Mazda’s evergreen roadster, the MX-5, gets impressive new tricked up chassis – for a price
What we liked:
Not so much:
• Rear suspension
• Body flex
• Asking price
Why is the Mazda MX-5 is so endearing? After all, it’s got no luggage space, a cramped interior, average vision and dubious sound insulation. But the Mazda MX-5 hasn’t become the world’s most popular rear-drive sports car purely by fluke. It’s not intimidating in the slightest and hugely engaging. This particular model, the Mazda MX-5 RF Limited Edition, is pricey at around $55,000 drive-away. But it’s probably the best handling MX-5 off the showroom floor. Worth the extra cash-splash? Let’s dive in.
It’s that feeling you get on a Friday afternoon when work begins to wind down. You feel it when paddling out into glassy waves, hiking to an isolated peak in the mountains, riding a motorcycle through an empty forest.
There’s a distinct whiff of that same feeling whenever you hunker down in the Mazda MX-5, drop the top and bury the throttle. But let’s get one thing straight from the opening – this is not your garden variety Mazda MX-5.
It’s a bit more exotic and has the potential to poison your cat if it chews up the seats.
Indeed, this particular vehicle is the Mazda MX-5 RF Limited Edition. It finished a respectable 10th in the 14-car ABDC comp, beating the likes of the Renault Clio RS, Nissan 370Z Nismo and Suzuki Swift Sport and Kia Stinger.
But this test is a little less hectic and, for those that don’t know, the RF bit in its name means it ditches its soft-top roof for a power-operated metal roof. Yep, this one’s good for lazy people – just toggle a switch and you’re in open-air holiday mode.
The Mazda MX-5 RF Limited Edition is fun
But the Limited Edition bit adds even more intrigue. This means there’s only 110 of the blighters in the country, and each and every one features upgraded suspension and brakes, not to mention extra bracing in the engine bay. The result? An agile, entertaining, compact road warrior.
This plucky little roadster – and it is little, which makes parking it easy – tips into corners crisply and traces through them with fluidic grace at middling speeds. Up the tempo to white-knuckle levels and the rear end gets a little bit squirrely but in general corners are this car’s specialty. Straight lines? More like kryptonite.
It’s not a fast car and you can snick though several gears before reaching the legal limit. Which is a lot fun because the short-throw six-speed manual gearbox is a gorgeous mechanism. It’s just that the engine feels a bit underdone.
Twisty, damp roads? Perfect MX-5 conditions!
Okay, so there’s no extra power going on here, no turbocharging, no EV boosting, no MacGyver rubber-bands-and-twine-magic-flywheel tech. Just a boring naturally-aspirated 2.0-litre engine. But herein lies an enticing challenge – extracting peak performance with limited resource.
As the saying goes, the greater the challenge, the greater the reward and it rings true here.
You’re not able to blast past other cars on the straights because the Mazda MX-5 RF LE just doesn’t have the pepper. It has very little torque or twisting force, just 200Nm (although it feels like less). But where it shines is in its ability to scythe through corners at fun speeds, eating up twisting ribbons of asphalt as if they were chocolate-covered liquorice.
This is arguably the best-handling MX-5 to emerge from the factory
The new Bilstein shock absorbers make the MX-5 LE stiffer and less forgiving than the vanilla Mazda MX-5 but the trade-off is worth it if you ask me, as it provides a glimpse of what the tiny little chassis is really capable of.
Engagement levels are impressive, the steering, bigger Brembo brakes, throttle and manual gearshift tying you to the car like a congenital twin. It’s so light and flickable and there’s so much traction that you’ll rarely find the car’s grip limit on public roads.
It changes direction through flip-flops and esses quicker than a frazzled politician navigating a tricky humanitarian issue and the bigger disc brakes (381mm up from 280) and four-pot Brembo calipers up front give you the kind of confidence Tom Cruise had before he began praying to Xenu, an alien God who has a penchant for the 1960s era DC-8 airplane.
This photo cleverly hides the lack of space in the cabin
Sitting low to the ground, you feel clearly how the car is reacting – and is about to react – as much through the well-sorted steering setup as through your pantaloons. Mazda harps on about oneness between car and driver but on a deserted road in the country, pushing the car through twists and turns… I felt like a kid stealing grandpa’s Ford Falcon for the first time. Exhilarating.
With the top down, the smell of cow pat filling your nostrils and the sun glinting through the trees, it’s hard not to smile when driving a car like this.
But let’s just hit those upgraded Brembo anchors for a moment and consider the value equation. This car costs almost $55K on the road. That’s a lot of moola when you consider the entry level model is around $33K. Consider that for around $60K you could buy a BMW 2 Series convertibleor a Nissan 370Z drop-top or a second-hand Tag Heuer watch.
Searching for that elusive squiggly road…
There’s other issues too. The interior and exterior have been given a subtle tweak but for the extra outlay it’s barely enough. The Recaro seats are pretty cool but it should have ejector seats and caltrops deployment for this sort of coin. You do get a special watch but it’s no Rolex.
The Mazda MX-5 RF Limited Edition is also not a great car to drive in urban situations. It feels most at home on zig-zagging alpine roads, coastal bluffs and the odd race track outing; sitting in traffic is not it’s natural habitat.
The car knows this, other motorists know this. It looks like a pygmy among other traffic and okay, yes, it can do the daily grind but it’s not designed for it. Poor vision, low to ground, not much torque for quick acceleration to punch into gaps. Get a Golf GTI if you want a jack of all trades.
But on the open road this car comes alive. I connected with this car far more than the Subaru BRZ tS which employs a similar gambit to improve driver engagement.
For such a tiny car, it more machismo than you’d expect
What this week-long drive reinforced for me was the way in which this car goes about its business. Seek out an empty dirt road and you’ll soon find out how much fun this car is with the tail out. At-the-limit control is pitch-perfect… but you can get the same thrills for a lot less cash.
I’m glad I got to drive the Mazda MX-5 RF LE in isolation, just like I’m glad I watched the first Star Wars movie as a five-year-old and go surfing in the middle of winter. It’s an experience that stays with you.
Granted, this model is overpriced and I wouldn’t recommend it. But as a tool to reinforce how accurately Mazda has nailed the affordable sports car brief – and how sharp and involving the MX-5 can be if tweaked – the Mazda MX-5 RF LE is a success.
If you’re looking for escape, freedom and independence, the MX-5 is a good place to start.
How much is the 2018 Mazda MX-5 RF Limited Edition?
Price: $52,210 (plus on-road costs)
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel: 7.0L/100km (ADR Combined)
CO2: 162g/km (ADR Combined)
Safety Rating: Five-star ANCAP