Mazda’s stunning RF hard-top convertible offers even more drama, for a little more cash
Mazda MX-5 RF 2017 Review: Real Feel
Mazda is a rare specimen, an independent car company that’s also very successful. It builds cars its own way, and even its regular machines like the Mazda 3 have the sort of singular focus and usability that cars from bigger companies, designed by committee, often lack.
The point is that without its return to being the maverick of Japanese car brands, it’s not likely the newest MX-5 shown here, the RF, could have come into existence.
‘RF’ stands for ‘retractable fastback’, as this is the hard-top model of the MX-5 roadster, trading the fabric canopy for a two-piece folding roof. History has shown the demand for hard-top MX-5s to be extant, as one-piece coupe tops were available for the first and second-gen cars, while the third-gen model had a motorised hard-top model variant. But none of those examples breached the hard-top divide with the sheer style the RF has.
As it is with the Porsche 911 Targa or Ferrari 488 Spider, a central roof section stows away while the top ‘deck’ of the rear remains in place. Like the former, the deck levitates during the folding process, which takes ten seconds and works at crawling speeds below 10km/h, while the roof stows underneath it.
The RF takes the identical, taut front end of the MX-5 and concludes it even more dramatically with the haunches of the car concluding upward in the raised shoulders – this is the deck bit we’re talking about – the two buttresses that frame the rear window and black roof section.
It’s much more dramatic than the roadster, and passes off the rare trick of looking just as good with its roof on or off. Our only tiny gripe is that the test car is in Mazda’s signature metallic Soul Red (a $500 extra) rather than the RF’s launch colour, Machine Grey metallic (+$1,000).
The MX-5 is a purposeful machine, that much is clear once you enter, or fail to enter, the cabin. It’s a strict two-seater with a close seating position of the sort no longer found anywhere except perhaps sports kei cars.
It breeds driver intimacy right from the start: All the controls are within the flick of a wrist, and it’s obvious Mazda spent time on the primary interfaces (wheels, gearshifter, handbrake, pedals) and they fall to hand in a natural way that’s rarely felt in a modern car. That the steering wheel is only height-adjustable doesn’t even matter that much. The windscreen is so close you’ll leave fingerprints when pointing out things to your passenger.
All this is no surprise since it’s the same scene that the roadster debuted first of course, but the RF has a teensy bit more headroom, five milimetres, which leaves a little more space for a taller quiff. Still, the only major gripe about the car’s interior – its lack of height-adjustable seats, remains. Like the Infiniti Q60, sitting too high makes for an unnatural feeling when driving a sporty coupe. It goes against our own idea of ‘jinba ittai’, while the Infiniti has the excuse of being more luxury oriented, and this is really the only area the MX-5 stumbles.
Otherwise, Mazda’s modern skin is plastered over the interior, so it’s all finely-presented, and the primary controls are all especially well-executed, seen in the fine leather of the steering wheel, handbrake and gearshifter, plus the deep metallic sheen of the body-coloured interior panels that give a racy ‘monocoque’ feeling.
The naturally-aspirated 2.0-litre fires up with a soft rort, and has just 160bhp which isn’t much in this day and age. Yet part of the appeal of the MX-5 is making a huge amount from very little, and the car’s lack of mass means it never feels anything but sprightly in all situations.
The RF weighs 1,138kg with an automatic and 1,112kg with a manual, 58kg and 45kg heavier than its equivalent soft-top counterpart, respectively. It’s noticeable, especially in a car as svelte as this, but more from the slightly stiffer sprung rear than anything else.
It remains charmingly old-school, in the sense that it’s a ‘get out what you put in’ sort of car, analogue and requiring the driver to work, but rewarding them immensely when they do. No sense of unflappable, all-conquering ability here, but every km/h you will earn and enjoy, even at entirely legal speeds.
In non-extreme conditions, the car feels identical to the roadster, with the same intimacy and feedback, excellent handling but with a slightly busier ride quality. With the top down, you’ll have to raise your voices to have a conversation, and a little more shudder comes through the front end.
The keenest drivers should note that RF seems to have lost a very slight edge over the regular MX-5, easily attributable to the weight. But there’s also another thing to take note of: The automatic RF is a notable 81kg heavier than the lightest MX-5 available, the manual soft top, and the latter is not only quicker (1.3 seconds quicker to 100km/h) but also has a limited-slip differential that comes standard on all manual MX-5s. Hence, the dynamics gap would be even closer between the manual RF and soft-top, rather than the most ‘relaxed’ variant, the automatic RF.
In practicality terms the RF isn’t much different: boot space remains almost the same (127-litres, 3-litres less), you’ll struggle with anything larger than a sizeable gym bag. Stowage space in the cabin is also very limited, there’s a small, central glovebox that can hold a few CDs and a water bottle. The cabin is much noisier than a sedan’s, you’ll elbow your passenger in the face if you gesticulate too hard, but there’s nothing else in this price range that’ll put a smile on a driver’s face from behind the wheel – or walking away to look back at it.
The ravishing looks dial up the desirability of the RF, though the purity of the soft-top’s driving experience remains unmatched. Our advice? If you’re willing to make the sacrifices necessary for living with an MX-5, then it’s really a no-brainer to choose the manual option, RF or not.
Mazda MX-5 RF
Engine 1,998cc, 16V, inline 4
Power 158bhp at 6000rpm
Torque 200Nm at 4600rpm
Gearbox 6-speed automatic
Top Speed 194km/h
0-100km/h 7.9 seconds
Fuel efficiency 6.7L/100km
Price $179,300 with COE (May 5, 2017)