Skid Marks

Mazda MX-5 RF: purity of driving


Above, the MX-5 RF with its top down. Here, with the top in place.

2017 is motorshow year, and with it means the unveiling of new cars.

It actually started early in the Philippines, specifically for high-performance sports cars like Honda’s Civic Type-R and Nissan’s almighty GTR R35 in NISMO variant.

One car, though, had got me very excited: the MX-5 RF (RF for retractable fastback).

I had the chance to drive the MX-5 RF at Mazda’s Mine Circuit and Proving Ground earlier this year, and it was absolutely everything I was expecting: sublime, sensitive, precise and most of all, pure.

Power doesn’t overwhelm, and you don’t need to squeeze the MX-5 of every inch of its life to extract excitement through the corners.

Brakes are excellent in feel and modulation, and the steering is straight out of Ferdinand Porsche’s book: sensitive but not nervous at speed.

Looks-wise, I initially felt that the MX-5 RF looked awkward in the flesh, especially with the roof down.
From the rear, the C-pillar flying buttresses looked good, but the short and small dimensions seemed to reduce the visual drama of these features.

The test unit was in machine grey (initially exclusive to the MX-5 RF), but the color somehow grows on you. I actually enjoyed admiring the shape and its many details that served both aesthetic and engineering purposes.

It is with these memories that I anxiously anticipated my local test drive of the MX-5 RF: Would it be as good as how I remember driving it in Mine Circuit in Japan?

Would there be enough refinements with the roof up while traversing through the great automotive equalizer that is Metro Manila traffic?

And most pressing of all: Would I still fit in it?

A little back-pedalling. The fourth generation MX-5 unveiled in 2014, and launched in late 2015 (for the 2016 model year), is surprisingly 4 mm shorter and crucially 220 lbs lighter (depending on variants) than its third generation predecessor, while being safer, more efficient and better all-around.

Round taillights

Thanks to Mazda’s SkyActiv technology bundle (engine, transmission, suspension and chassis efficiency programs), the latest MX-5 is essentially a true evolution of the original first-gen concept, but made safer, more convenient and more enjoyable to use in this day and age.

Thanks to the MX-5’s simplistic but highly effective formula of Jinba-Ittai (horse and rider as one), the MX-5 is now the world’s best-selling two-door convertible with over a million produced since 1989.

The world isn’t perfect though, and the MX-5 in RF trim gains a few pounds: 113 lbs with the metal retracting roof versus its soft-top sibling (2,332 lbs for the manual soft top, 2,381 for the automatic soft top, then add 113 lbs for either to get the RF’s weight depending on variant).

In a car that weighs as much as this, on dynamic transitions, mass and undulating decreasing radius and off-camber turns, the top accounts for a lot of additional lateral movement.

To be fair, it isn’t unnerving, but in fact makes the drive slightly more involving as you need to make more corrections on the steering.

Despite these, the MX-5 RF feels progressively predictable near the limit. You still know how much you need to correct the steering intuitively, and when to power out or back off to get it pointing to where you want it to.
The metal folding roof also reduces headroom by 0.6 inches.

I’m roughly 5 feet and 10 inches in height, and I can feel my head grazing the headliner at times. I can’t imagine strapping inside one in a racing suit with helmet.

And for many MX-5 owners, driving on a track—specifically racing them—is a certainty in the near future.

The SkyActiv 2.0 engine provides a more than adequate 160 ps and 200 Newton meters of torque.

It seems low, especially when mentioned alongside the Honda Civic Type-R or Nissan R35 GTR (300 hp and 570 hp, respectively) but balance is key to extracting both maximum enjoyment and maximum performance efficiently, something that the aforementioned powerhouses can learn about the tiny MX-5.

Unfortunately, local RF variants only come with a 6-speed automatic, but in hindsight, if you plan to use your MX-5 as a daily driver, this would be the wise choice anyway.

Getting in lies all the difficulty: low car, low seat, small aperture. But nothing good ever came out of something easy. But once you’re inside the MX-5 RF, you are treated with near perfection: perfect driving position, perfect feet alignment to your hips, perfect shoulder alignment to the steering wheel, great view ahead, and an uncanny intuitiveness to gauging the dimensions of the MX-5 so it’s easy to get up and about quickly through traffic, your favorite winding roads, or the racetrack.

In regular everyday traffic driving, there is greater refinement and all-weather comfort with the MX-5 RF. But the car is so low, you sit so low on the ground, that literally everyone, even the stray dogs stare at you.

Definitely not one for the shrinking violet types. Worse, however, is that many a distracted driver will fail to see you especially in its machine grey color, which seems to be a very neutral color that vanishes in the background.

I was almost T-boned three times at an intersection the first day I drove it around.

Perfection inside the MX-5 RF

A slow-moving junction meant cars had to slowly cross under traffic police direction. I was the last car that the traffic police allowed to cross.

Unfortunately, a sleepy looking young lady driving an SUV must’ve missed seeing me as she crossed the intersection just as I hit the middle of the crossing.

Before I could start praying, the policeman saw her, tooted his whistle, and almost got in between the MX-5 RF and the SUV to stop her.

The lady driver was startled, then suddenly saw me more or less beneath the front bumper.
I could see she was cursing herself for her lack of attention, although my heart rate went down a few beats.

On open roads, the MX-5 remains sublime. The suspension has that perfect balance of comfort, compliance and control.

The brakes are powerful enough to stop this lightweight pocket-rocket consistently, and the steering is like dragging your hand on the road.

The only way to improve steering feel from the electrically assisted rack is to use your tongue to lick the road and find out what’s going on with your taste buds.

On fast-moving curves, the added weight of the soft top barely makes its presence felt, unlike on tighter turns.

I could use a bit more power. And a bit more cargo space (the RF and soft top have the same amount of cargo space, more or less, with their respective tops up).

But drop the top and you have almost zero cargo space available. The lower headroom and thicker frame for the metal roof means you will at times bang your head against it when you aren’t being mindful of entering and exiting the car.
But compromises like these add character to any car, cliché as that may sound.

For a car as special as an MX-5 RF that offers so much driving pleasure at a price many can actually afford in their lifetime, it is well worth these small foibles.

In case you wanted something just as pure, if not purer in terms of driving experiences, you’ll be looking at a Lotus Exile/Elise (costing around P5 milion for the basic models) to a Porsche 911 GT3/GT3 RS (let’s not even count how much these bad boys from Zuffenhausen cost).

It’s not surprising to mention the MX-5 RF in the same sentence as these Europeans, because despite its price, size and origin, few cars are as pure, enjoyable, and as unadulterated as the MX-5 RF.

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