Mazda lifts the lid on the MX-5 with RF and its amazing folding hard-top
THERE are few cars that I feel I can recommend without hesitation, repetition or deviation, writes William Scholes.
Mazda's MX-5 roadster is definitely a member of this elite group.
The little Mazda is a life-affirming fun-to-drive car like almost no other and provided a two-seat sports car can be made to fit somewhere in your life you should - no, must - try one. Unless you are really tall, very stout, or both, in which case you won't be able to get in. Or out.
Indeed, the latest version, the fourth generation in the model's 27-year history, feels the snuggest yet, with sharply-styled bodywork seemingly shrink-wrapped over the car's mechanicals and cockpit.
The MX-5 has always followed the classic small sports car template of front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two seats and a soft-top.
There were customers, however, who kept asking Mazda to give the MX-5 a little more refinement and security.
That led to the folding hard-top version of the third generation MX-5.
This was a remarkable piece of engineering. The Roadster Coupe, as Mazda called it, kept the same lines as the soft-top whether the roof was erect or stowed, with no loss of boot space.
Customers loved it, too. In the last few years of the Mk3's life, as many as 80 per cent of MX-5s sold were the Roadster Coupe version.
Which brings us to today's car, Mazda's novel interpretation of the folding hard-top for the current Mk4 MX-5.
Rather than ape the silhouette of the soft-top, Mazda has gone and done something rather different - and a whole lot more intriguing.
Rear buttresses now sit atop the boot lid, giving the MX-5 RF an altogether different look from the convertible. A metal roof panel, made of two pieces, sits above the passengers' heads.
Mazda describes the overall appearance as being a 'fastback', with 'RF' standing for 'retractable fastback'.
When you hold down a little switch on the centre console, the various pieces of bodywork rearrange themselves in a blur of choreography that would flatter Strictly Come Dancing to reveal open sky above the passengers.
The mechanism adds around 45kg compared to the soft-top MX-5 and takes about 12 seconds to complete its origami shuffle. It can be performed at speeds of up to 6mph.
With the buttresses in place and the bar between them behind the occupants' heads, the roof-down experience in the MX-5 RF is a little different from the convertible, though no less intense.
With the roof in place, the interior is a little quieter; roof folded, you are aware of a slight rustling of wind somewhere just behind your head that isn't there in the soft-top, though it wasn't annoying - just different.
Mazda has tweaked the RF's suspension set-up to take account of the extra weight and the fact that it sits high in the car, but it has done this so effectively that you would need to drive both cars back-to-back on the same road to ascertain the difference.
This is, unreservedly, A Good Thing, for the rest of the MX-5's essential ingredients have been left untouched.
That means a fizzy, rev-hungry little 1.5-litre or 2.0-litre naturally aspirated engine - no turbochargers here, thank you very much - a telepathic gear change, beautifully balanced controls and a tactility that few other cars of any sort can match.
There are more powerful and faster sports cars, but none have the perfect balance of power, grip, handling and sheer fun of the MX-5.
A lack of inertia to the way it responds to your inputs - steering, throttle, brakes - means that, allied to its small size, means your confidence in the car and what it will - and won't - do grows.
Even at modest speeds, the MX-5 can be completely absorbing.
And perhaps that is its genius. The MX-5 flatters you because the speed threshold at which you can really interact with the car - feel like you are playing with it, and fully in control of it - is low and not likely to threaten your driving licence or other road users.
Whether the £2,000 premium Mazda asks for the retractable fastback is money well spent will be a matter of personal preference - I would be happy with the soft-top myself - but there is no doubt that the MX-5 RF is another brilliant car from a company on a rich golden streak of building other excellent cars.
It is a shot of adrenaline on four wheels - and the Mazda MX-5 RF can be heartily recommended without hesitation, repetition or deviation.
:: Trick roof costs £2k
MAZDA MX-5 RF trim levels shadow those of the soft-top; opting for an RF adds £2,000 to the price of the comparable convertible.
At £22,195, the 1.5-litre SE-L Nav is the RF entry point - a lowlier non-Nav SE version is available with the convertible - and includes cloth seats, LED headlamps, sat-nav, 16-inch alloy wheels and Bluetooth. The 2.0-litre version (£23,095) adds a limited slip differential and 17-inch alloys.
The 1.5-litre Sport Nav (£24,795) brings heated leather seats, keyless entry, a lane departure warning system and an upgraded Bose stereo.
In addition to a limited slip differential and 17-inch alloys, the 2.0-litre Sport Nav (£25,695) gets Bilstein sport suspension and a strut brace.
If you really want an MX-5 RF with an automatic gearbox, you will have to spend £27,095 - it comes only with a 2.0-litre engine and Sport Nav trim.
The almost sold-out Launch Edition (£28,995) adds to the 2.0-litre Sport Nav model with desirable Recaro sports seats, previously seen on a special edition convertible, alcantara trim, gorgeous 17-inch BBS alloy wheels and a 'twin tone' roof finished in gloss black, to complement the door mirrors and rear spoiler.
Mazda's signature 'Soul Red' and its new 'Machine Grey' are the only paintwork options for the Launch Edition.
At launch next week, only 2.0-litre cars will be available - Mazda reckons most RF customers will want the larger engine in any case - but the 1.5-litre cars will arrive with dealers in May.
:: At a glance
Mazda MX-5 RF
Price: £22,195 (1.5-litre SE-L Nav) to £28,995 (2.0-litre Launch Edition)
Engine and transmission: 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol, rear-wheel-drive, six-speed manual gearbox, 129bhp, 111lb.ft; 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol, rear-wheel-drive, six-speed manual or automatic gearbox, 158bhp, 148lb.ft
Performance: Top speed 126mph, 0-62mph in 8.6 seconds (1.5-litre); 134mph, 7.4 seconds (2.0-litre); 121mph, 8.4 seconds (2.0-litre auto)
Fuel consumption: 46.3mpg (1.5-litre), 40.9mph (2.0-litre); 39.2mpg (2.0-litre auto). EU combined figures
CO2, road tax, benefit in kind: 1.5-litre: 142g/km, £200 in first year then £140 annually, 27 per cent (1.5-litre available from May, after new VED regime and 2017/18 BIK rates come in to force). 2.0-litre: 161g/km, 185 annually, 29 per cent. 2.0-litre auto: 167g/km, £300 in first year then £210 annually, 30 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Four stars (84/80/93/64), 2015 (MX-5 soft top)