Mazda MX-5 RF review

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Defying expectations, the Mazda MX-5 RF Retractable Fastback might just be an even better bet than the standard roadster model. Like that variant, it now gets a bit more handling cleverness. Jonathan Crouch takes a look.

Ten Second Review

It would have been incredibly easy for Mazda to ruin the MX-5 by putting a folding hard top roof on it. Just as well then that instead of rushing this concept to market, the Japanese company did a proper job on this car. It's not just an MX-5 with a different roof. Mazda have managed to imbue the RF derivative with a more mature feel without losing the fun factor. With this updated model, the brand has now smartened the exterior looks, added handling updates and improved the infotainment system.

Background

Cars with folding hard top roofs can be rather grotty things. Curiously malformed with distended bottoms and pinched cabins, they usually lose their looks and their practicality once the roof's up and all you're left with is toothbrush room in the boot once the hood has done its contortionist's trick. Oh yes, these cars offer the customer more. More weight, more complexity and more expense, that is. Therefore, we shuddered when Mazda first announced a 'Retractable Fastback' 'RF' version of its fourth generation MX-5. Seems we needn't have worried after all. It's the exception that proves the rule.

Utilising the basis of an existing MX-5, Mazda managed to build a car that will appeal to a subtly different audience. For many metropolitan types, parking on street is a way of life but the hard-topped RF variant offers additional security and is vandal-proofed in a manner that no fabric-roofed car can be. It's also a little more refined than the soft-top model. Sounds promising. Here's the updated model.

Driving Experience

Because the metal folding roof doesn't weigh much, there aren't really any handling downsides over the conventional Roadster model. As you would expect though, the suspension and electric power steering parameters of the MX-5 have been specifically tuned for this Retractable Fastback version. In addition, a sound-absorbing headliner used in the front and middle roof panels combines with sound insulation around the rear wheel housings to deliver a significantly quieter cabin when the roof is closed. If you want to open the top, this can be done on the move at speeds of up to 6mph.

This RF MX-5 shares with its Roadster showroom stablemate the latest package of engineering and handling updates. Throttle response is now sharper, the electric power steering has been adjusted and steering rack friction has been reduced to deliver more natural and fluid response through the turns. Mazda's also introduced a new Asymmetric Limited Slip Differential - basically, a cam mechanism has been added to the conical clutch. The cam angle is set differently for deceleration and acceleration, thereby achieving optimal limiting force of slip during fast cornering. If that cornering happens to be on a circuit, you'll appreciate the new Dynamic Stability Control track driving mode, which delays the usual stability intervention for a purer track experience.

Otherwise, everything's much as before. Which means that this MX-5 RF continues to conform to five key criteria that Mazda claims define this model line - rear drive with a front-mid engine layout, 50/50 weight distribution and an eagerness to change direction, plus a low kerb weight and an affordable price. This 'ND'-series design continues to be offered with either a 1.5-litre 132PS unit or a 184PS 2.0-litre engine. The 2.0-litre variant's rest to 62mph sprint time is rated at 6.5s and if you specify a manual gearbox with this engine, your car will come with a front strut brace, a limited slip differential and Bilstein dampers. The 2.0-litre version can be ordered with an optional paddleshift auto.

The MX-5 isn't about straight line pace, it's about agility and tactility. Because the engines are so small, they can be tucked down and back in the car. Weight has been pared back by using aluminium for the bonnet, boot and front wings, while the soft top hood is also very light, improving the centre of gravity. Much of the front suspension is aluminium, as is the gearbox casing, the differential casing and the bracing that runs down the car's backbone. The virtuous circle of weight saving means that the smaller wheels only need four bolts as opposed to five. Lower rotational masses mean that the brake assemblies can also be made smaller, simpler and lighter.

Which you'll enjoy at speed around the corners. Later versions of the pre-facelifted model benefitted from the addition of a clever 'Kinematic Posture Control' system, which applies a very small amount of brake force to the inner/unloaded rear wheel during cornering. The resulting brake force pulls the body down, suppressing body roll to provide more reassuring cornering so subtly that the MX-5's engaging handling remains unpolluted.

Design and Build

The MX-5 RF's electrically retractable hardtop consists of front, middle and rear roof sections - and a rear screen. When the top is lowered, the front and middle portions are stowed together, while the rear glass sits behind the seats, leaving the rear roof section in place to create a unique open-topped look, plus a cabin feeling that combines a sense of open air freedom with the impression of being securely ensconced within the car.

A 5mm increase in roof height aside, the RF retains the same overall length, width and wheelbase as the standard MX-5 convertible, but thanks to gently downward-slopping buttresses that tuck in at the sides to create a teardrop shape, the RF's elegant fastback silhouette accentuates the MX-5's dynamic and contemporary sports car proportions in quite a unique way. Otherwise, things are much as they are in any other MX-5, which means that this latest RF model gets redesigned headlights and tail lamps.

Behind the wheel, the main change with this revised model is the installation of a larger 8.8-inch central infotainment screen, plus an updated instrument panel. Smaller detail updates include a new frameless rear view mirror and there are extra USB-C ports. Otherwise, everything's much as before. The challenge with this ND-series design was always to keep the MX-5's traditional ergonomic simplicity but match it to modern levels of quality, equipment, refinement and comfort. Does it all work? Broadly yes, though folk over-familiar with the offerings of Colonel Sanders will find that the compact dimensions take a bit of getting used to as they adjust to the close proximity of the centre console, the door trim and the sides of the narrow footwell.

In a clever touch, the seat cushions are supported on netting instead of the usual metal springs, allowing Mazda to reduce weight and seat the driver's hip point closer to the road. Out back, there's a very compact 127-litre boot, only 3-litres smaller than the one in the Roadster.

Market and Model

There's a premium of just under £2,000 to order this RF variant over the standard fabric-topped Roadster model. That means pricing that starts at just under £28,000 for the entry-level 'Prime-Line' variant fitted with the base 1.5-litre 132PS engine. There's a large £2,300 premium to pay on top of that if you want the better-equipped 'Exclusive-Line' variant.

In the 2.0-litre RF line-up, prices start at just under £32,500 for 'Exclusive-Line' trim and you're looking at having to find £2,200 more to upgrade to top 'Homura' spec. Both these top trim levels can be ordered with the option of paddleshift auto transmission but that'll cost you nearly £2,000 more. Options are limited to mica, metallic or pearlescent paint, plus on top models, you can add in nappa leather trim and a 'Safety Pack' giving you High Beam Control and Blind Spot Monitoring with Rear Cross Traffic Alert.

Cost of Ownership

In contrast to the metal folding top 'Roadster Coupe' body style in the previous generation MX-5 range, this RF model's top doesn't add a significant amount of weight to this iconic little car. Which means that in this form, the MX-5 should cost you pretty much the same amount to run as the equivalent fabric-roofed variant. Let's get specific with the WLTP figures. The 2.0-litre version most will choose will return a combined fuel consumption return of 40.9mpg and a CO2 reading of 155g/km. Or 37.2mpg and 171g/km for the 2.0-litre auto. If you go for the lesser 1.5-litre manual model, those figures improve to 44.8mpg and 142g/km. Insurance groupings start at 25E for the 1.5-litre model and run up to group 28E for the top 2.0-litre auto variant.

On to residual values, always a relative strongpoint with this car. Independent experts CAP reckon that after the usual three year/60,000 mile ownership period, this car will retain between 39 and 42% of its original value. To give you some perspective, a premium open-topped sportscar like, say, a BMW Z4 would give you between 33 and 34%. Yes, something like an Audi TT Roadster would do better, but its higher purchase price inevitably means that you'll lose more money throughout your time of ownership. CAP forecasts suggest that over the regular three year period, the TT will lose over £19,000, well over £6,000 more than the value this MX-5 would shed. Makes you think doesn't it?

Summary

The Mazda MX-5 is a tough car to improve upon but this improved Retractable Fastback version just about manages it, effectively offering added capability with - cost aside - almost no downside. With many MX-5 models down the years, the ethos was always less is more. The entry-level car was usually the best bet but the RF variant has changed that, offering a slightly more mature feel that rewards a bigger engine and more kit. As a result, this retractable hard-top version of the MX-5 has brought the car onto the radar of a new group of buyers.

Not everyone gets the MX-5 experience of course. It certainly won't appeal to those prioritising power. Or people needing the practicality of a hot hatch or a sports coupe. At the other extreme, a specialist sportscar maker could offer you a more intense experience, though one that for the most part would be largely irrelevant for public road use. That's where this Mazda excels. You don't need a test track, a racing driver's touch or a lottery winner's wallet with this car. Just a back-to-basics love of driving. The way it ought to be.

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