Quite possibly the star of this year’s motorshow, the Mazda MX-5 RF and its fastback roof drew huge crowds. We spoke to the car’s project leader about why it exists, who it’s for, and the one thing about its top that makes it more Japanese than anything…
SINGAPORE — When you exit a room in Japan, you’re supposed to close the door quietly. It’s a cultural thing, says Hitoshi Takamatsu, the project leader who oversaw development of the Mazda MX-5.
That explains why the electric roof of the stunning MX-5 RF slows down just before latching into place — the last thing Takamatsu wanted was for it to seem to be slamming shut, the way some convertible roofs do.
That’s just one of the many differences between the MX-5 RF (the tag stands for “Retractable Fastback”) and the regular, soft-top model. Takamatsu was at the Singapore Motorshow 2017 to launch the car, and spoke to CarBuyer about its place in the MX-5’s story.
“It was destiny,” says Takamatsu (pictured above), when asked about Mazda’s decision to build the hard-top RF. The car was conceived from Day One of the current MX-5 project, he says. There was a business case for it from the start because the previous model also came in soft and hard-top versions, he points out.
Sales were split evenly between the two, in case you were wondering, although towards the end of the last MX-5’s lifespan the hard-top became the bigger seller.
Still, this time around, Takamatsu says Mazda’s design department — which wields more clout within the organisation than is typical for a carmaker — wanted both versions of the MX-5 to be differentiated by shape. Hence the fastback shape, with its slinky, Ferrari-like flying buttresses.
Though the designers did their bit beautifully, the engineers didn’t exactly fall down on the job. The hardtop folds in only 12 seconds, and it doesn’t eat up a single litre of boot space more than the soft top.
It looks deceptively simple, consisting of three pieces, but Takamatsu says his team ran through a large number of alternatives, including one with all of seven pieces.
There are other thoughtful touches. Because the RF is quieter inside than the soft-top, for example, the engineers reduced the pressure of a gearbox pump, to make the transmission emit less noise. Takamatsu points out a neat digital display that only the RF comes with, too: it shows an animation of the roof in motion, in perfect sync with its real-life movements. “You don’t have to look at the hardware,” he says, smiling.
The hard-top adds 45kg to the MX-5, but the suspension team reworked the dampers and stiffened up the rear anti-roll bar. The chassis has an extra cross-member to “optimise” the body’s stiffness, says Takamatsu, to match the increase in rigidity to the rear of the car brought on by the hard-top configuration.
The result is a car that doesn’t compromise on the MX-5’s jinba ittai sense of driving fun. But then that raises a natural question: How does one choose between them?
Takamatsu says the RF, which at $188,800 with COE costs $10,000 more than the equivalent MX-5 soft top, is more for the “gentleman” driver (we think that might be a euphemism for “older”), while the soft-top is the more casual choice.
But one way to think of it, he reckons, is that the soft-top is for people who usually drive with the roof down. “In the case of the RF, we are expecting maybe 50 percent of the time it will be used with the roof closed.”
If it helps, the man who led development of both cars is pretty torn himself. Takamatsu owns a soft-top MX-5, but wishes he also had the RF for days when he wants to drive with the roof up. “Honestly speaking, I want to have both vehicles for different circumstances,” he says. “It’s a hard question!” Unlike the car’s roofs, in other words, the case to choose one over the other is hardly an open-and-shut one.