Extra metal puts twist on familiar Mazda MX-5
A folding roof and coupe-like ’fastback’ styling adds another dimension to the MX-5. Stephen Ottley drives it.
The sky is grey and rain is falling steadily in Tokyo. Not typically ideal weather to test drive a Mazda MX-5.
But we haven’t come to Japan to drive a "typical" MX-5. We’re here to sample the MX-5 RF, the replacement for the previous generation’s folding hard-top model. However, instead of sticking to the conventional, Mazda has got creative for this latest model.
The "RF" stands for retractable fastback, because rather than stowing the entire roof out-ofsight Mazda designers have crafted a new shape that keeps the rear pillars in place when the main section of the roof and rear window are stowed, creating a ’flying buttress’ effect that harks back to classic European sports cars.
The decision was driven in large part by practicality - the designers insisted the boot needed to accommodate two overnight bags - and because the latest generation MX-5 is more compact than the old model; meaning there simply wasn’t enough room to stow the lid without styling compromises.
But the result is impressive. The fully powered roof mechanism works smoothly and quickly (taking approximately 13 seconds to rise up or down), but only at speeds up to 10kmh.
From a styling point-of-view the RF is a win-win.
With the roof up the car looks like a proper MX-5 coupe, but with it down it still provides all the open-air senses you expect from the little Japanese convertible.
That’s in large part because the designers deliberately created an opening behind the seats of the car, to let the wind and exhaust noises flow back into the cabin through the gap between the flying buttress.
However, adding a metal roof didn’t come without compromises. Mazda’s goal with this latest MX-5 was to make it smaller and lighter, getting back to the original size of the car. That meant shaving grams off every item the designers and engineers could manage - even down to the lever that moves the seat.
So adding the roof and its mechanism naturally adds weight. However, thanks to the use of steel, aluminium and composite materials the new top weighs just 45kg extra.
Mazda has also added more insulation around the transmission tunnel and rear wheel arches which in combination with the new roof makes the RF a slightly different proposition to the MX-5 roadster.
While the soft-top is all about simplicity and rawness, the RF adds a level of a sophistication and refinement to the MX-5. It is a quieter and more relaxed cabin to be in, even if it is still just as tight as the compact soft-top.
It’s powered by the 118kW/ 200Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine mated to the choice of a six-speed manual or automatic transmission.
As obvious as the changes to the refinement in the cabin are, assessing the dynamic changes to the MX-5 RF are trickier as our test drive was limited primarily to the highways around Tokyo.
We’ll have to reserve full judgment until we get to put the RF through some more challenging corners.
Having said that, the initial impressions are good. The suspension has been slightly tweaked to compensate for the additional weight, with stiffer damper settings and a thicker front stabiliser bar.
The RF still has a tendency to roll and pitch into corners just like its soft-top sibling and it still feels responsive and agile, so the signs are promising.
Mazda has managed to walk a fine line with the MX-5 RF, creating something different enough to have its own character but still staying true to what drivers expect from an MX-5.
It’s not just about style: extra insulation means the RF is a more refined and sophisticated MX-5 as well.