Mazda's roadster is a driver's delight

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The Mazda MX-RFS, which features a power-operated folding hard top. PHOTO: David Thomson

For more than a quarter of a century, the Mazda MX-5 has reigned supreme as the world's favourite mass-market soft-top sports car.

In 2006, Mazda branched out by fitting an MX-5 with a power-operated folding hard top rather than a manually operated fabric roof. Now it has departed even further from the recipe with the RF (Retractable Fastback) version.

This time round, only the top of the roof folds away; the buttress-like rear pillars rise to allow the lid to be stowed into a cavity between the seats and the boot, but then settle back into place to transform the RF from a hard-top coupe into a Porsche 911-style Targa top.

The styling impact of having those pillars permanently in place is transformational, shifting visual focus to the car's haunches, and replacing the delicate look of the roadster with a far chunkier and more purposeful aesthetic. While fresh on the outside, the cabin of the RF differs from that of a regular MX-5 in its trim choices and the addition of a small centre-console switch to raise and lower the roof.

Engine choices comprise the impressive new 96kW/150Nm 1.5-litre unit sampled by Drivesouth in a regular MX-5 last autumn, and the 118kW/200Nm 2.0-litre engine that carries over from the previous generation MX-5. Select the latter with the RF and it comes with the option of an automatic transmission that further sets this new MX-5 apart from its manual transmission-only roadster siblings.

This 2.0-litre automatic came Drivesouth's way for appraisal in the guise of one of 15 special Launch Edition RF-S cars. Its closest equivalent in the regular RF line-up is the $52,995 Limited Auto.

Slipping behind the wheel, I was reminded of all that is good, and a few things that are not, about the cabin of the latest MX-5. Pluses include the uncluttered instrument layout, fine positioning of key controls and switchgear, snug form-hugging sports seats and attention to detail in fit and finish. Minuses are the absence of a glovebox (a lockable bin between the front seats is provided instead) and lack of reach-adjustment for the steering wheel.

The RF-S is decently equipped, with Mazda's centre-mounted 7-inch display screen home to satellite navigation, phone and internet connectivity and operation of a premium Bose sound system. Other key items include a neat colour LCD screen within the main instrument cluster, push-button start and heated seats.
A regular MX-5's soft top stows in a third of the 13 seconds needed for the RF's folding roof to retract, but an awkward reach back to raise the top is avoided by the RF's power-operated system. Some will feel the hard top offers additional security too. 

Thanks to better suppression of wind noise, the RF is more refined than a regular MX-5 roadster running with its roof up. But roof down, while the RF's rear pillars certainly provide better isolation from breezes, they generate wind noise.

The retractable hard top has little impact on the nimble, balanced handling that has always been a hallmark of the MX-5. That's no surprise given that the roof (partly engineered in aluminium to minimise weight) adds just 36kg to the MX-5's mass, and that the RF's suspension and steering have been retuned to compensate.

Opt for the automatic transmission though, and the quintessential MX-5 sense of being at one with the car and road is dulled a shade - paddle shifts cannot deliver the same tactile rewards as a light and wonderfully precise manual gearbox. Like many fellow motoring scribes, I also prefer the new 1.5-litre MX-5 engine over the 2.0-litre unit. Sure, the latter produces more power and torque, but the former has more character and free-revving zing.

Don't for a moment get the impression from these final comments that the MX-5 RF is anything short of a fine little car. Styling-wise it is a masterpiece, providing a fresh take on the traditional MX-5 look without departing too far from it. Like its soft-top sibling, the RF is a driver's delight.

Mazda's roadster is a driver's delight
At a Glance

MAZDA MX-5 RF LIMITED AUTO

Overall: ★★★★+
Design andstyling:★★★★+
Interior: ★★★★
Performance: ★★★★
Ride/handling: ★★★★★
Safety: ★★★★★
Environmental: ★★★★
For: Appealing looks, fun handling
Against: 2.0-litre auto lacks character of the 1.5 manual
Verdict: A refreshing take on the established MX-5 theme
Price:$52,995
Engine: 1998cc four-cylinder petrol, maximum power 118kW@ 6000rpm, maximum torque 200Nm@4600rpm
Transmission:Six-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Brakesand stabilitysystems: Disc brakes, with ABS, EBD, ESC, TCS
Safetyrating: Five-star European NCAP
Wheels,tyres: Alloy wheels, 205/45 R17 tyres
Fuel andeconomy: 95 octane unleaded, 7.4 litres per 100km on combined cycle, capacity 45 litres
Emissions:CO2 173/km on combined cycle
Dimensions: Length 3915mm, width 1735mm, height 1235mm

RATING (4/5)