SAN DIEGO, California—As excited as car enthusiasts (and the motoring press) were when Mazda announced it’d be launching an all-new version of their popular MX-5 sports car – a car this pure and un-hybridized or -electrified is increasingly rare these days, you see – they were also a little taken aback that, at the outset, there’d be no power retracting hard-top (PRHT) version.
The PRHT was heavier than the standard car, a big deal in a lightweight sports car such as this. But it looked good – very vintage Lotus Elan – and it was a little easier on the body as conditions got rougher.
It helped reduce drag—which helps when you’ve only got about 160 hp to work with. Plus, it sold quite well, and those that owned one kept the top up 80 percent of the time.
So, with that in mind, you could almost say Mazda had very little choice: a PRHT was needed. The question was ‘How do we make it stand out from the old car?’ The even more compact dimensions of the ND model posed a bit of a challenge.
To make things tougher, Mazda wanted to do something more drastic this time ’round; with the new car’s more flowing, European lines, they had to design a top to match.
The best way to do that, it turns out, was to develop a targa-style roof: instead of the whole roof collapsing into the trunk, just the top portion would fold in behind the rear glass, sacrificing no trunk space, but allowing for some proper open-air motoring. Hence the “PRHT” became the “RF,” or retractable fastback, and a new MX-5 hardtop was born.
In spectacular fashion, we might add.
The addition of a pair of flying buttresses as rear pillars gives the MX-5 an even more cab-rearward look than previous, one of the designers’ intentions at the outset. They say it’s given the MX-5 a more Italian look; I can see that, but the compact dimensions do better to recall more eclectic models such as the Mini Marcos or Cunningham C-4RK.
It’s the same car from the A-pillar forward, however, which is a good thing, since the latest MX-5 is eye-catching if nothing else. The RF (available in GS trim, at $38,800 MSRP; and GT trim, $42,200) also gets a special Machine Grey paint job not available elsewhere in the lineup. I think we’ll stick with the Soul Red Metallic jobby, though; looks as good here as it does on the roadster.
Speaking of the roadster: while for many, the ability to reach backwards and close the top with a single thrust of the arm was a big selling point, the way the RF’s top folds is so spectacular, you won’t be missing the soft top for long.
First, the rear clamshell lifts up and back, as would the canopies on the fighter jets scattered ’round Miramar Marine base not 20 miles up the road from downtown San Diego. The top then smoothly folds under and the rear clamshell snaps closed, all in less than 15 seconds.
It’s so smooth in operation you’d think it was borrowed from a more luxurious brand. Even the sporty, youthful MX-5 isn’t immune from Mazda’s goal of making higher-class cars.
The one thing I would like to see, however, was for Mazda to have somehow decreased the gap between the rear wheels and their fenders. The rear suspension has been tuned for the added weight over the rear wheels, but according to Mazda, the real reason for the gap is because it—had to be able to fit chains in there? Yes, that sounds odd to me, too.
Not only does the top look good up, it also makes for quieter progress. Since you still have proper rear glass when the it’s folded away, both my drive partner and I found even when top- down, at highway speeds, we could carry on a conversation at near-normal levels.
For those hoping for more space in the RF than the Roadster, know that there isn’t much additional headroom, though I could wear a baseball cap in the RF—something I wouldn’t recommend in the roadster.
Otherwise, the interior environs are exactly the same; you still get the tiny steering wheel, stubby gear lever, cloth (GS trim) or leather (GT trim) seats, and compact centre console. That’s fine by me; the interior is purposeful in how low-profile it is, and I’d have it no other way.
While Mazdas have kind of always been about the drive, it wasn’t until recently the manufacturer adopted a mantra – “Driving Matters” – that so directly states this.
At the same time, rare is there a vehicle that so directly states this. In its looks, its driver-focused interior, and, of course, its driving dynamics, the MX-5 RF may as well have that line tattooed on its purdy li’l nose.
While the power hasn’t been boosted at all – even though it’s heavier by around 50 kilos, it makes the same 155 hp and 148 lb-ft as the roadster – the weight has been transferred further back over the rear wheels, so you get even more grip there.
It’s very noticeable, too. You can feel the car squat back a little more on acceleration, as the extra weight over the rear wheels helps neutralize the effect the engine has on the fronts. It feels like you’re actually driving a fixed-roof coupe.
Get past all that, and you realize what’s so great about the RF is all the original MX-5 roadster stuff remains: the fantastically-snickety gear shift action, laser-guided steering, and the go-kart-like handling.
The handling really came into focus on a properly bendy stretch in the foothills just south of San Diego, down towards the Mexican border. It was a band so narrow you’d think you were slicing through the Pyrenees in Southern France. Decreasing-radius turns, blind chassis-unsettling crests, tight chicanes—it was all here, in this little 10-mile stretch of highway.
As was expected, the RF allowed us to attack with gumption, responding immediately to inputs and clearly informing us what was going on beneath the wheels. It was on those decreasing-radius numbers you could really feel the benefit of the extra weight over the rear axle; it would just gamely follow behind the nose, carving a nice, linear arc through each turn and re-settling itself to be immediately ready for the next set. I’ve driven the roadster many times, and I didn’t think the RF could top it on the dynamic front. Turns out it can, and does.
After a day driving it both on that road as well as in day-to-day traffic in and around sunny San Diego, I can see why Mazda sold so many PRHT-quipped models last time around. When I first stepped into the RF, I thought “This is a Miata! It’s supposed to be wide open! No way I’d ever—”.
Funny thing, though; as soon as you start to make your way onto the highway and feel just how well the RF walks the line between open-top and quiet, hardtop motoring, any original bias you may have had starts to seep away.
Top down, there’s no denying you’re getting as good an open-air experience as you’ll get in most convertibles, only without the wind buffeting from all angles. Then, pop the top – this can be done while moving – as the rain clouds move in, and you can carry on comfortably in your (now quieter) MX-5.
Then, as you start to push it, you get to experience that new weight distribution, and are reminded once again of how the MX-5 platform continues to be one of the best in the biz when it comes to the drive.
Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this first-drive review.