Mazda MX-5 RF vs Mazda MX-5 comparison

Hard top or soft? It's the age-old question even Mazda can't answer

If you have about $45-50k to spend on a convertible, there aren’t many good choices. The default pick is, of course, the Mazda MX-5, and as we discussed previously, it would be our pick over its Italian cousin, the Abarth 124, but now there is a new MX-5, one which throws mud at tradition and seeks to attract a new type of buyer to the brand.

The question has to be asked. Why do you need a Mazda MX-5 hardtop? The soft top MX-5 does the job of a convertible better than any other car in its price range, and perhaps even better than cars twice its price.

It’s rear-wheel drive, super light and comes with enough power to keep you interested. For some, though, a soft top is just not an option, it’s hardtop or nothing. Enter the Mazda MX-5 RF.

These cars are all but identical from the front.

Look straight on in traffic, and you can’t tell them apart, both sporting their sharp headlights and signature 45-degree daytime running lights that scream Mazda from a mile away.

It’s only when you admire them side on, or from the rear, that the RF starts to find itself. The ‘flying buttress wings’ that lend themselves to the targa style roof, change the rear profile of the RF substantially.

There’s a lot more happening back there, and it’s hard to say it's for the right reasons.

The extended roof’s supporting structure definitely adds a certain character to the MX-5 that isn’t available on the soft top.

Does it make it look ‘less-girly’? No more or less than the standard car. If anything, the additional lines make the rear feel smaller than it is due to the height vs width differential against the soft top.

There’s a lot of debate in the CarAdvice office as to whether the RF looks better than the soft top. For this reviewer at least, that isn’t the case.

The simple flowing lines of the soft top are the pick. But as with all design judgements, it’s a purely subjective.

Our RF was the base model with the cloth trim while the soft top was the GT with leather. The price difference between these exact cars is actually $1040 in real terms.

However, the RF pricing spread runs from $38,550 up to $46,890 before the usual on-road costs across the three grades with a direct comparison to the soft top seeing a price differential of $4000.

Both our cars were equipped with a six-speed manual and powered by the naturally aspirated 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine with 118kW of power and 200Nm of torque.

The RF isn’t available with the smaller capacity 1.5-litre, perhaps due to the fact it’s already 45kg further on in the weight department compared to the 1033kg soft top.

Jump inside and, ignoring the trim grade difference, both our test cars here are near identical. The RF does have different seats, which are meant to be a little bit more accepting of larger folks. However, they still offered great support.

Both cars are entirely impractical, and there is not even a place to store your smartphone or wallet, both of which we annoyingly found flying around the cabin far too often.

There is a small 127L boot in both, which can take the week’s groceries or a soft bag or two, but really, this is an impractical sports car at the best of times.

They both have the same Mazda infotainment system, same switch gear, and so on.

The main difference is, of course, the little roof switch on the RF, which is positioned past the gear stick on the left of the centre instrument cluster. Possibly the worst place to put a roof operation button (unless it was LHD) as you must bypass far too many things to reach it – and then hold it.

Perhaps the point is that you really should only be operating the roof when the car is stopped and at no other time. It doesn’t even work in reverse gear, which we found frustrating when pulling out of our driveway attempting to take the roof off.

The lack of a rear-view camera or even sensors (on both) makes this practice somewhat dangerous anyway so we can see sense in the restriction. However, for pedestrian and general safety, we would certainly encourage both the inclusion of sensors and a camera as a dealer fit option.

Once it's working, the roof takes around 15 seconds to open or shut and only works at up to 10km/h. This can leave you frustrated when leaving a car park and needing to maintain traffic speed while operating the roof.

You get used to it, but it’s a far cry from the soft top which works in as many seconds as you want it to – as we measured, it can be done in less than three seconds, and has no real speed restrictions except the size of your triceps. We have easily operated it at 50km/h safely.

In saying that, it’s hard to deny it’s more convenient to have an auto roof operation than having to do it yourself. Plus, it’s far more classy, and it turns heads whenever it's transforming.

With 40-degree heat in Brisbane and the roof off, we headed up the mountains to find out if the addition of a hard-roof had changed the MX-5’s character. We were half expecting the RF to feel slower than the soft top but that is simply not the case.

Both cars feel equally as quick in a straight line and around the bends. We tested both through the great roads of Mt Glorious and Nebo in Brisbane’s outer suburbs and found the difference between the two almost negligible.

There is a slight, perhaps almost subconscious, feeling that the RF rides that little bit firmer over bumps, but we had to literally drive the two back-to-back over the same speed bump repeatedly to notice the slight difference.

The RF maintains the soft top's tendency to roll into corners, but once you work out that it’s an intended roll and one which helps build your confidence in and out of corners, rather than destroy it, it becomes intoxicating to push and push harder, bend after bend.

Both cars are ideally suited to tight twisty roads that overemphasise a car’s cornering ability over its straight-line speed. That’s not to say the MX-5s are slow from 0-100km/h – we measured them at around the high six-second mark for both, but being manuals and us not willing to flat-shift, meant a better time was left on the table – more so that this is a mountain cruiser, not a track car.

General driving feel when cruising around town went in the RF’s favour when the roof is closed. There is a better cabin ambience with the roof shut than the soft top (though we couldn’t say the RF was quieter inside because it wasn’t).

Also worth noting, the roof material on the RF was showing signs of fraying at the edges, which is concerning for a car with less than 2000km on the odo.

With the roof open, we must say the soft top felt more alive. More in the character of a traditional MX-5. It’s hard to say exactly why, but we felt more 'out in the wind' with nothing but some roll bars behind us.

Frankly, it's hard to pick a winner as both these Mazda MX-5s are excellent at what they do. In fact, all the RF does is offer a choice to those that can’t bring themselves to owning a soft top.

It’s a hefty price to pay, however, and for us, that extra cash is better put into upgrading to a GT variant of the soft top than paying for a hard top that doesn’t necessarily add all that much to the enjoyment of an already excellent convertible.

Click on the Photos tab for more images by Andrew Wilkie.

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