The new Retractable Fastback model adds comfort and cost to the MX-5 formula, but looks so good doing it.
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 MX-5 PRHT, 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.
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.
No surprises here, the MX-5 RF's tech has changed very little since we last reviewed the Miata. There's a new 4.6-inch TFT color information display in the instrument cluster that replaces the 2016 model's black-and-white unit, but the 7-inch Mazda Connect infotainment in the center of the dashboard is unchanged.
That Mazda Connect system is about as bare-bones as cabin tech comes while still covering most of the bases for features. It's available with navigation, voice command, USB and iPod connectivity, satellite radio and Bluetooth for hands-free calling and audio streaming. It lacks Android Auto, Apple CarPlay or any sort of audio streaming app integration -- though Mazda has hinted that it may be adding the such functionality at a later date via software update. There's a standard CD player onboard, but its placement between the seats at the driver's elbow is probably the worst I've ever seen.
The movable cupholders are better than those on my personal 1999 Miata, but that's not saying much and they're still pretty terrible. I ended up just removing and tossing them in the trunk. There's also nowhere I could find to place my phone while driving that was in reach of either the USB port on the center console (which simply will not charge an Android phone) or the sole 12-volt outlet tucked deep in the passenger footwell (which I had to go on hands and knees to even find), so charging a smartphone during longer trips is as also a challenge.
I get that tech is not the point of a car like the MX-5. This is an anti-tech car; a spartan driving experience that places a pure driving experience above all. To this end, the MX-5 RF boasts exceptional ergonomics -- everything from the seating position to the placement of the steering wheel, shift lever and pedals is just perfect. I just want my phone charged and out of the way while I'm driving, so I don't have to think about it.
The Grand Touring trim level is available with blind-spot monitoring -- which is more useful than you might think due to enlarged blind spots created by the RF's roof -- lane departure alert and rear cross traffic alert while reversing. There are no intervention technologies or anything that affects the operation of the vehicle. The driver is always in control and totally connected to the driving experience. A rear camera would be nice, but even with the RF's reduced visibility relative to the roadster, it's not necessary. There's not much car behind the driver's seat anyway.
The choice between the soft-top MX-5 Miata and the MX-5 RF's retractable fastback is a tough one. I prefer the top-down experience of the classic Miata. It's a more open and pure roadster experience that also looks less visually complicated. On the other hand, the RF looks so much better with its top up and boasts a much quieter and relaxing cabin with its top closed. Which is better will depend heavily on whether you plan to spend more time with the top up or down, but you can't really go wrong either way.
The RF obviously faces the same competition that the identical Miata does with their primary rivals being the Toyobaru twins, Subaru's BRZ and the Toyota 86. Personally, I prefer the MX-5 as a driver's car, but the BRZ and 86 are probably more flexible daily drivers for those looking to actually transport people and things in their car.
The 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF starts at $31,555 for the base Club model with a 6-speed manual transmission. Our Grand Touring model jumps up to a $32,620 starting point before adding $300 for soul red paint, $130 for keyless entry and $835 for destination charges to reach our as-tested price of $33,885; that's close to fully loaded.
The Grand Touring model adds creature comforts and a few driver aid technologies, making it a good fit for casual drivers looking for a fun and premium driving experience. But as a fan of the MX-5's performance, my personal recommendation for enthusiasts would be to stay at the sportiest Club 6MT trim level with its standard limited-slip differential and spring the for $3,400 Brembo brakes and BBS wheel upgrade package for the sharpest out-of-the-box handling setup.