Mazda’s hard-top MX-5 RF loses none of the driving thrill

Latest generation sports car gains some weight to keep things quieter and nimbler

The Mazda MX-5 RF is available from February with prices starting from €31,495 for the 1.5 RF. The two-litre GT is €36,695 and €300 more gets full tan leather.

Make: Mazda

Model: MX-5

Year: 2017

Fuel: Petrol

Date Reviewed: January 19, 2017

Sun, Jan 22, 2017, 11:05

   

Driving a nimble convertible sports car is one of life’s great pleasures. It is no surprise Mazda’s MX-5 is the world’s best --selling sports car. You don’t have to sell a kidney to get one either. Hardcore MX-5 owners will happily drive with the cloth top down all year round but for some, Ireland’s winter climate is a little too fresh so they may consider Mazda’s great looking MX-5 RF.

MX-5 buyers today have a rich 28-year history to buy in to, but back in 1989 Mazda took a gamble when it first launched its retro old-school sports car. Thankfully MX-5 - or Miata as it was known in the US - was an instant hit. I owned a 1.6 litre, 115hp first-generation version and just like owners all over the world, adored its old-school front-engined, rear-wheel drive set up.

Mazda took the essence of the classic MGB and other lightweight sports cars like the Lotus Elan and Triumph Spitfire and developed its own open-top two-seater for the masses. The key difference with the Japanese car was that the 955kg MX-5 was reliable.

The 1998 second generation MX-5 built further sales success, despite losing the cool pop-up headlights, or the air brakes as some called them. Like all second albums, MX-5 lost its way a little and became too conventional while also gaining a few kilos. The 2005 third generation was a return to form as it went to the gym, it looked cute again and was truly great to drive. I raced one with my colleague Neil Briscoe in an international endurance race in Italy and still grin thinking about how much fun it was.

The current fourth generation MX-5 is simply a fantastic machine. More weight was shed to make it kilo for kilo the best fun you can have on four wheels; seriously – it is ridiculously entertaining.

The sharp Ferrari-like looks manage to be aggressive and disarming at the same time. Thanks to compact Led headlight technology, MX-5’s front end now looks incredibly neat. The real key to MX-5 is that it is not overpriced or overpowered. It delivers thrills by the bucket-load as it actively seeks to involve the driver in pushing it on. The steering is beautifully geared for a quick response and its 40mm short throw manual gearbox is near legendary, going back to the mark one. The current MX-5 is perfect, so what is Mazda doing launching the MX-5 RF retractable fastback?

The last generation MX-5 featured a version with a folding hardtop. The MX-5 RF is a much bolder statement than that variant, however, with new and distinctive flying buttresses that hint of motoring exotica, old racing cars and, of course, the classic Jaguar XJS that seems to be getting better looking with age.

This RF version, with the roof up, is a much quieter place than the soft-top roadster. Exactly how much quieter Mazda couldn’t tell me, it just is. There is a trade-off, however, as with the electric folding-roof mechanism, there is an unavoidable weight gain of 45kg. Worryingly, the added weight is located up high and this is not where you want it. A sports car needs a low centre of gravity to help deliver better handling.

That said, Mazda is more obsessive about weight loss than operation transformation. Mazda’s “gramme strategy” has seen every component examined to see if it can be made lighter. For example, there is extensive use of aluminium in the roof bonnet and boot lid and lightweight steel is used, too, the alloys wheels are attached with four, not five studs, there is no chrome exhaust pipe embellishments, instead the tips were just polished. Even the seat sliding handle was shortened to save weight. On the roads around Barcelona, the MX-5 RF was nimble and agile and its body felt even stiffer than the Roadster.

As for the additional weight of the roof mechanism, I didn’t feel it affected handling, despite earlier concerns.

There are two trim levels RF and RF GT available. Under the bonnet, Irish buyers will get the choice of two Skyactive petrol engines, the 131hp/150nm 1.5 litre that currently features in the Roadster and a more powerful 160hp/200nm, 161g/CO2 two-litre that adds 30kg to the overall weight and comes in GT trim only.

I took the 1.5 litre, 142g/CO2 six-speed manual out first and it was a joy that really likes being driven hard. It is rewarding and delivers an involving driving experience at legal speeds. The two litre features Bilstein Sport suspension, a strut tower bar and a limited slip differential. With its extra horses and pulling power it is a different machine. Getting from 0-100km/h takes 7.4 seconds as opposed to 8.6 seconds for the smaller engine. It is a quieter cruiser, too, and naturally sits at about 10-20km/h more on the open road than the 1.5 – but it feels a little soulless.

The 1.5-litre version was riding on relatively tiny 16-inch wheels by today’s standards and the two litre was on 17-inch versions. The difference was amplified when turning in to a corner and also when the differential would kick in to reduce wheelspin when powering out of corners. The two litre would bite in a little and then settle whereas the 1.5-litre version was much easier to push on in a linear fashion. Overall, the 1.5 litre, despite all this, has more character and is the better buy.

The MX-5 RF is a real head-turner and, with its electric hardtop, it offers a better all-year-round MX-5 experience than the soft-top Roadster. All the electronic toys and gadgetry from MX-5 are available in the RF. The boot remains tiny, even if Mazda says only three litres have been sacrificed, now down to 127 litres or two airline carry on bags.

The Mazda MX-5 RF is available from February with prices starting from €31,495 for the 1.5 RF. The two-litre GT is €36,695 and €300 more gets full tan leather. Thankfully, the lower-priced version is the more fun car to drive and therefore the better buy. Hard-top or soft-top? The good news is you don’t lose out by opting for better weather protection and a little bit more cabin security.