Test Drive: MX-5 Miata RF handles perfectly

We’ve driven quite a few incarnations of the Mazda MX-5 Miata over the years and a few qualities have stood out for the entire run: The cars are hugely fun to drive, fuel-efficient and reliable, easy on the eyes and comfortable even for drivers of average height.

But there are quite a few downsides. Long-legged drivers struggle to get into and out of the cabin, there’s very little room for small items (and some of the compartments require a contortionist’s agility to access) and the trunk is tiny.

It is for these and other reasons that women tend to like the MX-5 better than men do. Mazda seems to have made an effort to attract men to this model by applying a more masculine look to the sheet metal, highlighted by bulging front fenders and a narrow, almost feral look to the headlights. And our latest test car, a 2017 MX-5 RF, wore a decidedly manly coat of Machine Gray Metallic Black Gray paint.

New for 2017, the RF features an unusual roof design: when lowered, the steel roof and rear window drop behind the seats, leaving the sloping rear side panels in place. In addition to giving the MX-5 a new and compelling look, this system does not require sacrificing part of the trunk for roof storage. MX-5 aficionados still can buy the familiar soft-top version.

At $35,385, our MX-5 was priced more than $10,000 higher than the base Sport soft-top convertible. It seats two, with about 5 cubic feet of trunk space. Fuel economy with the 6-speed shiftable automatic transmission was better than we remember from past MX-5 models: 26 mpg city, 35 highway. (Mazda recommends, but does not require, the use of premium unleaded gasoline.)

In mostly highway driving, we met or exceeded 35 mpg.

In Grand Touring trim, the rear-wheel-drive MX-5 RF comes with 17-inch alloy wheels, heated seats, leather upholstery, color display with Command control between the seats, blind-spot monitoring system, rear cross-traffic alert, rain-sensing windshield wipers, navigation system, satellite radio, cruise control and paddle shifters.

The competition remains relatively scanty and includes a few models that seat as many as four…theoretically. The Fiat 124 Spider is similar to the MX-5 mechanically but has a different look and personality. Also competitive are the Toyota 86 and similar Subaru BRZ. For $12,000 more than the sticker price of our loaded MX-5 test car, Nissan offers the 332-horsepower 370Z, also available as a coupe.

If we were assigned to do a redesign of the MX-5, we’d steal some inches from the long, shapely hood to add leg-room, ease entry and egress, and perhaps enlarge the trunk a bit. In so doing, we undoubtedly would disrupt the car’s graceful good looks. To compensate, we’d boost horsepower, or at least offer a more muscular optional engine. We wouldn’t interfere with the car’s handling characteristics in any way: They’re just about perfect.

2017 Mazda MX-5 Miata Grand Touring RF

Price: $35,385

Engine: 2.0-liter Four, 155 horsepower, 148 lb.-ft. torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic with paddle shifters

Drive: Rear-wheel

Weight: 2,494 lb.

Suspension: Double-wishbone front, multi-link rear

Wheels: 17-in. alloy

Tires: 205/45R17 high performance

Seating capacity: 2

Luggage capacity: 5.3 cu. ft.

Fuel capacity: 11.9 gallons

Fuel economy: 26 mpg city, 35 mpg highway

Fuel type: Premium unleaded (recommended)

Steven Macoy (semacoy@gmail.com) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.