I'll start this review with a confession: I was never a fan of soft-tops or convertibles.
Why? I just didn't get the appeal of it as I found it more of a problem should the weather decide to rain on your parade, literally and figuratively. There's also the matter of air pollution which is not going away anytime soon, especially in Metro Manila.
But as much as convertibles were not my cup of tea, I have always been curious about the Mazda MX-5 as I have never been in one, let alone driven one. Having been in production since 1989, the little Mazda roadster showed the world that a two-door drop-top can actually be practical and livable to drive everyday.
When the opportunity to test it arrived, I took my chance and I have to say, my opinion on drop tops has changed; and it's all thanks to the MX-5 RF. So how did it influence my view on convertibles and roadsters?
Whether you’re a diehard fan or a casual admirer, most know that past iterations of the MX-5 had a friendly, almost feminine disposition, or for the track-day crowd. Despite being branded as a ‘hairdresser’s car’, the MX-5’s design from the first-gen NA all the way to the third-gen NC was timeless, bold and evocative. It blended classic British roadster design with Japanese ingenuity.
This is not the case, however, for the fourth-gen MX-5. With the Kodo design philosophy clearly embedded in its exterior, the drop-top roadster ditches its affectionate demeanor for a more aggressive look. Sleek angry headlights dominate the front fascia along with a huge gaping maw of a front grill that resembles a shark-like smile. Contrasting the aggressive tones on the MX-5 are the smooth-shaped fenders, contoured rear bumper and eye-catching taillights. Also serving as a nice touch are the eight-spoke, 17-inch alloy wheels wrapped in low-profile tires.
But perhaps serving as the 'pièce de résistance' on the RF is its retractable folding hardtop. Watching it deploy and retract is in itself an art form of sorts. It is slightly heavier than the traditional soft-top, but the trade-off of having a folding roof is a quieter, more refined driving experience which I'll get to later. If you're concerned about the mechanism consuming trunk space, don't worry as it only takes up as much as space as the soft-top.
As much as people adore the soft-top, I like the proportions of the RF more. Maybe it has something to do with the shape of the folding roof, or how it resembles a proper coupe. Whatever it may be, the RF is drop-dead gorgeous with or without a roof.
Pop the doors open and you are invited in a low-slung cabin that is surrounded by fine quality Nappa leather. At first, I was not so sure about shelling extra money just to get a nicer upholstery trim. But after getting a feel for it and seeing it up close, I now know why having the Nappa option is a must. Despite having an automatic transmission, Mazda was still able to incorporate a ‘golf-ball’ shaped gear selector reminiscent of the manual gear shifter.
A two-door sports car it may be, but Mazda did not skimp on equipment and in-car features for the fourth-generation MX-5. A leather-wrapped steering wheel with multimedia controls comes standard on the RF, along with the signature MZD Connect infotainment system. It may already be four-years old but its ease of use and crisp graphics was always something I really liked. The system comes with an AM/FM radio, Aux, Bluetooth, USB and navigation. It even has a CD/DVD player which Mazda strategically placed between the seats, just below the rear glovebox. Delivering equally crisp audio in the cabin is the 9-speaker Bose sound system.
While luggage space is not exactly the best feature of the MX-5 RF, I have to commend Mazda for making a relatively deep trunk compartment work in such a tiny roadster. What it lacks in sheer width and length, it makes up for in volume. In fact, I was able to fit a small cooler and one or two backpacks in the MX-5. There's also the matter of the cleverly-designed removable cupholders which sit between the seats. But if you're just driving solo, you can place one of the cupholders on the passenger side for easier access to your drink.
Gone is the old 2.0-liter MZR engine under the hood. Propelling the all-new MX-5 RF is a four-cylinder SkyActiv-G engine that also displaces 2.0-liters. Despite having the same size, the new motor generates 160 PS at 6000 rpm along with 200 Nm of torque at 4600 rpm. Sure it’s down by 9 PS compared to the old motor, but it does have 10 Nm more than the MZR which comes in much earlier at 400 rpm less than the MZR. Did I mention the RF is also lighter by 20 kg than the old retractable hard top?
With a push of a button, the MX-5 RF comes to life. While it’s no muscle car, the indistinguishable rumble from the four-cylinder engine was impressive to say the least, especially on cold-starts. Put the car in gear and the MX-5 goes about its business like any commuter on the road. Yes it is a two-door roadster but it behaves like any car on the road, albeit closer to the ground and is built for carving corners.
Drive the MX-5 sedately and it’s surprisingly docile. Keep a light foot on the throttle and the MX-5 RF just prances around boulevards and city avenues without much fuss. The six-speed automatic transmission went through each cog smoothly and kept the revs relatively low. But driving the MX-5 around city streets is not exactly the best place to test its capabilities.
Take it up to winding roads and the MX-5 just comes alive. Put your foot to the floor and the engine is more than eager to send power to the rear wheels. Switch the transmission to 'Sport' and the revs become sharper and linger more in the powerband. If the old automatic versions of the MX-5 have a bad rap of robbing power from the engine, the new SkyActiv-Drive automatic on the ND is a major step-up in terms of performance. Set the transmission to manual mode and you can play with the gears all day via the gear selector or paddle shifters.
But the icing on the cake of the MX-5 is and always will be its agility. Turn after turn, the MX-5 just gave me confidence in carving mountain roads with ease. Even at speed, the car hugs every turn which allows for faster and safer cornering. Then there's the electronically-assisted power steering which felt mechanical and hydraulic. It was neither heavy or light as Mazda was able to tune it just right. Equally impressive were the brakes as a light tap was all that was needed to shave off speed.
But perhaps the most surprising trait of the MX-5 RF is its rather pliant ride. It’s no GT car by any means but I was expecting it to have a harsher ride. Bumpy roads, rutted streets and the occasional potholes posed no problem for the two-door. The rebound from the double wishbone front suspension, as well as the multi-link rear were good and the dampers did a nice job of absorbing the rough stuff. Also, despite having a chin spoiler and side skirts, the MX-5 was able to go over speed bumps with no trouble whatsoever. To think that most sports cars nowadays get a bad rap for scraping speed bumps and steep inclines. Good on Mazda for actually making the MX-5 RF liveable to drive everyday.
Speaking of everyday driving, fuel economy from the 2.0-liter SkyActiv engine was also impressive. Take it out on the highway and the MX-5 RF will return about 14.0 km/l at best. Light city driving, on the other hand will net the MX-5 with an average fuel consumption of 8.0 - 9.0 km/l. It even gets i-Stop as standard which automatically cuts off power from the engine when the car comes to a complete stop. Lift your foot off the brake pedal and the engine immediately starts up again. While it is great for traffic light stops, it becomes more of an annoyance while you're in stop-and-go traffic. Luckily, you can turn i-Stop off should you not need it.
Purists (and fanatics) of the MX-5 may find the RF a bit too posh than the standard soft-top. But look at it this way: with the folding roof deployed, it makes for a quieter and more refined cabin especially at highway speeds. There is still some wind noise to be expected but then again, it's not really a one-piece hardtop like a traditional coupe. All in all, the RF does a better job in keeping the cabin cool, calm and collected when compared to the soft-top. Mazda has created a baby grand tourer that lets you have an open top, and I thank them for that.
With a sticker price of Php 2,300,000, the MX-5 RF with the Nappa interior is definitely premium. Serving as the top-of-the-range model, it has all the bells and whistles one could ask for in the MX-5, along with a nice folding roof and an exquisite Nappa leather interior. But should you want a manual MX-5 RF without the Nappa, Mazda Philippines is now offering one for Php 100,000 less.
For fans of the MX-5 that don't mind having a retractable roof over their heads and an automatic transmission, the 2018 MX-5 RF is the other alternative.