Let’s not beat around bushy things: the new 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF drives almost identically to the soft-top. That’s the overwhelming, seat-of-the-pants impression the hard-top convertible delivered during our first drive at the recent international launch in Tokyo, Japan, ahead of the range’s Australian launch in February next year.
That behind-the-wheel differences this new-for-breed 'fastback-targa' switchable version are largely academic is positive news for those of us who like and 'get' the current 2.0-litre canvas-topped version, though there is one caveat: our initial and encouraging impressions are far from definitive, because the succinct drive program Mazda chose for its new halo sports car merely teased its abilities and hardly laid bare the breadth of its talents.
The neon-drenched streets of downtown Tokyo, the expanse of the six-lane Bayshore Route motorway and the notorious, industrial Daikoku Futo harbour interchange are all touchstones of Japan's underground car culture, some of it illicit, much of in the wee hours of the night. The route and stopovers chosen have been havens for customisers and illegal high-speed street racers for decades. But on a cold and wet mid-afternoon it's a densely packed trucking corridor thrust into the onset of slow moving rush hour. Speed, generally at least, is capped at 80km/h. You can the number of corners in our afternoon loop on two hands.
But there are good sign aplenty. At least we look good. The Retractable Fastback version of Mazda’s 27-year-old nameplate presents well in the flesh: a relatively masculine take on the MX-5 aesthetic with flowing curves in all the right places that's particularly fetching in its heroic Machine Grey paintwork. That finish, much like Mazda's signature Soul Red, is a three-layer process that transitions from shimmering silver to near black depending on how light spills across the bodywork surface. (Both Machine Grey and Soul Red will be $250 options in Oz.)
Additionally, both cars we tested - manual and automatic-equipped Japanese ‘VS’ variants that align with Australia's forthcoming GT spec –have auburn leather cabin trim, ostensibly Mazda's new 'hero combination' in the company on Machine Grey that debuted on CX-9. It works a treat, too, appearing suitably upmarket, classy and expensive.
At 13 seconds, the electrically retractable roof isn’t the quickest to open or close, or the most convenient to operate – Mazda says that the paltry 10km/h activation speed limit is imposed because you’re forced to drive one-handed while hold the activation button throughout the procedure.
Nevertheless, it’s an impressive piece of precision design and engineering. The convertible structure uses 14 linkages and two motors to shuffle the Fastback lid upwards, stowing the front ‘targa’ half of the roof before capturing the lid back onto the rear deck - that it performs its party trick with miniscule clearances and maximum solidity is delightfully techy. It stows in a separate compartment in front of the boot, which is a soft-top rivaling 127 litres – hardly spacious, if “big enough for two airplane carryon bags,” its maker says. It's not a load bearing structure, which is why the rollover hoops found in the soft-top are retained in this version.
Be it inside and outside the car, both the roof-up fastback and roof-stowed 'targa fastback' certainly present new vibes to the familiar soft-top format. A convertible hard lid was in the current ND-generation MX-5’s orbit for some time – feasibility studies commenced in 2013 – though designers and engineered toiled, and failed, with another design similar to that of the last-gen MX-5 RC (Roadster Coupe) that stowed the entire roof inside the rear body work. Ultimately, it was deemed too complicated, too expensive and, importantly, too ugly to pursue. The Fastback solution not only looks nicer, it meets requirements for occupant headroom and boot space in lieu of the ND's wheelbase, which is shorter than the last-generation roadster.
Even in chilly conditions and drizzling rain, the MX-5 RF’s roof-down experience is nicely comfortable and cosy, with minimal in-cabin turbulence or wind noise and, door windows up, the climate control maintains cabin temperature quite faithfully. At least, that is, on the move. This is despite the fact that stowing the lid also retracts the rear glass panel, leaving an exposed gap behind your ears save for manually removable polycarbonate wind deflector. Thus, designers have cleverly managed to enhance the exhaust note volume while removing the unwanted ‘wind pocket’ buffeting of targa tops, all without blasting the occupants with turbulence.
The roof adds 45 kilograms to the (2.0-litre equipped) MX-5 GT soft-top’s 1033kg kerb weight, so roughly a five percent weight penalty all else being more or less equal, which is exactly the case. Given the two twins are nearly identical in mechanical and specific make-up, there’s no surprise that Mazda claims relative parity in performance and dynamic ability, but stops short of quoting figures.
The direct-injected 2.0-litre remains a gem of an engine – it’s extremely driveable and flexible despite its modest 116kW ‘Japanese’ kilowatts (Aussie MX-5s are quoted as having an extra two kilowatts) at 6000rpm and hardly effusive 200Nm that demands a heady 4600rpm. Given that the RF is heavier and, variant for variant, pricier than the soft-top, the omission of a 1.5-litre version comes as no great shock. Even vaguely speculate whether a CX-9’s 2.5-litre turbocharged four might fit inside an MX-5 engine bay in the presence of Mazda’s Japanese product chiefs and they skip right past the pleasantries and laugh right in your face…
If the RF is any slower than the soft-top, it’s difficult to detect as much without a means of direct comparison.
The six-speed manual is a slick and satisfyingly positive unit, the clutch is progressive in take-up and immensely driver’s friendly. It’s an easy car to drive and probably, powertrain wise, very easy to live with. The six-speed automatic version is also pretty handy at a warm punt, and the self-shifting transmission's programming has been massaged a little for more responsive and intuitive ratio changes, adding an extra sheen of purpose when cornering with gusto. Engineers have also fiddled with both transmissions to reduce operational noise: lower hydraulic pressure in the auto; a fiddle with backlash reduction in the manual’s gearing.
Its maker squares up the RF breed as a “deeper, higher quality” MX-5 persona that provides a “relax, (and) matured driving experience”. In practice, there are shades of heightened refinement is some area and less so in others.
While it’s quieter and a little less ‘sensory’ than the rag-top with in targa configuration, there's still ample drop-top vibe. But roof up, despite virtually no unwarranted vibration and noise form the roof and excellent ambient sound isolation above the glass line, a solid roof seems to amplify the thuds and rumbles going on below the chassis. Yes, it’s a sportscar vibe, but I’d happily add a few kilograms of sound deadening in the floor and firewall to quieten down the cabin further regardless of the (likely negligible) impact on performance or dynamics.
There are some changes underneath: the front anti-roll bar and front damper (in stroke) are stiffer, the rear damping is softened off, and there’s some revised body rigidity bracing at play. Frankly, there were so few corners to discern anything other than that the RF corners a helluva lot like the roadster at moderate pace on a wet road.
The ride quality also seems more than little terse though, again, it’s a tricky line to negotiate in ‘refined sportscar’ pitched at an affordable price point. It could be a little more polished – a little less slap over road joins, for example. The steering, though, is typically superb MX-5: clear, direct, highly communicative and thoroughly genuine.
Inside, the RF remains old faithful except in one key area: the seats. The fastback’s pews are a different shape than the soft-tops: they feel a little more generous and substantial, and a successful balance comfort and ample support. The regular leather is nicely supple, too, though it doesn’t extend through to the door trims and dash fascia garnish, which is synthetic leather but looks all the part like the real stuff.
The new 4.6-inch TFT screen is hardly a ground-breaker – call it an incremental range improvement – and, still, there’s no reach adjustment on the steering wheel. One slight annoyance is that, with both exterior and interior lighting set to Auto, oftentimes the infotainment screen dims in direct light – even gloomy, rainy day Tokyo light – making it hard to see at times. None of these are deal-breakers, and it’s hardly altered from what you get inside the rag-top models.
Mazda claims that the key benefits of the RF over the soft-top is in improved NVH and added security. But, frankly, the effect of the roof and its trickery, for sheer feel-good and cool factor, goes a long way in justifying the $4340 premium over the 2.0L soft-top MX-5 in Aussie specification, and that's without factoring the slighter higher equipment level for the RF's local release.
For a full rundown of the due-for-Oz range, starting from $38,500 before on-roads, read here.
Frankly, Mazda could’ve designed any number of simpler and less stylish solutions to erecting a hard lid atop an MX-5 cabin and it would’ve been fine by many a prospective buyer, but instead great effort has rewarded the RF with an exceptionally convincing look and an impressive feat of engineering. Even of the comfort/refinement stakes aren’t quite as polished as expected in areas such as in-cabin noise with the roof erected.
Our advice is that, once the RF lands in Oz in February, don’t part cash for an MX-5 without trialling the convertible experience in both soft- and hard-top forms. The differences are pronounced enough that each as a distinctive character that will really push buyers one way or the other.