2017 Mazda MX-5 RF First Drive Review – Adding Balance

Let’s get right to it. Retractable hardtop MX-5 owners will pay a 113-pound penalty for their motorized, targa-topped fun. 113 pounds. Mazda engineers and marketers do not take that sum lightly. But we can, because unless you are stripping down your Miata for competitive track work — in which case you will select the softtop anyway — you will not feel the difference.

The hardtop does absolutely nothing to diminish the balanced, driver focused, analog pleasure of the fourth generation MX-5. And for the purists, consider your baby may one day only be visible in the rearview mirror if Mazda can not expand the audience for this little icon.

Last year, Mazda sold its one-millionth MX-5. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, it is the best-selling two-seat sports car in history. However, MX-5 sales have not rebounded since the recession. In the five healthy years leading up to 2007, Mazda shifted more than 34,000 MX-5’s across the world each year. Between 2008 and 2012, global sales averaged just 20,700 units annually. And since 2013, global sales have struggled to average 20,000 each year. Depressed volumes may not justify the high cost of maintaining and developing this storied nameplate. Mazda must broaden the MX-5’s appeal to amortize its investment across more units.

Roadster purist or not, we need the Fiat 124 and the RF to secure Mazda’s ongoing commitment to this legend.

The MX-5 was thoroughly redesigned for 2016. And the 2017 RF brings more change. There is, of course, the aluminum, steel, and SMC plastic motorized retractable hardtop that replaces the bubble top afterthought offered on the last generation car. Designer Julien Montousse did an amazing job integrating the new top into Derek Jenkins’s original ND design. Montousse worked within the KODO — Soul of Motion — design language to deliver a sleek solution wholly integrated into the car’s bodywork in a way that suggests it could have been its native form.

Changes to the RF versus the softtop are minor but run deeper than motors and sheet metal. The objective of these changes was to make the hardtop drive like the softtop. According to Mazda, engineers retuned the RF’s rear suspension bushings and bump stops to “smooth out the transition to oversteer, making it easier to balance the car right on the grip limit.” Mission accomplished. Steering calibration was also adjusted to reduce on-center friction. None to speak of. For all but the most hypersensitive and precise professionals, the RF continues to deliver the balanced, uplifting experience that makes the softtop such a laugh.

Depress the open/close button and the MX-5 RF roof actuates in 13 seconds. No latching or unlatching required. Just hold the button until you hear the tone. You may do so at up to 6 miles per hour. And the hardtop does little to reduce the volume of the softtop’s diminutive trunk.

The RF adopts almost everything from the softtop, including its 2.0-liter SKYACTIV-G four-cylinder, delivering 155 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque, as well as its glorious six-speed manual transmission (and an optional automatic). But Mazda did not elect to make RF available in MX-5’s base Sport trim. Hardtop shoppers must move up to the Club, which starts at $31,555, or $2,955 more than its softtop cousin. The top of the line Grand Touring RF starts at $32,620 plus $875 destination fee, or $33,825 if you insist on the sacrilege of two pedals. All MX-5 RF’s deliver an EPA estimated 26 miles per gallon city. Manual transmission cars are good for 33 mpg highway, or 35 mpg for automatics.

Neither version of the MX-5 may be for you. Two seats may not suit your lifestyle, the brand may be too peripheral, or the styling may not be to your liking. Regardless, if you are an enthusiast, you must recognize its unique value proposition. MX-5 is one of very few cars designed narrowly and unapologetically for drivers. Mazda is nearly alone in carrying the torch of accessible performance, and the RF does nothing to diminish the MX-5’s balance and everything to broaden its appeal. Cheers to Mazda for getting the hardtop right.

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