger utility is longer, lower and wider than the CX-5 that rides on the previous generation’s underpinnings. The CX-50 has been crafted with a roomier second row and more cargo room for the goods and gear that weekend warriors and adventurers want to carry.

The CX-50 comes with a choice of two engines: a 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder engine with cylinder deactivation that gets 187 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque, and Mazda’s Skyactiv-G 2.5-liter turbo-charged powerplant with 256 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque; both shift through a six-speed automatic transmission. The sport ute can tow up to 2,000 lbs. with the naturally aspirated motor and up to 3,500 lbs. with the turbo-charged mill and Intelligent Drive Select (Mi-Drive) that brings a tow mode as well as Normal, Sport and Off-Road. The newest Mazda model has been made for North America only and is built in Alabama. It is the first Mazda vehicle with auto start/stop that can be deactivated.

2023 Mazda CX-50Mazda is a master of upscale interiors. Mazda

The new crossover starts at $26,800 and comes in S, S Select, S Preferred, S Preferred Plus, S Premium, and S Premium Plus with the base motor. Turb-charged versions come in Turbo, Turbo Premium, and Turbo Premium Plus that tops out at close to $42,000. A long list of technology and safety features are standard or available. Mazda says that Meridian, a fourth turbo trim will arrive soon with even more off-road cred; it will be set up with 18-inch black wheels AT, hood graphics and other backcountry goodies.

When you look at the CX-50, the first thing you’ll notice is exterior styling that speaks to its adventure-ready mission. Muscular bodywork, such as extra cladding, wide fender flairs and larger, more aggressive tires mean that this crossover has been designed not only to give a nod to the looks of a rugged crossover but to provide enhanced traction and a tad more suspension stretch for motoring over uneven terrain and along bumpy dirt roads. Planted on its haunches with functional air vents, it eschews minivan styling with a low and wide footprint that allows owners to have easy access to high-strength roof rails for loading gear on top; the roof has been made stronger than other Mazda crossovers to accommodate heavier loads, such as a roof-top tent. A panoramic moonroof- a first for Mazda- and attractive antiglare hood graphics and are tasteful additions.

The interior is attractive and roomy, with horizontal lines and “cleanable” surfaces as a nod to outdoor endeavors. Our Turbo Premium Plus model had bright orange reverse stitching that popped the cabin that has been crafted with uplevel trims and materials and brought heads-up display. A 7-inch infotainment screen is standard, while the top models get a 10.25-inch version. A wireless charging pad and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard on all trims. Of note, is the rear power and programmable liftgate to the wide and deep rear cargo compartment, with a load floor that flush with the liftgate opening to help slide heavy items in and out of the back. An available line of cargo accessories makes stowage easier.

2023 Mazda CX-50The CX-50 is family roadtrip ready.Mazda

How did it handle over the 200-plus miles of our ride and drive? The Turbo Premium Plus CX-50 offers a lot like; many of its driving attributes are consistent with Mazda’s tuning and handling priorities across its product line. Traveling along coastal highways, carving mountainous twisties with tight turns and accelerating on flat and straight well-graded pavement, it has great Mazda manners: i.e., there is enough power and torque in the right bandwidth to move it well; precise steering with a slightly heavily-weighted leather-wrapped steering wheel and well-modulated brakes, especially with towing a 3,500-lb. load. We enjoyed using Sport mode for carving corners, as it brings elongated shifts from the six-speed automatic; a crisp response comes when sport shifting in “manual mode” and provides a quick throttle response.

We tried out the Off-Road mode on a course that included flat and uneven dirt roads, as well as hill climb and descent. Although there is no downhill descent control system, the brakes worked well, along with manual gearing. Of note, Mazda would be wide to add downhill descent engineering for steeper and slicker terrain. We were able to test the difference between Normal and Off-Road over a special section of the course with sandy corners and a winding track at a speed of 30 mph showing the improved traction in the Off-Road programming and the aid of Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control that brings a bit of magic to transfer torque to the wheels where it is needed to keep the intended track-think of it like an enhanced traction control program that helps with steering and yaw control.

2023 Mazda CX-50The CX-50 comes with off-road driving modes. Mazda

Other aids for off-road and backcountry travel are: the i-Activ All-Wheel Drive system that is standard equipment on all CX-50s, with a 50/50ish power transfer front to back; 8.6 inches of ground clearance; an 18-degree approach angle and a 24-degree departure angle; and an optional 360-degree camera system.

*EPA reports: base motor fuel economy 24 city/30 highway mpg, while the turbo option gets 23/29 mpg and can run on regular or premium fuel.

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The new Z starts at under $40,000.

Nissan

The new Nissan Z is finally here, and the 400-horsepower sports car is hitting the market with a reasonable price. The car starts at just $39,990 before a $1,025 destination charge. That's significantly cheaper than the least expensive Toyota Supra for a car with impressive specs and great style.

2023 Nissan ZThe Z gets a 400-horsepower V6 from Infiniti.Nissan

The 2023 Z comes with a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 that makes 400 horsepower. It's paired with either a six-speed manual or nine-speed automatic transmission and rear-wheel drive. That's the enthusiast's dream setup, and it's one of few cars available in the U.S. with a manual gearbox. The body is stiffer and features more reinforcements from prior cars, and the steering system now features electric assistance instead of hydraulics. 18-inch wheels are standard and 19-inchers are available.

When it announced the car, Nissan made a point to talk about its retro-inspired styling and classic proportions. The coupe features a sweeping roofline, a distinct front fascia, and is unmistakeably a Z car, through and through. Inside, the car features a three anlog gauges for a classic look, 12.3-inch configurable digital gauge cluster and a 9-inch touchscreen display. The cabin looks upscale and tech-forward, with deep bucket seats.

2023 Nissan ZThe 2023 Z lands this summer. Nissan

Nissan says the new Z will go on sale in summer 2022. Pricing starts at $39,990 for the base Sport trim, $49,990 for the mid-range Performance trim, and $52,990 for the limited-edition range-topping Proto Spec trim.

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