Through four generations, the Mazda MX-5 has been the perfect roadster. The last version came with the option of a retractable hardtop but the style remained essentially the same. This time, things are different.
The regular roadster, launched back in 2015 to ecstatic reviews over its lightness, compactness, regained mojo and much else besides, is now joined by the new MX-5 RF. The letters stand for Retractable Fastback, and they allude to the fact that from the side, whether the roof is open or closed, the little sports car now takes on the racy profile of a fastback coupé.
You can have the roof panel closed, to make it a real coupé, or open, in which case your RF becomes a targa. In most other respects it's MX-5 business as usual… but not all, as we shall see.
That new roofline gives the MX-5 RF a surprising taste of Ferrari Dino. It's the little rear side windows with their backward slope, and the vertical rear window flanked by buttresses, that do it, although the overall proportions are still those of a front-engine, rear-drive sports car rather than the short-nose, long-tail Dino.
Roof closed, the RF is quite the baby GT, helped by a slightly 'faster' windscreen angle than the roadster's. Roof open, the vibe is more that of the old Honda CR-X Del Sol. Those buttresses are of composite plastic, with an unseen steel beam joining them. The roof panel is aluminium, as is the metal strip above the rear window. The whole assembly doesn't make the already tiny MX-5 boot space any smaller, which is a relief, but neither does it release any extra storage space in the cabin, which is sorely needed.
Changing from roof-closed to roof-open, or vice-versa, requires no more than pressing a toggle switch: up to open, down to close, illogically. During the next 13 seconds the whole buttress assembly lifts up, the rear window and the panel below it fold out of the way, the roof panel disappears or emerges as required, and everything puts itself back together. The Mazda doesn't have to be stationary, either. Crawling along, mid-jam, at up to 6mph is fine.
How does it drive?
The RF is slightly heavier than the roadster, and its centre of gravity is slightly higher, so Mazda has made some adjustments to the suspension settings. The front anti-roll bar and the rear springs are slightly stiffer, and the steering's electric power assistance is slightly stronger as you turn into a corner but weaker thereafter. The idea is that the RF should end up feeling very much like the roadster, and there's nothing wrong with that idea at all.
What has changed is your relationship with the fresh air outside. With the roof open but the side windows raised, there's a lot more wind rush and buffeting than in the roadster, especially behind your head, even though you would expect the presence of the rear window to make for a calmer airflow than you get in the roadster. Power the side windows down and, paradoxically, the turbulence reduces and some peace returns, but you also get cold.
So far, so not so good. Close the roof, though, and the coupé makeover is convincing and complete. There's practically no wind noise, and this also feels the most solid, shimmy-free MX-5 ever built. That's the roof tying the structure together, banishing even the small amount of body shake present in the roadster – and in an opened RF.
As for engines, the choice is still a 131hp 1.5 or a 160hp 2.0, the latter giving greater punch and thrust but the former revving more sweetly and still providing enough pace to enjoy the MX-5's lovely rear-wheel-drive, aim-and-go handling. Both engines can be matched either to SE-L or Sport trim, but only with the larger engine does the Sport trim include firmer Sport suspension with Bilstein dampers, 17in wheels and a limited-slip differential. It sounds good but actually it spoils the RF's flow and poise, making the steering seem aggressively sharp and nervous when you turn into a corner. Curiously, this suspension is obligatory if you order an automatic RF.
Should I buy one?
If you have fancied an MX-5 but have been put off by the soft-top's lack of resistance to knife-wielding thieves and vandals, then the RF is the answer. It also looks a neat little GT with the roof closed, and pretty cool when the roof is opened. But if your relationship with an MX-5 is based on the joy of open-air motoring, you'd be better off with the regular roadster: much more civilised when the hood is open, and still snug when it's closed.
If you do go for an RF, though, the cheapest, simplest 1.5 SE-L Nav has all you really need in pace, handling, ride and equipment. Its smaller engine is a smooth, joyful thing which also, thanks to its lightness, makes for a keener, more agile Mazda in the bends.
There is, however, a top-spec launch edition, limited to 500 cars, powered by the 2.0-litre engine and finished in one of two metallic colours: Soul Red or Machine Grey. That's the version that most early buyers have gone for, in grey, not least because the 1.5-litre cars weren't available right at the launch. A Launch Edition that's done its job. Whether the RF itself will enjoy similar success, given how perfect the existing roadster is, remains to be seen.
Gallery: 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF first drive
Mazda MX-5 RF