What is it? The Mazda MX-5 RF is the folding metal hardtop version of the latest MX-5 roadster.
Key features: Coupe styling, targa-like folding metal roof.
Our View: The Mazda MX-5 RF is a more practical alternative to the roadster, if just a little less fun to drive.
Type of Review: First UK drive
Anyone who knows cars also knows that the Mazda MX-5 is the most iconic roadster of the last quarter century, desired as much by those who enjoy a really fun drive as those who think they look good in a convertible. It has been the world’s best-selling roadster for some two decades.
So it will no doubt surprise many readers to learn that more than three-quarters of British buyers of the Mk3 MX-5 (and we take half of all Europe’s MX-5 sales) opted not for the pure, fabric-roofed roadster, but its sister with a retractable hard top.
So when the latest, fourth-generation MX-5 launched in August 2015 – a car we described as “the best MX-5 yet” in our first drive – a hardtop version could not be far behind. That model is the Mazda MX-5 RF (retractable fastback) and it arrives in showrooms on 4th March.
Mazda MX-5 RF styling
The RF is a very different proposition to the RC (Roadster Coupe) versions of the MX-5 that Mazda has previously produced. Whereas with their roofs down and tucked under a panel on the rear flanks those cars looked just like the roadster, the new RF is styled first and foremost as a coupe.
The ‘natural’ position appears to be with the roof in place, in which form the car looks like a purposeful little coupe – a bit square in the rear quarters (A colleague likened it to a Ginetta), but overall with satisfactory visuals. It’s reminiscent of the sister BRZ/GT86 models from Subaru and Toyota, which will no doubt be considered by potential buyers.
The folding roof is a clever three-piece mechanism. The process is electronic, operated by a button on the steering wheels and can be done on the move, though only at up to 6mph.
Opening or closing takes a mere 13 seconds and involves the rear buttresses rising up as the front and centre roof sections fold back and slip underneath them, along with the rear screen glass, the buttresses then slotting back into place to hide all the mechanics.
It’s impressive, but with the roof down all that is effectively missing is what was above and the glass behind. You are still cosseted by the buttresses just behind your shoulder, so you never get the full open-air driving experience you do with the roadster. In fact, you have to stand right next to the RF to realise the roof has been retracted.
Mazda MX-5 RF powertrains
Apart from the roof, the MX-5 RF is effectively the same car as its roadster sibling. Okay it stands 5mm higher, and weighs 40 to 45kg heavier depending on model, which cuts a tenth or two from the 0-62mph speed. Obviously much of the extra poundage is accounted for by the roof mechanism, plus extra sound insulation, though there is not quite so much of the roadster’s chassis strengthening needed.
The two engine choices are the same, however, both petrol units, both to Mazda’s latest SkyActiv technology and of 1.5 litres with 131hp or 2.0 litres with 160hp. The superb, six-speed short-throw manual gearbox remains, though there is also a six-speed auto option for the 2.0 car (does anybody choose auto in a Mazda MX-5? Surely that’s the equivalent of watering down a fine red wine with lemonade?).
On the road
So if so much remains the same, is the MX-5 RF as much pure fun to drive as the roadster? In a word, no. Though this is not to detract from it, as we will explain. Your writer once persuaded a colleague who was coming out of a Caterham to try the latest MX-5, despite he using the common and misrepresenting comment of “hairdresser’s car” to describe the Mazda.
Said colleague test drove the MX-5, bought one and has never been happier – it is a car for those who consider driving so much more than getting from A to B, a car in which one gets excited when approaching a section of twists and turns on a challenging B road. It carves out each turn in such a precise manner, while exhibiting fine-tuned balance in a way that all rivals have tried and failed to replicate.
The RF, however, does not quite feel as sharp in the twisty bits. It’s good, don’t get us wrong, but appears just a little biased towards the rear, which in turn gives the front end a slight floaty feel, a little (and it is a little) less confidence compared to its open-topped sister.
This is particularly true of the 2.0 SE-L variant, which boasts the sporty extra of a limited-slip differential. If anything this heightens the rear bias, requiring rather more concentration in a bend than one is used to with an MX-5.
There are compensations, however. Cruising with the top on, the MX-5 RF is significantly quieter than the fabric-roofed roadster. Travelling at motorway speeds with the top down is not the best option, as those large buttresses lead to a lot of swirling wind noise. And the extra weight and general setup make for improved road comfort, more effective smothering of bumps, than with the roadster.
The Mazda MX-5 RF costs from £22,195 and comes, like the roadster, in two trim levels – SE-L Nav or Sport Nav. Notable features on the SE-L Nav include LED daytime running lights, tyre pressure monitoring, electric heated mirrors, leather on the steering wheel, gearshift and handbrake lever, cruise control, climate control air-con, DAB radio on the six-speaker sound system and as its name suggests a sat nav system. One disappointing absentee, however, on all MX-5s is reach control on the steering wheel.
Sport Nav models cost £2,600 more than the SE-L and the extras include auto wipers and headlamps, rear parking sensors, black leather trim, heated seats, keyless entry, a Bose sound system with nine speakers, and lane departure warning.
The options list is short – all versions can be bought with a couple of metallic paint choices at £550 or £670 respectively, while Sport Nav cars can be fitted with Nappa leather trim at £400 and the 160hp Sport Nav a Safety Pack. This also costs £400 and adds auto high beam headlamps and blind spot monitoring with a system to alert the driver to traffic crossing behind the car.
If you are quick to the showroom you may be able to secure one of the 500 Launch Edition versions. Costing £28,995 and based on the 2-litre Sport Nav, it gains a bespoke two-tone roof, 17-inch BBS alloy wheels, black door mirrors and rear spoiler, metallic paint and the Safety Pack as standard, Alcantara trim and Recaro seats.
If this writer was choosing between the two versions of Mazda’s sports car, he would of course go for the roadster. The thrill of tackling the best of the UK’s driver’s roads in the car will outweigh the fact that the vast majority of one’s mileage will consist of going from A to B. Most drivers will be more practical, however, so we can expect this RF to continue the trend established by the RC and remain the best-selling version of the Mazda MX-5, by far.
Mazda MX-5 RF – key specifications
Models tested: Mazda MX-5 RF 131ps SE-L Nav, 160ps SE-L Nav
On Sale: March 2017
Range price: £22,195-£27,095
Insurance groups: 24E-28E
Engines: Petrol 1496cc, 1998cc
Power (hp):131, 160.
Torque (Nm): 150, 200.
0-62mph (sec): 8.6, 7.4 (auto 8.4).
Top speed (mph): 126, 134. (auto 121).
Fuel economy (combined, mpg): 46.3, 40.9 (auto 39.2).
CO2 emissions (g/km): 141, 161 (auto 167).
Key rivals: Subaru BRZ, Toyota GT86, Audi TT
Test Date: February 2017