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Andrew Chesterton road tests and reviews the new Mazda MX-5 RF, with specs, fuel consumption and verdict at its international preview drive in Tokyo.
There's a reason Olympic sprinters don't compete wearing suits of armour, and it's not just because they've become so much harder to find ever since it stopped being the 13th century.
It's because metal is much, much heavier than fabric, and weight is the sworn enemy of speed. So when Mazda's featherweight MX-5 arrived in 2015 wearing a cloth roof you had to open and close by hand (to save on the extra kilograms it would cost to make it power operated), it made perfect sense. Low power, low weight, lots of fun.
At first glance, the Mazda MX-5 RF appears to makes less sense. Those extra letters stand for Retractable Fastback, with Mazda's top-selling roadster scrapping the fabric for a four-piece folding metal roof that opens or closes in 13 seconds, and at speeds of up to 10km/h, at the push of a button.
Arriving in Australia in February, the RF adopts only the biggest MX-5 engine, the naturally aspirated 2.0-litre petrol, and will command a $4,000 premium over the equivalent soft-top.
Former MX-5 chief designer - Masashi Nakayama - credits the Ferrari Dino as an inspiration.
But all that metal and glass adds an extra 45kg in weight that simply doesn't exist in the cloth-topped version, so does that make the RF any less fun?
Mazda hasn't just bolted a roof to the existing MX-5, they've entirely reimagined the third quarter of the car, creating a genuine fastback look regardless of whether the roof is up or down.
Mazda says the new shape injects more masculinity into the design, so much so that the brand's Aussie arm is treating it not so much as a variant, but as an almost-new model that will attract a different set of buyers to the MX-5. In fact, Mazda is predicting the RF could account for 60 per cent of total sales.
The roof itself is a piece of origami art, a four-part design that folds up and in on itself, disappearing gently into the boot. And that's literally disappearing: the roof sections are swallowed into the boot where they somehow vanish, meaning hardtop owners get the exact same cargo capacity as those who opt for the soft top.
The two diagonal columns linking the roof to the boot lid (or what design types refer to as the flying buttress) remain in place, roof up or down, giving the side profile an all-new sporting stance. The car's Japanese program manager - and former MX-5 chief designer - Masashi Nakayama credits the Ferrari Dino as an inspiration, but there's more than a hint of classic Porsche in there, too.
Roof down, the seemingly solid section that remains in place is actually home to three completely open portals that not only help aerodynamics, but have the extra advantage of piping natural exhaust sounds into the cabin. Or, in the words of Mr Nakayama: "Hearing the sound from the rear is one of the best things an open-top car can provide you."
Beneath the metal, you'll still find the clean and purposeful cabin you'd remember from the soft top version, and it's still a fun place to spend time, but there is a new (and only slight) sense of claustrophobia, owing to the complexity of the hardtop and its latching system, which now intrudes into the airspace more than it does in the cloth-top models. It's the most minor of blemishes, but with space at such a premium in the bite-sized MX-5's cabin, you do notice it.
There are three things you'd probably rather not encounter in a convertible sports car, and they are rain, traffic and a series of roads so straight it's like they've been drawn with a ruler. And we encountered plenty of all three as we piloted a fleet of "prototype" vehicles on a brief Tokyo test route.
But the best sportsters don't just shine on twisting roads, they turn even the most mundane drives into a joy, and the MX-5 RF fulfils that brief completely.
While we'll wait until the car arrives in Australia to make a definitive call on whether the new roof architecture dulls the drive experience, we can report that all the best elements of the cloth-top version are present and accounted for. The steering still offers more feedback than bad AM radio reception, and the suspension still makes you feel like you're physically connected to the tarmac below.
Even straight-line acceleration feels near enough on-par with the cloth-top models, which, while not particularly fast, gather speed in such a hugely engaging fashion that you barely notice. According to Mazda, the hardtop will clip 100km/h in a claimed 7.4 seconds in manual guise, and 8.3 seconds when paired with the automatic. That is almost line-ball with the lighter soft-top versions, which report 7.1 seconds and 8.4 seconds respectively.
Both gearboxes, too, are still a joy, but the combination of perfect pedal positioning and the subtle thunk as you select your gear makes the manual our pick for driver fun.
Top up, the cabin is predictably quiet, keeping the Tokyo winter wind trapped outside, but with the top down you do get wind some noise, with some loud buffeting in the space between the headrest and the rear glass. It was impossible to tell whether it was head-on or a cross-wind at fault, though.
While the RF's standard specification levels pretty much mirror those of the soft-top variants, there are a couple of cool new elements exclusive to the hardtop, like a bonus 4.6-inch colour TFT screen in the driver's binnacle that mirrors the roof opening or closing, and LED headlights that now get an adaptive function.
The MX-5 RF arrives in two trim levels: an entry point, or the more premium-focused GT, and both command a $4,000-ish premium over their cloth-topped equivalents. The entry-level RF, paired with a six-speed manual transmission, arrives wearing a sticker price of $38,550, while selecting the automatic transmission lifts the price to $40,550.
Step up to the GT trim level, and the price tag climbs to $43,890 in manual guise, or $45,890 for the automatic. And if you're feeling particularly flush, you can add Nappa leather and a "hand-painted" black roof for an extra $1,000 on top of the GT prices.
Standard kit on the entry-level RF includes 17-inch alloys, cloth seats and Mazda's very good seven-inch multimedia screen. You also get a six-speaker stereo with wheel-mounted controls, LED DRLs and cruise control. Stepping up to the GT adds leather trim, a BOSE nine-speaker stereo and heated front seats.
Mazda is only offering the RF with its 2.0-litre engine, which generates 118kW at 6,000rpm and 200Nm at 4,600rpm, paired with your choice of a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed automatic. Fuel use is rated at a claimed/combined 6.9 litres per 100km in manual guise, or 7.1 litres per hundred kilometres if you opt for the automatic.
Move it along, nothing to see here. You could store the sprightly MX-5 in a plane's overhead bin, and if the two seats were any closer together you'd be sitting on each other's laps. So if you're in the load-lugging business, you best keep walking.
But if you like your good news tempered with a touch of bad, then have we got news for you: through some kind of engineering wizardry, opting for the folding hardtop will cost you exactly zero luggage space, with the RF matching the soft-top's capacity to the litre. And the not-so-good-news? That capacity is a not-huge 130 litres (VDA) in its deep-but-narrow boot.
There's the same two cupholders behind the front seats, which sit below a compact storage bin and can be relocated next to the gear selector. And, well, that's about it...
The MX-5 RF's safety package is headlined by a brake assist feature (not AEB, but it senses when you're braking hard and automatically applies full pressure), and a hill-hold function. Elsewhere, you can expect stability control, ABS brakes and hazard lights that flash automatically under heavy braking.
The MX-5 RF has four airbags (two front, and two sides with integrated head protection), and while it is yet to be crash tested, the soft top scored the maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating when tested in 2015.
The MX-5 RF is covered by a three-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty, and requires servicing every 10,000km. It also falls under the brand's lifetime capped-price-servicing scheme, with owners able to type their VIN into Mazda's website to get a quote for each service.
While we will wait to get it on Australian soil to offer a definitive verdict, we will say this: we personally think it looks better than the soft top, roof up or down, so if it drives anywhere near as well on a proper test, we might just have a new favourite MX-5.
|(base)||2.0L, PULP, 6 SP AUTO||$20,400 – 27,720||2017 Mazda MX-5 2017 (base) Pricing and Specs|
|GT||1.5L, PULP, 6 SP MAN||$20,300 – 27,610||2017 Mazda MX-5 2017 GT Pricing and Specs|
|RF||2.0L, PULP, 6 SP AUTO||$23,300 – 31,680||2017 Mazda MX-5 2017 RF Pricing and Specs|
|RF GT||2.0L, PULP, 6 SP AUTO||$25,100 – 33,330||2017 Mazda MX-5 2017 RF GT Pricing and Specs|