Mazda MX-5 RF

Retractable Fastback design delivers a lockdown on style

BYRON MATHIODAKIS

FIRST OVERSEAS DRIVE

NECESSITY might be the mother of invention, but for the Mazda MX-5 Retractable Fastback, it delivered a new solution to an old problem: how to make an old problem: how to make a folding hardtop convertible actually desirable.

According to design chief Masashi Nakayama, the latest-gen convertible’s shorter wheelbase meant there was no longer enough space to package the intended entire roof system from the previous RC Roadster Coupe without both uglifying the line of beauty and severely curtailing an already tiny luggage capacity.

The answer was probably staring at his teenage self from the wall of his bedroom because the 1977 Ferrari 308 GTS (star of the ’80s hit Magnum PI) provided the inspiration. The RF’s flying buttresses – those flowing rear pillars – came about after exterior designer Masanori Minamisawa sketched a sleek silhouette over an MX-5 convertible during a hardtop styling proposal meeting in June 2013. It proved to be an elegant solution in more ways the one, since they allowed for a near-vertical back window and two-piece roof to concertina neatly within a truncated area.

All the fresh sheetmetal is aft of the doors, encompassing the roof panels, rear guards and bootlid.

And all within the (continuing) convertible’s footprint.

Mazda predicts more than half of all MX-5 buyers will fall for the Maranello apperanza, and that’s despite an assortment of minor compromises – an extra 50kg, higher centre of gravity, slightly smaller boot (approximately 130 litres), and a considerable $4K price hike – compared to the 2.0-litre ragtop equivalent (there’s no 1.5 for now). That said, the RF ushers in new-to-series safety such as blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and lanedeparture warning (destined also for the convertible eventually), as well as appreciably more sounddeadening and improved security.

There’s certainly something more flash in the newly Nappaclad GT-spec RF we sampled through Tokyo’s peak-hour traffic.

Roof down at a pull of a button (operable up to a heady 10km/h), much of that big-sky convertible feeling remains intact, aided by an open back window that gently ushers in the outside world. Yet there is less buffeting, and the cabin is palpably quieter with the top erect. As much as in a regular car, though, as Mazda claims?

Maybe compared to a CX-3, but tyre and road drone remain constant companions.

More importantly, however, in a too-brief 70km round trip to the Japanese capital’s docklands over roads that are smoother than Justin Trudeau, the drive at least confirmed what hasn’t been lost in translation – the regular ragtop’s intimate steering, taut agility, eager mid-range oomph and alluring lightness. All, thankfully, are core to this tin-top’s appeal.

The donor car’s near-50/50 weight distribution carries through, too.

Chief engineer Nobuhiro Yamamoto explained that the implementation of revised front dampers (with increased input stroke), a more rigid front antiroll bar and a smoother rear suspension action all help deliver the expected MX-5 characteristic feel and response from behind the wheel. The early signs are positive, if not definitive.

Still, it is the RF’s beguiling looks, with those audacious flying buttresses, wide-hipped proportions and lovely detailing that leaves a lasting longing, much as the 1965 Datsun Silvia, Toyota 2000GT and first RX-7 did.

In the case of the MX-5 RF, necessity became the mother of beauty. And isn’t that a large part of the point of a coupe?

PLUS & MINUS

Poor side vision; not as quiet as Mazda claims; reduced luggage capacity Evocative design; MX-5 dynamics intact; slightly quieter than Roadster Model Engine Max Power Max Torque Transmission Weight 0-100km/h Economy Price On sale Mazda MX-5 Retractable Fastback 1998cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v 118kW @ 6000rpm 200Nm @ 4600rpm 6-speed manual 1100kg 7.5sec (estimated) 7.2L/100km (estimated) $38,550 February

Light from above

The RF’s front and rear roof pieces are made from aluminium and plastic respectively, but the middle strip employs steel for its greater rigidity properties (using aluminium would have required purpose-defeating added strengthening). From go to whoa it all takes just 13 seconds, in a motion inspired by figure-skaters.

The new clear plastic deflector eliminates buffeting with the roof/ window stowed, but still allows for the crucial open-air and exhaust sound experiences central to the MX-5’s appeal.

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