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Car reviews - Mazda - MX-5 - RF

Our Opinion

We like
Exterior profile, nimble road manners, steering, balance, flexible engine/auto combination
Room for improvement
Wind and tyre noise, seat height, steering adjustment, no rearview camera or sensors

Mazda logo12 Jun 2017

By STUART MARTIN

Price and equipment

MAZDA claims this new RF – Retractable Fastback – takes the hard-topped versions of previous MX-5s to a new level. It is certainly a longer stride away from the soft-top model.

From an aesthetic perspective there’s no doubt that it looks the goods, particularly from the three-quarter front or rear perspective.

The automatic variant wears a pricetag of $40,550 plus on-road costs, keeping the same number of ratios as the manual but adding paddle-shifters in lieu of the clutch pedal.

In entry-level guise, the RF features black cloth trim, it sits on 17-inch alloy wheels, sporting the retractable roof in the same hue as the body, while the external mirrors are black.

The air-conditioning is old-school manual and there’s also a manual cruise control, a six-speaker sound system with USB, music streaming (Pandora, Stitcher and Aha) and Bluetooth operated from the sat-nav-equipped touchscreen or centre console controller when on the move.

The steering wheel is leather-wrapped and has audio, trip computer, phone and cruise control switchgear but is only adjustable for tilt not reach, and the auto variant misses out on the limited-slip differential that only appears on the manual.

Absent from the features list are automatic headlights or rain-sensing wipers and there’s no rear parking sensors or reversing camera, the last two in particular a glaring oversight by Mazda that’s not restricted to the sportscar range.

Interior

It is no surprise how snug the cabin is once you’ve lowered yourself down into the handsome little sports car and – at a broad 191cm – your correspondent can just get comfortable behind the wheel in the cloth-trimmed sports seats.

A little further toward the floor and rear bulkhead would be good, as would the ability to adjust the steering for reach, but for most normal-sized people the driving position will be more than adequate.

Rear vision isn’t panoramic (hence the need for sensors and a rear camera), but the view forward over the sculpted bonnet is enticing.

In-cabin storage is bordering on useful but there’s no door pockets and what is available is not always easy to get to while seated (particularly the compartment behind the driver’s left shoulder).

The prong-style cupholders thankfully can be removed from the transmission tunnel to keep them away from the driver’s left arm.

Although designed for one of the cupholders, the socket for a cupholder on the passenger’s side of the transmission tunnel also proved useful for ignition key storage, saving it from sliding around the centre console, leaving the phone to be left tethered by the USB cable during hard cornering.

A touch of retro comes from the body-coloured metallic door top trim panels, offsetting the predominantly dark cabin.

Push and hold the switch at speeds of up 10km/h and the buttresses lift to store the elegantly-folding lightweight four-part roof in 13 seconds, allowing the elements in.

At this point the headrest speakers on the driver’s seat (part of the decent six-speaker sound system) will come in handy should the phone ring, and while it does work there seems to be room for improvement on the system’s sound quality.

Boot capacity has been diminished slightly by the new roof – down to 127 litres from 130 – so luggage space is limited to soft bags and not many of them at that.

Engine and transmission

At first glance it might seem as though the 2.0-litre four-cylinder powerplant nestled under the curvaceous nose of the MX-5 isn’t sufficient for the job at hand, but it tallies up to more than the numbers suggest.

The new-generation SkyActiv variable-valve direct-injection 2.0-litre produces 118kW at 6000rpm and peak torque of 200Nm at a somewhat lofty 4600rpm, but Mazda claims more lower end torque and even when being applied through an auto the flexibility of the engine is apparent.

Helping that is the clever six-speed auto which delivers a more direct feeling than many automatics and doesn’t feel as though it saps what little outputs it has to deliver.

The drivetrain offers a Sport mode to sharpen up the throttle response and the demeanour of the automatic transmission, something that did make itself useful in the different driving terrains – suburban drudgery meant the button was left alone but a country road run warranted it.

The fuel economy figure of 7.4 litres per 100km for the auto is up 0.4 on the convertible equivalent and the RF manual model’s claims, but down on the real-world number of 9.0L/100km delivered by the trip computer during our time in the car, which didn’t result in a long driving range given the fuel tank is only 45 litres.

Given some of the enthusiastic motoring that was being undertaken that figure is understandable – the 2.0 litre might not sing in quite the same lovely range as the smaller 1.5-litre powerplant on offer in the convertible but it carries a nice tune nonetheless.

Ride and handling

The 1106kg vehicle is just 49kg heavier than the equivalent soft-top, no mean feat given the motors and roof panels (some of which are of steel, aluminium and composite construction).

The light and lithe feeling to its road manners is a delight to pilot, giving it a darty nature that makes small gaps in traffic its bread and butter, provided the blind spot monitoring becomes second nature.

Mazda’s roof and pillar structure does restrict the view at a glance before a cheeky change of lanes, but once the mirrors are in the right spot and the blind spot warning light is part of your lane change method, it’s enough to avoid a clash.

Ride quality around town is admirably good, decent enough to drive it every day if a multi-child school run isn’t part of your daily routine.

Running 17-inch alloy wheels with 205/45 tyres on the end of double-wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension systems, the metropolitan road surfaces don’t unduly disturb the ride quality, although the Mazda bugbear of tyre noise has yet to be addressed completely in its little roadster.

But the little Japanese two-seater is built to find a winding country back-road and that’s where it shines, with roof above or stored.

Exhibiting less of the tail-happiness found in the 86/BRZ boy-racers, the MX-5 turns in without hesitation but with a little bit of roll from the body – but it is travel you’ll appreciate when the mid-corner bumps come.

Any complaints about the engine outputs being underwhelming are offset by the car’s ability to carry that corner speed through bends, maintaining momentum – wind it up and get it going and the MX-5 happily hums along at an indecently brisk pace.

The electronic safety aids can be safely snoozed in all bar the most torrential of conditions, so clear are the communication skills of the steering and suspension.

It feels unlikely to bite the driver on the behind, preferring to flatter the pilot.

Rippled road surfaces do send a few vibrations through the chassis but nothing to the point of serious concern and not enough to detract from the overall drive experience.

Conducting the tuneful engine with the paddle shifters is enjoyable but not quite the sensory experience that comes from commanding three pedals and a manual shifter to maximum effect.

It is sadly becoming a lost art but one that is near its finest when getting it right in a manual MX-5 the automatic option is a reasonable alternative if commuting is part of the car’s daily duties.

Safety and servicing

The MX-5 convertible rated a five-star ANCAP car at launch but the roofed model has not yet come under scrutiny in the form of a model-specific crash test.

But the RF has the same number of airbags as its ragtop sibling – four, dual front and front-side – as well as the blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.

The former being a very handy feature in relation to the three-quarter glance before a lane change and the latter vital in this SUV age – reversing from a 90-degree car park space in a shopping centre in something this low is almost Russian Roulette given the likelihood of an SUV on either side, not to mention the others that may be barrelling by.

Standard LED headlights, as well as daytime running lights, give the MX-5 decent illumination at night, although if you want the headlights to be adaptive the RF GT model is the only place you’ll find them tyre pressure monitoring is however standard range-wide.

Stability and traction control, as well as anti-lock function for the 280mm discs front and rear (the fronts being ventilated) offer electronic back-up and good stopping power, but the absence of a standard reversing camera and rear parking sensors is difficult to understand.

They can be installed as an accessory, with rear sensors priced at just over $436, fronts are around $655, a reversing camera (integrated into the touchscreen) is $500 or a screen and sensors set-up totals just under $1400.

But given much of the opposition has some or all of them as standard it’s a black mark on the Mazda’s sheet.

Mazda’s servicing for the MX-5 is every 12 months or 10,000km, whichever comes first – Australian driving statistics would suggest it’s the latter – with prices ranging from $301 to $343 for the first five services.

Most Mazda product – barring the BT-50 – is covered by a three-year unlimited-kilometre warranty, but there’s no roadside assistance included in the purchase price.

For help with flat or faulty batteries, fuel, flat or damaged tyres and wheels, lost or locked-in keys, towing and transportation, it’s $68.10 per year for the brand’s standard roadside coverage, or a premium package (which adds vehicle recovery, taxi fares, accommodation and a rental car) is $83.50 a year.

Verdict

There’s so much to like about the perky little Mazda in its solid-roofed guise – the profile looks enticing, giving it haunches that suggest athletic ability (although perhaps overstating potential pace), the clever roof doesn’t add massively to the mass but the wind noise around the top of B-pillars is off-putting.

Lithe, balanced and not brutal in the ride stakes, the RF is a neat addition to the impressive MX-5 range, but it’s an expensive indulgence just for the open-air drive when you consider the other amusing machines (with back seats) and in the case of the pricier Volkswagen Golf GTI, Peugeot 208 GTi and Ford Fiesta ST (both substantially cheaper) offer more pace.

In isolation it’s an entertaining sportscar but a sharper pricing policy would help its cause and we think we’d still rather the ragtop.

Rivals

Toyota 86 GTS auto from $38,790/Subaru BRZ Premium auto from $36,490 plus on-road costs
One of the twins that re-cast the pricing dice on the Mazda’s predecessor, the Toyota coupe and its Subaru sibling carry a little more paunch on the belly than the lean Mazda, but pack more grunt from the dual-injection flat-four 2.0-litre engine to make up for it. This pair are a little more inclined to hang the tail out without much provocation and offer fun and flexibility with two rear seats. The Subaru is less common on the road and a little darker in its interior ambience, it feels a little more handling-focused than the Toyota, but there’s not much between them. They both get reversing cameras and steering adjustment for reach as well as rake, neither of which is on the Mazda.

VW Golf GTI auto from $43,990 plus on-road costs
While it doesn’t offer the purist’s pleasure of front engine and rear drive, the GTI is an exceptional all-rounder. Room for four adults and gear, the GTI has the punch to help you forgive which wheels are doing all the work, with some clever front diff bits to help lessen the scrabbling out of low-speed corners. It doesn’t look as much fun as it is which might disappoint the extroverts who enjoy the Mazda’s look-at-me factor.

Peugeot 208 GTi from $29,990 plus on-road costs
A little smaller in the cabin than the VW, but no less amusing on the road, the punchy little Peugeot has returned to the level of its 205 GTi forebears.

Indecently quick and with a chassis that encourages press-ahead driving, the 153kW/300Nm 208 GTi only suffers from the absence of an auto option but given the French preference for lucky clutches manuals maybe that’s best in the manual it is the pedal placement that is an issue, requiring ballerina feet to hit just one pedal at a time.

Ford Fiesta ST from $27,490 plus on-road costs
Not as exotic to look at as the Pug, Ford’s baby Fiesta in ST guise is a genuine hot hatch that has serious pace, an amusing chassis and a back seat to do the school run when required. Also on offer only with a manual gearbox hooked up to the 134kW/240Nm 1.6-litre turbo four, the fan club is not as big as perhaps it could be, but for those still able to operate three pedals (with less need for tiny feet than the Pug) the Fiesta ST is a party on wheels.

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