Driven: Mazda’s charming little MX-5 RF – Should you consider it for the Summer season?

This 2.0-litre four-cylinder-engined Mazda cabriolet is, believe it or not, a record holder.

Mazda’s iconic MX-5 is actually the world’s favourite cabriolet. Do I sense a ‘Wareva’ being mouthed off right about now? Let me rephrase: The Mazda MX-5 is genuinely the biggest selling open-topped car of all time, and it’s a record.

This latest iteration of the undeniably cute roadster – the MX-5 RF (Retractable Fastback) – is an interesting tale, at least where South Africa is concerned. It wasn’t many months in 2016 when the local subsidiary availed it to market, selling it alongside the more regular full drop-top version when the company announced that it was culling the full-on drop-top version due to poor sales volumes.

That was a bit of a shocker! However it wasn’t a total recall. MX-5 sales would continue but you can only buy this cheeky little number. It has an electronically retractable that has a short but nonetheless dazzling convertible roof however unlike the conventional roadster, its transformation ballet results in a targa-style shape where the B-pillars so remain in place after rising up, allowing the main roof piece to slide beneath to be neatly stacked away in the boot.

Mazda’s Jinba-Ittai – The connection between Horse and Rider

In RF form its niftiness extends beyond being a handsome looking .There also exists enough practicality above the regular model that has since been sent to pasture. Generally regarded as a cornerstone for Mazda, there is only one RF to choose. Of course you do have the luxury of at least choosing a paint job – the Machine Grey hue of our test unit amazingly and surprisingly flares up the KODO soul of motion design in astonishing prowess.  “Developed in the belief that colour is one of the elements of form, Machine Grey expresses the beauty of a machine’s strength and precision. By intensifying the contrast between light and shadow with a sleek, high-density finish, it gives the impression that the vehicle’s body was sculpted from a solid block of steel.” says Mazda about this special colour.

The RF may not be in full-monty guise but it restores the company’s open-topped sports car line-up but adopts an admittedly short-changing wind-in the-hair driving sensation. It’s a next level. Aesthetically, with the roof open, we think it isn’t a doyen of beauty. It’s just unique in a segment that stretches virtually every niche that offers a drop-top. There just is one other brand with a similar offering, and that’s Porsche’s 911 Targa. These two – Mazda and 911 – hark back to a past that even offered two types of this cut-away job – the Targa and the T-top made famous by American brands. With the roof closed it looks absolutely villainous – like a baby Dodge Viper.

In all honesty the practicality is right there, and was easily demonstrated during its recent test period. Faced with a short but nonetheless substantial 200km road trip to the toes of the Province of Mpumalanga, well researched preparations that included a USB stuffed with the very best of pumping deep house and plans to do the entire journey in the early evening, imagining a picturesque sunset with the retractable top dropped, I struck rotten luck as the heavens opened, raining very big metaphorical cats and dogs. As the pregnant dark clouds thumped the RF with water levels that helped cement the business of Jojo retainer tanks, having a solid metal roof rather than a cloth of the de-commissioned variant between my head and the deluge of sky water proved critical, this, and the added trickiness of driving on a road famous for its merciless pot-holes and slow trucks.

I’ll be honest, it was terrifying and there are few design aspects of the car that didn’t offer the comfort and much-needed peace of mind. Thing is, some of these facets are engineered for best usage in the dry, such as the overall lightweight construction. On the move and if the weather is playing nice, fundamentally this equates to elevated noise, vibration and harshness from the surface, wind and the fear-factor is dialled up and worsened by the Heavens dropping rain like it’s hot.

Also factor in that the MX-5 also sits very close to the ground on thin wheels. This brews a ride quality that’s crashy than sassy and skittish in water puddles. The dry flip side to this catalogue of negatives is that on a good day that added ‘lightness’ gives the MX-5 respectable speed and incredible agility; the wafer thin rubber offers better chances of recovery in wayward slides and where you reader can happily score is largely affordable purchase prices too.

The rain scene also unearthed a few drawbacks. The strength of the lights in the night is great but could be better; the window wiper speed could use another notch to allow for greater visibility for driving in a monsoon and the car could use better adaptive and automatic high-beam assist. But kudos to the following bits that enhance a special journey come rain or shine: the extraordinarily powerful and crisp Bose sound system that plays virtually all of the modern music mediums; the Bluetooth call speaker behind my neck and least but not last, refined and controlled wind buffeting when the top is retracted.

While still on toys, expect the littlest of a digital inventory. There is a standard cruise control, traction control, a lane-keeping alarm, automatic headlights and few other conveniences.

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Sporting Credentials

Despite the touch of aggression added to the latest MX-5 styling it possess no track-honed nuts and bolts. It’s largely domesticated but thanks to Mazda’s little known but majestic sports car building heritage which is overshadowed by its modern public profile of building good-looking and responsible mainstream hatches and SUVs, there is a little raciness at its core.

For starters the RC body control, structural truthfulness and generally responsive dynamic demeanour may come as a pleasant surprise to anyone who pre-judged it from its diminutive size, and perhaps, its humble mechanical inventory. The RC is driven by a 2.0-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine mated to either a 6-speed manual or a 6-speed automatic fitted to our car and driving the rear wheels. There are no adaptive dampers or any of the overwhelming digital interventions we last saw in the BMW M5. It’s only a sport button that livens up the gearing but otherwise this is straight up engineering.

Technical

However modest the 118kW and 200Nm outputs from the high-revving SKYACTIV engine may be, combined with the light weight chassis the dash from standstill will not set your pants on fire but there are a few plusses at play, like efficiency of fuel consumption. Below 80km/h the engine is anodyne and only comes alive at higher speeds, more so on roads blessed with curves and corners. These conditions bring the dynamic relationship between engine, gearbox and chassis design, resulting in the eruption of Jinba Ittai – Mazda’s mantra of striving to create a deep connection between driver and car. And it’s a real texture that you feel as soon as you point the RF onto a road. This horse and rider connection extends to minute detail, like how you sit on its leather-bound chairs; the view out front; the delicate responses of its steering to any situation. Heck you feel it even when manoeuvring in a mall parking lot. It also has fruity sounding exhaust note. It’s not loud or rude like sports exhausts we’ve come across but adds a vital touch to the driving experience.

In maximum-attack your aren’t going to be blown away by the greatest of acceleration forces Rather it’s how the car, despite its compact size, brings confidence to a fast drive. The RF feels effortless and swift at speed as you work the ministrations of its automatic transmission through steering wheel mounted flaps. The gearing makes the most out of the naturally aspirated four-cylinder’s power band as dutifully as a classic manual would. The RF is a fun drive with only mild buffeting in the cabin at speed, but grow some horns, pull of the hood, switch on Sport mode, hit the back roads and everything pretty much falls in place as you reel in the miles.

Nissan’s legendary 300ZX also came in T Top guise
Beacon of T Top driving – the iconic 1979 Trans-AM

Conclusion

Its R532 200 price tag slots it perfectly into the ‘weekend toy’ category – a second or even third car option if blessed with such deep pockets. However, the Mazda MX-5 has over the years crafted itself a niche that sees it become a viable only-car option for fashion-conscious young singles and matured empty-nesters. Aside from the technical brilliance, some individuals have long fallen for its iconic glamour aspect which it possesses in heaps. It’s a perfect run-about for a sea-side town where its dainty looks and nimble dimensions can be appreciated from a window of a trendy bistro.

 

SCORES

PERFORMANCE – In terms of outright performance the RF isn’t earth-shattering. To appreciate its prowess requires work and more than a passing interest in high speed from a driver. Drive it properly and it rewards with big smiles and cheaper refuels.

DESIGN – The extended nose and stubby backside give it a sultry look which manages to hark back to its heritage of chic but now mixed with a pinch of cool venom. That Machine Grey colour is the law. Being a targa-style shape brings with it open top driving and solid coupery when the roof is up.

ENGINE/TRANSMISSION: Surprisingly we didn’t miss a turbo. It’s been a while since we’ve experienced the magic of naturally aspirated thrills and we are quite happy that although Mazda may be travelling slower in terms of modern technical expectations, importantly they haven’t lost the plot. The 6-speed auto ‘box is sluggish but doesn’t soil the experience.

CABIN/SPACE – Strictly for two is an automatic no-go area for some, and natural for others. The boot promises to swallow small luggage bags but if this is a deal-breaker then you are not a shorts wearing, sea-side resident.

MODELS/PRICING: At R538 200, by most accounts of the average buyer, the MX-5 is expensive. But where the truly committed coupe-loving fashionista is concerned, this is the cheapest of the breed.

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