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May 24

2017 Mazda MX-5 RF

If you like driving, and have never driven an old-school sports car – that is, a light, two-seat roadster of modest power – you owe it to yourself to take a Mazda MX-5 for a spin. It’s all about the driving dynamics: acceleration, cornering, stopping. Behind the wheel of the MX-5 that translates to fun, fun and more fun.

But this year, Mazda’s superb MX-5 is supplemented by the dashing MX-5 RF (Retractable Fastback). It’s a brilliant-looking little thing that Mazda expects will broaden the appeal of the MX-5 soft-top by “making occupants feel more secure in the cabin, while still having a sense of open-top freedom.”

It’s also designed to reduce road noise when the top is up, and as a result of suspension modifications, reduce noise, vibration and harshness thereby increasing ride comfort and composure. And apparently the power retractable top preserves trunk space as found in the soft-top MX-5, which is a bonus, because believe me, MX-5 trunk space is a commodity in very short supply!

However, expect to pay a premium as the base MX-5 RF GS starts at $40,725 including freight/pdi, which is a $7,000 bump up from the base MX-5 soft-top (you do get extras, though). My tester was fitted with the $4,400 Sport Package (Brembo brakes, 17-inch “dark finish” BBS wheels, Recaro leather sport seats) bringing the price to $45,195 (you can add $1,259 if you’d like your dark finish wheels in matte black…}.

On the road I’ve got to tell you, top up or top retracted, the MX-5 RF seems no quieter to me than the soft-top and doesn’t feel anymore composed (not that composure was ever lacking, in my opinion) than the soft-top either. As far as feeling “secure in the cabin,” maybe your belongings would feel more secure in a locked hardtop, but to my mind the MX-5 RF is all about the looks, and there’s no doubt that from any angle it looks really cool!

Backtracking a bit, last year (2016 model year) saw the introduction of the all-new MX-5, the smallest version of the MX-5 (even including the original Miata) ever built. This new design is perfect for the MX-5, with Mazda stylists finally dialing out the cuteness and dialing in the character. In so doing, they’ve delivered lines and surfaces of universal appeal; the result is a great-looking car, no doubt.

And when I first saw the RF version, I was blown away. What a great job! Not a coupe after all (one was teased at the New York auto show a couple of years ago), but a kind of Targa top. Excellent idea and no compromise to getting in and out. As I say, the roof is power operated and cleverly retracts into a cavity behind the seats (it’ll even operate at speeds up to 10 km/h). But fundamentally, it’s still an MX-5 you’re getting, albeit with a hardtop and additional standard features (navigation system, for instance).

Under the hood is a sweet 2.0L twin-cam making, wait for this… 155-horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 148 pound-feet of torque at 4,600 rpm. I know, you’d think it would be hard-pressed to go up a hill, but the MX-5-RF weighs 1,114 kilograms (2,450 pounds). So it’s very light, meaning you don’t need much power to move it smartly.

Fuel consumption, by the way, is an expected 8.9/7.1 L/100km, city/highway. I got a combined 9.5 L/100km in mostly city driving. The tank holds 45L of premium-recommended fuel.

The clutch in my six-speed manual tester was very light, too, as was the steering. The gearshift is beautifully positive, but shift throws are a little too long. Acceleration is brisk and willing, and braking instantly responsive. This is a car that when underway you can delicately nudge; finely adjust. Its behavior is thoroughly predictable, however, so even if you nudge it a bit too much, you always know where you are and can compensate without drama, almost without thinking. Point it, and it goes there; step on the gas and it leaps ahead; touch the brakes in a corner or on a straight and they and the chassis do what’s required. The car is that well-balanced and sorted. As I say, fun, fun and more fun.

And it fits like a glove; a fine leather glove that perfectly contains your hand. But this wonderful feeling of unity between you and the car can have its downside. Regarding the fine leather glove analogy, there’s no room between it and your hand and likewise in the MX-5 RF, there’s virtually no room between you and the interior surfaces of the cabin. So with two people in the MX-5 RF, believe me, it’s full.

Space, in other words, is not found in abundance in the MX-5 RF, let alone wasted. There’s no glove compartment, there are no map pockets in the doors, no room under the seats, no storage besides a tiny cubby at the base of the centre stack, and another mini-compartment at your elbow. And in my case, only a few inches between my head and top-corner of the windshield, which made me feel a bit vulnerable. I was sitting too high, as well, but there was no seat height adjustment. Overall, I found the cabin smaller than my Honda S2000, a car that is not known for its roominess.

Because things are that tight, I found that when shifting, my arm would often come in contact with the Mazda Connect infotainment controller located on the centre console, resetting the display. And the choice of location for a drink holder behind the driver’s elbow seems desperate, as does the second drink holder pushing into the passenger’s left leg (it is removable – the drink holder, not the leg – but then there’s nowhere to put it).

Out on the road you do get used to the fit and there’s no argument about the driving experience. It’s a pleasure just to hop in and go; just don’t take much with you. In other words, if you like long road trips and this is your only car, you’ll need another one. The exhaust note, if you care about such things, is a little insubstantial but open the top and you don’t hear much besides wind noise anyway.

Oh, and about the colour. It’s called Ceramic Metallic. It looks awful when it gets a layer of dust on it; slightly better when clean. Not my ceramic cup of tea. But love the car, love the looks, love the idea. Although if it was my money, I’d go for the base soft-top, saving about $12,000 and getting the same driving experience. Just saying!