The Mazda MX-5 has cemented itself as an icon in the motoring lexicon. It has been around over 25 years, holds the Guinness world record as the best-selling two-seat sports car, and has fended off conceptually similar competitors from MG, Toyota, and General Motors over the years.
For all its success as arguably the world’s most recognisable ragtop, the MX-5 isn’t for everyone (to be fair, on the grounds of practicality, no sports car is) but in its previous generation Mazda moved to address that with the introduction of a folding hardtop variant.
Now, the newest hardtop MX-5 has arrived, ditching the hideaway roof of the last generation for a ‘retractable fastback’ (hence the name MX-5 RF) that somehow blurs the line between roadster and targa roof - invoking Porsche’s legendary 911 Targa and tuner-favourite the Honda CR-X into an affordable and innovative 21st century sports car.
Vehicle Style: Two-door hard-top convertible
Price: $38,550 (plus on-roads)
Engine/trans: 118kW/200Nm 2.0 litre 4cyl petrol | 6sp manual
Fuel Economy Claimed: 7.0 l/100km | Tested: 7.3 l/100km
Mazda’s full-time lineup for the MX-5 RF mirrors that of the cloth-top version with two variants: MX-5 RF and MX-5 RF GT, as well as a limited run of special edition Black Roof models that mix in a unique colour combination (a black roof section plus a black and brown interior with unique seat stitching finishes.
Unlike the Roadster, the RF bypasses the zingy 1.5-litre entry-level engine for the larger 2.0 litre engine only - the stronger unit brings more power and torque and sits more favourably with Mazda’s positioning of the MX-5 RF as a more premium vehicle.
To that end the targa roof isn’t just a removable panel - no sir. Instead it folds away electrically and fully automatically with the rear section of the swooping roof lifting up and the centre section and rear windscreen discreetly stacking away into a space behind the occupants, all without impacting on luggage space.
The effect is dramatic, entertaining, and entirely unexpected on a vehicle that undercuts its nearest folding hardtop rival, the Mercedes-Benz SLC, by a substantial $32,000. The step-up from the regular 2.0-litre MX-5 Roadster, to the MX-5 RF is far from being as big as gap, costing just $3700 more for the hard-top.
- Standard Equipment: Fabric seats, manual air conditioning, push-button start, cruise control, power-retractable roof, 17-inch alloy wheels
- 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 audio
- Cargo Volume: 127 litres
The MX-5 is light because Mazda intended it to be so, but one of the ways the company has ensured a low kerb weight is by keeping the exterior dimensions compact, which impacts in interior space.
The seats themselves aren’t wide - nor are they heavy - but somewhat surprisingly they are comfortable over long distances. Cleverly padded and bolstered in all the right places - though as a disclosure I’m only 5’6” and fairly narrow through the torso so taller drivers will fit up to a point but broad blokes might find the accommodation squeezy.
The seats are also mounted very low in the chassis, meaning it’s a drop to get in and a scramble to get out, but sills that aren’t awkwardly wide and doors that open out of the way help retain an air of decorum whilst getting in and out.
With the roof up (a process that takes just over 10 seconds) the MX-5 RF feels just like a coupe. It’s snug in there, but the roof is fully lined and looks and feels premium. Drop the top and the rear structure remains, giving a less open feel than the MX-5 Roadster, but with the windows up the RF usually beats the soft top’s cruising refinement.
Visibility over the shoulder takes a big hit. Standard blind spot monitoring on all variants helps ease the pain, yet for some reason a reversing camera remains a $500 option and should surely be standard on a car that although small and hardly cumbersome to park, needs a little extra help to feel properly safe thanks to its limited rearward visibility.
The interior is otherwise Mazda-familiar. The three-dial instrument cluster puts the tachometer front and centre, with a speedo to the right and a full-colour multi-info display to the left though disappointingly it can’t repeat navigation instructions.
There’s a 7.0-inch screen standing proud of the dash. When the vehicle is stationary it can be used as a touchscreen, and at all other times it becomes navigable by an intuitive console-mounted click wheel.
Cabin storage is rather limited. You might be able to slip your wallet or phone into the pocket under the manual air-con controls but there’s no door pockets and the glovebox isn’t in the dash as you might usually expect, but rather it’s located between the rear seats. There’s a pair of extra bins behind the seats hidden from view as well.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 2.0 litre naturally aspirated in-line four-cylinder, 118kW @ 6000rpm, 200Nm @ 4600rpm
- Transmission: six-speed manual, rear wheel drive
- Suspension: Double wishbone front, multilink independent rear
- Brakes: 280mm vented front discs, 280mm solid rear dicscs
- Steering: Electrically assisted power steering, 9.4m turning circle
Crucially the MX-5 RF, despite its added 47 kilograms of weight compared to the Roadster, feels every bit as nimble and agile as the soft top version.
Apart from the very obvious addition of a hard roof, Mazda has made less noticeable changes to the suspension, firming the RF’s ride slightly compared to the roadster. The impact isn’t so bold that it’s immediate, but it’s part of the changes made to impart a more premium feel.
Similarly, the MX-5 RF picks up additional sound deadening material through its body - and of course the hard roof itself keeps road and wind noise at bay in comparison to the fabric roof version.
At the MX-5 RF’s heart is a naturally aspirated 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine. While it may lack the urgency of a turbo motor, and is far from the post powerful 2.0-litre engine available, it still feels lively, revs cleanly, and makes the MX-5 a barrel of laughs.
In fact, you don’t need to drive the MX-5 RF like you stole it to get it to deliver its best. The tactful elasticity of the engine, the immediacy of the steering, and the well planted and grippy, yet moderately rolly, suspension all work to deliver an involving experience,
With 118kw of power and 200Nm of torque the MX-5 RF’s engine tune is almost same as that of the 2.0-litre Mazda3 (the MX-5 boast an extra 4kW and peak torque comes on take a little higher in the rev range) but a kerb weight of just 1080kg, scant in modern terms, makes the RF feel lively.
That feeling is all the more enjoyable with the six-speed manual transmission which blends one of the most finely balanced clutches of any current production car, and gear shift action that is well weighted, and slides silkily through the shift gate.
A standard limited slip differential caps off the performance equipment, and given the right set of corners to tackle with enthusiasm the combination of low weight, crisp steering, and communicative responses from every system really set the MX-5 apart from any other car in its price bracket.
ANCAP Rating: 5 Stars - The MX-5 scored35.20 out of 37 possible points when tested in 2016. Crash tests were conducted using the MX-5 Roadster.
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, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, 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
The Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ twins offer engaging dynamics to make the most out of the driving experience, but like the MX-5 power isn't a priority. Interior styling and finish isn’t as classy as the MX-5, but there’s a compact rear seat and more boot space if you need it.
The Hyundai Veloster can’t match the MX-5’s brilliant dynamics owing to it being front wheel drive, but an available turbo engine turns up the pace and there’s not much else that matches its asymmetrical door layout on the market.
The chassis itself may be from an MX-5 but the Abarth 124 Spider uses its own Italian engine, chassis tuning, and more to create a very different experience. Turbocharged for an added rush, but not so powerful as to ruin the fun factor, but alas the Abarth is a soft-top only.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
As a company Mazda invests massive amounts of time into perfecting the science of making cars that are exciting to drive, and with the MX-5 RF there’s a touch of Origami-like artfulness to the look and operation of its folding hardtop mechanism.
Purists probably won’t gel with the more upright look, or the extra weight, but the sad truth is plenty of owners would like to be able to enjoy the open air thrills of an MX-5 with a little extra security that a cloth top just can’t provide.
As a result this little charmer becomes a more upmarket MX-5, the choice for a more discerning enthusiast, but one that doesn’t divorce itself from the thrill of the case. As open as you want it to be and as secure as modern city life needs it to be.