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2017 Mazda MX-5 RF: New roof, new ambitions

The Mazda MX-5 has always been in a category unto itself. It’s less powerful than the Porsche Boxster and Mercedes-Benz SLC, smaller than the Ford Mustang, more modern than the Nissan 370Z and more reliable than the MINI Cooper convertible.

The Mazda MX-5 has always been in a category unto itself. It’s less powerful than the Porsche Boxster and Mercedes-Benz SLC, smaller than the Ford Mustang, more modern than the Nissan 370Z and more reliable than the MINI Cooper convertible. Yep, the MX-5 has always been in its own segment, comfortably surrounded by throngs of devoted drivers. This tiny car was first released in 1990 under the Miata name and it has gained a few centimetres and kilos since then. But 30 years later, it’s still not a hefty machine!

From space to power to comfort, consumers always want more. To please drivers who like the MX-5 but find it a bit uncomfortable, Mazda came out with a retractable hardtop version. Behold the MX-5 RF (R for retractable and F for fastback)! This two-seater beams with the top up or down!

That’ll teach ’em!
The MX-5 RF’s designers were given the none-too-easy task of developing a retractable roof that wouldn’t infringe on trunk space. This is the kind of assignment that falls on your shoulders when you’re busy checking Facebook during a team meeting.

“Hey, Rob, you listening? We were just saying that you’d be the perfect person to design the MX-5 RF’s retractable roof. Yeah, the only thing is that it can’t reduce the trunk’s capacity. Think you can have some sketches ready by next week?”

We’ll never know if that’s how it all went down at the Mazda office in Hiroshima, but a little imagination never hurt, right?

In fact, imagination is exactly what the designers had! They came up with a four-part roof. When the driver wants to lower the roof, the rear-most section raises while the other three parts (the front, the middle and the rear window) fold together. The three folded parts create a compact unit that tucks away neatly, using the same amount of space (or almost) as the soft top on the regular MX-5. Then the fourth piece returns to its position. The entire process takes 13 seconds when the vehicle is moving at 10 km/h or less. Check out our video of the mechanical, hydraulic and electronic ballet!

The mechanism used to move the roof section comes, in part, from the third-generation MX-5 PRHT (2008 to 2013), but it’s been tweaked to be smoother and totally silent. The end result is a Targa-style roof, though Mazda seems allergic to this name.

The 80-20 rule
The folks at Mazda firmly believe that the RF version of the MX-5 will appeal to an entirely different group of consumers than the softtop version. The marketing people we talked to said that RF owners will drive with the top up 80% of the time, while regular MX-5 owners only spend 20% of their driving time with the roof up.

Since buyers who opt for retractable hardtops tend to seek comfort (at least more than those who rock messy hair in their convertibles), Mazda’s engineers gave the rear suspension a little adjustment, especially the bushings. This makes the ride more comfortable and helps mitigate the MX-5’s natural tendency to oversteer. For good measure, you need to put a little more effort into the steering when entering a corner.

These changes are fairly subtle. If you haven’t driven the new MX-5, you probably won’t even notice. If you accelerate suddenly while turning—like, say, if you want to clear a lane after passing under a dark amber light (or a pale red one, for that matter)—the rear doesn’t swerve as much as on the softtop version. Rest assured that the MX-RF is still a real pleasure to drive.

When silence is relative
As expected, the cabin in much quieter than in the softtop MX-5. Even with the roof down, you can converse at 100 km/h, provided you raise your voice a little. When the roof is up, the number of decibels drops dramatically. That said, this ain’t no Buick Lacrosse.

Additional reinforcements were added under the MX-5 to strengthen the chassis. Combined with the weight of the roof, this makes the vehicle 56 kilograms heavier. And since it uses the same engine as the regular version—namely a 2.0-litre four-cylinder that delivers 155 horsepower and 148 lbs.-ft. of torque—performance is inevitably affected, but not too much. Anyway, the RF was made for the comfort crowd.

Road handling aside, it’s the same old MX-5 (two years old, to be precise) that we’re used to. It comes up seriously short on storage space, forcing the passenger to tuck their feet over on the right side. When the roof is up, you feel like you’re in a submarine. The back portion of the roof blocks your three-quarter vision a little, like when you’re checking your blind spot. The last thing you should know is that only GS and GT versions are available, as the baseline GX comes with a softtop only.

The extra expense is justified
The MX-5 RF GS starts at $38,800, while the GT starts at $42,200. Then you have to add the options, interest, taxes and all that.

But you know what? Rob almost got it right, because the MX-5 RF’s trunk is just three litres smaller than the softtop version (427 litres vs. 430). And now he keeps his phone in his pocket during meetings!