DriveLife

2019 Mazda MX-5 RF – New Car Review – More power=more fun?

2019 Mazda MX-5 RF – New Car Review – More power=more fun?

When we last reviewed the Mazda MX-5 RF (Retractable Fastback) in May, 2017, I loved it. What a driver’s car it was. I gave it a 4.5-Chevron rating, mentioning a few things that were ‘cons’ for me, but still loving the car.

One of those cons wasn’t the car needing more power – but Mazda felt it was due for a kick in the pants in the power department. So the car – while still retaining a 2-litre-four-cylinder engine, has gone from 118kW of power to 135kW. Okay, that’s not a massive leap, but remember that the MX-5 RF weighs in at just under 1100Kg. Torque has gone up slightly, from 200 to 205Nm.

This increase in power and torque is across both the 2-litre convertible and RF models.

Is this breaking the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mantra for the MX-5? Or is it simply going to improve the sheer driveability of the MX-5?

The Range

There’s an additional model since our last test – Mazda have added a base convertible (‘Roadster’) model fitted with a 1.5-litre, four-cylinder engine and with a 6-speed manual gearbox only. This non-turbo motor puts out 97kW of power and 152Nm of torque, and retails at $41,895. This is now the GSX model in the MX-5 range.

Next up is the Limited Roadster, with the more powerful 2-litre engine and in a manual gearbox only at $49,195.

Then there’s two RF models – manual or with a 6-speed auto, $53,745/$55,245.

Feature-wise, the GSX is fitted with a cloth soft-top, 16” black alloy wheels, LED DRLs, LED headlamps, black cloth seats, cruise control, a leather wrapped steering wheel, handbrake handle and gear shift knob, a trip computer, a 7” touchscreen central display, keyless entry and start, a reversing camera, hill start assist, a limited slip diff, a type pressure monitoring system, i-ACTIVSENSE safety technologies like Advanced Smart City Brake Support (Forward), Blind Spot Monitoring and Rear Cross Traffic Alert. As options, there’s SatNav and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto.

Moving up to the Limited Roadster, it changes the wheels to 17” alloys, and adds auto headlights, heated exterior mirrors, auto wipers, black leather seating with red stitching, heated front seats, an auto dimming rear-view mirror, climate AC, a Premium Bose 203-watt sound system with 9 speakers, SatNav, proximity keyless entry, and rear parking sensors. You get more safety tech too, like Adaptive LED headlights, Lane Departure Warning, Smart City Brake Support (Reverse), Traffic Sign Recognition, and Driver Attention Alert.

The RF model of course has the power-retractable hard top, but all other features are the same as the convertible. Note the limited slip diff is only available with a manual transmission.

You can read more about the MX-5 range on Mazda New Zealand’s website.

First Impressions

Thank you Mazda, for sending me an MX-5 finished in Soul Red Crystal Metallic. This car in that colour looks bloody brilliant. The way Soul Red changes in the light is awesome. Only a blind person wouldn’t smile looking at the RF, from any angle.

It’s so low though. Not in a bad way at all, but parked next to a new Ford Ranger, it looks like a Tonka Toy.

Walking to the rear, you spot those Jaguar-ish taillights, the twin exhaust tips, the oh-so-stumpy rear end. It all just works.

The Inside

On opening the door, you’re first struck with the bright red paint on the tops of the doors. While our last test MX-5 had this too, because it was pearl white it didn’t stand out too much. In Soul Red? It looks fantastic. A real throwback to cars from the 1960s were painted door tops was all too common. The look really wallops you in the face when it’s this colour. Loved it.

Speaking of the doors, I had my notepad in hand, and remembered there’s no door pocket to put it on. Or glovebox. Or centre console cubby. Okay, that’s going a bit too far. You can (just) fit a smartphone in the centre console cubby, and there is another cubby behind that on the bulkhead – it actually fits an SLR camera – but that’s about it for storage. The MX-5 is not made to carry your crap around everywhere. That includes the car’s manual, which is stored in the boot.

Looking down into the car, we see black leather that’s complimented with red stitching on the seats, steering wheel gear shift gaiter, handbrake boot, and the doors. And yes, it also looks excellent.

It’s so low down in there, but I know there are rewards for getting behind the wheel. But first a quick check of the boot. Yup, it’s tiny, at just 127 litres. You could fit a medium-sized suitcase in there and a soft bag, but not too much more.

The Drive

Well, I don’t remember it being quite this low. It’s on dusk, and I look out the driver’s window to see car tyres at my head height. At just 1235mm high, to SUV drivers you are a speck on the road.

Driving out of the dealership, and it feels so torquey, even though torque has only gone up 5 Newton Metres. It seems a little quieter too; Mazda’s petrol engines aren’t known for their quietness (except for the CX-5 Takami we just tested), but this one seems better already.

Looking at the dash, there’s a big, fat rev counter sitting dead centre. No surprises here on what this car was meant to do. I cruised towards home, and feeling intimidated. Not by the car, but it feels like every silver SUV wants to ride right up the MX-5’s ass, to the point where I’m looking at a car’s badge in the rear view mirror, no grille to be seen. This was repeated over my week with the car. I’m not sure if it’s the car or the colour, or that people just want to get close to it to look down on me, but man it got annoying.

When I got home, the car told me my lawns needed doing, as I heard grass brushing against the floor pan. Yes, it’s that low. It’s funny, I wrote in my notes that it feels like you are driving in a C3 Corvette, as the guards stretch out and up in front of you, and the bonnet dips down. Then I read my 2017 review of the car, and had said the same thing there. I think this is even more pronounced with the colour of this MX-5.

And that colour. Soul Red Crystal Metallic. This is my favourite colour of any car on the market today. Photos will not do it any justice. Yes, it looks good on a CX-5 and great on an CX-9, but the MX-5 wins hands-down; this is THE COLOUR to get. Everywhere I went – everywhere – people stared, looked, turned their heads, or pointed. It may be a $300 option, but it’s so worth it. I have to say, my wife – who is a total introvert – did not like this about the MX-5.

And then there were the people that had to talk to me. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy talking to people about their cars, but it seemed every man and his dog who had owned an MX-5 before, or had even been in one, wanted to chat about it. I didn’t mind at all, but it sucked up a bit of time some days.

Heading out the next day, time to hit the motorway. A van’s tyres are above my head, but I don’t care – I’m starting to remember how much fun this little car is to drive, especially with that snick-snicketty 6-speed manual gearbox. It’s one of the better ones, very short throw, and decent indents. Very rarely did I miss a gear. The clutch was perfect too – light, but still with good feel. I see in the last test I mentioned how heavy the clutch was, so it looks like Mazda have done some work here.

I noticed that someone else had turned off Lane Departure Warning on the car, so I stuck it back on. But not for long. It’s a passive system, so only makes a noise, but the noise to does make if your tyres touch the white line is like something out of War of the Worlds. It’s a bit scary, and I turned off LDW too, and left it off.

There’s a small digital readout for what gear you are in inside the rev counter, but a shame there’s no digital speedo. It’s easy to get the MX-5 up to legal speed, and this is really needed for any car these days.

The MX-5 doesn’t do any rev matching like the Type R or i30N, but the pedals are perfectly placed for heel and toe gear changes. I did this every gear change for the whole week. Old habits die hard.

Next to the gear lever, there’s been no change to the handbrake. I’m sort of glad it hasn’t gone electronic in the MX-5, but it does take up a lot of room in that tiny cabin. And like the last test model, the handbrake is really on the wrong side of the gear lever, at times making gear changes a bit awkward. Still, it’s perfectly placed if handbrake slides are your thing. I imagine it does them quite well, with that super-short wheelbase.

A super short wheelbase will also mean a small cockpit, and it is tiny. I know that John from DriveLife, who is well over six foot, cannot change gears or lift his foot off the gas pedal enough to brake. Tricky stuff, and something to think about before going out and buying your significant other a surprise MX-5, if they are oversized.

The engine is definitely quieter than before, and feels like it has much more pep. An additional 30kW is 50 more horsepower. In a car weighing in at under 1100Kg, that’s a good increase to have. It seems a lot quicker off the mark, and it’s easier to get the rear wheels to spin without much effort at all. The previous model took 7.3 seconds to get to 100km/h; that’s down to 6.5 seconds now. That extra power and a little bit of extra torque has made the MX-5 a lot more tractable around town, taking corners in third gear with ease.

That’s not to say it doesn’t like to rev. It enjoys revving out to the 7,000rpm redline as much as it likes tootling around town in a higher gear. This also translates to an easier drive if you head to a twisty road. While the car we drove in 2017 handled amazingly well – as MX-5s are known to do – this new model makes it even easier, as you can leave the car in a higher gear on the corners too, and concentrate on steering the thing. Of course, if you want to keep it in a lower gear and rev it higher, it will happily do that, and you will happily drive it like that.

Like the last model, the MX-5 is a driver’s car; it handles incredibly well, sitting almost flat on the tightest of bends. The steering is oh-so-direct, and it is one car that truly feels like a go-kart, as you zoom along, feeling like you are in a go-kart you are so low down.

You can get some tyre scrubbing and understeer going on if you hit an off-camber corner too fast. It doesn’t matter too much, but on taking the MX-5 out on the same road I took the last RF model, this one did seem to do this more. Perhaps I was going faster with the extra power, I’m not sure.

There’s one thing here that still sticks in my mind for the MX-5; the ride. It should not ride this well. There’s not that much wheel travel, it’s a sports car, and yet even speed bumps are taken better than many cars I’ve driven. I still can’t get over the quality of the ride, especially when you consider how light the car is; it’s bloody hard to make a light car ride well, and Mazda have pulled a double-whammy here: it’s a light sports car that rides incredibly well. Total credit to Mazda for pulling this off.

I guess though lots of buyers/drivers of the MX-5 won’t care about the ride, but it’s a great bonus. But yes, handling is where the car excels, and the extra power (and torque) have only made it better.

Some things remain the same with the car, and some things change. The things that haven’t changed include the engine sound; there really isn’t a nice, grunty-car noise that it makes. It’s crying out to snap crackle and pop, or just sound better than it does. Maybe next time.

One more thing that hasn’t changed, is the wind noise when the top is down. Up by your ear, there’s an annoying whooshing noise, that could really get to you on a long trip. I expect taller drivers have it worse. Mind you, there was a cold spell while I had the car, so I didn’t have the top down too much. With the top up, it’s as quiet as a normal car, feeling very secure and tight.

I did put the top up and down a few times to remind myself what the RF is like. You can put it up or down, up to 10km/h. It’s a pretty quick system, and is a real party trick if you want to show the RF off.

Other things have definitely improved. It sounds quieter than before with the top up, and feels like and is quiet as a hard-top car. Top up or down, those rear buttresses will majorly block your vision to the side. There’s almost no point checking to the side if you are changing lanes, as all you can see is red. Luckily, the Blind Spot Monitoring works well, and also has an audible warning if you flick your indicator on and there’s a car or bike in the next lane. You really need this in the MX-5 RF.

Last time, I complained (nicely) that the MX-5 didn’t have a reversing camera – now it does. I also mentioned it didn’t have Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, so at least those are options now.

One change is the final adaption of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Mazda have joined the rest of the world at last with this feature – hell, even Toyota has finally agreed to implement it – and it’s a welcome feature to have, even if it is an optional extra. Speaking of audio, no changes here; two USB ports in the centre console, along with an AUX port. Phone calls are diverted to the speakers inside the driver’s headrest, and it works brilliantly well, top up or down. It does feel a little strange to have your caller so close to your ears like that, but the quality is great.

Not that it matters, but what about fuel economy? For the last MX-5 RF, I got 6.7L/100km, which for the first time for any car, was better than the manufacturer’s claim. Over a 500km week, the new RF managed 7.1 L/100km. Mazda reckons it should average 6.9, so that’s pretty close.

I have to mention the amount of people who threw words around at me and the RF, like ‘hairdresser’s car’ and ‘mid-life crisis’. I want to squash these two things out, right now. Hairdresser’s car? Good on any hairdresser for buying an MX-5. I’m envious! Fantastic handling and looks, and people want to put them down for that? More fool them.

And so to mid-life crisis. I think we’ve got this the wrong way around. My thoughts on this are that it’s around that time when you can afford to go out and buy a new MX-5. Crisis? What crisis? Let’s call it ‘mid-life affordability’.

The Competition

Brand/ModelEnginePower/Torque

kW/Nm

Number of seats0-100km/h, secondsFuel L/100kmBase Price – High to Low
Mazda MX-5 RF RWD2-litre, 4-cylinder petrol135/20526.56.9$53,745
Fiat Abarth 124 Spider RWD1.4-litre, 4-cylinder turbo petrol125/25026.86.4$52,990
Alfa Romeo Giulietta Veloce FWD1.7-litre, 4-cylinder turbo petrol177/34056.06.8$49,990
Toyota GT86 RWD2-litre, 4-cylinder petrol152/21247.48.4$48,990

The Pros and Cons

ProsCons
  • Ride
  • Handling
  • Steering
  • Design
  • Fuel Economy
  • A blast to drive
  • Gearbox
  • Red stitching
  • Wind noise with top down
  • Blind spot
  • Needs a decent exhaust note

The Verdict

Initially, I gave this version of the MX-5 a 4.5-chevron rating, the same as the last MX-5 RF. Then I re-read this review and decided it’s worthy of the full 5-chevron rating. Mazda have taken our slight criticisms of the car (no reversing camera, or CarPlay/Android Auto) and have fixed this, and added more power, without detracting from the total blast that the MX-5 is to drive. So I’ve changed my mind, and I’m happy – as any MX-5 RF driver would be.

The MX-5 is totally capable as a Daily Driver too – it did me just fine – and I severely doubt you’d ever see an MX-5 driver doing anything other than smiling.

The 2019 MX-5 RF is a brilliant driver’s car, if not one of the best.

drivelife-car-review-chevrons-four-and-half

2019 Mazda MX-5 RF

5.0 Chevrons

Vehicle Type2-door retractable hardtop sports car
Starting Price$53,754
Price as Tested$53,754
Engine2-litre, 4-cylinder petrol
Transmission6-speed manual
Power, Torque

kW/Nm

103/205
Spare WheelSpace saver
Kerb Weight, Kg1,087
Length x Width x Height, mm3915x1735x1235
Cargo Capacity, litres127
Fuel Economy, L/100kmAdvertised Spec – combined – 6.9

Real World Test – combined – 7.1

Low Usage: 0-6 / Medium Usage 6-12 / High Usage 12+

Fuel tank capacity, litres45
Towing Capacity

Kg, unbraked/braked

N/A
Turning circle, metres9.4

Small: 6-10m / Medium 10-12m / Large 12m+

Warranty5 years Mazdacare warranty unlimited km

5 years Roadside Assistance unlimited km

Mazda Servicing for 3 years/100,000km

ANCAP Safety Ratings5 Star

 

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'm also an Observer for the Institute of Advanced Motorists - trying to do my bit to make our roads safer.

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