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.

Matamata Chronicle - - Motoring -

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.

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