What is it?
It’s the delightful, fun-to-drive Mazda MX-5 RF (the RF stands for retractable fastback) and in the wonderful world of sports cars, the MX-5 stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of global sales.
Early last year, the nimble little roadster passed a significant milestone in its 27-year history when the one-millionth MX-5 was produced.
There’s not a sports car in history that comes close to that figure.
The actual car has just completed a 35-event promotional program that included the UK, Spain, USA, Belgium, Canada, Australia and New Zealand that saw more than 10,000 people sign their name on the bodywork.
It’s now on display at Mazda’s Hiroshima headquarters.
To add to the celebrations, the Japanese marque decided to add a striking new variant to the model line-up.
The RF is a cleverly designed car for drivers who want the best of both worlds – a roadster and a coupe.
Rather than a coupe, however, the beautifully designed folding roof transforms the car into more of a Porsche 911, Targa-like car.
And, with the roof folded away, there’s plenty of sky and fresh air to be enjoyed.
Since the first MX-5 saw the light of day more than a quarter of a century ago, there have been just four generations and the latest – dubbed the ND – arrived here in soft-top guise back in August 2015.
In total around 20,000 MX-5s have found homes in Australian garages.
The first model to feature a folding-metal-roof was the previous generation NC and now the ND roadster has been joined by its new RF sibling.
What’s it cost?
While the soft-top ND is available in either 1.5-litre or 2.0-litre form, the new RF is a 2.0-litre only car.
Pricing kicks off at $38,550 for the entry-level version with its six-speed manual transmission and cloth interior.
This rises to $43,890 for the manual RF GT with black or tan leather and $44,890 for the top spec RF GT with a black roof and Nappa leather.
A six-speed automatic transmission is available across the range for an additional $2000.
Red and grey metallic paint adds another $300.
In terms of standard kit, the new offering is generously specified.
All three variants come with goodies including LED headlights and daytime running lights, air conditioning, cruise control, a 7-inch touch screen with Mazda’s MZD Connect system, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, satellite navigation, blind-spot monitoring, with internet radio integration via Pandora, Stitcher and Aha.
Move up to the RF GT and you add leather trim, automatic on/off headlights, a premium 9-speaker 203 watt Bose system and climate-control air conditioning.
What’s it go like?
The RF’s sweet 2.0-litre in-line ‘four’ boasts 16 valves and a double-overhead-camshaft layout and is good for 118kW at 6000rpm and 200Nm of torque that arrives at 4600rpm.
Mazda claims combined fuel consumption figures of 7.0L/100km for the manual version and 7.4L/100km for the automatic.
During the national media launch, my co-driver and I saw 6.8L/100km and 7.2L/100km respectively.
The star of the RF show is undoubtedly its superbly designed and executed electric folding roof.
It adds 45kg of extra weight to the car – but really, you’d never know.
Push a button and the roof opens in just 13 seconds and this operation can can be performed on the move up to a speed of 10km/h.
But if the heavens opened and you wanted to stay dry, it would be more sensible to pull over and stop.
That said, to watch the RF’s roof in operation is to watch a piece of brilliant – not to mention whisper quiet – slow-motion engineering gymnastics.
The mechanism uses 14 separate linkages and two electric motors that combine in a masterful way to stow the roof in a compartment in front of the boot.
The front of the roof is aluminium, the centre section is steel and the rear flying-buttress-type wings are plastic.
They lift to let the roof fold away and then sit down to lock in the RF’s targa-style open-roof arrangement.
Visually, the wings give the RF a look that’s reminiscent of the classic Dino (it didn’t have a Ferrari badge) and the Jaguar XJ-S that was around in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Even that classic Australian, the Bolwell Nagari coupe, used the flying-buttress design – but the Nagari’s flying buttresses stayed put as part of the body structure.
Inside, the new RF – even at entry-level – is a pretty classy place to be.
Trim details and fit and finish are what we’ve come to expect from Mazda and while this 185cm reviewer couldn’t quite dial up his ideal driving position (I owned an NB MX-5 for a year), things are perfect for me behind the wheel of the ND roadster and RF.
What is sadly lacking are many cubby holes for your bits and pieces and the lack of reach adjustment for the steering wheel is something of a shortcoming.
There’s no glove box, no door pockets, just a small lidded tray at the rear of the centre console and a small lockable compartment between the seat backs.
There are two cup holders – also mounted between the seat backs – but they are all but useless even for small bottles.
Fortunately, the brilliant design means there is still 127 litres of luggage space – enough for a couple of carry-on suitcases.
While the engineers tweaked the front and rear suspension for the RF, you’d have to be a genius to pick any ride and handling differences over its soft-top sibling.
Mazda does some of the best manual gearboxes in the world and the MX-5’s is no exception.
While it’s not a dual-clutch auto, the six-speeder found in all MX-5s is a gem – slick shifting and fun to use in manual mode.
In the safety department, as well as front and side airbags, the five-star ANCAP-rated RF comes standard with ABS brakes, dynamic stability and traction control, blind-spot monitoring, electronic brake-force distribution, emergency brake assist, an emergency stop signal, hill-launch assist and there is even a clever active bonnet that pops up to help protect a pedestrian’s head the instant an impact is detected.
One negative is that while autonomous emergency braking is available on other Mazda offerings, it’s not on the MX-5.
While blind-spot monitoring is essential given that the flying buttresses certainly endow the car with blind spots, a reversing camera would and should improve things no end.
In summary, the new RF continues to be a delightful driver’s car that rewards the steerer in many ways.
The car’s balance and poise through corners is legendary and the RF’s ability to transform from a sports coupe to a targa-like open-top sports car adds to its appeal for buyers who aren’t totally sold on a soft top.
What we like?
- Legendary MX-5 behind-the-wheel fun
- Classy coupe styling with the roof up
- Overall driving dynamics
- Great manual and automatic transmissions
- Stylish and practical interior styling
What we don’t?
- Stingy three-year warranty
- Limited interior storage cubby holes
- Autonomous emergency braking not available
- No steering-wheel reach adjustment
- Limited rear vision with roof up
- Seat backs a tad narrow for anyone but jockeys
What are the alternatives?
Unless you want to mortgage the house for a car with an exotic badge such as Audi, Aston Martin, Mercedes-Benz, BMW or Lamborghini – there aren’t many wind-in-the-hair sports cars from which to choose these days.
Some lesser-priced offerings include the 1.4-litre Abarth 124 Spider with its $41,990 price tag, the 2.0-litre Mini Cooper S two-door convertible that comes in at $46,500 and although it is much larger, the Ford Mustang 2.3 EcoBoost that requires a $54,990 cheque (if you can get one).
One noticeable newcomer on the sports coupe scene is Nissan’s just-released 370Z Nismo.
While the standard 370Z has been around for a while now and sales have been ticking over quietly, the extra sex appeal of the Nismo version should stir things up somewhat in Nissan showrooms.
Pricing for the standard Z kicks off at $49,990 for the six-speed manual coupe (the auto is $52,490) and rises to $60,990 for the manual roadster before topping out at $63,490 for the seven-speed automatic version.
In the case of the Nismo, there is no roadster and the manual coupe is $61,490 while the automatic lifts this to $63,990.
It’s worth noting that back in 2003 when the 350Z Touring coupe was launched, the manual version opened the batting at $59,990 and the five-speed automatic Track version topped things off at $68,790.
Certainly the new Nismo’s pricing makes a pretty compelling story.
The bottom line?
Mazda launched the RF with high hopes for its sales success and the company has not been disappointed.
While most soft-top purists will probably stick with the MX-5 roadster, the RF is attracting a new sub-class – and probably older – group of buyers.