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Car reviews - Mazda - MX-5 - RF range

Our Opinion

We like
Superb ride and handling, fantastic single-setting stability control calibration, minimalist cabin, hard-top security
Room for improvement
Awkward looks from some angles, price and weight impost, driving position and body rigidity not to coupe standard

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Mazda logo24 Jan 2017

By DANIEL DEGASPERI

MAZDA has argued that a weight increase of 47kg is scant for a hard-top over a soft-top, and they are right – think of it like turning this sportscar into a three-seater with a small child always being carried around.

On the other hand, though, a major point of the ND-generation Mazda MX-5 program was to shed every possible kilogram from the NC generation that engineers admitted had simply become too tubby.

For the MX-5 RF, buyers will also pay $3710 more for the standard 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine version compared with the equivalent MX-5 Roadster that remains on sale. They will pay more for a heavier car with identical 118kW/200Nm outputs, but one that can electrically lower the majority of its tri-split roof within 13 seconds and at up to 10km/h.

Probably wisely, Mazda chose not to offer the heavier RF with the 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine that remains in the Roadster for $5210 less than the tin-top’s $38,550 plus on-road costs starting sticker. But, again, affordability became an ND generation cornerstone according to the brand.

The MX-5 RF is still hardly a rotund vehicle, however. At 1080kg it remains around 170kg lighter than a coupe such as a Toyota 86 that sells for around the same price and uses a 2.0-litre engine with similar output.

Mazda claims the RF is more rigid than its Roadster sibling, but it chose to take away some underfloor bracing in order to keep weight down. Unsurprisingly, on the road the newest MX-5 feels just like every ND model available since it launched Down Under in August 2015.

The suspension has been tweaked slightly to adjust for the body rigidity and weight differences, but immediately the same blend of soothing ride quality and sharp handling makes itself apparent.

The steering is not as immediate on the centre position as the previous MX-5 and nor is it as tight throughout its arc as its 86 rival – coincidentally driven the day following this national media launch. However, there is notably less rack rattle over mid-corner bumps than with the soft-top version of this Mazda, despite it still being noticeable.

On smooth surfaces, wind noise is impressively subdued and on the 38-degrees-celcius scorcher of the national media launch, the air-conditioning did not appear to work too hard to keep the cabin chilled with the roof up.

Only when coarse-chip surfaces appeared did the MX-5 start to become quite thrashy.

Perhaps the extra perceived quietness of the MX-5 RF compared with the MX-5 Roadster – although a back-to-back test would be needed to confirm – places greater focus on the acoustics of the petrol engine, which were never fantastic but seemed to grate more than expected.

Thanks partially to the light kerb weight, the 2.0-litre rarely struggles at the lower reaches of the tachometer, with great tractability and an effortlessness that belies its lack of turbocharging. However, when hilly roads rise, extending the engine to its redline is met with a plainly coarse and uninspiring note with barely an exhaust backing track heard.

The MX-5 RF continues to feel brisk rather than quick when extended. It is competitive in MX-5 Roadster guise when the pricetag starts at under $35,000 – but when pushing beyond $40,000 once on-road costs are applied, it starts to lose some appeal.

Thankfully the six-speed manual is an absolute delight, with close-knit ratios and a wonderfully tight and tactile shifter that have become MX-5 hallmarks.

Surprisingly, however, the optional six-speed automatic is a charm as well, with crisp downshifts and upshifts particularly in Sport mode or when using the standard steering wheel-mounted paddle-shifters.

With plenty of grip from the Bridgestone Potenza 17-inch tyres and pointy front-end response matched by sweetly adjustable rear-wheel drive balance, this Mazda continues to be a driver’s dream when ensconced in corners wrapping tightly around a mountain.

Particular kudos goes to the single-setting electronic stability control (ESC) calibration that does not need a sports mode to permit some liveliness and fun while still affording a broad safety net.

Of course all of this applies to every Mazda MX-5. With the RF, buyers still get front seats that are not quite firmly bolstered enough and a steering wheel that adjusts for height but not reach. The minimalist cabin is beautifully finished, but also sparse in entry-level form, with the highlight being the fabulously intuitive MZD-Connect touchscreen infotainment system.

However, it is worth keeping in mind that the $38,550 MX-5 RF is only $1350 cheaper than the $39,900 MX-5 Roadster GT that adds leather, heated seats, Bose audio and climate controls to help substantially lift the cabin ambience of Mazda’s little sportscar.

With boot space being equal – 130 litres Roadster, 127L RF – it really does come down to a sense of style and security. The MX-5 Roadster GT still appears better value and more premium inside, while being lighter and marginally faster and more economical.

But as we said, criminals and fashionistas alike might disagree.

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