Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT

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When Mazda introduced its fully redesigned fourth-generation MX-5 for the 2016 model year, the previous-generation car’s retractable hardtop option was notably absent. That has been remedied with the introduction of the 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF. The RF stands for “retractable fastback” and it’s not quite a convertible, but more like a power-folding targa top, with the roof bar and fastback buttresses remaining in place whether the top is open or closed.

The MX-5 RF delivers a much more open-air feeling than its appearance suggests.

What you lose is having unobstructed sky above your head when the top is open, and any real shoulder-checking sightlines. What you gain is a much sleeker profile with the roof up than the fully retractable hardtop could ever manage, a nicely fitted noise-absorbing interior headliner, and about 40 kg of additional weight.

The weight gain isn’t readily apparent, because Mazda has tuned the suspension to compensate. I imagine an expert driver, on a track, driving the cars back-to-back would be able to tell the difference, but not your typical owner–enthusiast.

Operation of the top is completely automated (there’s no need to manually unlock the header latch) and takes about 13 seconds, but the car must be stopped and in neutral (or park if you select the automatic transmission). So there’s no quickly flipping open the top while rolling along in stop-and-go traffic like you can do with the soft-top. Once the top is stowed, the MX-5 RF delivers a much more open-air feeling than its appearance suggests, but you do notice the targa bar and buttresses are there, especially when you go to shoulder-check.

The retractable hardtop includes a fixed plastic wind deflector just ahead of the folding rear window, and with the top open this helps keep the ride remarkably unruffled, especially if you leave the windows up. With the top closed the noise-absorbing headliner helps keeps wind and road noise down, especially at highway speeds, but to the extent the RF might be quieter than the soft-top car it’s a subtle difference.

A road-going scalpel

Retractable fastback aside, the MX-5 RF is the same car as its soft-top sibling, which is all good. Power is from a retuned version of the same 2.0L SkyActiv four-cylinder engine found in the Mazda3, producing 155 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque when running on the recommended premium fuel. With only 1,114 kg of weight to drive in GT trim and the torque coming on strong even at low revs, the engine feels plenty peppy and it propels the MX-5 RF forward with a pleasantly throaty growl. Zero to 100 km/h takes about seven seconds, which may not be supercar territory but is somehow more entertaining than the numbers imply. It helps that the MX-5 has one of the very best clutch and gearbox setups on the planet: The clutch is easy to modulate and the short-throw six-speed manual gearbox snick-snicks through the gears in a way that makes seven seconds go by all too quickly. For those who prefer the car to do the shifting for them, a six-speed automatic transmission with paddle-shifters is available as a no-cost option.

Fuel economy for the MX-5 RF is rated at 8.9/7.1 L/100 km (city/highway), and my test car was showing a long-term average of 7.5 L/100 km when I picked it up. My own almost exclusively city consumption came in at closer to 9.8 L/100 km, but I certainly wasn’t sparing the horses.

The suspension uses double wishbones and coil springs up front and an independent multilink setup in the back. Steering is via rack-and-pinion, with one of the best-tuned electric power assist systems I’ve driven. Turn-in is quick, crisp, and accurate, the car has impeccable balance and is brilliantly communicative, and it stops effortlessly. In less technical terms, the suspension uses carefully engineered awesomeness to deliver scalpel-like handling and bucketfuls of plain and simple fun. When it comes to rekindling driving joy, the MX-5 works like a defibrillator.

Room for two

Inside, the MX-5 RF offers everything two people need to travel moderate distances in comfort, and not a thing more. The cockpit is cozy, but the space is well apportioned and, in my GT test car, nicely appointed. At 5'11" and 160 pounds I found the car a perfect fit, but drivers much over six feet will want to check for fit before signing on the dotted line.

Certainly all of the important stuff is done right: The gauges are big, clear and easy-to-read, and the tachometer and speedometer remain thankfully analog. The pedals are closely enough spaced to make heel-and-toe downshifting a breeze, and the gearshift falls easily to hand.

The infotainment system uses a big freestanding 7-inch colour touchscreen, and while there are plenty of gripes on the internet about the appearance of the setup (and indeed it can look a bit odd in photographs), once you’re settled into the cockpit it feels just right. It’s placed within easy sight without being in the way, and it’s far less obtrusive in the flesh than it looks in photos. Augmenting the touchscreen is Mazda’s console-mounted rotary command controller, and the Mazda Connect interface is generally intuitive and easy to use. Standard Bluetooth functions, Aha and Stitcher internet radio, and a variety of apps are all supported, but not Apple CarPlay or Android Auto as yet(Mazda has promised that these are coming soon and should be retroactively upgradable).

Storage-wise, a lockable cubby between the seatbacks is provided in lieu of a glovebox. Moveable cupholders are installed here too, with a secondary cupholder slot so the driver can have a drink more easily at hand on the passenger’s side of the console (where it takes up some of the passenger’s leg room). Tucked in behind the cupholders is the CD changer, and there’s a shallow console bin that’ll fit spare change and a cell phone.

Like the interior storage, the trunk is small (127 L) but functional. It’ll fit a week’s worth of groceries for two, or a couple of bags for a weekend away, which is about all that’s required.

Hardtop means higher spec

The MX-5 RF’s retractable hardtop comes at a $3,000 premium over an identically equipped soft-top MX-5, and on the assumption that those who want a solid roof probably also want more than the basic creature comforts, the MX-5 RF foregoes the base GX trim and is offered only in GS and GT trims, with starting prices of $38,800 for the GS trim and $42,200 for GT trim, plus $1,795 in destination fees and $100 in A/C taxes.

The cloth-upholstered GS trim includes a six-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system with USB and auxiliary inputs, Mazda Connect infotainment interface with 7-inch screen, navigation system, blind-spot monitoring with cross-traffic alert, rain-sensing intermittent wipers, manual air conditioning, push-button start, leather-wrapped steering wheel and leather-wrapped park brake handle.

The GT trim adds features including heated leather-upholstered seats, automatic climate control, Bose premium nine-speaker audio system (four of the nine speaker are in matched pairs in the headrests), satellite radio, adaptive front lighting with automatic high-beam control, lane-departure warning system, and auto-dimming interior and driver’s door mirrors. My test car added a $900 Exclusive Package with more supple Nappa leather upholstery and contrasting piano black hardtop.

While the automatic transmission is a no-cost option in either case, the manual transmission comes with a few standard-equipment go-fast goodies that the auto-equipped cars don’t get, including sport suspension with Bilstein shocks, limited slip differential, and strut tower bar.

However you configure it, the MX-5 RF represents a lot of fun for the dollar, and it has little direct competition: The Fiat 124 shares the same platform, but doesn’t offer a retractable hardtop option. The Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ offer similar levels of driving engagement but no open-top option. The Mini Cooper Convertible is good all-around convertible fun, but won’t suit rear-wheel-drive purists. So for those who want the practicality of retractable hardtop combined with the sharp-handling impracticality of a two-seat rear-wheel drive roadster, the MX-5 RF is in a bit of a class of its own.

Engine Displacement 2.0L
Engine Cylinders I4
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 $45,295
Optional Equipment
$1,200 – Machine Grey Metallic paint $300; Exclusive Package $900