Mazda’s new ‘flip-top’ MX-5 RF brings a whole new dimension to the brand’s iconic sports car.
By Clare Dear
Mazda says its goal is to build products that deliver a new dimension of driving pleasure; to put a smile on the faces of their vehicles’ occupants. There’s no model in the company’s lineup that achieves that objective more fully than its MX-5 sports car. This rear-wheel-drive roadster defines the term “driving pleasure.”
Mazda has determined, however, that there are some folks who love the top-down experience but also want the comfort and security of a solid roof over their head. So, in response, the Mazda MX-5 RF is joining the fourth-generation MX-5’s 2017 lineup.
Ken Saward, the company’s senior manager of design in North America, says the RF (retractable fastback) is not simply a roadster with a hard top, it’s more a two-seater sports coupe with a retractable roof. “It’s a unique model for a slightly different demographic,” he noted during a media launch event in sunny San Diego. “It has more of a ‘60s Italian sports car look.”
It’s impossible to not enjoy driving this car. The MX-5 and its new RF sibling will never impress you with muscle, but the power it does have is so easy to manage and so wonderful to apply, especially on roads like the twisty route we followed through the hilly country east of San Diego. These were roads this Mazda model was born to play on.
Carving through tight turns and sweeping curves, up and down the numerous elevation changes, it was pure driving pleasure. Tuck the car into a corner and it just hunkered down and drove through without a fuss. The ride was comfortable, firm but not jarring – just what you’d expect from a sports car. The steering was quick and precise and the brakes were right there when needed – no long pedal travel, just immediate response.
Going topless in the RF produced no issues. The folding roof’s flying buttress design, combined with the built-in transparent windscreen, suppressed the wind buffeting that’s typical in open-top driving, yet one hardly noticed the structure behind one’s head. A novel feature is the Bose speakers for the audio system that are built into the headrests of both seats. The chassis felt rigid as the car was tossed through the twisty bits and there as no evidence of cowl shake. With its roof in place, the intrusion of noise into the car was minimal. Even the tire pounding from expansion joints and other surface imperfections didn’t cause undo irritation.
The sweeping design of the roadster and RF are identical from the windshield forward, but things change significantly as one moves toward the rear of the hardtop. While the roadster has a very balanced profile, the design emphasis on the RF shifts that balance more toward the rear quarter. Most prominent in its overall look is the flying buttress roofline.
Mazda engineers spent much time and effort trying to come up with a retractable roof design that would deliver the open-air experience owners wanted – 80% said they expected to do most of their driving with the roof retracted – yet still be configured in a way that didn’t intrude on the MX-5’s existing cargo and storage space. The resulting design allows the roof to fold into the same storage area behind the front seats as the soft top.
The targa-style roof panel and glass rear window fold away neatly in just 13 seconds. Hold down a button on the centre console and the roof’s choreography begins – the driver needs to do nothing but watch the scene unfold. The motors providing the roof’s dance steps have been refined to work in more confined space compared to those used in the third-generation MX-5 retractable hardtop. Also, unlike the previous generation, there’s no need to release/close the roof latch – it’s now power-operated automatically.
The raising/lowering operation can be done while travelling at speeds up to 10 km/h. Interestingly, that speed was selected because the engineers determined that’s when long hair starts to blow around and could potentially become tangled in the mechanisms. The folding panels of the targa roof – the front section is aluminum while the middle one is steel – are fitted with a sound-absorbing headliner. The rear section of the roof structure is comprised of SMC (sheet molding compound) plastic, while the black panels are a bio plastic made from soy. The overall roof height of the RF is 5.0 millimetres taller than the soft-top MX-5.
Mazda says the addition of the hard top and its gear doesn't make the RF much heavier than the roadster – about 56 kilograms. The RF’s total mass with the six-speed manual gearbox is 1,114 kg, while the soft-top tips the scales at 1,058 kg. Trunk space, which is 127 litres in the roadster, is the same in the RF. An X-shaped crossmember has been added in the centre tunnel to improve chassis stiffness, with holes drilled in the piece to reduce weight.
The RF engineering team wanted to ensure the addition of a retractable roof did not compromise the driving pleasure MX-5 drivers expect, so minor changes were made to the suspension and steering to compensate for the slight increase in overall vehicle weight. In addition to retuning the suspension, one of the bushings in the rear suspension was changed and the rear bump stops were revised to smooth out the transition to oversteer and make it easier to balance the car when driving hard on the grip limit. The steering calibration was also tweaked to reduce on-centre friction and create a bit higher steering effort to match the car’s character.
Like it’s soft-top sibling, the RF is powered by a spirited 2.0-litre, 16-valve SKYACTIV four-cylinder that generates 155 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 148 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,600 revs. The engine can be paired to either a six-speed manual gearbox or a six-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift mode, drive selection switch and paddle shifters.
The front suspension is an independent, double-wishbone system with coil springs and a stabilizer bar, while the rear features an independent, multi-link setup with coil springs and a stabilizer bar. Steering is handled by a rack-and-pinion box with engine-speed-sensing variable power assist. Power-assisted disc brakes at all four corners handle the stopping duties, with standard anti-lock and electronic brake force distribution systems standard. The RF rides on 17-inch gun-metal-finish alloy wheels (BBS forged alloy wheels are available) that are fitted with 205/45R17 tires.
Fuel consumption ratings for the MX-5 RF with the manual gearbox are 8.9 litres/100 km in city driving and 7.1 on the highway. When fitted with the automatic transmission, the fuel consumption is 9.0 city and 6.7 highway. Premium-grade fuel is recommended. Pricing for the MX-5 RF starts at $38,800 for the base GS model. A Sport package ($4,400) is available for the GS (manual transmission only), which adds Brembo front brakes, red calipers front and rear, 17-inch, dark-finished BBS forged alloy wheels and heated Recaro sport seats with Nappa leather and Alcantara trim. Move up to the GT model and the pricing starts at $42,200.
The ear-to-ear grins of the journalists driving the RF at this event spoke volumes. More than few, myself included, were reluctant to turn in the keys at the end of the drive day. “Can I take it home?” was a frequently heard comment. Indeed, Mazda has achieved its goal of putting smiles on faces with the MX-5 RF.
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