You can always expect a spin-off from something highly successful—TV shows, movies, companies, and even cars. In the case of the Mazda Miata (marketed as the MX-5 beginning with the third-generation NC), it’s the most successful two-seater roadster in history, and has sold over a million units globally as of April of last year.
But the reason this roadster is so successful is the same reason there are skepticisms about it—the soft top and the associated safety concerns owing to its lack of structural rigidity. Which is why the NC is attractive in its own right: It’s heavier because of the folding roof, and feels more planted. Even former lensman/writer Mikko David, now press and customer relations manager for Mazda Philippines, points out it’s more fun to drive because it feels GT-ish.
While there were initial talks of an MX-5 coupe (with eye-catching renderings all over the Internet at one point, and contributing editor Niky Tamayo coming up with his own), the idea seemed to veer too far away from what the nameplate is all about. The result? A targa-inspired model Mazda has dubbed the MX-5 RF—as in ‘retractable fastback.’ For those who prefer a hardtop sports car but can’t get the MX-5 out of their heads, this may be the best answer.
The roof and the buttresses give this version a coupe-like profile, making it a convincing option for those who are partial to this body style. Mind you, operating the roof will attract attention. At the touch of a button, the buttresses lift up for the roof and the rear windscreen to fold down beneath, then lower back in place. The process takes 13sec.
The inconvenience is that this can only be done at speeds under 10kph. Once you’ve left your parking spot, that’s it—but we’re in the Philippines, and you’ll be driving with the roof up 90% of the time, anyway. Compare this with the soft-top MX-5, where you have to loosen a hook and push down the fabric canopy to secure it, or release a latch, pull the roof back up, and lock the hook in place if you’ve had enough of top-down motoring.
The Machine Gray paint exclusive to the RF lends a menacing look to the roadster’s otherwise cute appearance. Inside, the cabin is decked in brown nappa leather and comes with a Bose sound system. There’s a tad more headroom, something tall guys like me will always appreciate.
The hardtop roof and its power mechanism contribute to making the RF 45.5kg heavier than the regular MX-5. But does it hamper the essence of the little roadster?
No, I actually prefer the handling of this one. The additional weight may have altered the center of gravity, but the suspension has been stiffened to manage the extra mass. The chassis still has a pointy front end and dances on corner entry, but there’s noticeably less body roll and a more planted feel versus the soft-top—a suitable enhancement for those who favor the stiffer ride of a coupe. It’s still softer than the Toyota 86, but direction changes are much better. Steering has also been adjusted to provide less assistance and better tactility.
While you’d expect the RF to be a fraction slower, there doesn’t seem to be any disadvantage to the 2.0-liter Skyactiv mill’s performance. That said, you’ll have to manage your expectations if you want the six-speed manual ’box available in the soft-top, because the RF only comes with an automatic. Can’t blame the local distributor, though—about nine out of 10 MX-5s sold here come with the slushbox, so bringing in only the automatic simplifies everything. It’s actually a good system, and you have paddle shifters and a Sport mode to augment that sporty feel. Besides, with our worsening traffic situation, the two-pedal variant is sounding more practical.
Much has been said about the RF’s wind buffeting by our peer Ollie Kew in the UK—that it’s “severe once you approach 90kph, from a faint tapping to an overbearing drumming as turbulence clatters behind you.” During my week-long loan, however, only two days were dry, allowing me but a brief sample of open-top motoring around the metro late one evening.
My drive to and around Tagaytay with the wife was hit by stormy weather, giving us no chance of putting the top down where it’s more suitable. The downpour was so strong, I didn’t even notice any buffeting with the roof up. One thing I do like is the added insulation, which gives the RF more NVH refinement.
Even if you are partial to coupes, you can’t deny the attraction of the MX-5 RF. Even I thought I preferred the soft-top hands down—it’s simpler and lighter with less moving parts, and it’s the original. But the RF makes it tougher to choose between the two, particularly because of its rigid roof and improved ride. It’s a compromise that will give those who prefer sports coupes something to think about.
SPECS: Mazda MX-5 RF
Engine: 2.0-liter petrol I4
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Power: 158hp @ 6,000rpm
Torque: 200Nm @ 4,600rpm