Drive Life

2017 Mazda MX-5 RF Limited – Car Review – still a ‘real’ MX-5

2017 Mazda MX-5 RF Limited – Car Review – still a ‘real’ MX-5

Finally, we got our hands on the Mazda MX-5 Retractable Fastback (RF). This is a car that made waves when it was released – there were many MX-5 purists said it had to be a convertible or it wasn’t a ‘real’ MX-5.

Will not having a fully retracting roof detract from the MX-5’s desirability? Isn’t the MX-5 all about the driving experience, and its handling?

The Range

Forgetting the MX-5 range of convertible cars, in the RF range you get to pick from 2 models – the GSX and the Limited. The GSX is automatic only, while the Limited is a choice of 6-speed manual or the same 6-speed auto gearbox.

In the GSX, for your $48,495, you get cloth seats, manual AC, 17” alloys,  6-speaker audio, leather steering wheel and shifter, 7” touchscreen media system, keyless entry and start, Hill Start Assist, Blind Spot Monitoring, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Emergency Brake Assist, cruise control, DRLs, LED headlights, Internet Radio Integration (Pandora, Stitcher, Aha), Bluetooth, CD player, a single headrest speaker, Tyre Pressure Monitoring, paddle shifters, and Drive selection with Sport Mode. SatNav is an option on the GSX.

For only $2,500 more ($51,995), the Limited adds to this leather seats with red stitching, climate AC, 3-stage heated seats, a Bose 203-watt 9-speaker audio system, dual headrest speakers, SatNav, proximity key system, auto headlights, heated mirrors, auto wipers, auto-dimming rear view mirror, a Limited Slip Diff (manual gearbox only), Lane Departure Warning and auto high-beams.

There’s no Apple Car Play or Android Auto, which seems to be Mazda’s default position.

I’d love to see the sales figures on how many people buy the base model – that’s a lot of extra gear for the small difference in cost.

If you want the Limited with the auto gearbox, you’ll pay $52,995. Note that you can’t buy the MX-5 convertible as an automatic. Perhaps this adds fuel to the debate that the RF is not a ‘real’ MX-5?

First Impressions

Low. So low. I felt like a giant, towering over the MX-5. But with low, comes a great stance. Add to the lowness a stunning design and the result is lots of positive comments on the MX-5. One day a lady was walking past with her kids in a stroller, and threw me a, “I love your car”. This happened quite a bit (but not always people with strollers).

I thought Mazda may have sent us a test car in Soul Red, but ours was in Crystal White Pearl Mica and it really suited it. In the sun, it stood out. Not in height, but amongst a sea of grey and silver cars, the MX-5 was set apart.

Although it is a shame about the colour choices on such a funky, sexy looking car – you get a choice of grey, two whites, Mazda’s Soul Red, Black, and Blue. I’d love to see the MX-5 RF in a bronze or British Racing Green (insert your colour choice here).

The Inside

First up, you have to get inside. While low looks great and keeps that centre of gravity down, it doesn’t make for graceful entry or exit from the MX-5 RF. I never found a way of getting out of the car without almost stumbling out. Even my 20 year-old son found it tricky, so it’s not an age thing.

Still once you are in, it’s pretty obvious you are in a sports car. Simple, snug, and low. There’s a high centre console with a stubby little gear shift lever (At last, a manual test car!).

Looking out from the driver’s seat, it’s like sitting in an old Corvette Stingray; a flat bonnet with raised wheel arches. So very cool, and just that something a little bit special.

It was a little weird to see the inside of the doors with paint on the top, but it suited the pared-back feel of the car. While the MX-5 RF Limited is quite well equipped, you do get the feeling that they’ve cut corners (and weight) to try and make it feel like more of a sports car. Part of this, as well as the painted tops of the doors, is the hard plastics through the cabin. They are pretty much everywhere. This includes the sun visors – solid plastic. One small problem with the sun visors is that you can’t flick them around to the side, when the sun comes in through the driver’s window. A shame as it can be really disconcerting when the sun is hitting your eyes on the side like that.

The MX-5 RF has Mazda’s standard MZD Connect Infotainment System, and it’s identical to other Mazdas, which is just fine. It works simply and logically, and the Limited version has SatNav as standard. This too is simple to use, and does show you the speed limit for the road you are on at the time, which I always appreciate.

The Limited model has dual headrest speakers. Phone calls are great – the call automatically comes on much louder through the headrest speakers, and even more so when the top is ‘down’. Even on the motorway with the top down, my calls were pretty clear. But music is another story. Even adjusting the fader to push the sound to the headrest speakers more didn’t really do much. Best to leave the fader at 50/50 and leave the music to do its thing. It’s likely the headrest speakers aren’t really for music, anyway.

Boot space, if you can call it that, is about the same as the convertible – 127 litres. It’s quite deep, but narrow. In fact storage isn’t one of the MX-5 RF’s strong points. Glovebox? Uh, no. Door pockets? Nope. The centre console cubby can hold a couple of cellphones, and there is another cubby behind seats, and you could fit a wallet or two in there. The reason I went looking for the glovebox was for the manual, but it’s stored in the boot.

I went to plug in my dash cam, but realised there wasn’t a 12-volt socket. Or so I thought. I embarrassingly grabbed the owner’s manual and found it – located way up under the dashboard.

The steering wheel felt tiny after I had just handed an AMG C43 back, but after my week with the car, it felt perfect. The buttons and controls are standard Mazda and work as they should, with a minimum amount of looks required to see what button you are pressing.

It’s great to see that Mazda have stuck with three simple dials for all AC controls, they work well and don’t need to be changed. Ever.

Interesting that there’s no reversing camera – and when a car is this low, it would have been pretty handy to have when reversing.

You do get two USB ports and an aux connection up front, so that’s a bonus.

The Drive

I’ll be honest: I didn’t really enjoy the car at first – the clutch felt too heavy, the gearbox felt too notchy, and it seemed so hard to get into and out of. I picked the car up on a dark wet night, in rush hour – all of a sudden I am looking at the other car’s wheel centres, I am that low down.

But after a few days, it all came together, and from there on – bliss.

That’s not to say that driving the MX-5 is perfect, but overall this is a perfect driver’s car. Forget the convertible nay-sayers, taking the MX-5 to the RF version has not taken anything away from the sheer handling and driving ability of this car, and to me that is what the MX-5 is all about.

I’m going to get over the things that I didn’t like first, then spend time telling you just how good this thing can handle.

The handbrake. Sigh. Like the previous (NC) model, it’s on the right side of the gear change, and can interfere a little with gear changes. It’s not that it’s difficult to change gear, but the NB and NA MX-5s had theirs on the left side – perfect. The NC and (current) ND models moved it to the other side. I am sure that if you are a real handbrake-slide fiend, it’s in a perfect position but for day-to-day use, it’s not ideal. It would look tidier to get rid of it and stick an electric park brake in (I’ll sit back and wait for the howls of protest around that idea!).

Wind noise – top up or down – is definitely there. With the top up, it’s fairly evident, but you get used to it. Top down may be more of an issue to people taller than me. Just up and to the right of my ear – right where the driver’s window connects to the rear of the frame, there’s a whistling noise that will irritate some. If you are a 6-footer plus, you may find this noise right by your ear.

Three-quarter visibility is not the best, as you would expect. While those rear buttresses look amazing, they also block lots of your rear vision. Still, you have Blind Spot Monitoring to help keep you safe.

Be prepared for some engine noise. No, it’s not raspy like an Italian car, but just a bit vocal as many of the SkyActiv motors seem to be. In the MX-5 RF it actually bordered on a sporty note at certain revs. It never sounds really loud, but I wonder how much sound proofing has been dumped in the name of weight reduction. And hey, this is a car that weighs in at just 1080Kg. If soundproofing has been sacrificed, it was worth it.

Right, complaints aside, just how good a drive on a windy road is the MX-5 RF? Freaking awesome.

I took the car to my Favourite Handling Road, and ‘tested’ it out thoroughly. We are talking a good mix of corners, uphill/downhill with some 20km/h bends. I had to really push the RF hard to get it to lose grip, and then it was the rear only, and completely controllable and composed. Neutral handling, thy name is MX-5. Far out this car sticks like something to a blanket. There is never any tyre squealing from the front, and it tracks beautifully.

And it’s not like the tyres are anything really fancy – Bridgestone Potenzas at 205/45 R17. It sits flat, and you are rewarded well for driving this car hard. In normal driving, the clutch does feel a bit heavy and the gearbox a bit notchy, but on a windy road they come to the game and work perfectly together. It was interesting to read the Drive Life review from last year of the convertible MX-5 where Mark mentioned the body roll – I could not make it lean on the corners. Sure, it had more than the Fraser Clubman I drove last year but that was more a road-going go-kart than the MX-5.

With an almost 50/50 weight distribution and a low centre of gravity, this car is absolute ball to drive on a windy road. Steering, chassis and brake feedback is spot on, and the brake and accelerator pedals are perfect for heel and toe changes. I am still grinning!

Mid-corner bumps? I hit plenty and there was no drama.

The engine, while being a ‘normal’ Mazda 2.0-litre Skyactiv motor is nothing special – no turbo, no supercharger. But it doesn’t need any more power; this motor is perfectly matched to the chassis. And that’s not to say it’s slow – 7.3 seconds to 100km/h is fast enough, and when you are this low to the ground, feels so much faster.

The 6-speed Skyactiv ‘box is newly developed for the MX-5, and is apparently one of the lightest transmissions in the world. And with 200Nm and just 1080Kg, you can cruise along in higher gears quite comfortably. The car has a gear indicator, which is always nice to have. The MX-5 RF also shows you when it’s best (that is, most economical) to change up, and I was surprised to see it suggested some ‘gear blocking’ where it suggests you should go straight from third to fifth, for example. Sometimes it suggested I go from fourth to sixth when going up a rise, but that wouldn’t have been kind to the engine.

Enough of the ‘normal’ MX-5 good stuff – what of the RF? Is it worth getting the RF over the convertible? I think that’s a personal choice, and I think people would either get one or the other, and not be swayed by having to choose.

For the RF, you can open or close the roof up to 10km/h – but be prepared to be looked at. This is one sexy little sports car and if you are at the lights and the roof starts moving, it’s a stare magnet. And it does look quite cool, as that entire rear lifts up, then the top folds into the boot, then the rear down again.

Driving top-down on the motorway at night is still pretty warm – even at this time of year, especially with the 3-stage seat heater on and the climate AC to keep you toasty. There is a little buffeting, but other than the wind noise already mentioned, it’s a really pleasant experience, compared to a full convertible where your hair (if you have any) flies forward.

Can I just say that I enjoyed being waved to by almost every other MX-5 driver out there? It was a nice experience to go through. It seems like every MX-5 owner knows they are driving something special.

It was interesting that Mazda claim a combined fuel economy of 7.4litres/100km. I think for the first time ever, I beat a manufacturer’s figure. Over 600kms I got 6.7l/100km, and that was not all gentle driving. Excellent.

The Competition

Tough choices here. And the GT86 isn’t any sort of a drop-top, but I added it in for a comparison.

Brand / Model Engine Power, Kw/Torque, Nm Fuel L/100km 0-100km/h Price Highest to Lowest
Fiat Abarth 124 Spider RWD 4-cylinder, 1.4-litre turbo DOHC VVT/6-speed manual 125/250 6.4 6.8 $52,900
Toyota GT86 RWD 4-cylinder, 2.0 litre DOHC VVT Boxer//6-speed manual 152/212 8.4 7.4 $51,986
Mazda MX-5 RF Limited RWD 4-cylinder, 2.0 litre Skyactiv DOHC VVT/6-speed manual 118/200 7.4 7.3 $51,495

The Pros and Cons

Pros Cons
  • Oh so stylish
  • Eye-catching design
  • Fuel economy
  • Handling
  • Grip
  • Steering
  • Brakes
  • Chassis
  • Grin factor
  • No reversing camera
  • So many hard plastics for the top-spec version
  • Still no Apple Carplay or Android Auto, Mazda?
  • Wind noise
  • Storage space (understandably)
  • Handbrake location

What do we think of it?

There is no doubt that the RF is every bit a great car as the convertible MX-5. It’s all there – handling, grip, steering, brakes, fun.

You can see above I do have a few ‘cons’ about the car. I can imagine that the wind noise with the top down would be a pain for taller drivers.

But in the end, it’s the sheer funness and driveability of the RF that shines through. If you buy this car because you don’t want a full convertible but you do want a fun, windy road drive – then it will tick the boxes for you. End of story.

I see that Mark gave this car a 5-chevron rating last year. I am so close – it’s like a 4.75 for me – but I am going to drop down to 4.5. Just a few tweaks Mazda, and then it may be impossible to beat.

4.5 chevrons

Vehicle Type 2-door, 2-seat retractable fastback
Starting Price $48,995
Tested Price $51,495
Engine SKYACTIV-G 2.0 litre in-line, 4-cylinder, 16 valve, DOHC S-VT petrol engine
Transmission 6-speed manual
0 – 100 kph, seconds 7.3
Kerb Weight, Kg 1,080
Length x Width x Height, mm 3915x1735x1235
Cargo Capacity, litres 127
Fuel Tank, litres 45
Fuel Efficiency Advertised Spec – Combined –  7.4L/100km

Real world test – Combined – 6.7/100km

ANCAP Safety Ratings 5 Star
Warranty 5 years unlimited kilometres

5 years roadside assistance

3 years free servicing

 

How an earth to start this? I've been car/bike/truck crazy since I was a teen. Like John, I had the obligatory Countach poster on the wall. I guess I'm more officially into classic cars than anything else - I currently have a '65 Sunbeam Tiger that left the factory the same day as I left the hospital as a newborn with my mother. How could I not buy that car? Recently my wife and I drove across the USA in a brand-new Dodge Challenger, and then shipped it home. You can read more on www.usa2nz.co.nz I am heavily into the motorbike scene as well, and my current ride is a BMW K1200GT. There is nothing like a ride on a bike!

Related Posts

Leave a Reply