What we're driving: Mazda MX-5 RF
What it costs: From $38,550 (excluding dealer and on-road costs – approx $42,500 drive-away)
Why we're driving it
On sale from February 1, this bold new take on the Mazda MX-5 grafts of a folding metal hard-top onto the iconic soft-top roadster for year-round comfort and natty fastback styling.
Mazda sees the RF (it stands for ‘retractable fastback’) as a better fit for drivers who delight in the MX-5’s open-air prospects for those wind in the hair ‘care factor zero’ days, but with the option of a quieter, covered and more refined ride, especially in those months when weather is less kind.
On the outside
From most angles this is the fourth-generation or ND series of the MX-5, which makes it a ‘love or hate’ proposition – especially among owners of earlier-model 5s, and doubling down when it comes to the ND’s rear.
But here’s the thing: the ND looks arguably better as a fastback coupe.
The presence of the ‘retractable fastback’ and its thick rear pillars, which act as buttresses to the now you see it, now you don’t targa top, adds visual bulk to balance out the rear.
The result is a car with its own unique character: a slightly more aggressive urban roadster hankering for a weekend away.
Under the bonnet
No surprises here: the RF retains Mazda’s SkyActiv-G powerplant in a 2.0 litre four-cylinder config.
While no barnstormer it’s more than peppy enough to get this two-seater 1,100kg roadster zipping along like a slot car.
Most of the new coolness belongs to the precision mechanism which at the flick of a switch automatically lifts the metal-mid-section of the roof, sweeping it back between the raised rear buttresses and stowing it just below the boot lid.
It’s part Transformer, part origami, and all done in just under 15 seconds – ample time to go topless at the traffic lights or snug the roof back into place when parking or beset by unexpected showers.
On the inside
The base-model MX-5 RF is well-appointed without going over the top, although there’s not a lot of spare space to stow your roadtrip stuff.
There’s also not much space to stow yourself, if you’re much over 1.8 metres: the cabin’s a snug fit, and not very welcoming to the large and lanky.
That said, despite the fold-down roof the RF’s boot still has room enough for two overnight bags for that long weekend away – arguably all that’s needed in a two-seater car.
An 18cm touchscreen takes care of GPS navigation and channels infotainment via AM/FM radio (but not digital), Bluetooth or WiFi, while all the controls are right where you'd want them.
But once in the Mazda showroom you’ll be sorely tempted by the $5,500 upgrade to the GT model for creature comforts such as heated leather-trimmed seats, BOSE sound system, rain-sensing wipers and keyless entry.
On the road
Mazda has kept the sure-footed fun in the MX-5 fastback. The driving experience is almost identical to the soft-top sibling and best experienced with the stubby slotty six-speed manual, although there’s an automatic if you absolutely insist.
The rear glass panel disappears with the roof panel, replaced by a polycarbonate wind deflector so you can enjoy the exhaust note without the cabin turbulence of many targa tops but quieter cruising than a fully open roadster (although the RF exhibited a bit of buffering from 110kph).
As the thick B-pillars create a noticeable blind spot, Mazda positioned radar-like sensors in the RF’s tail to provide proximity traffic alerts in the wing mirrors for changing lanes or reversing – although the absence of a rearview camera is noticeable on a car with a $38k+ price tag.
The guiding principle of the original MX-5 was “oneness between horse and rider” – the RF is that same horse fitted with a much more comfy saddle. It’s still easy to drive, and more importantly it’s still fun to drive.