Just how slow is 10km/h, and how long is 13 seconds? Well as it turns out the answers to those two questions are A- glacial, and B- about 3 years, or at least that’s how painfully long it felt when I decided to open the roof of the Mazda MX-5 RF in the middle of JHB rush hour traffic on the highway, only to be told that I’m travelling too fast (faster than 10km/h) to operate the roof. If you were stuck behind me on the freeway yesterday somewhere in Midrand during that whole painful ordeal, I’m sorry.
That’s one of the few faults of the Mazda MX-5 RF – other than the added weight penalty for a mechanically opening hard top as opposed to the Roadster’s manually retracting soft-top. In most other aspects, the RF is the one to have. It looks like a gorgeous coupe with the roof closed, and when open the MX-5 RF is more of a 911 Targa-lite than it is MX-5. I’m besotted with its looks; the compact nature of it and that sleek fastback styled C-pillar just look an absolute treat. It’s probably just as well I’m a fan of the styling, though, as Mazda South Africa no longer brings in the rag-top version. If you’ve got one of those, consider yourself in possession of a rare commodity.
But aside from a robotic roof structure and coupe looks, what does the Mazda MX-5 RF have to offer? Well, the Retractable Fastback – that’s what RF stands for – still follows the same basic recipe as any other MX-5. The principle behind it all is ‘Jinba-ittai’, meaning ‘horse and rider as one’. It’s a back to basics type sports car, with a 2.0-litre 4-cylinder engine up front, and drive sent to the wheels out back.
It weighs next to nothing – in the MX-5 RF’s case, just 1126kg – and just like in the good ol’ days, the engine is naturally aspirated. Sure, at altitude that means it’s a little down on power, but it also means you’ve got to wring it out to 6000rpm to access peak power of 118kW, and the joy to be found in that is unconditionally vast. But with only 118kW and 200Nm of twist, one thing the MX-5 RF isn’t is fast. It’s not glacial in pace, but it’s not going to be smashing Nurburgring times anytime soon.
However, the MX-5 ethos has always been one of poise, balance, and driver involvement. It’s built light to make the most of what little power it has, and it’s built compact with a low slung cockpit to fuse driver and car as one unit. Though the ND generation has changed over to electric power-assisted steering, the front end is direct and unencumbered by the need to drive the front wheels, the front pair is free to do what they’re meant to do – steer the damn car. For that reason, the MX-5 RF is precise and sharp, with the nose darting in towards the apex of a corner with all the tenacity of a cat after a mouse at dinnertime.
With so little weight to support, the suspension can be tuned for fine detail. Perhaps it’s my memory tainting my interpretation of the MX-5 Roadster, but the RF feels tauter than the soft-top Roadster did when I last tested that. That had a tendency to lurch and roll profusely on softer springs, but in the case of the RF it seems a little tighter and more together. Sure, it’s no ten-tenths track-mobile – play too rough and the suspension is still too soft – but at anything less than flat-out, the MX-5 RF responds deftly to acute inputs with poise and grace, and a neutral handling balance that rewards finer inputs rather than ham-fisted orders.
The suppleness isn’t just the reserve of the handling dynamics when threaded through a set of corners. It translates equally as well when used to tackle daily runs to the shops, the commute to and from work, and any other journey that might see you encounter South Africa’s famously uneven roads. Despite being a sports car, there’s a genuine limberness to the MX-5 RF as it ebbs and flows with the road without being overwhelmed by its many bumps and bruises.
Low slung, with legs cramped narrowly together – the result of the transmission tunnel occupying 1/3 of the diminutive interior – there’s the feeling that you’re one with more than just the car, but the road surface itself, and within minutes of being behind the wheel it’s easy to see why the MX-5 is as famed as it is. Does it get any better than a small, front-engined, rear wheel drive sportster with an automatic gearbox?
Ah, did I forget to mention that? Mazda South Africa, in all their wondrous insight, has seen fit to remove the manual option from South African MX-5s, leaving the MX-5 RF automatic as the only MX-5 you can buy. And it’s a crucial flaw, an unforgivable sin on their behalf. Not only is the MX-5 famed for its gloriously sweet manual shifter, but it’s essential to the ethos of MX-5. It’s a car built for involvement more than speed, and when you’re lacking that all-too-noticeable element of power, something like a clutch pedal and a stick you have to row between gates yourself becomes a vitally involving aspect of driving the car.
‘Jinba-ittai’ they call it, the spirit of horse and rider as one. Sounds majestic, doesn’t it? But in the case of the South African MX-5 RF, it’s become a case of ‘Rokkinguhōsu-ittai’, the spirit of rocking horse and rider as one. Sure, there’s the same basic feeling of wind in your hair, and if you rock hard enough you kind of make some forward progress, but for the joy of every forward surge – the thrill of a balanced chassis through a corner – there’s the inevitable lurch backward – the slow slur through gears of the auto ‘box, the automatic upshifts even in manual mode, and the theft of the joy rowing a manual gearbox entails.
The automatic gearbox taints an otherwise pure experience; and whilst the MX-5 is much too good in other areas to be completely ruined by the automatic transmission, the inclusion of the 6-speed slush-box has ruined the MX-5 for the purists. While purists may be a dying breed, or at least a relatively small segment amongst car-buyers, it’s also important to realise that the MX-5 has always been a car for the purists – one of the few untainted by the drive towards speed over all else.
The MX-5 RF is the perfect casual cruiser, with targa-top style and enough poke to have fun with while looking good – but it’s become a lifestyle accessory just by virtue of its gearbox, and the MX-5 was never meant to be a fashion accessory. It might be what the accountants say will sell, but damnit Mazda South Africa, you’ve forgotten what the MX-5 is all about.