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Hell yes, hell no: Our editors debate Mazda's MX-5 RF

Mazda's MX-5 RF is one of the stars of the NY auto show, but our Miata-owning editors can't agree on whether it's a good thing. Here's why.

At last week's New York auto show, Mazda stunned the media with the 2017 MX-5 RF seen here. You, dear reader, were clearly mesmerized as well, as anything related to its debut became one of our week's most popular stories.

Part of that is because the car was something of a surprise. But part of that is also likely because the Miata RF -- for "Retractable Fastback" -- has already triggered countless fervent debates among automotive pundits, Miata lovers and car nuts in general. Interestingly, just about everyone seems to agree it's a handsome car, but whether it's a good thing for the Miata brand is what has everyone's string-back driving gloves in a twist. You see, Mazda's MX-5 has long charmed the driving and motorsports community with its affordability simplicity, sweet handling and abundant feedback, and the RF alters that formula a bit.

If there's an unofficial car of Roadshow, the Miata might just be it -- three members of our editorial team own them, and it's only right that the 2016 model is our first-ever long-term car. And yet, we're not all in agreement on the new RF, so we've picked two NB-generation-owning staffers to defend their viewpoints.

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Mazda's MX-5 RF adds a retractable targa-like model to the Miata's repertoire.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Pro RF:

Chris Paukert, managing editor:

The Miata RF is gorgeous, top up or top down, and Mazda is to be commended for bringing something new -- a retractable fastback body form -- into the world. It oozes style, yet it promises the same ease-of-use and added all-weather and anti-theft protection that made the last-generation Power Retractable Hard Top model so popular. (Roughly 40 percent of all third-generation cars were PRHT, and this top wasn't even offered the first two model years.) The really impressive thing is that, like its predecessor, the RF adds a hardtop without sacrificing cargo or interior space.

Before my esteemed colleague thoughtfully points it out, yes, the RF's top comes with a weight penalty -- estimated to be around 110 pounds. I'll readily admit that's not insignificant in a car this light of weight or modest of power (155 horsepower). Even so, that's only about 30 pounds more than the far-less-stylish lid of the old PRHT. Either way, I'd wager that most drivers probably will never notice the weight penalty, and purists who are so obsessed with avoirdupois would probably only ever chose the standard soft top, anyhow.

Intentional or otherwise, the RF extends an olive branch to the sizable crowd who have been clamoring for a Miata coupe for the last 25 years. As a bonus, Mazda has been able to arrive at this solution without a costly re-engineering of car's entire body and roof structure to be compatible with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, the latter of which contains special exemptions for convertible body styles that coupes aren't entitled to. Plus, while there's no improvement in space, some people just want the hard-lid aesthetic. If nothing else, it's likely that the RF possesses a marginally stiffer body structure than its soft-top sibling, and potentially less top-down wind buffeting.

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With the top up, the Miata RF promises a coupe-like experience.

Sarah Tew/Roadshow

For me, the key thing about the RF is that it's expected to extend the appeal of the Miata to a larger group of buyers -- ones who might otherwise not be as interested in pure convertible. With a small-volume proposition like the Miata, the importance of expanding the car's audience without selling its soul can't be underestimated. If building vehicles like the Cayenne and Panamera can help Porsche fund "purer" models like the 911 and Boxster, why can't the same be true on a lesser level for the RF and the standard Miata?

Admittedly, I have my concerns. I want to know how the cross bar that bridges the flying buttresses affects the cabin's open-air feeling. Does the RF just feel like it has a big sunroof or targa, or does it actually still feel like a full convertible from behind the wheel? Do those lovely bodywork lumps dramatically impede rear visibility, especially rear three-quarter over-the-shoulder? How much will it cost? Will existing PRHT owners swoon, or feel spurned?

Oh, I've got a lot of questions, including whether or not I'd actually rather own one than a garden-variety canvasback ND. But even with that forehead wrinkler in mind, I think the RF is absolutely beautiful, and deeply clever.

Most importantly, I think it's good for the Miata's business case, and thus, its future.

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A closer look at the RF's most distinctive feature, its flying buttresses.

Sarah Tew/Roadshow

Con RF:

Antuan Goodwin, reviews editor

The fourth-generation MX-5 Miata is a marvel of weight reduction and savings. At around 2,300 pounds, it's nearly as light as the original. I've spoken to Mazda engineers and seen the madness twinkle in their eyes when discussing the reduction of mass. Every part of the Roadster -- from the body panels, powertrain and suspension components to the literal nuts and bolts holding them together, from the Bose audio system's speakers to the ECU's wire harnesses -- has been scrutinized, shaving a gram at a time to keep the weight as low as possible in the pursuit of pure driving joy.

One engineer told me he couldn't wait to lose the CD player, because it would save a few ounces, a massive amount of weight in MX-5-speak. And then, Mazda went and slapped a 110-pound ballast on top. "But it's a gorgeous ballast, don't you agree?" you ask, and I do, but I'm a function-over-form kind of guy. It's the way the roadster handles a corner that made me fall in love with the MX-5 Miata, not its sharp good looks.

Even I, the Miata purist I am, can't argue that a 5 percent jump in weight will outright ruin the MX-5, but it is weight all the same -- the sort of weight that most automakers would sing to the heavens about removing from a new model -- and here is Mazda, the current king of the featherweights, adding it to its lightest model. More importantly, the weight in the wrong possible place: at the highest point of the vehicle where it has the largest impact on the car's driving dynamics. We won't know how much of a negative effect the new top has until we get behind the wheel of the RF.

2017 Mazda MX-5 RF

It seems odd that Mazda put such effort into saving every possible gram, then fitted the MX-5 RF with a heavy, complex targa-style top.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

My biggest complaint is not the Retractable Fastback's potentially tiny loss of a bit of performance, but the missed opportunity to gain an edge. What I really wanted to see in New York was an MX-5 Coupe. The targa-style configuration of the RF is an unnecessarily complex way to create a coupe-like profile and, from an enthusiast's standpoint, it doesn't seem to add much for the trouble that a simple fixed fastback wouldn't.

The fixed roof would be a stressed member of the body, adding to the rigidity and responsiveness of the chassis. It may pay for this increased responsiveness with a bit of weight, but the gains would be lessened without the need for motors and moving parts. The standard Miata is plenty stiff already, but the RF's motorized roof can't add as much to the chassis' rigidity, because it's attached via flexible moving parts and joints; it can only add weight. When you're only working with 155 ponies, every pound gained is a bit of performance lost.

Take the Porsche Cayman and Boxster for example. An enthusiast may chose to the more-expensive Cayman over the Boxster for a variety of reasons familiar to those given by Mazda for choosing the MX-5 RF -- the coupe silhouette, hardtop security, to escape the Boxster's unfairly assigned stigma as the poseur's Porsche -- but I'd bet that the reasons that speaks the loudest to the coupe's success are the increased stiffness and better performance; the coupe is simply more hardcore, more sporty. It does the sporty part of sports car better. By delivering a Retractable Fastback, Mazda has missed an opportunity to give us a sharper, slightly more hard-core and racetrack-friendly MX-5 Coupe to complement and mirror the light and playful MX-5 Miata's backroad ballet.

My initial impression of the MX-5 RF was slight disappointment, because it sort of just misses the mark for me -- both as a half step for enthusiasts holding their collective breath for a coupe and a step too far for fans of simple roadsters. Underneath its increased complexity, it's still a compromise.

Then again, even I can admit that that enthusiasts are a fickle crowd -- if the Scion FR-S (now known as the Toyota 86) and Subaru BRZ coupes' sales troubles have taught us anything, it's that -- and the MX-5 RF is a sexy-looking compromise and will likely sell as well as sexy things always do.

Whom do you agree with? Speak your mind in the comments and let us know!

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