Meet the more hairdo-friendly Mazda MX-5 RF

Re­tractable Fast­back al­lows open-air driv­ing with­out ex­ces­sive wind

The Star Early Edition - - ROAD TEST - JESSE ADAMS

WE LOVE the pure sim­plic­ity of the soft, fold­ing roof in Mazda’s lat­est MX-5 road­ster. Undo one latch, and throw the whole thing back man­u­ally. It’s about as un­com­pli­cated as con­vert­ible tops can get.

But now Mazda’s of­fer­ing a sec­ond roof op­tion in its cute-asa-but­ton lit­tle sportscar with the new MX-5 RF (Re­tractable Fast­back) which ul­ti­mately does the same open sesame trick as its rag­top sis­ter, but with a much more the­atri­cal show of mech­a­nised origami. The RF’s de­signed as a sealed metal roof coupe with all the associated re­fine­ment and quiet, co­cooned pro­tec­tion from the el­e­ments, but with the abil­ity to let the sun pour in at the push of a but­ton.

It puts on quite a dis­play of electro-chore­og­ra­phy too. Flick the switch and those twin ta­pered but­tresses lift off the rear deck al­low­ing the back glass and top panel to tuck neatly away into a bulk­head be­hind the seats in around 13 sec­onds. The end re­sult is more targa-top than gen­uine con­vert­ible, be­cause only the panel di­rectly above your head is ab­sent in open air mode. Those C-pil­lar but­tresses re­main in place whether the roof is re­tracted or not.

My wife, who nor­mally avoids dropped con­vert­ible tops at all costs for fear of whipped-hair syndrome, was pleased with the RF’s de­sign af­ter I in­sisted on one even­ing drive in al­fresco mode. At reg­u­lar sub­urb speeds the flow of air seemed to curl up over the wind­screen and back down the rear (plas­tic) glass with­out ex­ces­sive buf­fet­ing in­side the cabin. Only at high speeds, north of say 110km/h, do this Mazda’s aero prop­er­ties put hair­dos at risk. A reg­u­lar MX-5 is a canned cy­clone by com­par­i­son.

The RF’s roof mechanism adds only around 45kg to the nor­mal MX5’s kerb weight, so it has very lit­tle ef­fect on the al­ready light­weight car’s crisp han­dling. It’s still the same di­rect steer­ing, easy to throw around, nip in-and-out of traf­fic lit­tle pack­age as it is soft-top guise, and, as it al­ways has been through four gen­er­a­tions since 1989.

But, if you look at Mazda’s per­for­mance claims you’ll see the RF, in South Africa at least, is much slower to 100km/h than its rag­top sis­ter. At 8.6 sec­onds to the soft top’s 7.3 it’s al­most a sec­ond and half slower ac­tu­ally - and that’s light years con­sid­er­ing they’re pow­ered by the same 118kW/200Nm mo­tor.

So what gives? Well, for our mar­ket Mazda’s made the RF avail­able with an auto gear­box only, and it’s not as up to the task as the man­ual shifter in the can­vas-roofed model. The MX5’s nat­u­rally as­pi­rated 2-litre is one of those en­gines that re­wards at high revs, and this rather old­school six-speed au­to­box likes to change up early and of­ten.

It’s re­ally not a great com­bi­na­tion to be hon­est, and we found the RF hunts around for an elu­sive op­ti­mum gear ra­tio when asked for any more than just easy­go­ing pace. Steer­ing pad­dles help to over­come some of the shift anx­i­ety, but it’s an in­con­ve­nience hav­ing to re­sort to man­ual fin­ger flicks on ev­ery drive. There’s also a Sport mode ac­ti­vated with a con­sole-mounted but­ton, but this seemed to make it even more ea­ger to hunt.

It’s easy to for­give Mazda’s driv­e­train foibles though, be­cause it’s such a love­able lit­tle ma­chine. Be­sides the fixed-roof Toy­ota 86 there aren’t many cars to match the MX-5’s com­pact two-seater with rear-drive ap­peal; and es­pe­cially not at this price point. At R532 800 the RF might be a cool 91 grand more ex­pen­sive than the road­ster, but both cars are by far the cheap­est in the genre. If we look at coupe-con­vert­ibles only, the next model up the price lad­der is a R720 000 (and quite dated) Mercedes SLC, and af­ter that ev­ery­thing is well over a mil­lion bucks.

You get a lot for your money too. Stan­dard fare in this MX-5 in­cludes a colour touch­screen with nav­i­ga­tion, cruise con­trol, leather seats, a nine­s­peaker Bose sound sys­tem, key­less en­try and start, rain-sens­ing wipers, blind spot mon­i­tors, lane de­par­ture warn­ings and more. Value isn’t a topic nor­mally associated with con­vert­ible sportscars, but the MX-5, in ei­ther guise, nails it. VER­DICT A more re­fined but pricier ver­sion of Mazda’s mul­ti­ple award-win­ning road­ster. Dis­as­trous en­gine/ gear­box combo aside, the RF is a fan­tas­tic value of­fer­ing in a rel­a­tively ex­pen­sive (and al­most ex­tinct) coupe-con­vert­ible mar­ket. It’s also hairdo-friendly with the lid peeled back.

Fun to drive, but the auto gear­box doesn’t make a great com­bi­na­tion with the nor­mally-as­pi­rated 2-litre en­gine.

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