2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata Review

Christian Wardlaw, Independent Expert | Aug 07, 2020

Introduction - Find the best Mazda deals!

Sports cars need not be fast in order to be fun. Case in point: the 2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata. Small, light, and quick, it makes the best of its 181 horsepower while providing real driving thrills on public roads, where you can use most of this car’s performance without getting yourself into big trouble. And if you’re inspired to take a Miata to a track event, it proves capable in that environment, too, unless we’re talking about a drag-strip or a course with long straights.

Think of the 2020 Mazda Miata as a street legal go-kart, and you’ll understand its appeal. After mechanical updates for 2019 made the car more fun to drive than ever, changes for 2020 are limited to a standard sport suspension for the Grand Touring trim level, a new Polymetal Gray exterior color, a new premium red Nappa leather offering, and an available gray soft-top. Mazda also introduced a limited-production version of the car to celebrate the automaker’s 100th anniversary, in a unique white over red color combination with a red fabric top.

2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF Grand Touring Polymetal Gray Front View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

You can get a Miata in both soft-top convertible and power retractable fastback styles, the latter called the MX-5 Miata RF. For this review, J.D. Power evaluated a 2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF Grand Touring equipped with extra-cost leather. The price came to $35,670, including the $945 destination charge.

What Owners Say… - Find the best Mazda deals!

Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the Mazda MX-5 Miata, it is helpful to understand who buys this compact sporty car, and what they like most and least about their vehicles.

According to J.D. Power data, 70% of Mazda MX-5 Miata owners are male (vs. 72% for the segment), and the median age of a Miata owner is 62 years (vs. 43).

Owners say their favorite things about the MX-5 Miata are (in descending order) the exterior styling, driving feel, fuel economy, setting up and starting, and powertrain. Specifically, these five things about the vehicle rank highest in comparison to the compact sporty car segment:

  • Fuel economy/driving range
  • Exterior styling
  • Quality of materials inside the vehicle
  • Steering/handling in normal conditions
  • Getting the vehicle set up

Owners indicate their least favorite things about the MX-5 Miata are (in descending order) the driving comfort, feeling of safety, interior design, infotainment system, and getting in and out. Specifically, these five things about the vehicle rank lowest in comparison to the compact sporty car segment:

  • Vehicle protection
  • Getting in/out front seats
  • Ability to hold personal items
  • Power of engine/motor
  • Sound of engine/motor

In the J.D Power 2020 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, the MX-5 Miata did not rank due to low sample size.

What Our Expert Says… - Find the best Mazda deals!

In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own perceptions about how the 2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the APEAL Study.

Exterior

The RF in the test car’s name stands for “retractable fastback.” Essentially, instead of a traditional fabric convertible roof, the RF has a segmented hardtop that allows the car to serve as a closed coupe or as an open targa-style convertible. The power operated rear fastback bodywork raises and the roof sections and rear window glass collapse and stack beneath it.

2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF Grand Touring Polymetal Gray Rear View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

Personally, I prefer the traditional soft-top roadster look. Plus, you can save more than $2,750 by choosing the standard fabric folding roof. But there is no denying both the anti-theft security and weather-tight interior benefits of the RF.

Dressed in Polymetal Gray paint, which replaces Ceramic on the car’s color chart for 2020, and fitted with dark silver 8-spoke 17-inch wheels, the test vehicle looked sensationally good, and especially in summer sunlight.

Interior

For 2020, red premium Nappa leather joins black and tan leather color choices for Grand Touring versions of the convertible and RF. The Sport and Club trim levels are offered only with black cloth unless you upgrade the Club with the optional black leather and Alcantara suede Recaro performance seats.

2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF Grand Touring Red Nappa Leather Seats Dashboard

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

The new red leather is a darker hue, so it’s not bright and obnoxious. And if you want to pair it with Polymetal Gray, you have no choice but to get the MX-5 Miata RF because this gorgeous combination is not offered with the traditional fabric roof.

With accent stitching, polished aluminum accents throughout, a minimalistic driver-focused control layout, and gauges that resemble fine time pieces, the MX-5 Miata’s interior is focused and fancy at the same time. Upper door panel trim matches the exterior paint color, making the car feel even more open when the top is down or the roof is retracted.

This is, however, a very small 2-seat car. Storage is almost non-existent. My smartphone fit on the tiny tray forward of the shifter, there is a miniscule covered compartment under the center armrest, tiny bins are embedded into the door panels, and the glove compartment is actually located on the rear wall of the car between the seats. Cupholder attachments fit into a slot on the right side of the center console and between the seats under the glove compartment.

Getting In and Out

More inconvenience awaits in terms of getting into and out of the Miata, and loading the tiny 4.6 cubic-foot trunk through its small opening and over its high liftover height is hard if you’re loading heavy luggage.

Sitting just inches off of the ground, the Miata requires dexterity and muscle to enter and exit with any amount of grace. Especially in terms of exiting, you need strong legs, good knees, and decent abdominal muscles if you intend to get out of the car rather than tumble out of it. Skirts are not advised.

But once you’re in, happiness ensues.

Setting Up and Starting

A Mazda MX-5 Miata fits its occupants like a glove, and everything about the car is focused on driving (and riding) enjoyment. The view over the hood, with the car’s peaked fenders providing perfect reference points that frame an immediate view of the road ahead, sparks a sense of excitement, and the open roof fills the cabin with the sounds and scents of nature. This is a car you look forward to driving.

Simplicity and minimalism are the rule, with the exception of the frequently confusing Mazda Connect infotainment system. It can be a regular source of frustration until you get the hang of it, mainly because of the audio system interface which is easily the thing you’ll need to access most often. Worse, in a bid to reduce driver distraction, the system offers touchscreen operation only when the car isn’t moving.

My recommendation is to go through every menu, set things up to your personal preferences, and then use the steering wheel controls to adjust volume and change radio stations.

Infotainment System

One reason Mazda deactivates the touch-sensing feature for the infotainment system display while you’re driving, and why some settings are unavailable when the car is moving, is because Mazda Connect does not offer an immediately intuitive interface, which makes it harder to find and reference information at a glance.

From setting your favorite radio stations to finding your way around the various sub-menus, this system is harder to use than it needs to be. And if you install both of the removeable cupholders between the seats, the right one will get in the way of your arm when you try to use the Mazda Connect controls on the center console.

Since the test car didn’t have an active SiriusXM satellite radio subscription, I connected my phone via Bluetooth and streamed Pandora without much effort. When connected to Apple CarPlay, it was easy to make and receive phone calls, too.

The voice recognition system does not support natural commands. You cannot say: “Find the nearest (insert favorite coffee shop)” or “Find the closest hospital” and expect to achieve navigational success. Also, with the roof down, the system did not properly interpret my home address. While waiting at a red light, it finally worked. Notably, it works well for changing radio stations.

The Bose premium sound system includes speakers in the head restraints, but when the roof is off the RF’s susceptibility to wind noise is a real problem. On the freeway, I had to pump the volume up to 45 just to hear anything with clarity. Better to just turn the stereo off and enjoy the drive.

Keeping You Safe

Weighing less than 2,500 pounds, a Mazda MX-5 Miata is going to lose nearly every collision battle on America’s SUV- and truck-infested roads.

Neither the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety nor the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has performed crash tests on the Miata, so it is impossible to know how well the car actually protects its occupants. But the laws of physics certainly do apply here, and there isn’t much in the way of collision crush space in any direction.

Get into an accident with another small car, though, and the standard front and side-impact airbags will do their best to protect you. Mazda also equips every 2020 MX-5 Miata with a reversing camera, low-speed automatic emergency braking, blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic warning, and lane-departure warning systems. A traffic sign recognition system is included with Grand Touring trim.

The lane-departure warning system worked fine during the period of time I left it engaged. It emits a rumble through the stereo speakers, and you can adjust the volume to make it louder or softer. But I preferred driving the car without it.

Powertrain

Because the MX-5 Miata is so light, it doesn’t need much in the way of outright power in order for you to go fast and have fun. And in 2019, Mazda massaged the car’s powertrain for even greater responsiveness. The result is a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine generating 181 horsepower at 7,000 rpm and 151 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,000 rpm, fed to the rear wheels through a delightful 6-speed manual gearbox or a 6-speed sport automatic with paddle shifters.

Driving enthusiasts will adore this powertrain. The engine revs eagerly and smoothly to its 7,500-rpm redline, the short-throw gearbox is a model of perfection, and the pedals are set up for easy heel-and-toe downshift rev matching. Better yet, if you don’t know how to drive a stick, the sport automatic isn’t a total bummer, but you do get a torque-sensing limited-slip differential if you know how to use a clutch.

A Miata is a quick car, but not an outright fast car. Unlike so many modern sports coupes, sports sedans, and sports cars, you can actually use all of the power without getting yourself into too much trouble. The manual transmission’s gearing allows the use of nothing but second and third gear on a typical twisty road; you can run the car well beyond the posted speed limit in third without feeling like the engine is going to disintegrate into a million little pieces.

Better still, the engine doesn’t sound like a typical whiny and wheezy 4-cylinder. The note has genuine grit and bite to it, but without resorting to the snap, crackle, and pop associated with a typical sport compact. It’s more grown up, yet scrappy in terms of sound.

Fuel Economy

According to the EPA, a Mazda MX-5 Miata with a manual transmission should return 29 mpg in combined driving. On my test loop, in spite of running the car to the higher reaches of the rev range on a regular basis and driving in less-aerodynamic top-down mode except on the freeway, the RF returned 29.9 mpg.

Mazda says the Miata has an 11.9-gallon fuel tank. Based on my driving, range amounts to 355 miles. Leaving a 40-mile cushion, you’ll be stopping at the gas station every 315 miles.

Driving Comfort

For reference, I am 6-feet tall, wear pants with a 33-inch inseam, and weigh 260 pounds. I fit into the Mazda MX-5 Miata RF with no trouble, though it certainly is snug. And after three hours in the saddle, I definitely needed to get out and stretch a bit.

On the passenger’s side, a hump in the floor appears to impede on legroom but it’s not really an issue. Sitting on that side, however, my knees are just an inch away from the dashboard with the seat moved all of the way back in its track, and my head feels closer to the roof. Based on my seat-of-the-pants assessment, there is more space on the driver’s side of the car.

In spite of its hardtop design, the RF seems just as loud inside as the standard convertible version, though to be honest I hardly ever drive Miatas with the top up. What I can tell you is that with the roof panels and rear window stowed, the RF seems louder and more turbulent inside due to the remaining roof structure. In part, this is why I prefer the standard fabric roof.

Testing day was not brutally hot, and I drove the Miata during the evening hours in advance of sunset, so the air conditioning system did not need to work overtime. Unlike many Mazda vehicles, however, it does blow cold enough during mid-day summer heat to satisfy occupants – though it remains on high at all times unless you manually dial down the fan speed. And on chillier days, heated seats help to extend the top-down driving season.

Driving Feel

Mazda’s advertising tagline is “Feel Alive.” It is an apt one, without hyperbole. And especially when you’re behind the wheel of the MX-5 Miata, that’s exactly how you feel.

Immersed into both a mechanical symphony and nature’s harmony, you feel at one with the car, the road, and the surroundings. You feel everything. You smell everything. You see everything. You hear everything. The only one of your five senses that isn’t activated is taste, but a stop at your favorite restaurant during the drive can cure that.

The Miata is instantly reactive to your inputs, but not in a sudden way. You’re aware of every bump, crack, and divot in the road, but not in a brutal way. Unlike so many modern vehicles, which still feel like they’re going slow even when you’re exceeding the speed limit, a Miata feels like it’s going fast while you’re well within the threshold for what local law enforcement might deem grounds for a ticket.

Pure, unadulterated joy is the best way to describe the driving experience. And this is especially true if you’ve never owned a convertible before, or a true sports car.

Beyond the thrilling sensations, there is a practical side to this tiny, 181-horsepower 2-seater. In addition to using most of the power without getting yourself into trouble, he Miata’s small size and footprint allow you to use a maximum amount of space in your lane. This helps to preserve momentum and, as I found on California 154 when a Silverado heavy-duty coming towards me put both of its left tires on my side of the highway, aids safety. I was able to squeeze the Miata all the way to the right of my lane without going into the dirt, avoiding a collision and/or a loss of control.

Final Impressions - Find the best Mazda deals!

As a kid, when on a vacation, my family and I stopped at a go-kart track in Door County, Wisconsin. The teenager manning the place was totally irresponsible, and with rain just ending there were no other patrons seeking to drive in the wet. He let my dad, brother, and me loose on the course in karts without speed regulators, and we raced, slid, and spun our way to an indelible memory.

Every Miata I’ve ever driven (or owned) since has reminded me of that memorably fun day on that Wisconsin go-kart track.

This car is not for everyone. It doesn’t offer the outright performance of a Porsche 718, it doesn’t make the menacing sounds of a Mustang, it doesn’t inspire lust or carry social cachet with the general populace, and outside of driving enthusiasts who know better, it still has a reputation as a car made for one gender over another.

Furthermore, it’s not even close to being practical, it forces genuine comfort compromises, and not everything about it is as flawlessly executed as the mechanicals.

But if you want to feel alive with every drive without spending more money than a typical Honda Accord costs, there are no truly comparable alternatives – not even the Miata-based Fiat 124 Spider.

Christian Wardlaw is a veteran digital automotive journalist with over 25 years of experience test-driving vehicles. In addition to JDPower.com, his work has appeared in numerous new- and used-car buying guides, newspapers, and automotive industry trade journals.

The opinions expressed in this review are the author’s own, not J.D. Power’s.

No portion of these reviews may be reproduced, distributed, publicly displayed, or used for a derivative work without J.D. Power’s written permission. © 2020 J.D. Power

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