Mazda 2017: The Miata's New Retractable Hardtop, and the Quieter CX-5 Goes Upscale

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Mar 06, 2017

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA—“We’ve been trying to change the image of the previous Miata folding hardtop,” said company design director Julien Montousse. “This one has more of a coupe aesthetic, rather than the bubble top.”

The new 2017 Mazda Miata RF goes coupe--remember the old Opel GT? (Jim Motavalli photo)

Indeed, the new Retractable Fastback (RF)—at dealerships now, but also at a San Diego drive event—is quite a departure from the earlier Power Retractable Hard Top (PRHT), offered on the third generation NC. Top up, it doesn’t look compromised—the roofline in fact reminds me of the old Opel GT (a mini Corvette in its day). Put the top down (which you can do at speeds of up to six mph), and the RF looks like a T-Top car without the need to stow the tops. Up to down takes 13 seconds, and the RF option adds 113 pounds to the car’s weight for a total of 2,445.

With folded roof, it's like a T-Top car without the stowage headaches. (Jim Motavalli)

Don’t expect major driving differences between the RF and soft top; subtle changes were made to the Miata’s suspension’s tuning and steering calibration to accommodate the added weight. A rear bushing and the rear bump stops were changed and steering tweaked to cut down on center friction; they even drilled the transmission tunnel to take out a few ounces.

I, of course, am a Miata owner, and my 1999 didn’t have a retractable option—I make do with the snug removable hardtop, which boasts a rear defroster and fits both the NA (which debuted in 1989) and the NB (first year 1999). But I’m surprised to note that in 2003 Mazda also offered a nice-looking coupe version—in Japan only. It might have sold in the U.S., too, because those older PRHTs actually outsold roadsters for a while. 

This circa-2003 Miata Coupe was Japan-only. But Americans would have bought them. (Jim Motavalli)

Mazda doesn’t have a likely take rate for the RF, but it should be quite high. Fuel economy remains great, at 26 city/33 highway. There aren’t a whole lot of compromises with the RF, since the folded hardtop takes up the same space as the convertible’s ragtop. Say, remember the Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner retractable, circa 1957, whose top took up the entire enormous trunk when powered down?

Ten power relays, 10 limit switches and four lock motors made the Ford Skyliner retractable work.

Ford’s top mechanism was incredibly complex, using 10 power relays, 10 limit switches, four lock motors, three drive motors, eight circuit breakers and 610 feet of wiring. It took 40 seconds to go up or down. It also cost twice the price of the sedan, so we’ve made some progress since back then.

The 2017 CX-5 moves upscale, with Herculean efforts at noise reduction. You can whisper your request for Grey Poupon. (Jim Motavalli)

Given the incredible growth in the crossover segment, it was inevitable that Mazda’s CX-5 (which debuted in 2012) would become the company’s best seller—and that enormous effort would go into making the second generation of the car better. At the San Diego event, we learned just how big that effort was.

Let’s start with noise reduction. Some CX-5 owners told Mazda they’d like it if their cars were quieter, but Dave Coleman, manager of vehicle dynamics engineering, told us that the changes have more to do with moving the CX-5 up into the premium class. You know how Rolls-Royce spent decades talking about how quiet its cars were—you could whisper your request for Grey Poupon.

Inside the CX-5, it's as quiet as a church on Monday night. (Jim Motavalli)

SUVs aren’t generally thought of as quiet, but today’s crossovers are more and more carlike, and customers are demanding that their off-roaders also be luxury sedans. So that meant going after NVH (noise, vibration and harshness). Targets included making it easier for the driver to talk to rear-seat passengers, and to that end something like 50 pounds of sound-deadening were added.

Mazda got really specific on this. The windshield wipers were moved below the hood line, the windshield itself was thickened by a tenth of a millimeter, and a deeper inner door seal was added to prevent aerodynamic noise. Acoustic glass was used in the front side windows. Window channel fit was tightened, and seals were added behind the pillar and chrome trim, and at the door frame pinch weld. There’s a tighter gap between the lower door and the body, and the plastic undercover is now felt-lined to better absorb sound.

Mazda's Dave Coleman gives us the lowdown on noise reduction. (Jim Motavalli)

There was more, but do you really want to hear about how they lowered the natural frequency of the rear subframe, or added insulation behind the door panels and used carpeting to close gaps that could allow sound intrusion? 

I liked the detail about the G-Vectoring Control. When you step on the accelerator during a turn, the system subtly reduces engine torque, which shifts the load to the front wheels, stiffens the tire carcass and improves steering response. Neat.

This wasn’t a standard press event. We didn’t hear anything about the option packages or even the pricing, but got a vivid demonstration about the redesign of the piston skirts and oil rings. They didn’t even talk about the zero to 60 times, or the horsepower rating (187, if you’re counting). The reason, we were told, was that lots more time went into improving the vehicle dynamics than into achieving big, impressive power numbers.

Did you know that bottom-hinged accelerator pedals are easier on your foot? Or that studying weightless NASA astronauts will give you insight into ideal seating positions? I didn’t either.

Oh, one other thing. Did you also know that the name “Mazda” is an adaptation of founder Jujiro Matsuda’s name? Or that Kiichiro Toyoda’s company became “Toyota” because it uses fewer Japanese characters? Mazda, by the way, is also the Zoroastrian light god, and the name was used by a British lighting company. That’s why, for years, car company Mazda couldn’t use its name on its headlights—the English dudes owned the name for lighting products.

Did I also drive the CX-5? You bet, and I even was able to compare it with competitors like the Mercedes GLA and BMW X1. But the driving information (and pricing) on both the Miata RF and CX-5 is temporarily embargoed. I’ll update this page as soon as I can.

By the way, our visit to San Diego coincided with the city's Mardi Gras celebration and parade, which brought out the low riders and whimsical float trucks. Here are a few:

The '63 Impala is a favored low rider. (Jim Motavalli)
This crazy truck was blasting the hits. (Jim Motavalli)
A wild custom ride: These vehicles are labors of love. (Jim Motavalli)
A homemade crane: What did this start life as? (Jim Motavalli)
Yes, that is a '66 Chevy Impala SS given the low-rider treatment. (Jim Motavalli)

And here's a fast look at the RF Miata's top going down:

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