If you think of the Mazda MX-5 as a straight-up soft-top convertible, then you’re not exactly wrong, but the previous-generation model sold mostly as a folding hard-top. Therefore it’s hardly surprising that, a year after the launch of the fourth-generation soft-top, the new Mazda MX-5 RF, which stands for Retractable Fastback (or hard-top to you and me) is going on sale.
Unlike the previous model’s soft and hard-top designs, which looked virtually the same with their roofs down, the RF offers its own unique style. At the press of a button, and at speeds of up to 6mph, its upper roof section and rear window stow away in just 13 seconds, leaving the distinctive rear 'fastback' section in place to give added protection against the wind.
This is part of the RF’s raison d'être. If you’re someone that likes the principle of a small sports car but the idea of dishevelled hair and the less well-insulated, less-secure interior of a pure soft-top put you off, Mazda says the RF is your salvation: it's designed to be a more relaxing drive than its convertible sibling.
Like the MX-5 soft-top (or Convertible in Mazda speak), you can buy the RF with a 129bhp 1.5-litre engine or the 158bhp 2.0-litre version we’re driving. For the first time since the launch of the current MX-5 you can opt for a six-speed automatic gearbox (although only on the RF), but we’d recommend sticking with the six-speed manual.
Why? Well, put simply it’s one of the best manual gearboxes available today, and using the stubby, precise gearlever truly is one of the pleasures of MX-5 ownership.
It’ll get plenty of use, too, because, as with the soft-top, this 2.0-litre engine is quick but needs plenty of revs to get the best out of it. But this is yet another pleasure: savouring the engine’s free-revving nature and zingy exhaust note, especially with the roof open.
The RF’s solid roof sections make it 45kg heavier than the soft-top, but with a few suspension tweaks Mazda has tuned the handling so you wouldn’t know. It feels just as keen to turn into bends as the Convertible while retaining the same quick, accurate steering and grin-inducing cornering composure.
It also rides better than any sports car has a right to and is perhaps even a smidge better than the soft-top model. Our journey around Barcelona, which encompassed motorways and scraggy back roads, really highlighted the RF’s pad-footed nature.
The only issue was noise. Not road noise, which is vastly improved over that of the Convertible, but wind noise. At 70mph with the roof closed there’s a mini cyclone going on above your head, and when you open the roof, this migrates behind you, becoming an annoying squall created by that upright fastback. At least there isn’t much buffeting.
Next to the Convertible little has changed inside. There’s seating for two, and if you’re over six-feet tall you'll find it cosy all round. The biggest difference is a new 4.6in colour screen in the instrument binnacle; it seems a little underutilised, though, with its star role given over to showing the status of the opening or closing roof.
They’ve kept the boot relatively practical. As with the convertible, the RF is capable of stowing a couple of travel-size suitcases, whether the roof is up or down.
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