A quick re-cap. The RF - Retractable Fastback for those who weren't listening at the back - is the Mk4/ND take on the NC generation's Roadster Coupe, launched in 2006. That car was something of a hit, the minimal 37kg weight penalty for an SLK-style folding hardtop considered minimal sacrifice for the extra security and best of both worlds refinement. By the end of production the RC was the only option if you wanted the 2.0-litre engine and accounted for 80 per cent of third-gen UK MX-5 sales as a result.
Credit to Mazda. It could have just repeated the exercise, reasoning the popularity of the RC was the combination of a similar silhouette to the roadster with greater protection. But no. For the ND generation we get a bold new look and a much more deliberate distinction from the soft-top. More targa than roadster, the RF's swooping buttresses mean it has a more coupe-like appearance with the roof up. There's also a subtle shift to a more luxurious and grown-up feel, leaving the roadster to play the sportier card. With the roof up at least it partly satisfies a curiosity for an MX-5 coupe that has been there since the experiments back with the original NA generation car.
And it's almost a really good-looking machine too, especially in the signature £670 Machine Grey paint launched with the car. I say almost. I'd like to see one on lower suspension before calling it one way or the other because the styling genuinely is sensitive enough that 20mm here or there could make all the difference. That the 5mm increase in roof height seems noticeable is telling.
The idea behind the RF is sound and from some angles there's a hint of Z4 coupe about it that might just convince those who've considered the roadster too girly thus far. But from others it seems a little truncated and a slight wheelbase stretch or lower roofline away from perfection. With a little of the 'on stilts' ride height chopped out and some arch-filling wheels there's hope the RF could finally deliver on the physical muscle the MX-5 has thus far lacked, in all its four generations. Over to you BBR. Or maybe Flyin' Miata. There's little a V8 can't fix, after all...
Possibly getting ahead of myself there. Returning to the car in hand - namely the one you can actually buy - what do you lose over a soft-top MX-5? At the entry level to the range a 131hp 1.5-litre MX-5 Convertible costs just £18,495 while its RF equivalent starts at £22,195. So £3,700 for starters. That narrows to £2,000 by the time you upgrade to equivalent SE-L Nav (the base for the RF) and/or compare the 2.0-litre models. To get the ball rolling there's also a limited run of 500 launch edition models at £28,995 with a contrast roof/mirrors/wing plus desirable BBS wheels and Alcantara trimmed Recaro seats.
Tellingly the hardtop also introduces the option of a six-speed automatic should, god forbid, you think this is a worthwhile alternative to one of the best manual transmissions still on the market. Mazda didn't give the option of driving this on the launch so, who knows, for the additional £1,400 maybe this makes for the ultimate ND MX-5 in the current range. I'll happily live in ignorance if that's the case - apparently 15 per cent of pre-orders have gone this way though.
This far and no driving impressions? Well, in all honesty the look and the additional cost are really the main factors to consider here. Because in terms of the way it drives the RF is pretty much as per the roadster version. Which is to say a good thing.
A 45kg weight penalty seems reasonable given how different it looks, a significant proportion of that extra weight coming from additional soundproofing rather than roof hardware. There's more in the rooflining as well as wheelarches and transmission tunnel and while better than the soft-top it's no Mercedes SL.
Anyone much over six foot is going to find the interior on the cosy side but if you fit the bill there's much to enjoy in the Mazda's interior. The materials aren't going to trouble the Germans but your cheapest TT Roadster is £29,845. And front-wheel drive. And the look is stylish, the touchpoints all well executed and pleasing. Most of all the RF retains that lightness of touch to the controls of its roadster brother. Mainly because it IS light.
Much is discussed about the virtuous circle of weight saving but the MX-5 is living proof. You don't need multi-mode damper modes if there's less body weight to control; power steering howsoever delivered (electric in this case) is less intrusive through skinny tyres and every control input feels both light and positive. With, at most, 160hp (see previous Flyin' Miata comment if this challenges your masculinity) there's little point wishing for tyre-scorching acceleration, the joy instead coming from finger-tip control and the nuances of turbo-free throttle response, a light clutch and precise short-throw manual shift. This new Skyactiv generation of engines really are delightful too; crisp, zingy and eager to rev out. The more so with a few miles on them as experience shows too.
Minor tweaks have been made to springs, dampers and body stiffening but even with the Sport model's Bilstein dampers and standard Torsen limited-slip diff the MX-5 isn't perhaps as sharp a driving experience as you might hope. Indeed, the general shift seems to have been to a more neutral set-up, though this does result in a slightly less edgy ride than the last Bilstein-damped MX-5 Sport I drove.
Perhaps significantly the extra money and the hardtop option start edging into GT86/BRZ territory and, back to back, the Toyobaru options are noticeably more rewarding from a driver's perspective. At least out of the box. Even in RF form the equivalent 2.0-litre MX-5 is at least 100kg lighter than a base GT86, offsetting the on-paper power disadvantage. If you want a proper sporty coupe you'd be better off investing the extra grand into the Toyota or Subaru though, bringing us full circle to the inevitable conclusion that the better MX-5 for MX-5 fans probably remains the roadster. Which sounds ungrateful but isn't meant to be. The RF adds a new and distinct option to the MX-5 range and one with a subtle but significantly different remit. And any new car on the market pushing a recipe of rear-wheel drive, zingy naturally-aspirated power, close-stacked manual transmission and an emphasis on lightweight thrills has to be a good thing.
MAZDA MX-5 RF 2.0
Engine: 1,998cc, 4-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 160@ 6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 148@4,600rpm
Top speed: 133mph
Weight: 1,120kg (with 75kg driver)
MPG: 40.9 (NEDC combined)
Price: £23,095 (SE-L Nav), £25,695 (Sport Nav), £27,095 (Sport Nav auto), £28,995 (Launch Edition)
MAZDA MX-5 RF 1.5
Engine: 1,496cc, 4-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 131@ 7,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 111@4,800rpm
Top speed: 127mph
Weight: 1,090kg (with 75kg driver)
MPG: 47.1 (NEDC combined)
Price: £22,195 (SE-L), £24,795 (Sport Nav)