A drop-top for all seasons
Mazda improves yet again on its MX-5 recipe with the retractable fastback version
THIS is the ideal time of year to talk about the Mazda MX-5 RF. Autumn is my favourite time for top-down driving.
Melbourne in June and July is no fun for a full convertible, Canberra is way too cold and even Sydney can be a bit tricky.
But the RF is not a full-scale fresh-air roadster and that means it can be an MX-5 with benefits through the colder parts of the year.
I learned it myself during a wintry preview drive in Tokyo on a day that was cold, overcast and occasionally rainy. The new-age MX-5 was great with its coupe-style protection, or more breezy with just the roof panel open, or everything exposed for a few minutes during breaks in the drizzle.
To recap, the RF — the “retractable fastback” version of the new MX-5 — is more like a new coupe than just a convertible with a secure composite top. Previous MX-5 hardtops have either had a bolton roof piece or a folding composite clamshell on top.
This one is a very different and very classy conversion that lifts rear panels at an angle to allow the roof to slide back and down, revealing a roof space that’s a lot like the Targa-top version of early Porsche 911s. There is also a drop-down glass panel behind the seats for more of the open-air experience.
The pieces are lightweight steel, aluminium and carbonfibre and the weight penalty is only 45kg.
When I first saw the RF in Japan I argued heartily with the latest MX-5 ambassador, Nobuhiro Yamamoto, the car was not a true MX-5 because it was not a sports car but a coupe.
He defended the car and it’s true that it drives almost identically to the MX-5 roadster.
But the car has a totally secure roof, not just a folding fabric panel, and the look is quite different with the “flying buttress” panels flowing back from the door pillar on the car.
Yamamoto also reckoned the RF would be the favourite model with MX-5 buyers and was likely to lure buyers across from cars such as the Toyota 86.
Since then the head of the latest MX-5 project has changed jobs, and is now in charge of a special division in Japan that is doing born-again MX-5 restoration work. It’s a full factory project to refettle MX-5s that are as good as new.
ON THE ROAD
The RF landed in Australia in January and since then — as Yamamoto predicted — it has been the popular choice with MX-5 buyers, accounting for nearly 60 per cent of deliveries.
In a far bigger surprise, about 60 per cent of those have the optional six-speed auto gearbox.
Sports car fans don’t mind paying about $4000 extra over the convertible MX-5 for the secure roof, and more again for the auto, and the RF’s lead over the regular MX-5 can only increase as we roll through winter.
My favourite thing about the RF is the security and quietness that comes with the new roof.
It’s not like the slightly rippling sound and feel of the regular MX-5 with the top up, or the unfinished look and drumming of the previous generation MX-5 hardtop.
It’s genuinely like an MX-5 coupe and several people asked me what I was driving during my time with the RF.
The roof works very well and the design and finishing are very impressive. It’s slightly complex but nothing like the worryingly over-complicated workings of the now departed Volkswagen Eos.
The whole rear section lifts, the roof panel slides back and down, and the job is done in 13 seconds in a wonderful piece of motoring theatre.
It would be better if it could happen at more than 10km/h, with many other convertibles now doing this at 40 or more.
The RF is just as sharp as the MX-5 roadster, which means it’s a great drive. Every touch on the controls brings an instant response and that’s been the overwhelming appeal of the MX-5 since its launch in 1989.
I’m disappointed that the RF conversion does not bring any extra boot space but at least none has been lost.
It performs as I remember from the 2.0-litre roadster, although I’m not driving the automatic that is so popular with buyers and which worked well enough when I tried it during the Japanese preview.
The RF comes only with the “big bore” 2.0 rather than the slightly sweeter 1.6 in the priceleading variant, but it’s still a well-balanced package.
A drive in an MX-5 is always good, even with things getting cooler now.
The RF maintains all the goodness of the latest MX-5 and adds a level of practicality it has never had in the past.