Hard not to love: Mazda MX-5 RF road test and review
THE smell of a barbecue, a glorious sunset, barefoot beach walks: the simple pleasures in life.
Add to that list driving an open top sports car, preferably with a silky smooth manual gearbox and power delivered as the gods intended: through the rear wheels. Ladies and gentlemen, the Mazda MX-5.
But there are those who still shy away from a soft-top convertible.
Mazda's answer? This. The MX-5 RF, or Retractable Fastback. A touch of a button and the roof and rear window glass cleverly (and rather beautifully) tuck away behind your shoulder without encroaching on boot space. Which is good, as there's very little anyway.
So here you have the extra insulation and security of a hard top sports coupe, but with the ability to electrically stow the roof to give you sun-in-the-face Targa motoring.
Plus there's the same brilliant and playful chassis the MX-5 is renowned for, a revvy 2.0-litre engine (there's no 1.5-litre option as found in the soft top) that hasn't be sullied by a turbocharger, and a unique style that turns heads, as a good sports car should.
Unashamedly impractical, the titchy MX-5 RF is there as a toy, weekend-away plaything or solo transport. But it can just about fit in to your daily lifestyle, as I happily found.
Car companies are forever bombarding us with adverts saying we all need SUVs. Rubbish. I have a practical wagon at home for ferrying kids or sports equipment around, so I could justify owning an MX-5 as a second car.
I used it every day over my 10-day loan, and it happily ferried me to and from work in decent comfort. In fact, as I lucked in to a week of stunning Queensland autumn sunshine it was roof down each morning and evening which gave a huge lift to my day (and tan to my face).
Cramped? Well, yes. The MX-5 is a low-down clamber to get in to (made easier with the roof stowed though), the driver's foot well is tight and the steering wheel doesn't adjust much for height and not at all for reach.
As a six-footer I couldn't get in my ideal driving position - I'd like to sit lower as my knees were a bit too close to the steering wheel - but if I'm honest once on the road it somehow all felt fine. It's a lovely driver-focused cabin, and you feel securely pinned in to the sculpted seats.
My RF featured fabric chairs - you can buy an RF GT version with leather heated seats, Bose audio and other goodies for $4000 more - and had lovely touches such as body coloured door tops, stubby little manual gear knob and decent 7-inch touchscreen monitor.
All your controls, buttons and dials have a nice tactile feel to them, and in typical Mazda fashion, it has a well-screwed together semi-premium feel to it.
Much like the boot, cabin storage is stingy. There's a tiny centre console section which could hold a phone, but there's no glove box or in-door storage.
There's a bin in-between the seat backs alongside two cup holders: not ideally placed, but better than nothing.
On the road
If there's a more fun new car drive on offer for under $40,000 than the MX-5 in either soft top or RF guise, I've not found it.
There's no need for ballistic license-losing turbo power here, nor crashy suspension or nannying electronics to keep you so flat through the turns that you feel disconnected from the drive.
Mazda's engineers have deliberately given the MX-5 RF softish suspension and a surprising amount of body lean, and the result is superb communication of what the front and rear end are doing in this lightweight (1080kg) delight.
Point this little Mazda towards twisty roads and you can get in a joyous rhythm as it happily and very accurately - the steering is brilliantly direct - takes the turns.
It simply brings a smile to your face, which breaks into a laugh if you put a bit too much power down out of a corner and it predictably slides its bum a fraction - manual cars score a limited slip diff - before the driver aids kick in.
With roof up you forget it's a folding hard top as it remains well insulated, if a tad claustrophobic. To that end, you could use it purely as a coupe if that's your thing.
Top down and it's a captivating thing to pose around in. It's best for low or mid-speed cruising when the roof's stowed, as after 100kmh it all gets a bit buffety behind your ear.
Mazda expects the RF to be its top selling MX-5, but your true bargain here remains the 1.5-litre soft top version for $31,990. It would still be my pick from the range.
The RF starts from $38,550 with manual gearbox - an auto is an extra $2000 but it does dull the driving joy - and for that you get 17-inch alloys, LED lights, cruise control, internet radio integration (Pandora, etc.), sat nav, blind spot monitor (useful as rear visibility is pretty poor) and rear cross traffic alert.
Remember when driving was fun? Miss those days? Buy yourself one of these.
The MX-5 soft top is still the bargain of the range, but the RF folding hard top is a delight as a clever coupe that morphs into a Targa top at the touch of a button.
Impractical, noisy with the roof down and cramped? Yes, but you forgive it such things the moment you hit the road.
Mazda MX-5 RF (Retractable Fastback)
Price: From $38,550 (RF); from $43,890 (RF GT). Autos add $2000.
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol, 118kW @ 6000rpm and 200Nm @ 4600rpm.
Transmission: Six-speed manual or six-speed automatic, RWD.
Thirst: 7.0-litres/100km (manual) or 7.4-litres/100km (auto).
0-100kmh: 7-seconds (approx.)
What matters most
The good: A joy to drive with fine balance, handling and revvy engine mated to a silky manual six-speed gearbox; striking looks; hard top roof folds away beautifully.
The not so good: Wind buffeting at speed seems more intrusive than in the soft top MX-5; poor storage space; needs reach adjustment for the steering wheel.
Warranty and servicing: Three-year unlimited kilometre warranty and five-year capped price servicing program. Services are every 10,000km or 12 months, with an average of $316 over first five services.
Driving experience 19/20
Features and equipment 17/20
Functionality and comfort 15/20
Value for money 17/20
Style and design 19/20