With its folding hard top roof, does the Mazda MX-5 RF still offer the fun and lightweight efficiency of the soft top MX-5 convertible?
We’ve already reviewed the Mazda MX-5 convertible, as well as the Fiat 124 Spider, and both received the thumbs up from us. Now Mazda has launched the Mazda MX-5 RF (‘retractable fastback’), with a folding hard top roof. Does the hard top make the Mazda MX-5 RF better or worse?
The soft top MX-5 looks great, but we think the company has done an excellent job with the styling of the Mazda MX-5 RF. And even the folding mechanism of the roof is well engineered.
The interior is virtually entirely unchanged, with the exception of a new switch to automatically lower or raise the roof (which is complete in a matter of seconds).
Whilst the new exterior styling gives the impression of a powerful sports car, the engine line-up is unchanged. Our test car came with the 2-litre petrol engine, and a 6-speed manual gearbox. There’s also a 1.5-litre petrol engine. Neither of the Mazda power units have a turbo (as opposed to the Fiat 124 Spider which has a 1.4-litre turbo petrol engine). And of course the MX-5 is rear-wheel drive.
The driving experience is what the MX-5 is all about, and it’s largely unchanged with the RF version. So we’re talking a good driving position, low centre of gravity, rear-wheel drive, a compact and lightweight body, a naturally-aspirated petrol engine, and a slick manual gearbox. All this translates to a fun driving experience and agile handling.
The key here is the word lightweight: because of this, the handling feels alive, performance is decent from just a two-litre 160PS petrol engine, braking doesn’t involve any dramas, and the car is efficient (more of that later).
But surely there’s an elephant in the room. This MX-5 has a hard top roof, with a folding mechanism. Surely that adds weight, complexity, and impacts on the centre of gravity? Well, the last (soft top) MX-5 that we tested weighed 1075kg. This RF version weighs 1120kg. Yes, if you do the maths, that’s an extra 45kg. Just to look at all this in context, the 1.5-litre MX-5 soft top weighs 1050kg, so you’re adding 25kg for an extra 500cc of engine, and a further 45kg for a hard top roof.
So does the extra weight of the hard top ruin the MX-5 driving experience? No. For the typical driving that MX-5 owners will do, they’re really not likely to notice much difference – either from the extra weight, or the marginally higher centre of gravity. But what you do get is a car that feels more like a ‘proper’ car with the roof up, but it’s still an open top sports car with the roof down. So it’s the best of both worlds.
Unlike some other sports cars, the MX-5 also has an interior that is both well designed and functional (as well as likely to stand the test of time). The infomedia system, with its rotary dial and short cut menu buttons between the gear lever and handbrake, has an uncanny similarity to BMW’s iDrive system, which is a good thing, as iDrive is still the best infomedia system around. Thankfully, there are also separate controls for the heating, rather than these being hidden in the touchscreen. Although there’s a lane departure warning system, you can switch this off and it stays off, to prevent the car beeping at you whenever you drive near white lines.
There are even two cup holders, which sit between the two seat backs; you can move one of them to the passenger side of the transmission tunnel. This scores top marks with co-tester Matt Terry, who needs a coffee at the start of every road test. There’s also a small glove box between the seat backs.
So it’s all good so far, but what about any niggles? Well, there’s no reach adjustment for the steering wheel, and there’s no height adjustment for the seat. In most cars this would mean a terrible driving position; in the MX-5 it means that some drivers may feel slightly higher than they would expect in a sports car, and if they’re six foot or taller, they’ll be struggling with spare headroom when the roof is up.
And what about noise? Surely the main point of the hard top is to make the MX-5 more refined on long, high speed journeys? Well, it’s quieter than the soft top, but this is still not a quiet car on motorways, and occasionally a bit more wind noise seems to creep through a gap between the top of the window and the roof than it should. And while we’re on the subject of long journeys, as the MX-5 is a sports car, its ride needs to be on the firm side, which it is – so it doesn’t offer luxurious levels of ride comfort in general driving.
And finally we have to mention performance. The MX-5 is all about being lightweight and direct, hence the 2-litre petrol engine with no turbocharger. Within the overall concept of the car, the engine and its performance is adequate (we’re talking 160PS and 200Nm of torque). But sometimes you’re left feeling as though you just want a bit more power to safely accelerate past slow vehicles on Welsh B-roads…
We’ve hopefully established that the MX-5, even in RF spec, is a fun car to drive, and despite the modest engine, it delivers sufficient performance. Virtually all cars that deliver a fun, sporty driving experience also deliver disappointing fuel economy. So what about the MX-5? The official combined NEDC economy figure for the 2-litre MX-5 RF is 40.9 mpg (equating to 161 g/km CO2). All cars that we test perform much worse than the official figures in real-world driving. So what did the MX-5 deliver? At 70mph on the motorway it averaged 51.5mpg. Yes, in case you missed it, that was 51.5mpg. That’s over 10mpg better than the combined figure, and 0.1mpg better than the 51.4mpg extra-urban figure. Overall, after a week of mixed driving, the MX-5 averaged 39.9mpg. That’s just 1mpg less than the official combined figure. For a car that’s so much fun to drive, this is excellent. And we should also make the point that the 1.5-litre MX-5 has an even better official economy figure of 47.mpg (and 139g/km CO2).
The MX-5 convertible (in Sport Nav trim) costs £24,195. The MX-5 RF in Sport Nav trim costs £25,995. So you’re looking at an extra £1,800 for the hard top. Our test car came with the extras of metallic paint (£550) and Safety Pack (£400), taking the total for our car to £26,945. In terms of engines, you can choose between the 131PS 1.5-litre petrol MX-5 and the 160PS 2-litre petrol MX-5. There are three trim levels: SE, SE-L Nav, and Sport Nav. The cheapest way into MX-5 ownership is with the 1.5-litre convertible in SE trim, which costs £18,795.
Green Car Guide has stood for one key thing for over ten years: cars that are great to drive, and efficient. The Mazda MX-5 ticks the box for being great to drive, with a direct driving experience and fun handling, and, with an average of 51.5mpg on motorway journeys, it absolutely ticks the box for efficiency. Its compact, lightweight ethos enables the great driving experience, as well as the efficiency. At a time when the car industry desperately needs to make cars lighter – but this isn’t really happening in reality – the MX-5 shows the industry the benefits of lightweighting.
But it doesn’t stop there with the MX-5. It also looks great, it has a stylish and functional interior, and, for the size of the car, even a reasonably practical boot. It’s also well-built and relatively affordable. And a key issue is that you can enjoy the MX-5 at legal speeds, whereas you need to be going over 100mph to get the most out of the majority of today’s supercars .
Would we go for the hard top or the soft top? Despite the extra cost and weight, we’d go for the hard top. Primarily because there are so few opportunities when you can genuinely enjoy the roof being down in the UK. All this means that there’s no choice but to award the Mazda MX-5 RF a Green Car Guide Rating of 10 out of 10.