Take everything that’s good about the playful and fun fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 Miata, add a dash of poise, a healthy dose refinement and you’ve got the new 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF. The roadster’s second act replaces the manual, soft convertible roof with a motorized, partially retractable hard top, gaining a new gorgeous, curvaceous new silhouette in the process.
The new “retractable fastback” is where the MX-5 RF gets its name. The new top is a lightweight bit of equipment as motorized hard convertible tops go — thanks to its mix of aluminum and composite bits — but still adds about 113 pounds to the MX-5’s bantamweight. Interestingly, the RF’s roof also adds about 5mm to the MX-5’s overall height but loses about 15mm of headroom beneath the hardtop. The lower ceiling wasn’t an issue for my 5′ 9″ frame, but taller drivers or those wanting to wear a helmet at the racetrack should pay close attention.
For the trouble, the RF gains a bit of refinement. Its cabin is noticeably quieter at highway speeds and in the rain thanks the RF’s sound-absorbing headliner soaking up much of the wind noise. Additional sound dampening on the transmission tunnel helps reduce road and drivetrain noise as well. The RF boasts a bit more security when parked thanks to its hard roof. Perhaps most importantly, the RF’s slick fastback profile just looks fantastic, sweeping from the A-pillar almost all the way to the edge of the rear decklid in one smooth curve. Top up, I think this is one of the best-looking cars that Mazda’s ever built.
Flip a toggle in the cabin and the fastback raises, allowing the roof panels and the rear glass to fold and tuck into a well behind the passenger compartment. Though the appearance is very different, the mechanisms working behind the scenes are similar to the previous-generation, only the components are a bit smaller and move more quietly. This generation’s hardtop can also operate at speeds up to 6 mph.
After a little over 13 seconds, the RF’s roof completes its motorized gymnastics, ending up in an quasi-convertible Targa configuration with the rear portion of the roof still in place. Like the roadster, the RF’s roof doesn’t interfere with trunk or storage space when stowed, but the overall cargo volume is about 3 liters short of the ragtop’s boot.
Though the RF is better-looking with the roof closed, I’m the sort of roadster fan that prefers my top to go all the way down when stowed, so I’m not the biggest fan of this open-air configuration. I can also drop the manual soft top in about 3 seconds, which is so much faster than the RF’s still admirable 13 second motorized operation. The RF’s blind spots are significantly larger than the roadster, top up or top down. And while the hardtop is quieter than the fabric roof on the highway when closed, it’s louder in the same conditions when open due to the way the wind sometimes buffets against the raised roof hoop.
Playful performance persists
Aside from the roof, the MX-5 Miata RF changes very little about the MX-5 Miata’s formula. Under the hood is the same 2.0-liter SkyActiv-G engine sending the same 155 horsepower and 148 pound feet of torque to the rear wheels. Even fuel economy is identical at a 29 mpg combined estimate.
Drivers get a choice between either sporty Club or feature-laden Grand Touring trim levels with either a 6-speed manual transmission or a 6-speed automatic. Chose the manual Club and the RF upgrades to a rear limited-slip differential, which boosts cornering grip during enthusiastic driving. The Miata’s entry-level Sport trim level can not be had with the RF’s hard top.
Despite the extra mass, acceleration feels as peppy here as it did in the lighter ragtop. The low curb weight and meaty midrange torque curve conspire to make the new RF feel as responsive as before. The engine is eager to please and swings the tachometer needle like a happy puppy. The MX-5 RF’s isn’t a driving experience that’s built around overwhelming power. Rather, it rewards the driver who embraces the nimble handling, makes smart gear choices and conserves their speed and inertia through the twisty bits. The Miata wants you to carry speed through the turn, not just pile it on after the apex.
Speaking of handling, the RF’s suspension has been slightly retuned, both to compensate for the extra weight of the hard top and to add a bit of refinement to the vehicle’s handling. There are new rear suspension bushings and the rear bump stops that help smooth out the transition to oversteer, which should make the RF more predictable, but still fun, near its handling limits. Meanwhile, the steering has been tweaked and slightly re-weighted to feel sportier when tucking into a corner, but less fatiguing when commuting. But most of the changes can only really be felt near the limits of the MX-5’s handling. Odds are good that most drivers won’t even notice a difference without careful consideration of back-to-back drives in the RF and the Miata. This is good, because the MX-5 Miata’s playful and agile performance is already just so close to perfection.