Autocar will be running the Mazda MX-5 RF for six months
The hard-top version of our favourite affordable roadster aims to add refinement and usability at the cost of weight and cash. Is it a good trade?
Our new Mazda MX-5 RF has a hard act to follow.
The last time Autocar ran an MX-5 as a long-term test car, editor-in-chief Steve Cropley was so impressed that he bought it. He still owns it, too. No pressure, then.
So how can the MX-5 RF top that? The answer is with several carefully sculpted pieces of steel, aluminium and plastic, and a clever electrical motor that folds them all up and tucks them neatly away.
That would be the Retractable Fastback – or folding hard-top, if you prefer. Hold down a switch on the dashboard and in around 15sec the three parts of the roof will be raised, folded and tucked into a special compartment. It’s all very theatrical.
Undoubtedly, the RF’s folding roof takes longer to do its thing than you’d spend manually folding the standard MX-5’s soft-top but, frankly, it’s all a little more refined. And refinement is exactly what Mazda is hoping the RF brings to the MX-5 range.
The design also helps to give the MX-5 RF its own identity. The previous-generation MX-5 was available with either a soft-top or a hard-top, but once the lids were tucked away, the two cars looked very similar. That’s not the case any more.
They look the same at the front, with Mazda’s stunning ‘Kodo’ design themes giving the long, swooping bonnet an elegant yet menacing look. But when the RF’s hard-top is down, two distinctive rear pillars remain. They ensure you still feel like you’re nestled inside a car, even when you can look up and see sky. They certainly give the RF its own sense of style, which, at the risk of enraging MX-5 purists, I prefer.
Which Mazda MX-5 do you prefer the looks of?
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) June 22, 2017
Of course, with the roof up, the difference is even clearer – and the MX-5 RF looks more like a ‘proper’ coupé. In essence, if the MX-5 feels like an open-top sports car with a roof for when conditions get bad, the MX-5 RF feels like a closed-in sports car that you can open up to the elements.
It’s a small but significant change in mission statement, one that should move the MX-5 from being a brilliant summer weekend car for countryside cruising into something that can cope better with everyday life. But there are two elephants in the room.
The first elephant weighs around 40kg – the difference in weight between the RF and its soft-top sibling. Will that extra weight upset the wonderful ride, handling and balance that make the soft-top fun?
Thankfully, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Mazda has tweaked the anti-roll bar and damper settings and done a remarkably good job of maintaining the original car’s feel, our road testers reckon.
We’ll be testing that more thoroughly in the coming months, of course, but there’s no doubt that driving the RF is rarely less than fun and engaging. It’s everything you’d want and expect an MX-5 to be.
The second elephant in the room is worth around £2000 – the difference in price between the RF and its softtop sibling. Is that extra outlay worth it for the added refinement, comfort and convenience of having a proper roof over your head?
Certainly, on the days when I’ve driven home from work in pouring rain, I’ve been very grateful for that roof. But it does have its drawbacks. Getting comfortable in an MX-5 has always been an art form, and with the roof up, the RF is a little… tight. The aim might be refinement, but there’s nothing particularly refined about squeezing into the car when it’s in closed form. I’ve already lost count of the times I’ve headbutted the rearview mirror when clambering in.
Refinement is also a bit of an issue at speed, regardless of whether the top is up or down. Get up to motorway speeds with the roof up and there’s noticeable wind noise. While travelling on the motorway, I gave up on a phone call I’d made through the hands-free Bluetooth infotainment system, because on the other end of the line, my mum could barely hear me due to the wind noise.
With the top down, the flying buttresses do a decent job of reducing buffeting – but the trade-off is a droning noise, caused by the wind swirling round them.
Of course, few people are going to judge an MX-5 based on motorway journeys, but when the aim of the MX-5 RF is to offer a more refined experience, it’s definitely an issue – and, again, one that will need to be investigated and evaluated over the coming months.
The roof – and all that entails – isn’t the only major difference between the RF and our previous MX-5 long-termer. The other can be found under the bonnet. Our previous car came with the more powerful 2.0-litre engine, whereas this time we’ve opted for the 129bhp 1.5-litre, still mated to an incredibly satisfying six-speed manual ‘box.
Perhaps ironically, the 1.5-litre engine arguably offers a more ‘pure’ MX-5 experience and, so far, I’ve rarely found it wanting for power or responsiveness.
To reflect the fact that the RF is supposed to offer a refined driving sensation, we’ve opted for the top Sport Nav trim, which includes heated seats, alloy wheels, automatic lights, lane departure warning and a Bose audio system. Adding optional Soul Red metallic paint and nappa leather seats lifted the on-the-road price to £25,965.
That brings us back to that £2000 elephant and the big question: is it worth the extra money for a fancy folding roof? We’ve got six months to figure that out. And we’ll be thinking carefully. After all, we’ve got form for shelling out our own cash on MX-5s…
MAZDA MX-5 RF 1.5 SPORT NAV
Price new £24,895 Price as tested …read more