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Mazda MX-5 RF long-term test: still a winning recipe

Published: 29 November 2017

► CAR's MX-5 RF long-termer
► We live with Mazda's coupe-cabrio
► Regular updates in daily driver diary

Month 4 living with a Mazda MX-5 RF: two peas in a pod

Rear-drive? Open top? Tactile steering? Must be talking about my classic Fiat. No, seriously, the MX-5 and my 1976 Italian stallion have a lot in common.

The latest MX-5 is all about stripped back minimalism, shaving 100kg off the outgoing model. In this way, it has classic appeal – most evolutions get flabbier, but the new MX-5 is small, simple and light. It’s not spartan, but it has an ascetic purity.

Best thing is, it combines simple pleasures with modern build – unlike my 126, the Mazda doesn’t leak in the rain.

By Mark Walton

Logbook: Mazda MX-5 RF 2.0 Sport Nav

Engine 1998cc 4-cyl, 158bhp @ 6000rpm, 148lb ft @ 4600rpm 
Gearbox 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive  
Stats 7.4sec 0-62mph, 134mph, 161g/km CO2  
Price £25,995 
As tested £27,465
Miles this month 1204
Total miles 4940
Our mpg 32.3
Official mpg 40.9
Fuel this month £163
Extra costs £0


Month 3 living with a Mazda MX-5 RF: a compromised coupester

A couple of months in and I'm getting used to the RF's strengths and its quirks. Overall I love its compact footprint, the way you can dart into gaps and nip into parking spaces. And I'm still thrashing the guts out of it at every opportunity, because it seems a crime not to. But those are things you learn the first time you drive it – what about the stuff that only emerges with time?

Teeny boot

The MX-5's size-zero packaging comes at a price – it takes three shopping bags and a bunch of bananas to fill the boot, and if you're going away for a long weekend, two onboard-size wheelie bags is about your limit.

The passenger footwell is too narrow for anything bigger than a briefcase (if you want your passenger to be comfortable), and there's no room behind the seats. So if you can't fit it in the boot, basically you're not taking it.

Even teenier screenwash

So I'm a screenwash junkie and maybe this isn't a big deal for other people, but if you do like to keep your screen clean (or perhaps you're addicted to that alcoholic mouthwash smell... just the smell – I don't drink it) the MX-5's washer bottle is about the size of a Starbuck's Venti cup.

Again, it's a result of the car's tight packaging – the washer bottle isn't moulded down the inside of the wheel arch like those fitted to a lot of cars, it's just a shallow plastic box sandwiched under the sloping bonnet. With all the summer flies to deal with, I'm currently stopping for water more often than petrol.

Missing rear window

The RF – for 'retractable fastback' – is a weird hybrid of convertible and targa. The roof panel drops into the boot, of course, and the buttresses stay; but unlike a classic Porsche 911 Targa, the Mazda's rear window also folds away with the roof, leaving a complex roll hoop structure behind your head. I was surprised the first time I dropped the roof – I was looking for the button to raise the rear glass back up, but there isn't one.

Instead, the rear glass is gone, leaving just a clear plastic wind deflector to reduce turbulence. I'm not sure it works very well, as at speed you get quite a lot of buffeting.

The roof mechanism is such a complex choreography of engineering, it seems churlish to question Mazda's thinking here... but I think I could have done it better.

Annoying warning mystery solved

You should always use your indicators, of course, but I admit I often don't when it's late and I'm swapping lanes on a motorway. Annoyingly, the MX-5 has a Lane Departure Warning System that flashes a graphic on the dashboard and emits a rumbling sound through the hi-fi every time you cross lanes without indicating.

I've spent weeks getting annoyed with this, scrolling through the settings on the colour screen, trying to switch it off, before finally realising there's an 'off' button to the right-hand side of the steering wheel.

If you're a fellow MX-5 driver who also hates this warning (and who also can't be bothered to read the manual)... you're welcome.

By Mark Walton

Logbook: Mazda MX-5 RF 2.0 Sport Nav

Engine 1998cc 4-cyl, 158bhp @ 6000rpm, 148lb ft @ 4600rpm 
Gearbox 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive  
Stats 7.4sec 0-62mph, 134mph, 161g/km CO2  
Price £25,995 
As tested £27,465
Miles this month 1112
Total miles 3736
Our mpg 32.3
Official mpg 40.9
Fuel this month £184
Extra costs £0


Month 2 living with a Mazda MX-5 RF: let's talk styling

So let’s tackle the thorny issue of the styling. I love the curves of the soft-top MX-5, and turning it into a coupé should have created a mini-Toyota 2000GT, which would have been lovely.

Unfortunately, Mazda’s stylists also added a pinch of Jaguar E-Type 2+2 – remember, with the upright windscreen and too-tall roofline? Still, you don’t see the top hat from the inside, just the smooth slope of the bonnet and those shapely front wings.

Agreed, it’s not a bona fide beaut, but I like it.

By Mark Walton

Logbook: Mazda MX-5 RF 2.0 Sport Nav

Engine 1998cc 4-cyl, 158bhp @ 6000rpm, 148lb ft @ 4600rpm 
Gearbox 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive  
Stats 7.4sec 0-62mph, 134mph, 161g/km CO2  
Price £25,995 
As tested £27,465
Miles this month 556
Total miles 2624
Our mpg 32.3
Official mpg 40.9
Fuel this month £93
Extra costs £0


Diary update: but is the MX-5 RF big enough for tall drivers?

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. So I was looking forward to my first drive in the new RF.

Its looks are surprisingly divisive and really change the pure-cut MX-5 roadster's modernism. There's no point banging on about the aesthetics, as you'll surely make up your own mind. There'll be plenty around, after all; this is becoming the biggest seller of the two bodystyles.

My biggest beef after a quick drive in ours last night is the space. It's really not roomy enough for me, at 6ft 2in. The hard top pinches headroom to the point that it feels positively cramped, where a soft-top merely feels 'snug.' Lower the roof and the crown of my head feels half-exposed to wind rush.

I'm not enjoying it as much as the roadster we lived with last year. For me, the jury's out...

By Tim Pollard


Month 1 living with a Mazda MX-5 RF: the introduction

The Mazda MX-5 RF recently took part in a CAR group test against the BMW 220i and Toyota GT86. It came third out of three, which doesn't bode well for me, given my last long-term test car was swiftly confiscated when I described it as an 'awful car'. But hey, don't worry, because I really love the MX-5 RF.

The secret to the RF, I reckon, is approaching it as a car in its own right, rather than comparing it to its roadster sibling all the time. In that group test, Chris Chilton said the RF 'costs more and looks worse' than the soft-top, and it 'fails to deliver a properly resolved convertible experience while not matching the refinement of a proper coupe either'. But then Chilton is such a curmudgeonly old northerner... I'm willing to give the RF a clean slate and judge it on its own merits.

So, like the roadster, the Retractable Fastback comes with two engine options, a 129bhp 1.5-litre or the 158bhp 2.0-litre. We ran the 1.5-litre roadster test car last year, so this time we've gone for the more powerful engine, which means a basic starting price of £23,395. The 2.0-litre also brings you 17-inch alloys and a limited-slip diff.

Add a trim-level upgrade to Sport Nav and you're up to £25,995, giving you a Bose sound system, plus a handful of gadgets like automatic headlights and wipers, keyless entry and a rear parking sensor. Combine the two upgrades (engine and trim) and you get the extra Brucie bonus of sports suspension and a strut brace. Woo-hoo! Love that strut brace!

Anyway, on top of these basic options our car is finished in Machine Grey metallic paint (£670) with a browny-red nappa leather interior (£400). We can argue about whether it's brown or red later. Finally, the Safety Pack (£400) adds blind spot monitoring and 'rear cross traffic alert' which uses a wide fan of radar from the rear bumper to warn you if a car is approaching as you reverse out of a parking space. Altogether, our car stands at £27,465 on the road.

Mazda MX-5 RF long-term test review and Mark Walton

First impressions? Well, the first time I got in it I couldn't believe how small it is. I'm 6ft tall, and it took me a couple of journeys to get happy with the driving position. My seat is all the way back, not too upright to give me headroom, and the steering wheel is lifted to give my knees clearance.

It would really benefit from an extending steering column, but the adjustment is for rake only, not reach. Altogether I'm comfy now, but if you're much over 6ft tall I'd recommend a Formula 1-style seat fitting session before you commit to buy.

Other than that, my fuel economy tells you everything you need to know about driving this car: when it arrived, the trip computer said it was doing 35mpg; a thousand miles later and it's down to 32mpg. This car was designed to be thrashed, and that's exactly what I'm doing.

By Mark Walton

Logbook: Mazda MX-5 RF 2.0 Sport Nav

Engine 1998cc 4-cyl, 158bhp @ 6000rpm, 148lb ft @ 4600rpm 
Gearbox 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive  
Stats 7.4sec 0-62mph, 134mph, 161g/km CO2  
Price £25,995 
As tested £27,465
Miles this month 1049
Total miles 2068
Our mpg 32.3
Official mpg 40.9
Fuel this month £177
Extra costs £0

Check out the rest of our long-term test reports here

By Mark Walton

Contributing editor, humorist, incurable enthusiast

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