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Mazda MX-5: should you go soft-top or RF tin-top?

Published: 01 May 2018

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Month 8 living with a Mazda MX-5 RF: which is best - soft-top or hard-top?

Yes, you’re right, at the start of our MX-5 RF long-term test I did indeed promise to judge it on its own merits and never compare it to the roadster. Well, I lasted eight months. 

In reality, it’s impossible to avoid the comparison in your head, because the RF is not without its shortcomings, and you spend the whole time wondering if the soft-top would be better.

So, the red car you see is a 2.0-litre SE-L with cloth trim, which – at £22,265 – represents a £3k saving over our leather-clad Sport Nav RF. The first thing that strikes you is the styling – up or down, the fabric roof accentuates the convertible’s rear haunches, which get lost on the Retractable Fastback, and gives the back half of the roadster MX-5 a much more resolved, curvaceous feel. 

Inside, I was surprised how much more headroom the soft-top roof gives you, and with very little downside. Okay, so opening the fabric roof is a manual unclip and fold back operation – whereas the RF’s roof is electric – but it’s so easy to use that it’s not a hardship. And, of course, roof down you get a proper, head-exposed-out-in-the-open roadster experience, rather than the halfway house ‘targa’ buffeting of the RF. 

Browse Mazda MX-5s for sale

The two cars feel different on the road too, because the Sport-spec RF comes with stiffer Bilstein dampers. The softer springs of the red roadster give it a more compliant ride, but if you get it crossed up and sideways on a roundabout the RF’s body control is better.  

I have to say, if it was my money and I was standing in the Mazda dealership, I’d choose the red roadster. The brighter paint finish helps, compared to the grey RF – but almost three years after its launch, I still think the Mk4 MX-5 looks absolutely sensational in roadster form. The RF doesn’t quite. Plus, the soft-top feels like it’s the ‘real’ one – the simple, unadorned original, the purist’s choice. It’s still a car to fall in love with, every morning when you see it on your drive – whereas the RF (as I’m discovering) is a car you squint at, cock your head, and wonder if you chose the right car. 

By Mark Walton

Diary update: our web editor on the Mazda MX-5 RF's practicality

It’s 23:15 and I’ve spent the last 20 minutes trying to look for my phone in CAR's MX-5 RF long-termer. While this car has lots of imperfections, the most annoying has to be the lack of grip in the place you’re supposed to put your phone. Every time I’ve tried some spirited driving in the Mazda, I’ve seen my phone fly across the cabin; either into the footwell, on the seat, or like this time, behind it. It’s a small thing, but just so annoying.

In fact, there are lots of reasons I shouldn’t like the MX-5 RF, and the fact it packs me in like a sardine is probably the biggest. While it looks cute and sporty from the outside, open the door and the problems start. As per my normal routine, I sit in the car, reach for the seat latch, push it back and click – that’s it, I’ve put the seat back as far as it can go.

So here’s the bad news if you’ve always lusted over an MX-5. If you’re approaching 6ft, this car won’t be the most comfortable – and if you’re over 6ft like I am, you’ll be shoe-horning yourself in the RF like a pair of ‘Double A’ batteries in a TV remote. It’ll happen, but at a physical cost.

Mazda MX-5 RF long-term test review

Next up, there’s the infotainment system. It’s true that one of the Mazda MX-5’s biggest assets is its promise of an old school, vintage driving experience – but I’m not sure why that has to extend to the sat nav. It’s a bit 2009, if I’m honest. You’re better off using your phone. The cabin doesn’t feel the most expensive either, and that’d be fine if it didn’t also squeak as you went round corners. Character or poor build quality? You decide.

However, once I’ve set off, I start to understand why this MX-5 – and pretty much any model in its history – has the reputation it does. It’s lively, engaging and direct from the word go – and with the top down there’s a real sense of experiencing and enjoying your surroundings. Think Ralph Waldo Emerson but with the additional soundtrack of a screaming 2.0-litre engine.

With the revs right in front of you, and the front wings daring you to place the car as precisely as you can, the MX-5 demands to be driven hard. Compared to a Porsche which can make you feel as though you’re travelling at half the speed you are in reality, the Mazda tends to make you feel as though you’re doing double. It’s constantly attacking your senses with breathless revving, wonderfully informative steering and a comfy but firm ride  – and if you’ve got the top down there’s wind battering your face too. 

It’s only after my first few drives with this car that I realised I’ve had this feeling before. When I was much younger, both my parents had MGs; my mum a MGB Roadster and my dad a MG Midget – and the Mazda took me back to my trips in those. The feeling of a car constantly at play, the same smell of heater and warm engine on cold days – and the same sensation of feeling incredibly low and small when you encounter ‘normal’ traffic.

A post shared by Curtis Moldrich (@khurtizz) on Mar 29, 2018 at 2:32am PDT

The only difference being, this time, I’m driving – and there aren’t countless bottles of water in the back, for those overheating moments.

For that modern nostalgia alone I’d give the MX-5 a pass, but it’s so much fun to drive that I can even look past its other faults. Despite having my Civic Type R long-termer, I chose to drive the MX-5 to London – after all it has cruise control, and I’ve developed a knack for getting my left leg under the steering wheel now… My biggest issue? A place to safely perch my phone.

By Curtis Moldrich

Month 7 of our Mazda MX-5 FR long-term test review: helping out on a Ferrari shoot

The Mazda joined a Ferrari photo shoot at Rockingham, and while it was outgunned by the 478bhp Ferrari F40, it can hold its head up high, considering you could buy 40 Mazdas for the same money.

The Ferrari’s direct rack-and-pinion steering is a joy on the move, but in the paddock it was a reminder of how heavy unassisted steering is, compared to the Mazda’s electric rack. I’d say unassisted is better every time, but then I don’t have to sell thousands of sports cars. 

By Mark Walton

Logbook: Mazda MX-5 RF

Engine 1998cc 16v 4-cyl, 158bhp @ 6000rpm, 148lb ft @ 4600rpm
Gearbox 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive  
Stats 7.4sec 0-62mph, 134mph, 161g/km CO2
Price £25,695
As tested £27,165 
Miles this month 1115
Total 7234
Our mpg 34.8
Official mpg 40.9
Fuel this month £179
Extra costs None

Month 6 living with a Mazda MX-5 RF roadster: swapping notes with a Toyota GT86 owner

‘Hi Ben, are you coming to Rockingham for the Ferrari shoot? I thought we could swap cars, see what we think.’ So went Mark Walton’s email pitch. To be honest, I wasn’t massively keen. I’d driven the MX-5 before, thought I preferred driving the GT86, and wondered how I’d manage with two kids but without the Toyota’s rear seats. But Mark exudes a kind of calm persuasion with a glinty madness in his eyes, and the next thing he’s pulling a huge slide past me in the GT86. The swap is on.

Mazda MX-5 RF vs Toyota GT86 twin test review

I have a look round the Mazda and first impressions are good. The design is tauter and crisper than the Toyota’s, giving it a more premium feel, though I still rate the GT86’s looks. The MX-5’s alloy wheels underline this impression, making the Toyota’s look aftermarket and cheap. I’m just glad I deleted the Toyota’s rear wing, which cheapens it further.

With a day’s work ahead of me in Wales, I drive there in the MX-5 late the night before. I like the driving position, so too the auto high-beam function, but I prefer the Toyota’s seats and extra space, and at times I struggle to actually read the Mazda’s sat-nav. I make my way over towards the M69 on a network of back roads. The 2.0-litre Mazda engine is smoother – if perhaps less characterfully rowdy – than the Toyota’s, and so much more satisfying than the rather flaccid 1.5 MX-5.

The gearchange is better than the Toyota’s, and it’s certainly a very agile little thing. But I remember a 1.5 I drove having very responsive steering and extremely soft rear springs – the nose would dart at corners, and the rear kind of tumble over. Mark’s 2.0-litre feels similar, giving the impression that any slide will come on quickly. The balance feels further forward in the GT86, more forgiving. However, you can work the weight transfer induced by the MX-5’s soft rear springs, and despite the initial apprehension, it feels nicely balanced when I chuck it through a couple of roundabouts. It’s a car that won’t tolerate half-hearted attempts to get it out of shape – you need to take it by the scruff of the neck.

I find the damping hard to endure on the motorway. It constantly tremors up and down – the GT86 is firm, but it’s more compliant in similar conditions. Then there’s the wind noise. 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. I turn up the radio, but I need so much volume it feels like some kind of Guantanamo torture cell. So I drive to Wales without tunes, suspension bumping about, wind noise like a haunted castle.

The MX-5 is not without appeal, but the GT86 is the better drive whether you’re flat out or cruising the motorway. Can I get my keys back now please?

By Ben Barry

Month 5 of our Mazda MX-5 RF long-term test: will it drift?

The MX-5 isn’t a practical car and it’s not even a proper soft-top, so why buy one? Well, one of the greatest pleasures I’m getting from living with the Mazda is how it spices up my daily commute, in a way that only a proper sports car can. Sorry to come over all MG Owners Club, but it’s true – the feelings you get from the MX-5’s steering and through the seat of your pants aren’t available in any hot hatch or sports saloon.

It’s all to do with its low centre of gravity, light weight and direct steering – you can attack corners and roundabouts, and the Mazda will respond to every input instantly. It’s tactile and rewarding, and at the end of every day I look forward to my 15-mile drive home. 

Mazda MX-5 RF: will it drift? Yes, it can...

It’s also challenging, once it’s really loaded up. Sure, the 2.0-litre engine isn’t massively powerful, so the powertrain isn’t intimidating; and despite our Sport Nav model having slightly stiffer suspension, the RF is softly sprung, giving you body roll through bends. But don’t be lulled into thinking it’s a lazy loafer: the MX-5 starts to feel edgy like a frightened cat when you’re really pressing on, and you sense that small movements have a big effect. Yes, it’s wonderfully benign when you’re just pootling along, but along a back road at nine or ten-tenths, you have to be alert in a way never required in a Golf GTI. The MX-5 expects things of you – Mazda uses that phrase ‘Jinba ittai’ in its MX-5 advertising, referring to the connection between a horse and rider. Most of the time that’s a load of crap of course… but when you’re really driving quickly, there is something in the concentration you need, the sensitivity, the sense of balance.  

Of course all of this is magnified tenfold when you turn the traction control off. The 2.0-litre engine’s 158bhp means you don’t have to worry about a powerslide in the way you would if you were driving a Dodge Challenger, but that sensitivity to your inputs at speed means it’s pretty easy to induce a slide by lifting mid-corner. In the dry it’s hard to prolong a slide because the engine doesn’t have the power to spin up the wheels, but if you want a quick, tail-out flourish as you peel out of a roundabout, it’s predictable and great fun. 

That’s in the dry – in the wet you have to be much more cautious. Traction control off in the pouring rain, even third gear will get you oversteering, and if you try that lift-off trick the MX-5 will snap so far out of line you’ll be looking at the road out of the passenger window. I’ve had a couple of near spins – for scientific research, of course.

But listen, if you don’t want to spin your brand new, rear-drive sports car in the wet, don’t worry, leave the traction control on and the Mazda is perfectly safe… but if like me you enjoy a car that can challenge you, the MX-5 is simply a gift from Mazda to the world.

By Mark Walton

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.

Our Mazda MX-5 RF and Mark's 1976 Fiat 126

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.

Mazda MX-5 RF: folding hard top

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.

Mazda MX-5 RF: long-term test review, specs, prices and details

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 CAR's road test team

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