Mazda MX-5 RF: Now with added rooflessness
William Scholes lifts the lid on the RF, the folding hard-top version of Mazda's brilliant MX-5 roadster
I can readily accept that a dinky little rear-wheel-drive sports car is never going to fit everyone's list of basic motoring requirements.
This is mainly because the MX-5 has just two seats and a boot smaller than one of the school bags being lugged around this week by a new first year pupil.
Most people find themselves needing to carry more than one passenger and their luggage from time to time, which is why cars like the Ford Fiesta, Volkswagen Golf and Hyundai Tucson tend to dominate the sales charts.
Or maybe it is just lack of imagination. Who really wants to carry more than one passenger - or any passenger - in the first place? And by simply travelling lighter, a small boot ceases to be much of a problem.
Real life doesn't work out like that, of course. Children, shopping, social lives and other obligations mean that, for most of us, a one-car-does-all policy applies; which brings us back to hatchbacks and crossovers…
Nonetheless, if you can find a way - any way - to crowbar an MX-5 into your life, then you really should.
Even if it isn't a brand new MX-5 - there are lots of decent used examples available for relatively little money - and your window of soft-top two-seater opportunity is open for only a short time, it truly is worth making the effort.
That's because every journey in the MX-5 can feel like an adventure. It's what going to the park must feel like for a small child who is just getting used to the slides and swings.
Being able to drop the roof and open up the cabin to the elements is a big part of the Mazda's appeal.
It's invigorating to feel the wind in your hair but when you also factor in the smells and sounds that going roofless brings, even a short drive can become an immersive experience.
The clever people at Mazda know this, and have taken the sensible step of fitting the MX-5 with a folding fabric roof that can be opened or closed with as little effort as it takes to stretch your arm and release a catch above the rear-view mirror.
Because it is so easy, you are more likely to have the roof open more of the time. A sturdy heater means it doesn’t get too cold in the cabin, while occupants of versions with heated seats stay especially toasty.
Every journey in the MX-5 can feel like an adventure. It's what going to the park must feel like for a small child who is just getting used to the slides and swings
But Mazda's genius is to make the MX-5 so much fun to drive. Few cars are as engaging at any speed, and almost none are as tactile.
This thread has been woven through each of the MX-5's four generations since its 1989 debut.
The Mazda has never been about outright power and performance - many diesel-engined family hatchbacks have more power than an MX-5 - and instead it rewards those who prize responsiveness and the feeling of being at one with the car.
Every millimetre of throttle movement changes the engine's behaviour, immediately - underlining how a high-revving petrol engine is so much more satisfying than the turbo-blunted softness most modern engines have accustomed us to.
The gearshift is a particular highlight. Short of throw and precise of action, it makes you feel like you are actually moving cogs around a gearbox rather than stirring some sort of wand vaguely connected to a transmission.
I could go on. Handling, grip, steering, suspension... everything is in balance, and communicates constantly to the driver through their feet, hands, backside and ears. Piloting an MX-5 is a properly sensual experience.
The MX-5 follows the age-old template for small, open-top sports cars exemplified by classic British roadsters like the Lotus Elan and the MGB, with the considerable advantages of reliable use-every-day mechanicals, a roof that doesn't leak and the ability to meet 21st century safety standards.
Towards the end of the life of previous generation MX-5, the folding hard-top version accounted for 80 per cent of sales.
Dubbed the RC, for 'roadster coupe', it boasted a win-win format which included a roof which echoed the lines of the fabric soft-top version, minimal additional weight and the security of a hard-top.
When the latest iteration of the Mazda roadster arrived towards the end of 2015, the only MX-5 you could buy was a soft-top MX-5.
Punters' only real choice was whether to have a 1.5- or 2.0-litre engine; I'd probably go for the zingier, revvier smaller unit...
We had to wait until the start of this year before the successor to the old RC version appeared.
Rather than do another folding hard-top that simply mimicked the silhouette of the fabric-roofed car, Mazda has served up something far more interesting.
The RF, for 'retractable fastback', offers a rather different aesthetic, appearing much more like a coupe thanks to the buttresses which add visual muscle above the rear wheels.
It is an interesting shape, with echoes of the old BMW Z4 Coupe around the rear three-quarter view, or, for those whose motoring references stretch back further, the Triumph GT6.
Mazda's genius is to make the MX-5 so much fun to drive. Few cars are as engaging at any speed, and almost none are as tactile
The MX-5 RF's real party-piece is the way the electrically-operated roof folds. The buttresses lift up in tandem, allowing the roof panel to lift clear and slide backwards, before the buttresses drop back into place.
It means that in open mode, the RF's cabin feels snugger than that of the fabric-roofed car. It is a bit quieter, too, and a little less draughty.
The new roof and all its gubbins adds 45kg weight to the famously slim-line MX-5 soft-top, as well as around a model-for-model premium of around £1,800.
Whether the novel styling and slightly improved civility of the RF make that a price worth paying is a matter of personal preference.
I'm not sure the RF is decisively better than the regular MX-5, though I do find the styling appealing.
In one important area, the RF is worse. At a little over 6ft, I am already on the upper end of the size of frame that can comfortably fit in the soft-top version of the little sports car.
But the RF feels as if it has sacrificed a small amount of headroom to accommodate the trick roof. It may just be a centimetre or two, but it was enough for me to be aware of it every time I sat in the car.
Of course, the easy answer is to fold the roof so that headroom is limitless. Or buy the soft-top, which is what I would probably do.
But RF or not, the MX-5 is still a brilliant, life-affirming little car. If you haven't already, you really need to try one.
AT A GLANCE
Mazda MX-5 RF Launch Edition
Engine and transmission: 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol, rear-wheel-drive, six-speed manual; 158bhp, 148lb.ft
Performance: Top speed 134mph, 0-62mph in 7.4 seconds
Fuel consumption: 40.9mpg (combined); 38.2mpg (real world), 161g/km
Car tax: £500 in first year, then £140 annually
Benefit in kind: 31 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Four stars (84/80/93/64), 2015 (MX-5 soft top)