Driven: 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT

Written by Lee Bailie on .

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The Mazda MX-5, now in its fourth generation (ND), is the embodiment of open-top driving pleasure. A small two-seat, rear-wheel drive roadster powered by a four-cylinder engine – a car built for long drives with no destination in sight.

Lightweight, well-balanced, and quite fast, the MX-5 serves as a counterweight to the big and heavy modern sports car, with its layers of electronic gadgetry, cartoonish levels of performance and gluttonous fuel consumption. With gas prices heading north once again, the MX-5 offers a compelling performance alternative and consumers seem to agree.

While the MX-5 is still a niche vehicle, even among other convertibles, its sales have been growing. In 2016, its volume grew by 43 percent and the trend is continuing in 2017. Through the end of April, sales are up 23 percent over the same period in 2016. While still small in real numbers (455), the April year-to-date figure represents almost half of the total 2016 figure (903) – impressive growth for a small, two-seat convertible.

Debuting for the 2016 model year, the ND generation is available in two versions for 2017, a soft top and a retractable hardtop, or retractable fastback (RF) in Mazda parlance. I drove the soft top version last summer and was impressed by not only how fun the car is to drive, but also how simply the top goes up and down – it’s a testament to ease of use.

This time around, I’m focusing on the RF model, which offers the same basic specs and driving character of the soft top but comes with a hardtop that goes up and down with the touch of a button.

In Canada, the RF is available in two trims, the GS ($38,800) and the GT ($42,200). Both cars are powered by Mazda’s naturally aspirated 2.0-litre SKYACTIV-G inline 4-cylinder engine that produces 155 horsepower and 148 lb-ft. of torque. Both models come standard with a 6-speed manual transmission, with a 6-speed automatic available as an option.

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My tester, a well-equipped, soul red metallic GT, is also outfitted with the Grand Sport package ($3,600) which offers a few performance and appearance improvements (full list below), including 17-inch black BBS wheels, Brembo front brakes and a Nappa leather interior.

From a design perspective, the MX-5 RF shares the same flowing, curvaceous lines as the soft-top version. Compared to the previous gen NC model, the ND has a trimmer and more chisled look that gives it a sportier character. An NC model zipped passed me on the highway and it seemed enormous compared to the RF. Suffice it to say, the RF retains the good looks of its soft-top stablemate – sleek and handsome.

It’s a similar story on the inside, where the RF’s cabin is almost identical in layout to the soft-top model. The lack of space is a bit jarring at first – getting in is a bit awkward for all but the most limber, thanks to just 149 mm (5.7 inches) of ground clearance and a roofline that rises only to 1,245 mm (49 inches) – but I got used to it as time wore on.

While the cabin is tight, it doesn’t feel cramped. The available seat travel easily accommodates my 6-foot frame with room to spare. Folding oneself into the car is a bit of a chore, but there is room once you’re in. The Nappa leather seats are comfortable and look great, and the stitched, leather-wrapped steering wheel, shifter and parking brake have a nice tactile feel.

As with all Mazdas these days, the interior layout is blissfully straightforward. A lack of space is a blessing in this regard as there isn’t much room for extras like a head-up display and other gadgetry. That said, the 7-inch touchscreen infotainment display works beautifully as do the three rotary knobs on the centre stack. Pertinent information is relayed to the driver, and the rest is excised. Well done, Mazda.

I should point out that cup holder and glove box placements are a bit weird, but those choices had to be made based on available space. Same goes for storage, which is at a premium in the MX-5.

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On the road, the MX-5 RF is, like its soft-top sibling, a delight to drive. The clutch-shifter action is light and engages freely, power delivery from the 2.0L SKYACTIV-G is quick and abundant, and the steering feels sporty and direct. The ride is firm, but not harsh and a lightweight structure (1,114 kg curb weight) communicates a sense of agility.

In short, it is a near-perfect roadster experience. I feel connected to the road in a way that just isn’t possible in larger cars which tend to insulate the driver from the tarmac. Sitting low, with a near 50 / 50 weight distribution and a minimal amount of separation from the moving parts gives the driver a sense of immediacy and awareness that is akin to driving a go-kart. Obviously, the RF is bigger, but driving it produces a similar sensation.

Before I wrap up, I should mention my experience with the retractable roof. Firstly, it goes up and down via a centre stack button and operation takes about 20 seconds from start to finish.

The roof is comprised of three panels (front, middle and rear), along with back window glass. The panels fold on top of one another when the roof is down, storing into a compartment located in front of the trunk. Trunk space, incidentally, is the same as the soft-top (130 litres), but the RF is slightly taller with the roof up (5 mm).

Because I drove the car in mid-May, there were plenty of opportunities to try the roof out due to changing weather, and it works beautifully. Putting it up or down in traffic works if you’re stationary or traveling at 10 km/h or less.

Honestly, there’s not much I didn’t absolutely love about this car. It’s a blast to drive, easy to park and delivers reasonably good fuel economy. It can be a bit loud at highway speeds (roof up or down) and a bit pricey if one opts for the RF GT with the Grand Sport package.

But those are minor nitpicks. The summer driving season in Canada is short, and the Mazda MX-5 RF is one of the very best ways to make the most of our evaporating sunshine and warm temperatures.

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SPECIFICATIONS2017 Mazda MX-5 RF GT

BASE PRICE / AS TESTED: $42,200 / $47,895 (incl. $1,795 destination)
FINAL ASSEMBLY: Hiroshima, Japan
ENGINE:
2.0L SKYACTIV-G 4-cylinder
HORSEPOWER:
155 hp @ 6,000 rpm
TORQUE: 
148 lb-ft. @ 4,600 rpm
CURB WEIGHT:
1,114 kg
CONFIGURATION:
front engine, rear-wheel drive

TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual
FUEL ECONOMY RATINGS (L/100 KM - CITY / HWY. / COMB.):
8.9 / 7.1 / 8.1
WARRANTY (MOS. / KM):
36 / unlimited
ALTERNATIVES:
Chevrolet Camaro (4-cylinder), Fiat 124 Spider, Ford Mustang (EcoBoost 4-cyl.)

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Options

Grand Sport Package ($3,600)
- contrasting top in piano black
- Nappa leather
- Brembo front brakes (opposed piston design / unique rotor)
- red calipers (front and rear)
- 17-inch BBS forged alloy wheels (dark finish)
- power exterior mirror in piano black

Accessories and / or Stand Alone Options

Soul red metallic paint ($300)

Total – $3,900

Photography by Lee Bailie

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