In a world of big, heavy SUVs, over-active driver assist features, and increasing electrification, the Mazda MX-5 is a refreshing reprieve.
It has plenty of safety equipment, mind you, but otherwise this is as close to an old-school sports car as you can get today short of ponying up for a Caterham or Morgan.
The RF takes the classic MX-5 formula and adds a power-retractable targa roof. For a car that’s always been about wind-in-your-hair thrills, the RF adds some extra convenience but removes the 360-degree views you get with the convertible.
Is it worth the extra money over the standard MX-5?
You pay a penalty for the power-folding roof, to the tune of $4310. The base MX-5 RF is priced at $42,770 before on-road costs, or $47,108 drive-away based on a New South Wales postcode.
An automatic transmission adds another $2000, and while most paint finishes are no-cost options there are a trio of metallic finishes – Zircon Sand, Soul Red Crystal, and Machine Grey – that attract a $595 surcharge.
While they are fixed-roof coupes, the Subaru BRZ and Toyota GR86 are the most direct rivals for the MX-5. A base manual GR86 is $43,240 before on-roads, and a base manual BRZ is $40,290 before on-roads.
For a vehicle in the classic roadster mould, the MX-5’s interior feels appropriately designed – but in this era of smartphones and greater connectivity, it has fallen behind.
Cabin storage is abysmal, and that’s most noticeable when you just want to plug in your phone to use smartphone mirroring.
There’s nowhere to even keep a phone safely – it juts out of the niche at the base of the centre stack and gets in the way of the shifter, and will easily slide right out.
The cup holders are also effectively behind you, leaving you to drape the cable across the cabin. I just ended up getting my passenger to hold onto my phone.
There’s no glove compartment, either, nor are there bottle holders in the doors.
There’s a centre console bin but you’d be lucky to fit a wallet in there, while the lockable storage compartment behind the seats is also small and awkward to reach. There’s a small niche built into the passenger side of the centre console, but we can’t imagine what you’d put in there.
You need to plug your phone in to use Android Auto (only Apple CarPlay is wireless), and while the dated MZD-Connect system has more touch functionality than the newer Mazda Connect system in vehicles like the 3, it doesn’t have enough.
You can only use the touch functionality while you’re parked, and while we love a rotary dial the MX-5’s is both awkwardly positioned and infuriating to use with smartphone mirroring. Sometimes it is easier to touch a screen to control something rather than use a rotary dial, even in a driver-focused, manual sports car.
The MZD-Connect system is also laggy. Turn off the car with Android Auto on and switch it back on with your phone unplugged and you have to suffer through a long loading screen. While we’re moaning, the graphics are dated, too.
The MX-5’s cabin does plenty right, however. Most switchgear falls neatly to hand, and the analogue dials are clean and simple to read.
The dashboard is finished entirely in hard plastic, but stitching details as well as body-colour trim and leatherette upholstery on the doors improve the ambience. Everything feels solid and well-built, too.
You grip a steering wheel that’s both tactile, thanks to its leather wrapping, and well-sized.
The seats are also excellent. They’re surprisingly comfortable and supportive, and despite being low the MX-5 is easy to get in and out of.
A couple of other minor complaints: there’s no grab handle for the passenger, and the sound system is average at best – you need to get the GT to score an upgraded nine-speaker Bose audio system.
Open the boot and you’ll find a fairly deep but small storage space measuring just 127 litres in volume. You can fit an overnight bag in here, but don’t even think about trying to shove a suitcase in here.
With the base 1.5-litre engine being axed in 2022, all MX-5 models come with the previously optional naturally aspirated 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine producing 135kW of power at 7000rpm and 205Nm of torque at 4000rpm.
That’s down quite a bit from the 174kW/250Nm outputs of the latest BRZ and GR86, though they weigh over 100kg more.
The MX-5’s engine is mated to either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. All models are rear-wheel drive.
I consistently saw fuel economy in the low sevens, and over the course of a week – which included plenty of highway driving but also some spirited jaunts in the mountains – I recorded overall consumption of 7.2L/100km. The official claim is 6.9L/100km.
The MX-5 requires 95 RON premium unleaded fuel.
The RF’s roof really does take away from the classic convertible feel of the MX-5. The buttresses behind you mess with visibility, and you feel more hemmed in.
And for what? The cabin still gets quite boomy at highway speeds and you can still hear wind noise around the mirrors, so it’s not like it becomes the picture of quietude with a hard top.
The regular MX-5 Roadster’s soft top may require manual operation but it’s pretty easy to pull up or put down. The RF’s roof requires only the touch of a button, but you can only operate it at speeds of up to 10km/h. At least it takes only 13 seconds.
Don’t make the mistake we did and try to quickly do it at a red light – you’ll hit 10km/h quickly and chimes will blare at you like you’re in a fighter jet that’s been struck by enemy fire.
It’s a good thing the MX-5 has standard blind-spot monitoring, as it has blind spots you could lose a truck in.
There are two schools of thought with the MX-5: those that believe all you need is a relatively low-output naturally-aspirated engine to have fun, and those who clamour for more power.
The chassis genuinely feels like it could handle more power, but I side more with those in the first camp. You can have so much fun wringing out the atmo engine and climbing through the gears.
The MX-5 isn’t what we’d call quick – we’d say it has “sufficient” power, much like a GR86 or BRZ.
You can still provoke some nice, controlled oversteer if you push it, and the weight distribution is superb. It feels lightweight, balanced and tossable, just like an MX-5 should.
The manual has a great shift action, feeling nice and tight. The clutch pedal also has a good weighting to it.
I continue to be flummoxed by people who buy automatic MX-5s, the automotive equivalent of wearing sneakers to the beach. If you’ve got crook knees, you get a pass. Otherwise, buy the manual!
The steering is nicely weighted and communicative, with plenty of road feel, and the wheel feels just the right size. The pedals feel a little offset and there is a slightly intrusion into the driver’s footwell, but you get comfortable quite quickly.
The suspension tuning also doesn’t mask what’s going on underneath the car. That’s not a criticism, as indeed the MX-5 never feels harsh. But the car is small, sits quite low and is quite firmly suspended, so you can really feel the topography of the road surface.
Around town, it proves generally comfortable. Even driving across tram tracks and surface changes, the MX-5 is quite pliant. You won’t feel much in the way of jolts and crashes in this car.
The RF’s roof carries little weight penalty: it weighs just 27kg more than the equivalent soft top variant.
While we don’t think the MX-5 needs more power (or a turbocharger) to provide thrills, the atmo engine could use some work in the sound department.
It revs up to a 7500rpm redline, but it gets mighty raucous. Fundamentally, this sounds just like a Mazda 3, and therefore doesn’t sound particularly sporty or sonorous.
MX-5 RF highlights:
- Limited-slip differential
- Kinematic Posture Control
- 17-inch black metallic alloy wheels
- 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system
- Wired, wireless Apple CarPlay
- Wired Android Auto
- DAB+ digital radio
- Satellite navigation
- 6-speaker sound system
- Automatic LED headlights
- LED tail lights
- LED daytime running lights
- Rain-sensing window wipers
- Gloss black powered side mirrors
- Black cloth upholstery
- Climate control air-conditioning
- Cruise control
- Leather-wrapped gear shift knob
- Leather-wrapped handbrake handle
- Leather-wrapped steering wheel
- One-touch down power windows
- Auto-dimming rear-view mirror
- Push-button start
The mid-range GT model adds niceties like leather upholstery, heated front seats, automatic high-beam, keyless entry and a nine-speaker Bose sound system, while the flagship GT RS adds Bilstein dampers and four-piston Brembo front brakes.
The Mazda MX-5 has a five-star safety rating from ANCAP, based on testing carried out in 2016. It scored 35.20 out of 37 against older criteria.
The following safety features are standard:
- Front and side airbags
- AEB low speed
- Forward, Reverse
- Blind-spot monitoring
- Rear cross-traffic alert
- Lane departure warning
- Driver attention monitoring
- Reversing camera
- Rear parking sensors
- Traffic sign recognition
- Hill-start assist
- Seatbelt warning
- Tyre pressure monitoring
The MX-5 is backed by a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty.
It requires servicing every 12 months or 15,000km, with Mazda having recently extended intervals from 10,000km.
The first five services are capped at $337, $442, $418, $442 and $475.
The MX-5 remains just as charming as ever, even coming up on eight years after the launch of the current ND generation.
It’s thoroughly engaging to drive, with communicative steering, a sharp shifter, and terrific handling.
Infotainment and cabin storage are weak points, but these aren’t exactly disqualifying. Even if the MX-5 was half as good as it is, what other small, rear-wheel drive convertible are you going to buy at this price point? Spoiler alert: there aren’t any.
But for our money, we would stick with the standard Roadster. The RF’s thick buttresses not only impede visibility, they really detract from the classic roadster thrills of the MX-5.
Our advice? Pocket the savings and go for the classic soft-top.
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MORE: Everything Mazda MX-5