Bucking of stereotypes and shunning of trends – these are among the many things the slinky 2017 Mazda MX-5 Retractable Fastback (RF) GT flagship is good at doing.
At $45,890 plus on-road costs, this six-speed manual is the penultimate MX-5 RF GT with only the automatic with the same number of ratios costing $2000 more. Exterior colours Soul Red and Machine Grey are then the only further choices at $300 extra.
The thing is, though, Mazda expects the manual to be the most popular transmission, snaring 70 per cent of sales. And the Japanese brand believes the same per centage of RF sales will to go to the GT, and not the $39,550 (plus orc) standard model.
Far from conforming to the old adage of being a hairdresser’s car, the hard-top Mazda indicates that buyers are demanding the enthusiast’s version with a clutch pedal. But is the top MX-5 the best MX-5? And indeed is the RF the greatest MX-5?
Vehicle Style: Small roadster
Price: $44,890 (plus on-road costs)
Engine/trans: 118kW/200Nm 2.0 four-cylinder petrol | six-speed manual
Fuel Economy Claimed: 7.0 L/100km | Tested: 6.9 L/100km
A 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine is not available in the MX-5 RF. Kerbside-weighing a petite 1009kg and wearing sensible 16-inch tyres, it opens the Mazda roadster range in soft-top guise priced from just $33,340 (plus orc).
Stepping to the 2.0-litre with 17-inch low-profile tyres and a 1033kg kerb weight requires $34,850 (plus orc), while trading overhead fabric for steel needs $38,550 (plus orc). Standard kit includes a leather-wrapped steering wheel, cloth trim, manual air-conditioning, satellite navigation, and blind-spot and rear cross-traffic monitors.
The $5340 jump to the $43,890 (plus orc) MX-5 GT adds leather with seat heating, keyless auto-entry, climate control and Bose audio, while our test car further includes a $1000-optional black roof and Nappa leather pack. Kerb weight update: 1080kg.
This Japanese roadster has never been a ‘more is more’ sort of car, but Mazda has worked hard to make the MX-5 RF feel more special than previous generations of hard-top, yet hardly a ton heavier. Whether it’s enough is the hard question ahead.
- Standard Equipment: Cruise control, leather trim with seat heating, keyless auto-entry, single-zone climate control air-conditioning, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, auto headlights/wipers, and LED headlights.
- Infotainment: 7.0-inch colour touchscreen with Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, USB input, Aha and Stitcher internet radio app connectivity, satellite navigation and nine-speaker Bose sound system.
- Options Fitted: $1000 Nappa leather and black roof package.
- Cargo Volume: 127 litres.
Mazda’s MX-5 cabin borrows from the Mazda2 that starts from just $15K. Perhaps it’s to save weight, but hard plastics and simple switchgear don’t translate well for $45K-plus.
Certainly the Nappa leather feels high-quality; although Mazda’s use of body-colour plastic on the upper door trim and faux-carbonfibre on the window switches looks clumsy when the brown cow-hide is wedged in between.
Buying the GT also delivers heated seats, but it’s a shame those seats are a bit like sitting atop a hot-cross bun, rather than encompassing the sides of a torso. Full-figured drivers will be reaching for a doorhandle, or asking for a trade-in value.
Simple pleasures still rule the roost when it comes to the MX-5 interior, however. The 7.0-inch screen is a cinch to operate (via an intuitive rotary dial with shortcut buttons) complete with an excellent nav. A digital radio, Apple CarPlay/Android and reverse-view camera are all disappointingly missing, however.
The steering wheel is a delight to hold, though, with the chrome-ringed gauges ahead of the driver now complemented by a colour trip screen. The gearshifter falls perfectly to hand in the low-slung roadster as well, the windscreen sitting seemingly mere millimetres away from the wheel; all of which is refreshingly intimate.
And what of the new roof mechanism? Well, in the soft-top the driver can pull a single overhead latch then flick the light roof down with an over-reached arm.
In the RF the electrics fold back the twin-side flying-buttresses that are inter-connected by a roof brace; and then the rear glass and roof electrically pivot back onto themselves and into the boot, before the buttresses flip back into place.
Mazda’s reasoning to keep part of the roof up this time around was so the already tight (127-litre) boot volume isn’t further affected, and also to make the design stylish enough to be chosen on looks as much as for security. In our main cities, slicing of soft tops is a sad reality for many MX-5 owners.
There are two major reservations, however. The roof cannot be lowered via remote control like many vehicles with electric tops, for example, because seeing that in motion as a driver walks up to the car should arguably be a part of the theatre.
Even worse is the fact the roof can only be operated at 10km/h or under. Entering traffic-choked tunnels it means raising the roof can be a struggle.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 118kW/200Nm 2.0 four-cylinder petrol
- Transmission: Six-speed manual, FWD
- Suspension: Independent front and rear
- Brake: Ventilated front and solid rear disc brakes
- Steering: Electrically assisted mechanical steering
Even at 1080kg, the heaviest Mazda MX-5 remains a fabulous MX-5. Unbelievably, a Toyota 86 coupe weighs 1257kg while using an identical-size 2.0-litre non-turbo four-cylinder petrol engine. It’s no wonder fans call for a turbo in that application.
In the Mazda, however, there is no need for a turbo simply because reduced weight is always the better answer. Although the 2.0-litre may not rev as fast or hard, or sound as zingy as the 1.5-litre, it provides the extra grunt the chassis deserves.
There is torque at low revs, and an impressive (if not blinding) turn of speed towards the upper reaches, all perfectly handled via a snickety-snick leather-topped gearshift.
And less weight means less fuel, with our MX-5 RF delivering a superb 6.9 litres per 100 kilometres in mixed conditions, 0.1L/100km under a combined-cycle fuel consumption test that turbo engines too often miss by miles.
Dynamically there are also slight differences between the various MX-5s, but enough time has now been spent in each of them to discern the subtle shifts in flavour.
The 1.5-litre versions mimic the 86 philosophy of ‘less grip equals more fun’. But the Yokohama Advan tyres also make the steering feel softer on centre and amplify the bodyroll of the soft suspension.
The 2.0-litre versions with 17-inch Bridgestone Potenza rubber work far more harmoniously with the soft chassis, placing a firm handle on the bodyroll while still communicating plenty. It’s simply a better balance between playfulness and grip.
Interestingly, the MX-5 RF GT takes that base and runs with it, although the virtually flawless electronic stability control (ESC) calibration of the MX-5 GT offers up a fraction extra friction during spirited driving.
There are some changes to the suspension to deal with the extra weight, but it certainly doesn’t come through in ride comfort that remains wonderfully absorbent.
ANCAP rating: 5-Stars – the Mazda MX-5 scored 35.20 out of 37 possible points when tested by ANCAP in 2016.
Safety Features: Four airbags, ABS and ESC, rear parking sensors with rear cross-traffic alert, and blind-spot monitor.
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: Three years/unlimited km.
Servicing: With intervals at 12 months or 10,000km (whichever occurs first), Mazda’s odd-numbered services priced at $299 each and even-numbered services at $341 each – about average for this type of vehicle.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
The 124 Spider is a bratty, louder MX-5 without the dynamic harmony. The BRZ and 86 are more focused than this Mazda, but the engine feels flat when dealing with the hefty kerb weight. This GT – in roadster form – remains the sweet spot.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
There remains only one Mazda MX-5 to achieve a four-and-a-half-star rating, and that is the 2.0-litre roadster and roadster GT models.
Some buyers will love the design of the RF GT. But its roof mechanism doesn’t operate fluently enough, and the extra cost simply doesn’t gel as well with the MX-5 philosophy. It feels stretched at $45K-plus.
That said, though, the ND generation has greatness in its bones, from rear-wheel-driven dynamics to the agility yet comfort that comes from being so small and light.
It is such a lovable Mazda, with nuances of different character there for the taking. But we would definitely take the roadster GT, thanks.
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