AS we go into a spanking new year we can take comfort from the fact that cars like the MX-5 are still manufactured. Simply because the 2019 Mazda MX-5 RF (Retractable Fastback) is about one thing, and one thing only. Fun, fun, and more fun.
It also gets you from A to B, but that’s just an added extra. Mazda’s cheap, two-seater roadster has been providing shallow-pocketed punters with affordable sports car thrills since 1989.
The MX-5 came into being as a wistful reminder of those bugs-in-your-teeth, cheap and fun little roadsters of the 60s and early 70s that had all but disappeared from manufacture, although stylistically, the 80s and 90s were not the kindest of years.
The early MX-5 brought the cutesy, puppy playfulness of those early roadsters, but not the kudos. They seemed a little token, a little toy-ish. Rick Astley probably drove one, before he made money and bought a Porsche.
Despite this the MX-5 is the best selling two-seater sports car in history. Go figure. It also has a cultish following of purists, which is why those early models are still around and still look like toy sports cars.
They’re aeons from the very serious contender that Mazda has given us with the RF, a veritable game changer when it was first released in 2014. It took the previously topless, roadster-style MX-5, and added a rigid roof, creating a gorgeous coupe silhouette.
There is much to say about the 2019 RF and the drive it offers, but firstly, let’s get a little fetishist over that roof. After all, the MX-5 is all about fun and you should extract every thrill you can right?
The mechanism for the retractable roof is delicious. A simple toggle switch starts the process with a graphic on the display telling you it’s in motion, and with lovely buzzing mechanical noises the roof folds seamlessly back into the top of the boot.
It does take a few seconds and feels a little pedantic – if you release the toggle too soon and it hasn’t had the chance to return the windows to their closed position it will softly tut-tut you until you toggle again.
You also have to be, basically, at a standstill to engage the roof, up or down (officially less than 10km/h). It’s best to accept the time it takes and revel in the mechanical and design marvel of the thing.
It’s a good roof too. It doesn’t feel at all claustrophobic when up, like cloth roofs can, and does a pretty good job of blocking noise. It also offers surprisingly good head height for taller drivers.
The resulting shape is more reminiscent of a Corvette than an Austin Healey Sprite, and the roof has added a little weight, changed the balance slightly and added a little complication to a previously simple car.
Fodder for the purists, but we think worthwhile sacrifices for the stunning shape. The rest of the RF’s exterior is in line with the coupe aesthetics, with an elegant, humped nose and a surly face that means business.
The curves are exquisite, with sweeping LED headlights and sexy, 17-inch black alloys (silver on the GT). Every line is beautiful and looks expensive. The first impression of the interior is that it’s small.
But once you’re seated it’s a little like a Japanese business hotel – snug but well appointed and comfy, with everything conveniently accessible from the bed. Not the capsule hotel experience you were expecting.
The tilting, telescopic steering wheel helps, giving you some extra leg swing space and the seat is hugging but a comfortable size. There is, of course, a passenger seat, equally comfortable despite the driver’s coffee sitting precariously close to their lap.
Yes, just the one cup holder – surely you only carry a passenger in an emergency. You need that seat for your bag and coat. There’s basically no glove box, but you do get a small centre console and a funny little locker behind the driver’s seat.
You will need to move the driver’s seat forward to access it though. So it’s not big on storage, but this isn’t a vehicle that you would expect much from. It has plenty of room for the bare necessities, and maybe a photo of the kids. Very Marie Kondo.
The boot is better than expected – at 130 litres it’s small but deep enough to take a couple of modest suitcases.
Our RF GT Black Roof test vehicle was a lush little cockpit of Chroma Brown Nappa leather on seats, dash and doors, paired with black ‘leather’ and red stitching. Like the exterior it definitely feels more lush, Euro sports car than cheap and cheerful bug catcher.
The standard RF came with the more standard accoutrements, with black cloth seats featuring a zing of hot pink stitching that looked great with the Eternal Blue Mica exterior. The dash in both models features very nice rounded, retro feeling dials.
The 7-inch infotainment screen sits in a great position, nice and high on the dash. The ‘MZD Connect’ system isn’t that intuitive though, and we had to study the manual pretty intensely to work out how to do things.
Obviously that isn’t a problem if you own the vehicle but it’s a tough one to jump in and go, particularly the navigation.
Under the bonnet is where you’ll find the biggest changes for 2019, with the 2.0-litre in-line 4-cylinder engine gaining power and torque at 135kW and 205Nm. Throw in the fact that the MX-5 RF only weighs 1087kg and you definitely feel that increase in power.
It also sounds fantastic, with tweaks to the exhaust system helping to produce a full-throated roar that fills you with excitement, right from the first growl when you press the ignition.
Our test vehicles featured a 6-speed manual gearbox, but it’s also available as an auto if you must. Acceleration is fast and smooth, with 0-100km/h in 6.8 seconds, and the increase in power and torque sees the RF fly out of corners with minimum gear changes.
The gearbox didn’t provide the butter smooth changes we were expecting though. You couldn’t simply flick it neatly into gear; there was a certain amount of manhandling required.
But once you’re off you seldom need to come down to the lower gears, and it might improve with familiarity. That said, the drive, all up, is superb. It’s a rear wheel drive and handles beautifully with excellent dynamics and grip.
It was equally comfortable through city traffic and motorway driving. The driver position offers complete comfort, but with the drive being so punchy and exciting your passenger might be gripping their seat.
Getting it out on the motorway was definitely grin-inducing. It sits low and comfortable on the road and provides a really enjoyable drive, partly due to its handsome looks. But for our money it was the town driving that felt great.
It sounds odd, but this is where the MX-5 contradicts the knee jerk ‘impractical’ tag, and punching the MX-5 RF around city streets, roof down, is one of life’s genuine pleasures.
It roars and leaps and basically shows off, allowing you to feel like a masterful tamer of beasts. If you delight in an engaged drive, pure and simple, and don’t need to carry all the kids’ cricket gear, the MX-5 is a life-enhancing option.
On the safety front you get more than you might expect, with a new and adequate reverse camera, blind spot monitoring, driver attention alert, smart city brake support (AEB), traffic sign recogition and four airbags, earning a five star ANCAP rating.
Our RF, with its fairly impressive standard features, is priced at $43,352, and our top of the range RF GT Black Roof starts from $51,180. There’s more to pay if you want floor mats or one of the two non-standard paint colours.
Our GT, in Machine Grey Metallic, came with power adjusted and heated mirrors, heated seats, an extra vanity mirror and a premium Bose audio system with nine speakers. But the main motivation for us would be the up-spec’d interior. The brown leather is next level lush.
Mazda claims a fuel economy of 6.9-litres/100km. We managed a little over 8.0-litres/100km on both models, but seriously, who’s counting? In both models, not surprisingly, you only get one power outlet.
Neither come with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto as standard but it can be fitted as an optional extra. We didn’t care. Phone be damned.
Despite those purists’ ruffled feathers, the MX-5 RF and RF GT Black Roof remain true to the MX-5 ethos of an affordable sports car punching well above its price tag. If you’re in the market for something European, take the RF GT for a spin before you commit.
And if you want to add a bit of joie de vivre to your everyday drive, and you have an alternative vehicle to carry the shopping and the Labrador (okay, and the life partner) it’s not a silly option.
The MX-5 shows us that we can actually get by with less than we thought, and enjoy life a whole lot more.
Our test vehicles were supplied by Mazda Australia. To find out more about the 2019 Mazda MX-5 RF and RF GT Black Roof contact your local Mazda dealer. Images by Nick Brand.