Since 1990, the Mazda MX-5 Miata has been a big hit, selling over a million examples over the last nearly 30 years. It’s one of the most popular, most fun to drive, most raced roadsters in the world, and it’s not hard to see why. Miata models are far from the most powerful cars ever produced — but they’re very light, they handle like a sports car should, and (to those who drive the British roadsters the Miata sought to emulate) surprisingly reliable! And I defy you to take one on a twisty road, put the top down, go for it and not come out the other side with a huge smile on your face, ready to whip it around and go again.
Now, though, when you go shopping for one, you are met with more choices than ever before. I’m not going to go through a full-on buyers guide for these cars — but Instead, I’m going to focus on whether you should get the soft top or the retractable fastback (Miata RF). For those who would want the most basic Sport model, your only option is the soft top. However, if you want the harder, more focused Club or the top-end Grand Touring, you can choose between both options. Below I’ll break down some subjective and objective differences between the two so that you can make your decision more easily!
The amount of engine note that you hear between the two is about the same — but, with the tops up, the RF has a quieter cabin with better sound insulation in the roof and between the driver and the rear axle. However, with the roof down, the rear of the fastback catches some wind, which results in more wind noise, especially at highway speeds.
One of the upsides for the RF is that its power operation means that all you need to do is hold a button while the roof whirs into place, making for very simple and straightforward operation. However, the manual top is just a matter of releasing one latch — and, if you have full range motion of your shoulder, you can raise or drop the top in a matter of a couple seconds. The power top only takes about 13 to 15 seconds, but when you compare it to just flopping the cloth top down, it feels like forever.
One of the most obvious differences is in the cost of the car. The MSRP of the RF is between $2,555 and $2,755 more than the equivalent soft top. That’s a big difference — especially once you factor in the added risk of failure in the roof’s functionality and added repair cost potential should that happen.
Now, here’s the one place where the RF really has a big edge over the soft top. From most angles, the RF is a better looking car. Having the body color painted roof gives a more premium look — and having the hard edge and buttresses adds to the aggressive design, making the car look more expensive and angrier than its cloth-topped cousin.
One of my favorite things about convertibles is the huge open-air feeling that you get when the top is down and the only thing obstructing your view is the windshield frame. Scenic drives become more immersive. The sights, sounds, smells of your surroundings are just right there, begging for you to reach out and touch them. And on a clear night, the unencumbered view of the stars is second to none. Unfortunately, while you can get some of the same sensations in the RF, it’s more like having a big sunroof than the true convertible experience. Also, regardless of the romanticizing above, in a car as small as the Miata, sometimes not feeling like you’re cooped up inside it can be a good thing.
Whether it’s looking straight back or into the lanes next to you, the only thing that a full convertible adds to the safety of a vehicle is the rearward visibility. There’s zero blind spot on either side and you are highly unlikely to miss something when reversing. These aren’t things that you necessarily notice until the first time you drive a convertible on the highway, or go to change lanes. The RF takes that away. In fact, the RF makes that blind spot even worse since when you turn your head, all you see is the inside of the rear buttress! You have to first lean forward and then turn your head so that you can see around it. Not necessarily ideal. In an effort to be fair, this problem is the same if the top is up in the soft top too.
Under normal driving circumstances, there’s very little difference in how these cars feel while accelerating, turning or cruising. The RF does have a weight gain of just over 100 pounds — which, given the relatively low power output does make a difference. But, especially with the top up, it’s stiffer — so when pushed to the limits, they’re probably pretty much dead even.
As you may be able to tell, I would personally go for the soft top. It’s cheaper, it’s lighter, provides the open-air experience and visibility that I want from a convertible, and the top is easier to operate. The RF loses out on all those points — but I do have to admit that it does look fantastic. Also, if you plan to use your car all year, the added weight isn’t necessarily bad — and the added insulation will help keep you warmer. Or, if you’re shopping for a coupe and discounting the Miata because it isn’t one, the RF is worth a look. I’m hoping that breaking this down for you is helpful, but, both cars have pros and cons. For me, the pros of the soft top outweigh those of the RF so that’s the one I’d have. What about you? Do you agree with me, or would you spring for the beautiful retractable fastback?
By day, Bill Leedy spends his time selling Mazda’s folks throughout Vermont and the Adirondacks. By night, he attempts to fight crime and write things about cars (he does one of those things better than the other). He can also be found on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram under the name Green Mountain Car Guy.