What is it?
If we were to play a little word association and say ‘Mazda MX-5’, what would be your response? Perhaps words like ‘sunshine’, ‘sports car’ and ‘soft-top’? Yet did you know that last one is a misnomer? You see, of the previous-generation MX-5, only 20% were soft-tops, while the other 80% were bought as the folding hard-top.
Still, they did look all but indistinguishable with their roofs down, so as oversights go, it’s a forgiveable one. But not any more. The new MX-5 RF (for Retractable Fastback) looks completely different from the standard car, not least with its flying buttresses reminiscent of a Ferrari 599. Does it look good? Hmm, opinion seems fairly evenly split, but it is certainly distinctive.
It’s a mite pricey, too. Mazda will charge you a hefty £2000 premium for the RF, so what is it you are getting, exactly?
A three-part roof, with sections consisting of steel, aluminium and plastic, folds away at the touch of a button in a mere 13 seconds, taking the glass rear window with it but leaving the fastback-style rear section in place for a Porsche 911 Targa-like look. But it adds more weight, higher up in the body. A 2.0-litre RF weighs 45kg more than the soft-top, so Mazda’s engineers have beefed up the front anti-roll bar and tweaked the damper settings. The idea wasn’t to alter the dynamics over the regular roadster, but simply to counter the extra mass and make the RF drive as similarly to its sibling as possible.
The suspension tweaks weren’t only because of the extra weight, either; Mazda also noticed that chassis stiffness had increased after adding the roof. Normally that would be welcome, but it changed the handling balance dramatically, so they ended up doing the incongruous: weakening an underbody cross member to reduce its stiffness, thus restoring the balance.
One design directive for the RF was greater refinement, without sacrificing practicality. To achieve this, there’s a three-layer headlining, thicker floor mats and extra sound deadening stuffed anywhere that was found to be leeching noise, vibration and harshness into the cabin: notably the gearlever surround, rear wheel arches, doors and engine compartment.
Yet with its fancy roof installation up or down, it’ll swallow two travel suitcases just like the soft-top.
What’s it like?
The RF feels like an MX-5: small, nimble and nippy. The acceleration is slowed, but only by a tenth of a second, so you’d be hard pressed to tell that the plucky, naturally aspirated 2.0-litre engine is finding things more of a struggle. It still pulls well once you get it stoked and sounds just as tangy when you explore its upper reaches.
You can order the RF – but not the soft-top – with a six-speed automatic gearbox, yet to stick a self-shifter in a small sports car would seem a grotesque act. Far better to stick with the six-speed manual and its bolt-action shift, which delivers joy with every gearchange.
The gearshift isn’t the only thing that will delight. Despite the extra weight, the handling still feels like it does in the soft-top. The steering is keen for every input and points the nose into a corner with a deft flick of the driver’s wrist. And the suspension remains soft but not sloppy, helping it to ride out mid-corner intrusions without suddenly upsetting the Mazda’s inherent balance.
But is it as refined as they’d hoped? Well, yes and no. The ride is superb for a car like this, but then it always was. Still, there does seem to have been an extra element of compliance levered in, although without a soft-top to compare it with, that could merely be the mind playing tricks – tricks created by the generally hushed cabin, road noise having been significantly reduced. Up to 50mph or so, you can see why you’d choose this RF over the regular roadster. Then you get to 70mph and it falls apart. Wind noise where the roof meets the side windows is pronounced and detracts from the sterling efforts elsewhere.
Drop the roof and things are no better. The extra protection afforded by that rear roof section means buffeting has been largely banished. But that leaves you zeroing in on the drone behind your ear, caused by the wind being scooped up and then circulated loudly around those flying buttresses.
Should I buy one?
Mazda says there are those who crave a small sports car but simply won’t buy a soft-top. The RF is born to alleviate their fears by offering greater perceived security and better refinement. Yet on that last score, it needs a bit more work.
It’s still a proper MX-5 to drive, but to truly justify that £2000 premium over the soft-top, it needs to do more to smooth off a couple of rough edges. Then, looks aside, it would be a really compelling choice.
Mazda MX-5 RF 2.0 160PS
Location Spain; On sale Now; Price £23,095; Engine 4 cyls, 1998cc, petrol; Power 158bhp at 6000rpm; Torque 148lb ft at 4600rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Kerb weight 1120kg; Top speed 134mph; 0-62mph 7.4sec; Economy 40.9mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 161g/km, 29%; Rivals Toyota GT86, Subaru BRZ
What is it?