He Said/She Said: 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF
FUN is the reason why the MX-5 remains the only car in North America whereby models equipped with a manual ‘box outsell those equipped with an auto.
Lacey Elliott: Known as the MX-5 for a few years now, the only consistent complaint that I hear is that this little 2-seater looks too ‘girly’. I will agree that years ago, this might have been the case. It was a super-cute looking car. I thought it looked great. Not too long ago, not only did it get a name change it also got a face lift. Chiseled lines and a wider stance gave it a much more aggressive appearance.
For the 2017 model year Mazda has introduced the MX-5 RF; for “retractable fastback”. This roadster now has the Kodo design as part of is styling DNA, and the RF adds a very sexy fastback shape.
Dan Heyman: I would have to agree with that description, Lacey. I’ve heard a few journalists complain that the “flying buttresses” sprouting off the rear fenders make it look disproportional, and that the gap between the rear fenders and the wheels is too wide. The latter may be true – and it’s like that so you can get chains back there (no joke), according to Mazda – but I love those flying buttresses as they add a great touch of European flare.
LE: The design is classic and makes me think of some old spy movies. I could almost see James Bond driving this convertible. I was always a fan of the top down appearance, but now this new shape is almost better looking with the top up.
The interior looks very similar to the rest of the Mazda family, with a simple and easy to use dash. My only slight disappointment is with the cup holder. It doesn’t fit my large water bottle and the location on the armrest is not very ergonomic.
It is a small car and I am very aware of the narrow seat back and limited shoulder space. I am 5’7 and feel comfortable. Dan is an average sized guy, but bigger than me, and I am curious to see how he feels.
DH: Other than those roof pillars of which I’ve already waxed poetic, the rest of the RF…just…works. Top up or down, the profile is a fantastic one that’s unlike any MX-5 seen before, which is interesting because the ND roadster was already unlike any MX-5 we’d ever seen before yet the RF manages to kick it up another notch. It’s just something about the way those awesome front fenders flow with the shape of the roof when it’s deployed; a great representation of Mazda’s Kodo design language. You really get the sense that this was the design that Mazda had in mind when they developed that language in the first place. The best part, perhaps, is that I really can’t decide if I like the RF better top up or down; 9 times out of 10, when it comes to convertibles, I’m going top down all the way. Not here, though, with the RF’s targa-like design doing a great job of looking good in both situations.
ON THE ROAD
LE: Equipped with Mazda’s SKYACTIV-G 2.0 L DOHC 16-valve 4-cylinder engine with 155 hp and148 lb-ft torque the numbers don’t seem that impressive. Remember though, that this 2-seater is light weight and super nimble. It doesn’t take a ton of power to have a lot of fun behind the wheel.
The 2017 MX-5 comes standard with a 6-speed manual or you can chose a 6-speed auto with paddle shifters. My heart sank just a little when I realized that I was stuck with an automatic transmission for my California adventure. My plan was to check out the 59-Mile Scenic Route around San Diego and get some sun. I really wanted to be able to have some fun and shift the gears and rev the engine any way I wanted. After less than an hour behind the wheel, I can almost hear Dan laughing at me, but I love this smooth shifting automatic! On my drive I could actually enjoy the scenery instead of worrying about the gears.
The electric power steering gives great feedback and every corner feels solid. Manual or automatic, this car is a joy to drive no matter what you choose.
Not only would I choose this RF for its incredibly good looks, but when the top is up, the cabin is noticeably quieter than the regular MX-5. Even with the top down, conversations are manageable. Mazda thinks that RF owners will prefer to drive with the top up about 80% of the time. Making this car more appealing to a whole new type of MX-5 owner.
DH: One of the sports stations in the area where Lacey and I live in B.C. has a show with a segment called “Tell Me I’m Wrong”. In it, listeners call (or tweet, or text, or email) the hosts with a point, and are told whether they’re wrong or right in their assessment of a certain player, or who should be traded and what for et cetera. Levels of “wrongness” vary depending on how far off the hosts deem a call is. The worst offenders get the dreaded “Mayor of Wrongville” title, which I am now bestowing on my wonderful colleague, Lacey Elliott, for her assertion that an automatic should exist in a car like this, ever.
There’s a reason why the MX-5 remains the only car in North America whereby models equipped with a manual ‘box outsell those equipped with an auto. It is just so bloody fantastic in its operation – from pedal placement, to clutch take up, to lever throw – that you’d be missing a huge part of the MX-5 experience if you were to opt for the auto. Not only that, but as fun as the MX-5 is, it’s 155 hp output isn’t huge and the best way to get the most out of that is to row the gears yourself. It’s so good that I’ll bet you’ll find yourself downshifting an extra time as you pull up to a red light – as I’ve done in a MX-5, many times – just to feel that glorious lever throw again and again.
I guess you could make the argument that the folding hardtop makes this more of a grand tourer and so the automatic is a better fit, but that’s an argument I find as thin as the MX-5’s headlight lenses. Do yourself a favour: get the manual.
Right. Now that that’s out of the way, what about the rest of my MX-5 RF experience?
The most notable difference I felt over the roadster model is the extra weight over the rear axle thanks to the roof and its mechanism. At first I was worried about the potentially negative effects of this, but while it gives the car a slightly rear-biased feel, it makes it a little easier to swing the rear end around, further highlighting the RWD chassis.
While both Lacey and I had the chance to steer the RF around sunny San Diego, I also had the opportunity to drive it around a fairly frigid Muskoka Region in Ontario later in the year. The targa format, which made things more tolerable in sunny California thanks to how it reduces wind noise (though not entirely, as you will get a bit of buffeting with the top down as air get trapped between the buttresses), was an even bigger boon in colder climes.
Basically, when the wind you’re being protected from is about 20 degrees lower that what you’d previously experienced, well, it makes a world of difference. Added to which, the RF is more civilized with the top up in general, making it the ultimate winter MX-5, if such a thing ever needed to exist.
I have a hard time finding anything wrong with this car, I really do. Sure; just like its roadster twin, I guess a little more power wouldn’t be remiss as competition from the likes of the Subaru BRZ or Toyota 86 – not to mention the MX-5’s Fiat 124 cousin – all make more power. I’d love to see a re-hash of the Mazdaspeed MX-5 from the NB days whose turbocharged engine was a wonderful cherry on top of an otherwise fine, fine cake.
I guess that as a taller driver, I’d avoid the sports package as it adds a pair of Recaro seats that actually force you to sit a little higher in the car, reducing the already-low headroom. I found the seats to be plenty supportive in standard guise, anyway. Also, you never get the 100% clear view out back and over your shoulders as you do with the roadster’s top down, which is a bit of a bummer but something I had no problem getting over by the time I was done with the car.
SAFETY & TECHNOLOGY
LE: Going away from the soft top usually means you have to sacrifice trunk space; this is not the case for this MX-5. The separate front, middle and rear roof sections fold nicely on top the car taking no more interior space than the soft top from the already compact size trunk.
The top open and closes with the push of a button. All three panels are in position in just thirteen seconds, making it one of the fastest hard tops on the road. The advanced technology in the roof allows you to open or close it while the car is moving at under 10 km hour.
DH: Like the automatic transmission question, I feel one involving safety & security is a bit of a waste of time considering the MX-5 RF’s “driving purity” modus operandi, but it’s nice to know that electronic traction and stability control as well as ABS are all present. Thing is, if you actually want to get the car unsettled, you almost have to switch traction control off as it’s just so darn grippy otherwise, and the power made can’t quite overwhelm the rear tires unless you’re really hoofing it on the track.
There’s also the infotainment question, which isn’t so much an MX-5 RF thing as much as it is a Mazda thing. Actually, that’s not entirely true; there’s no backup cam, which is strictly a MX-5 thing and is missed more with the RF than it is with the roadster, as you can see so clearly with the top down out of the latter. Otherwise, the infotainment is a little behind the times. The graphics are nice if not all that modern, and there’s no support for Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. That’s not a huge deal in a performance car like this, but wouldn’t it be nice to be able to just plug ‘n’ play your favorite tunes through the nice Bose audio system? Especially if you’ve selected the nine-speaker option that adds two speakers into the headrest.
LE: The base MX-5 with soft top starts at just under $32,000 and the base MX-5 RF starts at $40, 715 for the GS or $44,115 for the GT trim. The GT gives you gorgeous 17-inch high-lustre gunmetal finish alloy wheels and a BOSE premium audio system with 9 speakers.
I would be perfectly happy with the soft top Mazda MX-5, there is good reason that it is the most popular 2-seater car in the world. But the RF now gives it a shape that is actually turning heads. $41,000 seems like a lot to pay for a ‘Miata’ but you still get an affordable, simple, reliable fun to drive little car. The same great roadster it’s always been, but now much better looking.
DH: When I first considered the RF, I was sure that I’d never choose it over the roadster. After all, the MX-5 has always been a roadster and that has been its calling card, ever since affordable drop top sports cars started dropping off of the automotive landscape map in Canada. Just like the existence of a manual transmission, the non-existence of a roof was a MX-5 must.
After spending quite a lot of time in both offerings, however, I realize that I was wrong. The great looks, coupled with the slightly different (and better, in my opinion) chassis balance and that handy targa roof all combine to make the RF the version I’d have, even if I do have to spend more to get it. Never thought I’d see the day even though I knew that when the last version got a folding hardtop of its own, it was often the one buyers were choosing. Seems like we might be there once again.
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