The ‘new’ Mazda MX-5 took its inspiration from the original and as you can read here, it succeeded. Yet Mazda obviously thinks the motoring public’s tastes have changed; they’ve become more discerning, less tolerant, and, if you read between the lines, a bit wimpy.
So, while the original MX-5’s folding roof was a model of simplicity and clever engineering, modern drivers demand double-lined mohair, heated glass rear windows, and a choice of colours.
Or a metal roof and when you consider that four out of five buyers dodged a fabric roof in favour of the nifty folding metal one on the outgoing model, the launch of the RF comes as no surprise.
Tips for driving a convertible
And what a lovely looking thing the RF (for ‘Retractable Fastback’, even if it is really a just a very clever targa top) is. While the most popular colour for pre-orders has been a muted dark metallic grey, the brighter colours suit it better in my opinion. Red, a colour of which I am not especially fond, looks terrific on the RF, especially with the roof up.
Speaking of which, the roof must be singled out for praise. Made of three different materials – aluminium for the middle section, moulded composite for the flying buttresses, and steel for the rest - it folds itself away very cleverly, leaving both boot space and headroom intact.
It’s solid and cuts wind noise drastically compared to the MX-5, giving owners all the advantages of a coupe when they don’t want to feel the wind in their hair, and all the sensory stimulation of a convertible when they do.
Rear three-quarters vision is a nightmare, but the installation is otherwise almost free of compromise and consequence. A little wind noise intrudes with the roof up (with the roof down it’s epic, as that fixed, buttressed rear acts as a giant air scoop) but no car of this type is ever going to be as quiet as one with a fixed metal roof.
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A blunted performance
Best of all, the weight penalty of all this engineering brilliance is just 45kgs, or just under five percent of the car’s total weight. This is a worthy and notable achievement, but it does blunt the car’s performance just a little. When I drove the MX-5 last year, I felt the 130bhp, 1.5-litre engine was ample, but in the RF I’m not so sure; I spent the afternoon whizzing and fizzing across a largely empty Dartmoor, only to find that the 1.5-litre car I’d thought I was driving was actually the 2.0-litre, with 28bhp advantage I simply hadn’t noticed.
A later drive in an RF with the smaller engine under the bonnet confirmed that it just isn’t up to the job in the RF. Part of it is pure performance – uphill overtaking is painfully slow for example – but a lot has to do with the new car’s refinement.
Simply put, the new MX-5 RF feels more like a coupe than a convertible, even with the roof down, so you expect it to have more of a long-legged lope than an urgent scamper, and the larger engine’s extra power helps nurture that feeling.
Honing or reinvention?
It could also be down, in part at least, to the changes Mazda wrought on the RF’s chassis. The PR team went to great lengths (both during the formal presentation and later in the bar) to insist that the tuning was a matter of honing rather than reinvention, but all those subtle tweaks have turned it into something more grown-up, more sophisticated, more urbane - and a bit more power helps make the most of that too.
There is some body roll when cornering quickly but I would argue that that weight transfer is actually a good thing because it lets you feel what’s happening underneath you, allowing you to fine-tune the car’s attitude with steering wheel or throttle.
Don’t automatically go automatic
It is predicted that 15% of buyers will opt for the automatic gearbox. I don’t know how misjudged, or even if, they will be as we didn’t get the chance to drive one thus equipped, but I can tell you that the gearchange on the manual car is just about the best of any car you can buy today and is such an integral part of the driving experience that I wouldn’t rush to give it up without trying the two cars back-to-back.
Manual vs automatic: which gearbox is right for you?
The rest of the car is pure MX-5, which means a beautifully finished but ultra-tight cockpit; at 6’ 3” I could just about squeeze behind the steering wheel, but a long session as a passenger was almost a misery thanks to a dash that intrudes further back on that side than the driver’s, leaving me scrunched up and forced to twist my knees to one side, which gave me backache. Shorter folk won’t have a problem but taller ones might, depending on their torso/leg ratio, struggle.
Three trim levels are offered: the SE-L at £22,195 for the 1.5-litre and £23,095 for the 2.0-litre engine; the Sport Nav at £24,795 and £25,695; and the Sport Nav with the more powerful engine and an automatic gearbox at £27,095. All are well equipped but Mazda predicts that most buyers will go for the better equipped car in which they can enjoy leather seats, auto wipers and lights, keyless entry, a premium Bose sound system and a rear parking sensor.
Owners of the more powerful Sport Nav will also get a limited slip differential, Bilstein sport suspension, a strut brace, and 17-inch, instead of 16-inch, alloy wheels. The lower-spec SE-L Nav still comes with climate control, a touchscreen entertainment and sat-nav system, DAB radio with Bluetooth, and LED headlights but has to make do with cloth seats and manual switching of the wipers and headlights.
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Speaking of trim levels, I must point out that Mazda, like so many cars these days, impose a colour tax (thanks to the chaps at Motoring Podcast for what might well be the first recorded use of that expression) on any paintwork colour you might actually want to be seen driving.
So while a plain white topcoat is free, anything else costs at least £550 extra - and if you choose one of the higher specification cars the freebie white isn’t even an option. I’m sure the car manufacturers would say that this is due to margins being so thin these days, but it does leave a nasty taste in the mouth, nonetheless.
These minor niggles aside, there is no denying that the Mazda MX-5 RF is a brilliant piece of kit. It handles sublimely, goes as quickly as you need it to, and sprinkles a little bit of joy on every journey. And yet, the rag-top MX-5 does all of that and costs significantly less. The (admittedly very clever) folding roof adds a civility and a refinement that doesn’t, for me at least, work. The MX-5 was, and should be, about stripped-to-the-bones-fun; it shouldn’t be about effortless and polished long-distance touring.
But I’m in the minority. As we’ve seen, the overwhelming majority of last-generation MX-5s had a metal folding roof instead of a proper folding fabric one, so the market is clearly there – and if it is a market that you’re considering, you can rest assured that Mazda still does it better than anyone else.
Power – 158bhp
Torque – 147 lb ft
0-62mph – 7.3 seconds
Top speed – 133mph
Kerb weight – 1,075kgs
Official average fuel consumption – 40.9mpg
CO2 emissions – 161g/km
VED class – Band G
Warranty – 3 yrs/60,000 miles
Price – £23,095 - £28,995
Price as tested - £28,995
The Mazda MX-5 RF continues to show how it should be done and is about £2,000 cheaper on a like-for-like basis.
The best of the rest
Don’t rule out the cheaper MX-5. It’s very nearly as refined and a bit more fun to drive.
The Subaru BRZ/Toyota GT86 offer similar back-to-the-basics, rear-wheel-drive fun for about the same price.
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