Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF

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I rolled up to my evening coffee social in the Timmies parking lot in the 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF, with the roof up.

You feel like you’re wearing the MX-5 RF more than you’re sitting inside of it.

“Is that a Lotus?!” one friend asked.

“That thing a Jag??” asked another.

The MX-5 is a tiny car, and its roof comprises a large portion of its visual character. As such, a new roof design effects a big change to the MX-5’s identity.

To this machine’s angular, athletic, and ticked-off look, the MX-5 RF adds a sculpted, solid, motorized roof. When deployed, it makes the little two-seater look like an upscale little sports coupe, more than a conventional ragtop.

It’s a striking appearance that gets noticed. And though the new lid creates a new look and added presence, it is, largely, the only significant difference between the RF and a standard MX-5.

That’s a very good thing.

Slow to 10 km/h or less, and hold the switch. A brief, captivating display of roof-panel gymnastics follows: the rear window folds away, the rear roof segment opens to swallow the upper roof segment beneath it, and then lowers back into place. The flat-folding roof hides in a dedicated space, so there’s no change to cargo capacity or packaging required when a topless cruise is in order.

From the driver’s seat? Where the MX-5 is mostly open behind the cockpit, the RF sees the entirety of the rear bodywork remain. This variant targets an apprehensive convertible shopper who might be leaning more towards a coupe, after all, and that’s precisely why the resulting roof-off feel is more akin to something like a T-Top or a removable-panel roof (like, say, in a Corvette), than a full-out roadster. It’s an open-air experience that’s more on the closed-cabin side of the equation.

Elsewhere, the MX-5’s feel and drive are highly familiar, even if the RF roof adds 113 pounds to the painstakingly light body.

Entry and exit remain easier than you think, thanks to relatively generous door openings and minimal bolstering to clear en route in or out of your seat. You feel like you’re wearing the MX-5 RF more than you’re sitting inside of it, but it fits like a comfy-snug piece of clothing that’s not particularly difficult to get on or off.

The sole powerplant is MX-5’s 2.0L, 155 horsepower SkyActiv four-cylinder, which doesn’t seem to notice the extra weight of the RF’s top. It still has minimal weight to move, so it still hauls mass. It’s growly, eager to spin, and generates more than enough snap to fire the RF along hurriedly, especially when you keep the revs up. Pop the hood to see a bit of MX-5 engineering at work: the engine is shoved as far back into the firewall as possible, placing it as close as possible to the middle of the car, for better handling.

The tester’s six-speed stick flaunts a throw, height, weight, and action that’s about as perfect as shifters get. Throws feel just right in length, the shift action is light but not flimsy, and the lever slips into each gear with a gentle but discernable plunk. The clutch is grabby, not smushy, and it holds decent power for fast launches. Finally, pedals are spaced, hinged, and calibrated beautifully for heel-and-toe shifting, with telepathic throttle blips and heel-and-toe work possible, right out of the gate. It feels like the pedals and shifter are in cahoots, reading your mind.

Handling, steering, and braking feel unchanged from the conventional MX-5, too, with no one system overpowering or overwhelming any other. The steering is quick and responsive without nervous twitchiness on the highway, and the brakes bite hard and fast, demonstrating more precision the harder they’re worked. Steer the MX-5 around with the steering, throttle, or brakes, and it dances beneath you – squirming, shifting and sliding on its axis with playful predictability. Since there’s more grip and braking capability than firepower, there’s always a delightful sense that you can drive the RF at 137 percent, and that it’s encouraging and supporting your endeavours towards motoring monkey business.

Not your game? She’s happy to partake in a leisurely drive, too. Driven thusly, two occupants will be comfy-snug provided they aren’t too tall, trunk space is adequate for a few small bags or luggage, and up-level features like the Bose stereo and heated leather seats bolster long-haul comfort. The central command system’s display graphics are a little dated, but it’s easy to use for staying connected and on course.

Notably, MX-5 impresses with decent fuel mileage at all times, especially during highway cruising, and nearly in spite of curiously high cruising revs. The tester’s headlights are notable too – though I wished for a touch more overall light output, the spread and colour of the illumination was bang on, with decent peripheral lighting for early warning of roadside creatures who may be chilling near dark highways.

Finally, ride quality is well balanced between cruising and track day. The suspension is firm, taut, and sees the MX-5’s stay in close proximity to its wheels, even when leaned on. Still, there’s an appreciable layer of softness around the outer edges of the suspension travel, serving to filter out much of the jarring harshness common in something this sporty. The pure enthusiast driver may wish for something a little tauter, but a sports car veteran concerned primarily with a balanced ride quality and handling equation will approve.

Gripes? I wished the seats had a more bolstering to keep my torso more stationary during spirited driving, and the snap-in cupholders work well, though one of them eats up passenger knee space, and the other will frequently be struck by the driver’s elbow, spilling delicious and sticky iced capp all over the rear storage bin, and attracting nearby wasps in for a taste when the roof is off. This is the most dire of situations if you’re horrified of wasps, like your writer. Thankfully, a few revs and a quick step off of the clutch is typically sufficient to outrun them.

In all, here’s a unique new take on what the MX-5 has always been – a rewarding and sensible little top-optional sports car, that, in RF guise, feels and looks more like a coupe than a convertible with the roof up, while maintaining core MX-5 attributes in full.

But there are a few compromises.

The motorized top requires being stopped, or close to it, and takes 13 seconds to fully switch position. That’s the world’s fastest power top, says Mazda, but I can work the manual cloth-top in about 3 seconds, and at any speed I like. The RF’s roof is pricier, too, by several thousand dollars. Top-down noise levels and turbulence seemed higher in the RF – still within acceptable limits, but requiring occupants to shout more while conversing at highway speeds. Plus, with the rear buttresses behind you, big blind spots result, even with the roof down. In the soft top, the blind spots disappear with the roof.

Finally, you lose a snudge of trunk space, and more importantly, a smidge of headroom, too. The difference here is under an inch, but in a car this snug, even your average-sized writer (5'11" on a good day) had to recline the seat a touch more than ideal to keep his cranium away from the ceiling.

But this is, after all, a car meant to be enjoyed with unlimited headroom.

And that, sort of, answers the question: which one would I buy? I love what the RF roof does for the MX-5’s styling, but I love the instant access to top-down motoring from the soft-top, and its quieter top-down cabin, even more. The touch of extra headroom, for me, means a more comfortable driving position when the roof is up, too.

Provided you’re ok with the compromises, the RF is a better-looking machine with the roof up – but I’d rarely be seeing the roof up in mine, anyways. So, I’ll have the soft-top, please – and I’ll use the few grand in savings for brake pads, tires, and lapping day admission.

Engine Displacement 2.0L
Engine Cylinders 4
Peak Horsepower 155 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Peak Torque 148 lb-ft @ 4,600 rpm
Fuel Economy 8.9/7.1/8.1 L/100 km city/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space 127 L
Model Tested 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT
Base Price $42,200
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,795
Price as Tested $45,195
Optional Equipment
$1,100 – Exclusive Package $900; Ceramic Metallic Paint $200