Traditionally, sports car sales follow a set pattern: All-new models tend to ride waves of hype and publicity, recording strong initial sales to feed initial demand before interest - and sales - recede into the shallows.
The pattern can be picked up in the sales charts of the Toyota 86, the same is sure to occur to the Ford Mustang, and it has happened to the Mazda MX-5 for more than two decades.
Mazda intends to keep interest in its roadster buoyant by introducing a new model that isn't a roadster at all. Meet the new MX-5 RF, a folding hardtop version of Mazda’s iconic rear wheel drive convertible that should give the model a vital sales boost.
Vehicle Style: Two-door hard-top convertible
Price: $38,550 - $46,890 (plus on-roads)
Engine/trans: 118kW/200Nm 2.0 litre 4cyl petrol | 6sp manual, 6sp automatic
Fuel Economy Claimed: 7.0 l/100km manual, 7.4 l/100km automatic
The fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 arrived locally in August 2015, so the timing seems right to introduce a new model. Based on the available 2.0-litre MX-5, instead of the less powerful 1.5-litre version, the RF swaps the standard car's manual-folding cloth roof for a powered powered hardtop alternative made from metal and glass.
Unlike the previous model this one does not attempt to store the entire roof in the boot, instead the latest model's compact dimensions pushed engineers to try something new.
The new MX-5 RF adopts a roof mechanisms that resembles a targa top instead of a traditional convertible, with rear pillars that lift out of the way to allow stowage of the centre roof section before returning to their original position.
Positioned as a more liveable and refined spin on the MX-5 theme, the new model also benefits from additional sound deadening material and revised suspension settings to maximise its appeal.
- RF: Fabric seats, manual air conditioning, push-button start, cruise control, power-retractable roof, 17-inch alloy wheels
- RF GT: (in addition to RF) Leather seat trim, single-zone climate control, adaptive headlights, proximity key
- RF GT Black Roof: (in addition to RF GT) black-painted roof, Auburn Nappa leather interior
- Infotainment: 7.0-inch touchscreen display, MZD Connect rotary controller, USB input, satellite navigation, AM/FM tuner, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, internet radio integration for Pandora, Stitcher and Aha, six-speaker (RF) or nine-speaker Bose (RF GT and above) audio
- Cargo Volume: 127 litres
The MX-5's interior is as cozy as ever - arguably more so with a fixed roof in place - retaining the convertible's assets and liabilities. It feels unashamedly purposeful, from the stretched-out position of its pedals, to the brevity of its instrumentation and the way its gear selector falls to hand.
As with the soft-top MX-5, there is precious little storage space, the cabin is quite tight for taller drivers, and rear visibility with the roof up is beyond ordinary.
Roof operation is via a console-mounted button, taking just over 10 seconds to open and close and able to be operated on the move at speeds below 10 km/h.
The elegantly choreographed display has been expertly finessed to make sure the roof quietly slips into place rather than determinedly thumping home, putting to shame more expensive hard top roof mechanisms from prestige automakers.
The standard MX-5 RF treatment includes 17-inch wheels, cloth seats, satellite navigation, cruise control, air conditioning, and a touchscreen infotainment system with a six-speaker stereo.
Stepping up to the RF GT adds leather trim, climate control, a nine-speaker Bose stereo, adaptive headlights, and keyless entry and start, while the premium RF GT Black Roof adds a black-painted roof and auburn-coloured nappa leather for a more mature and luxurious feel.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 118kW/20Nm 2.0 litre naturally aspirated in-line four-cylinder
- Transmission: Six speed manual or six speed automatic, rear wheel drive
- Suspension: Double wishbone front, multilink independent rear
- Brakes: Four-wheel disc brakes, ventilated front, solid rear
- Steering: Electrically assisted power steering, 9.4m turning circle
With the hard top roof in place the MX-5 RF is quieter on the road than the regular model, proving more refined than its more basic sibling, but drop the top and the tables are turned with the RF's flying buttress structure behind the driver and passenger catching more wind than the roll hoops of the roadster.
The open-air feeling of a true convertible is also missing, feeling more like a targa-roof or a massive sunroof - there's simply too much fixed structure surrounding occupant for a traditional drop-top feel.
Wind in the hair aside, the RF does feel like an MX-5 on the road, sharing the light-footed dexterity and nimble nature of the roadster, retaining its composure in demanding situations. There's a delicacy to the MX-5's controls few models can match, a fingertip precision to every driving element.
Whether it's the light and talkative steering, consistent brake and throttle response or the sweetest manual gear shift on sale today, the MX-5 RF offers immense driving appeal.
Few cars can distil driving to its essence the way an MX-5 can, and that certainly remains the case with the roadster.
Mazda sought to disguise the car's additional weight with firmer suspension that's more resistant to roll, and by beefing up the car's engine note to give it a throatier voice. The changes work, helping the RF offer a driving experience not far removed from the original recipe.
Mazda's decision to restrict it to the MX-5's 2.0-litre engine feels like a good call, as the additional 47 kilos of hardtop weight will prove less of an issue for the more powerful motor.
As usual, the engine doesn't dominate the MX-5 experience the way some sports cars are governed entirely by their powerplant.
It's a willing enough unit, using 7L/100km to produce adequate 118kW and 200Nm outputs that provide decent if not thrilling acceleration.
ANCAP Rating: 5 Stars - The MX-5 (roadster) scored 35.20 out of 37 possible points when tested in 2016.
Safety Features: Four airbags (dual front, dual side), ABS brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution, brake assist and emergency stop signal, hill launch assist, stability and traction control, front seatbelt pretensioners with load limiters and tyre pressure monitoring.
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: Three years/unlimited kilometres
Servicing: Service pricing for the MX-5 RF follows that of the regular 2.0-litre MX-5 with odd-numbered services priced at $299 each and even-numbered services at $341 each. Service intervals are set at 12 month or 10,000km (whichever occurs first).
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
Toyota’s hard line on pricing sees the rear wheel drive 86 coupe start from a very reasonable $30,790 before on-road costs, and with no roadster version available the 86 coupe and MX-5 RF are closer than ever in comfort, performance, and appeal.
No surprises here, but one of the MX-5 RF’s biggest rivals is its own soft-top sibling. Purists adore the free-revving 1.5 litre engine, but the 2.0 litre version leaves nothing behind - it all comes down to how you’d like to experience the open air.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
Traditional MX-5 fans may be unlikely to gravitate toward the MX-5 RF, which doesn't quite match the purity of the the original recipe.
Then again, many customers will be pleased by the amount of sky on show, so much so that Mazda expects a pent-up swell of support for the RF to see it outsell standard MX-5 models in 2017.
In any case, the new MX-5 RF is a worthy addition that should keep people interested in the MX-5 for a little while to come, diluting none of the compact sports car’s driving appeal, but adding new all-weather security to the mix.