Do you ever feel the urge to simply get out and drive? I generally suffer from this condition, it requires a sense of adventure to unearth a new road and of course the need to burn precious fuel. Once self-driving excursions were allowed during the national lockdown I counted my lucky stars when I received the call to say that the latest Mazda MX-5 RF will be dispatched for a test. The MX-5 is an automotive icon that has put broad smiles on owners faces since 1989 and has been considered the ideal get out and drive sportscar. Built in Mazda’s Hiroshima production facility the MX-5 real deal when it comes to having a heritage to celebrate too. For those who understand the story of how Mazda overcame all odds to successfully rebuild after World War Two, it’s special knowing that the facility is still in operation today, so expectations are high.
To the dismay of many South African driving geeks, the MX-5 soft-top roadster was discontinued along with the snappy 6-speed manual gearbox. This new model, the MX-5 RF (retractable fastback) is a hard-top convertible and is available only as a 6-speed automatic. This is a big deal and the fans are generally not pleased. The new roof design and the auto transmission add 40 kgs over the roadster. For enthusiasts, it seems as though the principals of MX-5 have been diluted but to others, it’s seen that the legendary sportscar has been made more usable and easy to drive everyday. As the MX-5 is the archetypal lightweight 2-seater drop-top it’s time to hit the road and with summer fast approaching it’s a great opportunity to get to know what the 2020 MX-5 RF is all about.
In the confines of the city the MX-5 is ideal for weaving your way through cut and thrust traffic. Its dimensions are incredibly compact making it easy to manoeuvre and forward visibility is good despite the ultra-low driving position thanks to those chiselled lines on the bonnet. These pronounced wheel arch flares are 911-esque from behind the wheel and allow you to be aware of where the elongated nose is pointed at all times. Rear visibility is poor thanks to those Ferrari 488 Spider mimicking buttresses creating a whopping blind-spot but reverse sensors take the edge off when parking.
Underneath the hood, the 2.0-litre engine is highly responsive and surprisingly torquey for a naturally aspirated motor. It’s, however, not the sort of drivetrain you gently lean on to make progress as you would in a turbocharged car. When the traffic subsides and the road opens up the SkyActiv motor needs revs to get really going and it’d happy to oblige with a raspy 4-cylinder soundtrack. It’s still lightweight so you need to maintain momentum on undulating sections of highway. Peak power of 118 kW is made available at 6 000 rpm but with Sport mode engaged the transmission will allow you to push to 6 800 rpm (the indicated redline on the rev counter) just for a laugh. The transmission is smooth, and adequately quick to react too and it’d hand you 4th from 6th rather intuitively when you wish to overtake. It’s inoffensive around town and on the open road but on your favourite backroad, it’s unfortunately not as crisp as you’d expect in a sports car.
Dynamically on a twisty road the MX-5 comes alive as the otherwise overly-light steering weights up. It behaves like a mosquito but not in the typically annoying way, the chassis feels agile unlike many cars costing under R1 million, it seems as though the impact of that extra 40 kg is not that apparent. The suspension is supple and communicates the surface of the road through the driver’s seat. This soft suspension is not very sporty and body roll is excessive but you can lean on it really hard and hold on for dear life and the MX-5 rewards you with a sense of balance and more grip than the chassis needs. It’s the sort of car you can drive near to the limit of grip and still feel absolutely glued to the road, while the modest 118 kW means that you can press on and not jeopardise your driver’s license. The rewarding driving characteristics of the MX-5 chassis remain, but the 6-speed manual is sorely missed. If you intend on using the MX-5 as a daily it makes more sense but it’s not as easy to forgive as a weekend worrier.
After a week of spirited driving on a variety of roads, we recorded a respectable 7.8 L/100 km so if your fuel budget is a concern, this is one the most efficient sportscars on sale. Around town, it’s compact on the road and feels agile while the 6-speed auto makes rush hour traffic less of a pain. On the open road, the MX-5 RF is impressively comfortable at the 120 km/h national speed limit and the 9-speaker BOSE sound system is one of the best in the business. It is unfortunately utterly impractical with a small boot and a snug interior but all the kit you could want and need is standard including heated seats and a full suite of the latest safety tech. With its open-air charm, grin-inducing rear-driven chassis, rich heritage and sensible performance it’s a car we adore but cannot forgive for knowing that the roadster was lighter and was available with a manual. Much like an ageing John Travolta the MX-5 no longer as light on its feet but it still deserves its place in the sportscar world. With the current state of the economy, you simply cannot find another rear-driven convertible for under R600 000.
In a nutshell
Mazda MX-5 2.0 RF
Oodles of standard safety tech, powerful 9-speaker BOSE sound system, that ultra-low seating position and the rear-drive chassis balance
The rear design of the RF creates a freakishly large blindspot, excessive body roll and the auto transmission dulls what could be an otherwise sensational drive
Engine: 1 998 cc, four-cylinder
Performance: 0-100 km/h in 8.6 sec; top speed 194 km/h
Power: 118 kW @6 000 rpm, 200 Nm @ 4 600 rpm
Tyres: 205/45/R17 Bridgestone Potenza S001
Weight: 1 126 kg
Fuel capacity: 45 L
Luggage capacity: 127 l
Economy: 6.7 l/100 km (claimed), 7.8 l/100 km (tested)
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
CO2 emissions: 156 g/km
Price: R551 700
Service plan: 3 year/unlimited km