The MX-5 RF is, ostensibly, almost identical to the soft-top MX-5 and weighs just 47-49kg compared with an equivalent soft-top MX-5. And that’s impressive given the hard top consists of a proper hard roof and glass rear windscreen and some sort of magical opening and closing mechanism that splits the roof into four sections and then stows them all together (dropping the rear window glass) behind the seats. Yes, the roof ends up being stowed (hidden from view) in a tiny little space behind the seats, leaving the regular MX-5’s 130-litre boot just about intact for the MX-5 RF (127 litres). Seems you can have your cake and eat it too. Almost. The roof will open or close in just 13 seconds and can be operated at speeds up to 10km/h. And there’s an anti-pinch function on the roof, although I didn’t get to try it out, I’m sure you’ll forgive me that…
At the local launch of the MX-5 RF, the program director and chief designer of the MX-5 RF, Masashi Nakayama was on hand to discuss the design of the retractable hardtop. Mr Nakayama started sketching designs on paper that showed off cars like the Lamborghini Countach, Porsche 911 Turbo, and even the Ferrari Dino… and then he drew the MX-5 RF. His point was that all these cars, in profile, share similarities, like the long bonnet, the small cabin and a fastback-bobtail rear. More than that, though, Mr Nakayama was placing his design into exalted company. And the MX-5 RF isn’t a poor relation. It looks great in the metal and, er, plastic. What stands the MX-5 RF apart from other folding hardtops are the flying buttresses that jut out at the back of the cabin. They make the thing. But they’re not 100% unique… despite Mazda’s claims, the genesis of the MX-5 RF’s design must surely lie with the Surrey hardtop that was employed by both MG and Triumph. What do you think? But don’t think I’m suggesting this thing is a Targa, because it isn’t.
What’s it like inside?
Overall, the inside of the MX-5 RF is identical to the MX-5 GT soft-top. And that means you get a very compact cabin with the dashboard and steering wheel almost so close to you that it takes your eyes a moment to adjust… I jest. The dashboard mirrors that of the GT soft-top, meaning the same three-meter instrument cluster ahead of the small steering wheel (and this is excellent, mating a digital display that will show things like roof position, with tacho and speedo), with Mazda’s MZD communications and infotainment screen dominating the dashboard. This unit is good but not great with the display looking like it’s sitting behind an extra layer of glass. Delve into the system via the rotary dial and the menu items are clear and easy to use but the sub-menu system can become a bit of a headache, especially when you’re on the move. There’s no Apple Car Play or Android Auto (although the latest generation Android phones can side-step this omission). but you can connect your phone via Bluetooth or USB for audio streaming and access to social media (although that leads to the question of, why?).
The dashboard and plastics in general feel a little hard and scratchy, but you kind of expect that of a car that’ll spend most summer days with the roof off and so the interior needs to be pretty sturdy. If you’re an audiophile, you’ll no doubt be pleased to know the RF gets a six-speaker system and a nine-speaker Bose system on the RF GT. With the roof up audio clarity is excellent such is the insulation on the roof, but with it down you lose that crystal clarity. Moving on. Climb into the MX-5 RF and you sit down low with very little room to move, but that’s probably the appeal of this sort of car. That said, I’m just about six-foot tall and I found that I had good head and legroom, although elbowroom was something else, and I was constantly bumping my colleague with my elbow while driving. Like the regular MX-5 there are two cup holders between driver and passenger that can be removed and relocated down to the transmission tunnel in the passenger footwell. They’ll hold a 500mL bottle, but anything smaller or bigger than that will rattle about.
There’s limited storage space inside the cabin, indeed, there’s no room to stuff even a jacket behind the seats, because the roof mechanism folds into this space rather than into the boot itself. As I’ve already said, the MX-5 RF just about maintains the soft-tops 130 litre boot at 127 litres… enough for two small overnight bags. The boot itself is deep with a narrow opening.
What’s it like on the road?
Obviously, weight was going to be the biggest consideration when adding a hard head to the MX-5. But through some very clever engineering, the roof and mechanism adds less than 50kg to the MX-5. But it does raise the centre of gravity and thus potentially affect the handling the MX-5 has become known for. But, the steel hoop for the roof structure made the thing too stiff, and so the suspension has been tweaked to compensate and ensure the ride isn’t boy-racer stiff. Because, remember, the aim of the MX-5 RF is to make the MX-5 an option for those people who want an open-top car but without the compromises a soft-top brings. This is an MX-5 that’s unlikely to be tracked. The 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine is carried over from the soft-top MX-5 GT, although in some markets the smaller 1.5L engine is also offered. Power is 118kW at 6000rpm and torque is 200Nm at 4600rpm. The engine is mated to either a six-speed manual or a conventional six-speed automatic, and while you might raise an eyebrow at anyone wanting an automatic MX-5, Mazda believes it will attract around 30% of sales.
It was a 40-degree day at the local launch in the Central West of New South Wales and a large chunk of the drive was a commute out of Sydney into the country along various highways. For this section my colleague and I were in a manual MX-5 RF, while for the latter twistier section we were in an automatic-equipped car, and so my comments will relate to that variant and that needs to be remembered… The most important part. The roof. Suitably lathered in sunscreen the roof was dropped just as the car’s temperature gauge indicated 40-degrees C. It’s worth mentioning that so well insulated is the cabin that we hadn’t noticed the heat and only had the air-con fan on its second setting… once the roof was dropped, though, it went to maximum but couldn’t make a dent in the stifling heat.
The wind is well contained with the roof down and we still managed to have a conversation at normal levels, and didn’t ever get the sense our hair was being ripped out in tufts while we drove along. I’d suggest that that fact alone makes the MX-5 RF the best convertible I’ve ever driven. The roof went back up after about 15 minutes… it really was just too hot and I’ll only suffer for my art for so long. Into the twisty stuff and while plenty has been written about the exemplary handling of the MX-5, the RF was my first opportunity to get behind the wheel of an MX-5 (you can read our Robert Pepper’s reviews of the MX-5 2.0L and the 1.5L here) and I’ve got to say I was left feeling lukewarm and not just because of the weather. Sure, the MX-5 RF is a precise little car but the major actions lack progression. And I mean, that in corners the switch from flat to roll can be immediate, and the same goes for the steering which feels a touch woollen in the hands, and then there’s the wheels… I’m told the 1.5L is the sweeter handling car and I’d believe it because it rides on smaller wheels, although there’s more to it than that alone. The 17-inch alloys on the RF combine with the imprecision of other controls to make a car that never feels truly settled.
To make swift and sure progress in the MX-5 RF you’ve got to be smooth and gentle with your inputs, something that would be easier to do with a manual, although the automatic was far from a kill-joy. It’s a quick shifter and excellent at being able to get the best from the diminutive output. That said, the default attitude is for the thing to understeer if you’re driving it like a taxi… think about your inputs and set it up on the lead into the corner and the car feels much better. The brakes feel a little wooden at first contact but, again, if you concentrate on your inputs there’s good adjustability in the pedal. The steering is an electric power assist set-up and while it’s direct in its action it’s a little woolly in the straight-ahead.
What about the safety features?
The MX-5 RF carries over the regular car’s five-star ANCAP rating and offers things like, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert as well as an adaptive front lighting system that can swivel the front headlights by 15-degrees in the direction the steering is turning. As we didn’t drive at night, I can’t say what this system is like. The MX-5 RF also offers airbags, a limited slip differential, a stiff body structure and an active bonnet that will raise, if a collision with a pedestrian is detected, to reduce the impact of a pedestrian’s head. The RF GT gets rain-sensing wipers, while both variants offer ABS, traction and stability controls, emergency brake assist, hill hold assist, reversing camera, and a tyre pressure monitoring system.
Why would you buy one?
Well, simple, you’d buy an MX-5 if you like the idea of open-top motoring, but also like the idea of a hard roof over your head at other times. Basically, you want something for work and play. The MX-5 RF isn’t as playful as the 1.5L soft-top, but it is better looking than the soft-top variant. Yes, it costs more than its siblings but it doesn’t offer the same soft-top compromises, and is quieter and more secure. There are bound to be numerous comparisons between this thing and the likes of the Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ, but I think that would be wrong. Just because they both have two seats doesn’t make them competitors.
The Mazda MX-5 RF might not be quite as nimble and connected feeling as its soft-top siblings and, particularly it’s little brother the 1.5L variant, but there’s no doubting this is still a fun machine. It looks stunning and the hard-top roof is a work of art. Is it worth the price premium? YES.