Mazda MX-5 RFS: Falling in love again

Matthew Hansen
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The new Mazda MX-5 RFS takes Mazda's iconic sports-car formula and gives it a tweak for 2017. Photos / Matthew Hansen

The roads that connect Maraetai, Clevedon, and the Hunua Ranges are flowing and tight. Many of the corners are on camber, allowing you to embrace apexes with fists full of confidence. And that’s before you get to the picturesque backdrop.

But these roads are also dangerous. Their relative isolation and proximity to steep hills means that landslides and debris strewn across the road might remain there for hours before anyone addresses it — just waiting for some sucker to round a blind corner flat chat and come a cropper.

With potholes and surface changes everywhere, half of the time your leading option for evasive action comes in the form of swerving off the road, down a steep decline, and into the drink. And everywhere else is lined by trees.

With the roof down in the current MX-5 Roadster, those overhanging trees feel close, like they’re trying to grab at my scalp as it bobs up and down — wind-swept hair buffeting in the breeze.

These roads are flawed in their danger, their element of surprise. But that’s exactly what makes them memorable, what makes me pine for them from the confines of my office. Flaws give them character and soul, make them human. And I can’t help but feel that the MX-5 is one in the same. It’s always been.

We at Driven love the current ND-generation Roadster. The eager little eyes and smile that make up its face, the brilliant chassis, and, more than anything else — the lingering old school analogue character and feel.

But, the MX-5 RF (Retractable Fastback) hard-top is a somewhat different kettle of fish compared to the Roadster. At least on paper.

Photo / Matthew Hansen 

The biggest change with the RF is obviously the beautiful hard-top roof. Down, the rear pillars give the MX-5 a more masculine appearance; up, it looks svelte and sophisticated — all of these being words rarely associated with cute MX-5s of old.

And don’t underestimate just how technical the RF’s roof mechanism is. The three-piece structure takes just 13 seconds to flip from open to closed; Mazda claims it’s the world’s fastest. It’s also one of the most intricate and delicate folding lids in the business, to the point that kids next to you at the lights might think you’re driving a Transformer as you swap from business mode to party mode.

And the use of materials such as aluminium and polyester-resin compound ensures that the spectacular tech adds only 47kg to the RF's weight over the Roadster.

It comes in three different flavours; the GSX, the Limited, and the top of the range RF-S that is pictured. The entry level GSX starts at $48,495 — a $1500 premium over the cheapest 2-litre Roadster Limited — while our limited launch-edition RF-S is $54,995.

All three cars come with the lovely normally aspirated 118kW 2-litre SKYACTIV-G four-cylinder honey of an engine, but only one — the Limited — offers a manual transmission as an option. This differs from the Roadster, where transmissions are an equal split throughout the range.

Sitting down at the car’s New Zealand launch, it was made clear that the RF is expected to carry MX-5 sales for the duration of the ND generation’s shelf-life — with Mazda New Zealand stating that they expect RF sales to account for nine out of 10 MX-5s sold here. Ninety per cent.

Photo / Matthew Hansen 

But let’s extract (retract?) ourselves from that exceptionally clever roof for just a second to look at the RF’s other changes.

Suspension has been tuned to offer a “more cultured” ride, via changes to the suspension. Body roll is tightened through altered stroke feel and grip in the front. The front stabiliser bar has grown thicker, and rear springs have been revised.

The trend for comfort continues inside our RF-S. Under the Piano Black roof is a classy two-tone interior, lined in Nappa leather, with some carbon-fibre inserts added along the doors. That roof, too, as well as the rest of the interior, comes with extra insulation to tune out some of that rorty engine burble.

All of this combined theoretically results in a more civilised ride experience, which for many is a great big plus.

Indeed, the sales appeal of the RF is meant to centre on scooping more mainstream fans of the platform that in the past might’ve dodged it for its impractical virtues.

But has that pursuit sanitised the MX-5 experience?

Photo / Matthew Hansen

The ND is celebrated as one of the few sports-car cult classics that still lives to the same credo as its forefathers, and, in an age where brands are attracting more praise for their ability for personal reinvention and embrace of change, the MX-5 is revered for digging its heels into the sand.

So has the MX-5 gone soft via the RF? Is this going to signal a departure for the platform? Is the world nigh? Nope. Not even slightly.

It’s true that things are perhaps as refined in this car as they’ve ever been in any other MX-5, however none of that detracts from the driving experience.

Photo / Matthew Hansen 

The suspension adjustments are largely there to account for the added weight of the roof. In the bends, this is still a car that lurches playfully in the middle of corners, tyres squealing, extending grins from ear to ear. And steering feel is improved on the RF, thanks to a retune to its dual-pinion electric power assist.

In fact, much like last time we had our mitts on one of these, it’s hard to scope out any glaring negatives about the MX-5.

The absence of a reversing camera is one of the few little blots on the page. It’s something the RF needs, especially given the way the rear pillars reduce visibility and the premium price tag.

In short, it’s still flawed. And we still utterly love it. 

Mazda MX-5 RFS

PRO: Retains most of the Roadster's good bits and purity

CON: A reversing camera would eliminate the rear blind spots


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