With the launch of the RF, Mazda has given buyers a stylish alternative to the soft top MX-5. As you'd suspect though, the characters of the two vehicles are very similar.
The 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF has finally arrived in Australia, and for fans waiting with bated breath, it couldn’t come soon enough. You might wonder why Mazda would seek to reinvent a formula so successful. It’s sold more than a million examples around the world, and that’s a fair question in our books. There’s a lot to be said for not messing with something that has worked so well.
Remember though, Mazda did briefly flirt with a retractable hardtop, which, while seemingly popular among buyers, apparently diluted the low weight purity of the soft top. Now though, Mazda has opted for an electric targa-style panel with ‘flying buttress’ wings which offers buyers something in between. And Mazda reckons the RF might also appeal to buyers who wouldn’t otherwise consider a soft top MX-5.
The pricing spread for the RF runs from $38,550 up to $46,890 before the usual on-road costs across the three grades. There is a manual and an automatic gearbox option, which Mazda hopes will broaden appeal to as many buyers as possible.
Something you’ll notice immediately when you spot an RF in the flesh – and it’s something Curt picked up on straight away when he drove the RF last year in Japan – is the more masculine silhouette it presents.
‘Bit of a girl’s car’ is the unfair taunt many blokes fire in the direction of the soft top and, while that might be far from the truth in reality, the RF delivers a much tougher street presence thanks to the sweeping lines of the hard roof. I try to find reasons it isn’t as attractive as the soft top, and I can’t find any. The RF is a beautiful little sportscar.
A vehicle like the MX-5 that has such inherent design purity represents dangerous ground for designers. Tweak that attractive form too much and you could be headed down a road from which there is no return. Thankfully though, Mazda designers have done nothing of the sort, and the ‘flying buttress’ rear panels only add a touch of class to the soft top’s lines. Mazda’s Soul Red and Machine Grey – $250 options in Australia – are the absolute pick of the colour palette. Machine Grey is indeed unique to the RF in the MX-5 range.
Interestingly, the RF looks just as good with the targa section retracted as it does with the roof closed, something not all convertibles can claim. It’s something Mazda designers were adamant they needed to deliver as well. Mazda says it can be used up to 10km/h and we tested that it does indeed work up to that speed.
Watch the roof at work and it is an impressive feat of clever engineering and more to the point, packaging. In the revered fashion of Japanese manufacturing, it completes its task quickly, quietly and with close tolerances. Interestingly the roof itself is not a roll over bar in disguise, so you’ll note the roll over bars from the soft top remain in place behind the headrests.
Boot space errs on the ‘pack two soft bags for a weekend away’ side, which is the same situation the soft top finds itself in, and is due in part to the super short wheelbase of the current ND MX-5. We managed to shove a largish backpack, a soft overnight bag and a messenger-style laptop bag into the boot easily enough at launch, but if two people plan on spending a week on the road, they better pack smart.
Take a seat inside the RF’s cabin and guess what? Yep, it’s pretty much identical to the soft top. Apart from the seats that is. They are a different shape, and I reckon they will better suit a broader (no pun intended) array of body shapes. Those of you with long legs will want reach adjustment for the steering wheel as much as I did.
Stepping between trim grades never presented the entry level model as feeling cheap either, which is a good thing for buyers on tight budgets. Mazda’s infotainment system, screen quality and clarity, and ergonomics remain as strong here as they are across its range of products.
I did feel like the underside of the roof was a little lower with less headroom than the soft top, but we’ll need to check that back to back when we get the RF through the CarAdvice garage. The seating position, steering wheel position and general confines of the cabin though, are all identical.
One factor worth noting is how effortless the AC was at keeping the cabin cool with the roof closed on a stinking hot day out on the rural fringe of Sydney. Air temperatures of 40 degrees-plus, meant we kept the roof closed save for a short burst, and the climate control worked beautifully to ensure the cabin remained comfortable. No need for the heated seats then…
The sail panels behind the occupant’s shoulders do generate a bit of wind noise at freeway speeds. We noticed some wind blustering around the tops of the windows at the same speed, and at 100km/h on coarse chip bitumen, there was some tyre roar entering the cabin. The driving experience is otherwise as expected, although I did think the RF might be quieter than the soft top and now think it probably isn’t. There wouldn’t be much difference between the two, though.
What is noteworthy is the amount of ‘wind in your hair’ fun still on offer when you do retract the roof. You might think the targa-style layout would detract from the drop-top enjoyment, but it doesn’t. While it’s obviously not as open as the soft top, the RF still delivers a proper roadster experience. There’s less exterior soundtrack entering the cabin, less buffeting and less breeze overall, but there’s still plenty of sensory experience.
In reality, we will need to drive the RF immediately back-to-back with its topless sibling to truly assess the differences, which on the surface at least, appear to be negligible. What will be interesting, is testing the two back to back with the roofs up and then down. That, if anywhere, is where the differences should bs illustrated, given the hard top stiffens the overall chassis a little.
The 2.0-litre engine, with its precise direct injection, remains a shining example of small capacity, naturally aspirated brilliance, despite those who whine about it needing more power. It harks back to the days of yore, when a boosted powerplant wasn’t available to every man and their dog, and if you were on a budget, this kind of deal was as good as it got.
That basic theory is still intoxicating to drive in 2017 and the engine, which loves to zing to redline, is as enthusiastic as it is roarty once the revs climb. 118kW at a heady 6000rpm, and 200Nm at a just as heady 4600rpm combine to elicit a sporting drive anywhere the mood takes you. Like all great naturally aspirated engines, the RF loves to spend as much time as possible near its redline. As such, the RF is the kind of car that transforms a mundane slog to work into a spirited, smile-inducing drive.
The gearbox remains, as it has since 1989, an example of mechanical perfection – certainly as close as you can get anyway. Its slick shift, matched by a short throw, positive engagement and a clutch pedal makes the Mazda vastly easier to drive smoothly than the 86/BRZ twins, which are harder to get right even after time behind the wheel.
The MX-5 is as comfortable being driven hard, as it is smooth around town at a dawdle. While the automatic doesn’t do anything wrong, you couldn’t recommend it over the manual unless the buyer had a psychopathic hatred of shifting their own gears.
The steering system retains that beautiful feelsome connectivity of the soft top, and the RF is as precise as it is agile. There are changes under the skin though, aimed at – according to Mazda engineers at least – countering the more rigid configuration given the hard roof. The front end is stiffer thanks to revised anti roll bar and damper rates, while the rear dampers are softer and there’s tweaked rigidity bracketry under the skin too.
With the roof closed, it seems to me the RF is a littler harder riding over rough country roads than I remember the soft top to be, and again a comparison beckons. While the RF does seem firmer, it never edges toward discomfort or losing its composure though, and given how capable it is at the limit, it is impressive the chassis can cushion bumps as capably as it does.
When Curt wrapped up his international drive, he stated buyers shouldn’t part with the cash for a soft top until they’d test driven this RF and I’m left echoing that sentiment here. Personally, I’d probably still buy the soft top, even though I’d almost certainly get more credibility driving the RF.
The brilliant simplicity and inherent technicality of the retractable hard roof is such that, coupled with the styling, many of you will love the RF for its point of difference. The added security of a hard top will appeal to a lot of MX-5 buyers, too. Whichever way the cards fall though, the RF carries on the MX-5 tradition of affordable, but brilliant sports car design.