The name 'MX-5' brings to mind certain thoughts, some of them memories. Associatively, most of us would immediately think of a red roadster of compact dimensions that, to those with first-hand experience, is able to distill driving down to its basest of pleasures.
An essential ingredient to that concoction is lightness, or rather the omissions of the unnecessary. And for the most part, Mazda and their engineers have stuck very closely to this ethos of minimalism through the car’s four very successful generations.
With each new version, the Hiroshima automaker has had to succumb to the growing preference with the buying base of a hard top over the lighter, and sometimes more convenient fabric roof. With its predecessor, a variant with a folding metal roof was introduced to deliver a more integrated experience over the optional single-piece fixed roof that was available to buyers of the second-generation NB.
With the new ND, though, Mazda sought to meet a more harmonious union of lightness the benefits of a rigid roof. Thus, a ‘targa’ solution was reached, one that would incorporate some of the benefits of a fully folding hard top with reduced components to keep mass at bay. The ‘RF’, or Retractable Fastback, first hit the market in late 2016, giving new dimension to the MX-5’s classic silhouette.
“…when the RF’s hard-top is down, two distinctive rear pillars remain. They ensure you still feel like you’re nestled inside a car, even when you can look up and see sky. They certainly give the RF its own sense of style, which, at the risk of enraging MX-5 purists, I prefer.” - Autocar
Predictably, the RF is nearly identical in its appearance to its fabric-roofed twin if you ignore the goings on past the A-pillar. Mazda also used the opportunity to introduce a new Machine Grey metallic exterior finish to add an air of sophistication to the RF, in line with its more coupe-like body and improved NVH levels. In side profile, the ever-present buttresses do give it a more substantial, even muscular look. Though, it must be said that it can compromise peripheral visibility.
Mazda’s KODO Soul of Motion design language is still very prevalent here and indeed very congruent in how the folding roof and said buttresses meld seamlessly into the body. Despite being introduced a good year following the debut of the 4th-gen MX-5, it could be argued upon that the RF’s design is so cleanly done that the soft top might even be mistaken for its derivative instead of the other way around.
Weight, naturally, is of primary concern when it pertains to the MX-5. That’s in part why a targa roof was chosen - requiring fewer components to be in stored or deployed depending on whether the ‘roof’ is engaged or not, and eschewing the heavier mechanism used in the third-generation car.
It comprises of four parts and, compared to a conventional 'folder' approach, also intrudes less on available boot space in addition to adding a mere 40kg to the car’s overall weight, requiring 12 seconds to fold out or back in at speeds of up to 10km/h.
Engine and Drivetrain
“Both the manual transmission and the (gasp) automatic are great gearboxes. Seriously, you lose very little fun by opting for the automatic, and it's much better in traffic to boot.” - The Drive
The RF range differs from the soft top MX-5 in that it’s only available with the more powerful of the two SkyActiv-G naturally aspirated petrol engines. Outputs are unchanged despite the price increase and additional weight, delivering 118kW at 6,000rpm and 200Nm at 4,600rpm.
As in the roadster, the 2.0-litre unit is eager to be strung out and revels in the upper reaches of the tachometer range. For an engine of this configuration, low end grunt is decent on level ground and enough to encourage the driver to keep reaching for more urge, the kind of play that will endear the car more to those who like to work for their reward. That said, uphill surges are something that can reliably expose this engine’s shortfalls.
Because the RF can be thought of as more of a tourer, some might think that the six-speed automatic is a little more justified as a pairing to this rev-chasing little motor, but the dynamic penalty is such that the most enjoyment is still offered through the manual transmission, and by a significant margin. Shifts themselves are slick and connective, identical to the roadster’s, and remains that link necessary to extracting the most from each drive. There’s definitely a case for choosing the convenience of the auto, though, and as torque converters go it is very competent.
“The MX-5 soft top has you reaching to close the roof when it’s already closed; the hard top is an improvement, but there’s still a heck of a lot of wind noise.” - CAR Magazine
Appointments for the base MX-5 RF are just about on par with that of the base soft top in GT configuration, and everything from the seating position to the general ergonomics are very keyed toward providing an easy and intuitive space for the driver.
In terms of tactility, the RF GT gains leather seat upholstery for the supportive semi-buckets which do give a much classier tone to the cabin, adding to the already standard leather steering wheel, gear knob, and hand brake lever. Otherwise, there’s still plenty of soft touch material to fondle paired with solid construction and material choices throughout.
A founding directive of the RF project internally was to improve the MX-5’s refinement levels without harming the car’s weight balance or practicality. Mazda has achieved this, for the most part, through quite interesting means, introducing sound-deadening material to areas found to be leeching out noise.
Noise and vibration coming from the wheel arches and transmission tunnel have been dealt with by extra levels of insulating material and thicker, acoustically absorbent floor mats. Meanwhile, the roof assembly itself has been given thicker gaskets and washers, and there’s a tri-layer application of headlining.
Out in the back, the RF’s roof mechanisms do not intrude on the car’s usable boot space, which remains identical to the soft top’s. One major difference that’s a side effect of this targa-style top is that, with the roof retracted, the cabin more muffled at lower speeds from ambient noise, with the buffeting typical of the roadster disappears almost entirely.
However, even with the roof up, the flying buttress design is such that air can get sucked into a whirl just behind the rear window, causing a somewhat distracting hum at higher cruising speeds. In this case, should you have chosen the RF GT, it's up to the audio from its headrest-mounted Bose speakers to provide some form of counterbalance.
Behind The Wheel
“The RF’s a mite stiffer to compensate for extra weight in the worst possible place for a sporty chassis, and the steering’s tweaked for more assistance on turn in but less once you’ve actually applied some input.” - Top Gear
The RF, thankfully, doesn’t suffer for the extra weight of its folding roof. Mazda has been very hawkish in ensuring that the car would not lack any of the roadster’s dynamism, spending a lot of time to fine-tune the RF’s spring and damper set up to hide the effects of the slightly skewed rear weight balance.
It results in an ever so slightly more compliant suspension, but at its core the RF is as nimble and lithe as anyone would expect from an MX-5. The heavier roof does slow the car down in the 100km/h sprint, but only by 0.1 second to 7.6s, and besides which was never really where the roadster shone.
Sitting inside RF, and the sensation of being cocooned is even more prevalent with those buttresses, but it doesn’t detract from the focus one feels when at the helm. Depending on your interpretation, the extra envelopment might even add to the sense of intensity when barrelling down twisty road with the roof down.
When pushing hard, the press of the roof assembly does mean that the tail is less likely to break traction, especially when working with the standard limited slip differential, but to a good chunk of drivers the extra grip at the rear can be a plus to precision driving. The front end, though, is behaviourally unaltered, responsive and eager to point as ever.
Safety and Technology
“Mazda has a long record of producing dependable and safe cars and the new Mazda MX-5 should be no different.” - Carbuyer
Like the soft top, the MX-5 RF maintains its strong safety credentials and its earned 5-star rating from ANCAP. There are front and side airbags for both occupants and blind spot monitoring as standard.
The MZD Connect infotainment system - now standard across the range - does still lack features such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but does offer a more polished and intuitive base interface than most of its competitors, and depending on which grade is chosen, audio is dispersed through either a standard six-speaker array or a the aforesaid BOSE option with nine speakers.
For those who crave the MX-5 for its driving experience but are put off by the disadvantages of a fabric roof, and one that’s manually operated, the RF posits itself as a very convincing remedy. By making the car an almost-coupe and leaning into a slightly more rounded ‘touring’ persona, the arguments against the RF are reduced to the splitting of hairs.
Though it can be specified to be a more luxurious proposition than the roadster, Mazda has set limits on the RF to ensure that, even at its most opulent, any example will not exceed a threshold that would render it dynamically inferior. And should you want the MX-5 as an everyday sports car smile factory, touches like the improved refinement levels and more substantive aesthetics lends even more confidence to those already swayed this way.
What Car? - 4/5 - “The Mazda MX-5 RF is as much fun to drive as its Convertible sibling, but the step up in refinement isn’t enough to justify its extra cost.”
CAR Magazine - “I've always preferred the hard-top MX-5s for their all-seasons, all-milieux, all-roundedness. Great if you want added security if you live in a city, fab if you want a bit more protection from the elements.”
Top Gear - “It’s an MX-5 for people who might not ever want to drive it quickly, on that basis. Which is a pity, because when you do, it’s actually a slither more sorted than the roadster. So, roof up for motorways, roof down for the sliproads.”
CarBuyer - 4.2/5 - “The Mazda MX-5 RF has a retractable metal roof instead of the standard model's fabric version, adding an extra dose of style and refinement to an already impressive package."
The Drive - “It could have more power, sure, and I don't particularly like the headlights, but that's a personal issue. And there's one last thing for the wish list: Adaptive cruise control, please. Just...please. But otherwise, this fourth-generation Miata is admittedly awesome and impressive.”
Autocar - “Intuitive: now that’s a good word to describe the MX-5 as a whole. You look at it, hear the name and think: involving, fun-to-drive sports car. Mazda hasn’t disappointed. In fact, it’s better than ever, which is no mean feat in an era where we’re increasingly seeing car makers mess up their driving icons…”