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Mazda MX-5 RF 2017 review

EXPERT RATING
8
Malcolm Flynn was among the first to drive the new Mazda MX-5 RF at its Australian launch. His expert review includes a road test, specs, fuel consumption and verdict. Hardcore MX-5 fans would have you believe that simply adding a heavy set of floor mats could spoil the purity of the light-weight roadster formula, and

Malcolm Flynn was among the first to drive the new Mazda MX-5 RF at its Australian launch. His expert review includes a road test, specs, fuel consumption and verdict.

Hardcore MX-5 fans would have you believe that simply adding a heavy set of floor mats could spoil the purity of the light-weight roadster formula, and struggle to even imagine what catastrophe would ensue with the extra weight of an automatic folding hardtop.

However the last time Mazda introduced such an apparent travesty, it wound up outselling the soft top model 9:1, and eventually led to the previous NC model going folding-hardtop-only for the last three years of its life. 

This time around with the ND, Mazda carefully preserved the purity of the MX-5 roadster heritage by launching the soft top first, but commercial reality meant that a folding hardtop replacement was always on the agenda, and is expected to make up 60 per cent of all Australian ND sales in future.

We’ve already had a quick drive of the RF on Tokyo motorways, but the true test as always is how it performs on Australian roads.

Design

Unlike the NC hardtop, which looked like it had been kicked in the back of the head with the roof raised, the MX-5 RF is more coupe-like and quite exquisite in the same scenario. 

Also unlike its predecessor, the only part of the RF roof that disappears is the section above the occupants, resulting in a targa opening in lieu of a proper convertible. 

ND MX-5 chief designer and now-MX-5 program chief (after the 2016 retirement of Nobuhiro Yamamoto) Masashi Nakayama explains that the alternative roof style was necessitated by the ND’s engine being located 50mm further behind the front axle than the NC. 

Given the requirement to accommodate drivers up to 1.9m tall, this left no room behind the occupants for whole roof stowage without extending the wheelbase or eating into the MX-5’s modest boot space. 

Starting two years after work on the soft top commenced, the design and engineering teams chose to avoid an unsightly hunchback and have instead embraced the opportunity and applied design flourishes wherever possible. 

The flying buttresses that extend from the turret into the bootlid are driven by both looks and functionality, enabling a gently tapered roofline from the side and leaving room for the top section to erect, while also avoiding bootlid intrusion from within.  

Back to the side view, the RF also looks to have pert little quarter windows that unite the upper and lower edges of the glasshouse elegantly, but these are actually behind the back window line and are simply black panels in disguise. 

Nakayama-san says the buttresses were inspired by the original (Ferrari) Dino, but you may know them best from Magnum PI’s 308. Their usage on both Maranello machines was related to their mid-engine layout, and the  RF is the only front-engined car we can think of to use them aside from the Jaguar XJS

  • 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT. 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT.
  • 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT. 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT.
  • 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT. 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT.
  • 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT. 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT.
  • 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT. 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT.
  • 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT. 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT.
  • 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT. 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT.

The roof mechanism adds 45kg beyond the weight of the regular soft top, and can be raised or lowered in 13 seconds at speeds up to 10km/h by toggling a simple switch under the HVAC controls. 

Under the skin, the RF has been tweaked to counter the extra weight with a stiffer front swaybar, increased front damper travel, revised rear damper rates for ride comfort and an X-brace behind the seats to compensate for the gap in the rear bulkhead created by the roof mechanism.

Incidentally, we won’t be seeing an RF version of the Abarth 124 platform twin, as Mazda insisted the second bodystyle be excluded from the arrangement between the two brands.

Practicality

Cabin practicality is unchanged from the soft top, with two relocatable cupholders, lidded centre console bin and half-shoebox sized lidded bin between the seats in the rear bulkhead. 

The tight cabin packaging still prohibits door bins and a traditional glovebox, but is still capable of storing two motoring journalists’ pocket contents without fuss.  

The boot opening is also the same as the soft top, as is the 130L VDA capacity which is enough room for two overnight bags and a couple of laptop satchels. 

Direct rearward visibility is marginally better than the soft top (roof-up) due to the still-small rear opening being nearer to the driver. The over-shoulder view is little changed though, thanks to the buttresses extending into the bootlid.  

Surprisingly, given this limited visibility, a reversing camera is still optional across the board for $485 fitted. 

Price and specifications 

Given the extra kilos it carries, Mazda is only offering the RF in 2.0-litre guise, and the first two levels of the three-tier range largely echo their soft-top equivalents. 

The base model with cloth trim and silver wheels lists at $38,550, or $3710 more than the equivalent soft top, while the leather-lined and shadow-chrome wheeled GT kicks off at $43,890 - a $3990 jump over the ragtop.

Is the RF worth the extra investment? If you need to park outdoors and are nervous about the security and durability of a fabric soft top, probably. It’s not hard to spend more than that on a set of aftermarket wheels. 

For an extra $1000 on top of GT prices, you can also opt for a special edition version of the GT, which brings upper crust auburn-coloured Nappa leather and a blacked out roof treatment that further accentuates the buttresses. 

Like the soft top, all RFs are also available in automatic transmission guise for an extra $2000. 

Therefore, the top-spec RF GT special edition with the auto extends the Australian ND range all the way to $46,890, which is edging closer to the $49,405 commanded by the top-spec NC when it bowed out in early 2015.

Coinciding with the launch of the RF, all MX-5s now come standard with blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alerts, which has seen the price of soft top models rise by $350. The entry 1.5-litre model without the MZD Connect multimedia system has also been quietly dropped from the range due to lack of demand. 

  • 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT Special Edition. 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT Special Edition.
  • 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT Special Edition. 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT Special Edition.
  • 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT Special Edition. 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT Special Edition.
  • 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT Special Edition. 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT Special Edition.
  • 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT Special Edition. 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT Special Edition.

The RF range offers a six colour palette, with Soul Red and Machine Grey commanding a $300 premium. 

Engine and transmissions

The 2.0-litre engine’s 118kW and 200Nm outputs are unchanged from the upper soft top models, as are the six-speed manual and six-speed torque converter automatic transmissions. 

Like the ND ragtop models, Mazda expects 70 per cent of buyers to choose the manual. 

Fuel consumption

The RF’s extra weight has put a small dent in official fuel consumption figures, with the manuals using 0.1L/100km more at 7.0, while the autos add 0.3L/100km to now return 7.4 on the combined cycle.

Driving

The soft top MX-5 is one of very few new cars on the market to get everything just right from the moment you sit in it. 

As long as the fixed steering wheel suits you, the seating position is nice and low with a well bolstered seat, the pedals are all aligned and the manual gearshift is like a mechanical joystick sprouting from the console just where you want it. The RF is no different. 

The big question is whether the folding roof mechanism’s extra 45kg - mounted so high in the car - dulls the driving experience that has forged the MX-5’s modern classic status.

The short answer is no, thankfully. The numbers suggest the soft top would have an advantage through a slalom test or chasing tenths on a racetrack, but in isolation it still feels magical to toss through some bends. 

The steering is still light and feelsome, the chassis balance is among the best in the business, and the surprising level of bodyroll only adds to the theatre. 

Given its lack of modern-norm turbo, you still have to use the revs to make the most of the 2.0-litre, but this is an intrinsic element of the MX-5’s appeal. You feel you’re an integral part of achieving speed, because you are. 

And because of the modest output and liveliness of the chassis, you can belt it pretty hard beneath the realms of having the rozzers’ book thrown at you. 

We didn’t get to try the auto on the RF’s launch drive, but our soft top experience with its responsiveness in Sport mode suggests it’s not quite the party police, grim reaper or your worst nightmare it might seem on paper. We’d still go the manual every time though. 

With the fabric-lined roof up, it’s notably quieter than the soft top, and approaching what we’d expect of a fixed roof. With the roof down though, the fixed crossbar between the buttresses seems to generate more wind noise than with the soft top’s complete openness.   

Safety

Four airbags, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alerts (both now standard on all MX-5s) are fitted to all RFs, which was enough to garner the soft top a maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating

There’s still no AEB as designers are yet to work out how to apply the sensors to the MX-5’s low windscreen and, as mentioned above, a reversing camera is optional across the board.

Ownership

Like the soft top, the MX-5 RF comes with a three-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty. Service intervals are 10,000km and Mazda’s capped-price-servicing scheme applies for the life of the vehicle. Service costs are able to be calculated on Mazda’s Australian website.

Verdict

Some manufacturers would cut corners to overcome the RF’s packaging challenges, but Mazda’s design and engineering teams have embraced the MX-5’s physical limitations and turned it into an appealing aesthetic feature. The fact that it’s still a cracking driving experience is just icing on the cake. 

Mazda expects 70 per cent of RFs to be the top GT, and we’d nominate the full-fruit special edition as the sweet spot thanks to it’s softer leather and outright design appeal. 

Is it a better car than the soft top? You'll have to drive them back to back to know for sure.

Would you pick the RF over a soft top MX-5? Tell us what you think in the comments below

Pricing Guides

$29,975
Based on third party pricing data
Lowest Price
$21,010
Highest Price
$38,940

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
(base) 2.0L, PULP, 6 SP AUTO $24,530 – 30,250 2017 MAZDA MX-5 2017 (base) Pricing and Specs
GT 1.5L, PULP, 6 SP MAN $24,530 – 30,250 2017 MAZDA MX-5 2017 GT Pricing and Specs
RF 2.0L, PULP, 6 SP AUTO $28,710 – 34,650 2017 MAZDA MX-5 2017 RF Pricing and Specs
RF GT 2.0L, PULP, 6 SP AUTO $30,360 – 36,630 2017 MAZDA MX-5 2017 RF GT Pricing and Specs
EXPERT RATING
8
Malcolm Flynn
CarsGuide Editor

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Pricing Guide

$28,710

Lowest price, based on third party pricing data

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