► RF means ‘Retractable Fastback’
► Motorised coupe-ish, targa-like roof
► Costs £2k more than the soft-top
When the very first pictures of a new car arrive in the CAR office, sometimes they’re met with indifference, sometimes with a tumult of debate.
The Mazda MX-5 RF fell firmly into the latter camp. The new hardtop version of the Mk4 MX-5 doesn’t sport a simple folding lid like the Mk3 Roadster Coupe it replaces, but a complex flying buttressed arrangement of aluminium, steel and plastic that turns the little roadster into a distinctive quasi-coupe.
It costs £2000 more than the regular MX-5 soft-top, and aims to offer a more individual, modestly more luxurious proposition. Tempted? You can order one now, but it’s not due to reach the UK until March 2017.
How does the roof work?
The plastic rear buttresses lift out of the way, allowing the aluminium roof panel and its strength-giving steel mechanism to sweep themselves neatly away beneath them. The buttresses then return to their original position.
What’s left behind looks a little like a targa-top arrangement, and effectively would be were it not for the rear window stowing itself below deck too, leaving a small, transparent wind deflector in its place. It’s a neat piece of aerial theatre that does its thing in 13sec, although the car needs to be all but stationary for the roof to operate. If the speed creeps above 6mph it’ll down tools and freeze until the speed slows.
The MX-5’s former programme director Nobuhiro Yamamoto says the engineering team explored ways to hide the roof completely, buttresses and all, but ultimately found it a lighter and less complex solution to keep them in view, whether the roof’s up or down. Helpfully, there’s no decrease in boot space compared with the soft top.
When it’s down, there’s not as much open air above your head as you might expect, but enough to ruffle your hair, swirl a little breeze around the cabin and let the scents and sounds of the outside world in.
Is it heavier?
Yes, by between 40 and 45kg depending on spec; a fairly significant amount, given the soft-top MX-5 weighs only around 1050kg total in 1.5-litre form.
This 2.0-litre RF, for example, clocks the scales at 1120kg – including driver.
Any other changes over a regular MX-5 other than the roof?
To counteract the higher centre of gravity and altered weight distribution, there have been a few detail tweaks to the suspension settings, namely a thicker front anti-roll bar and altered front damper settings, along with different rear spring and damper rates.
The central chassis cross member has been altered too, to balance the ratio of stiffness front to rear and maintain the same handling characteristics as the fabric-roofed ’5.
Otherwise, it’s business as usual: the engine options are the same 1.5- and 2.0-litre ‘SkyActiv’ petrol four-pots as the soft-top, with a six-speed manual gearbox as standard. The RF does introduce an auto variant to the Mk4 MX-5 range for the first time, however, on the 2.0-litre model only.
It’s the same torque converter ’box fitted to the Mk3 MX-5, albeit recalibrated to better match the newer ‘SkyActiv’ 2.0 engine. There are currently no plans to introduce the auto to the soft-top MX-5 range in the UK; it’s already on sale in the USA.
Do you get more headroom?
A 5mm increase in overall height doesn’t translate into a huge amount more headroom inside; if you’re taller than 5ft10in you’ll feel a little squashed.
However, roof up, road noise is much reduced compared to the soft-top MX-5 – thanks to greater soundproofing around the rear wheelarches. A motorway journey is less tiring in the RF than it would be in the soft-top, as a result.
Do you feel the higher centre of gravity on the road?
Far from it. Abundant body roll is a dynamic hallmark of the regular MX-5 soft-top (our 1.5-litre long-termer was keen to flop onto its door handles at the first swish of the steering wheel), but the altered spring rates and roll bar settings appeared to keep body roll more tightly in check in the RF we tested. The car we drove was fitted with the firmer Bilstein dampers available on 2.0-litre Sport Nav models in the UK, which make a difference too.
The flatter cornering stance isn’t at the expense of ride quality, which remained supple on bumpier sections of the (admittedly predominantly smooth) Spanish roads we tested the car on.
Revised power steering settings make the wheel feel lighter on turn in, but it weights up to a greater extent as the front tyres load – and steering feel has subtly but noticeably improved as a result.
It’s a while since I’ve driven the soft-top Mk4, but on first acquaintance with the RF I’m willing to go out on a limb and say I actually prefer its handling characteristics; body roll feels less pronounced and it shares the same lively but predictable handling balance in extremis.
We’ll have to wait until we can drive the soft-top and the RF back to back for a more definitive verdict, however. I know, cop out, cop out…
Is there a catch? Apart from the higher price tag?
While the MX-5 RF is undoubtedly quieter and more refined than the MX-5 soft-top with the roof up, when the roof’s open the opposite is true. There’s an awful lot of wind noise above and behind your head, a little like a 911 Targa. Enough to require you to raise your voice considerably to continue a conversation above 55mph or so, and enough to spoil the experience a little.
Rear visibility past the buttresses isn’t brilliant, but nor is over the shoulder vision in the soft-top. And the styling won’t be for everyone; from some angles it looks great, from others (rear three quarter especially) a little awkward, like it’s wearing a hat that doesn’t quite fit. I kinda like it; it’s different.
The more conventional-looking Mk3 MX-5 Roadster Coupe folding hard-top outsold its soft-top sibling 80:20 in the UK. Balance for the more divisively styled, more expensive RF is forecast to be anywhere from 50:50 to 70:30. It’s a deliberately slightly different direction for the MX-5, the thinking being that the RF might appeal to a customer base who wouldn’t ordinarily have considered buying a Miata.
The regular MX-5’s open-in-three-seconds soft top is such a neat design that it’s hard to recommend the heavier, more complex, more expensive RF in its place unless you’re particularly taken with the styling.
With the roof up, it’s markedly quieter and more comfortable, but when the roof’s down the resonant wind noise is annoying enough to negate the extra refinement with it closed. Still, there’s no penalty in boot space, and on first acquaintance, no penalty in handling either – if anything, the RF is slightly sweeter dynamically than the soft-top.
There’s another sports car in the world, an idiosyncratic, slightly oddly dressed but undoubtedly stylish one, and that’s cause to celebrate. If you like the cut of the RF’s retractable jib, and only plan to open the roof occasionally, there’s real appeal here.
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