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TEST DRIVE: Mazda MX-5 RF

Sportscar365 test drives the new Mazda MX-5 RF…

Photo: David Haueter

There are few manufacturers that have as strong a commitment to motorsports as Mazda.

The company is involved in everything from grassroots racing all the way up through the top prototype class in IMSA and in open-wheel with their Road to Indy program, but the unassuming MX-5 is the car that Mazda’s racing efforts are most associated with.

The MX-5 is probably the single-most popular car competed with in grassroots and club racing and is raced professionally in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge and Pirelli World Challenge series. The new MX-5 race car is already out there winning races, but it takes a good road car to make a good race car for street-stock competition.

A week spent driving the new MX-5 RF shows why the car is so popular both on the road and at the track.

Mazda is unique in that its heavily involved in motorsports but doesn’t sell a high-horsepower sports car. There’s no Corvette or 911 competitors in Mazda’s lineup.

Instead, Mazda focuses its sports car efforts on the MX-5, and for the first time ever they’re selling two versions of the car.

Photo: David Haueter

There’s the traditional soft-top roadster as well as the new “RF” that has a retractable middle roof section that folds into the trunk, leaving a configuration that’s reminiscent of the Porsche 911 Targa.

The hardtop roof adds around 113 pounds over the soft-top, but the RF still weighs in at a relatively svelte 2,445 pounds with the manual transmission.

There’s nothing special that stands out when you look at the spec sheet of the rear-wheel drive MX-5. It has a normally aspirated 2-liter 4-cylinder motor under the hood that makes a modest 155 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 148 lb-ft of torque at 4,600 rpm.

The suspension is a 4-wheel independent setup in front with double wishbones and a multi-link setup at the rear; with monotube dampers on both ends, and Mazda fitted the RF with firmer dampers to handle its added weight.

Stopping power is provided by 11-inch vented rotors up front and 11-inch solid rotors at the rear, with both ends clamped by single-piston calipers.

Photo: David Haueter

It may not impress with the specs, but the MX-5 RF hits all the right buttons when you get in and drive it.

Mazda paid attention to the details with this car to make it centered on the driver, with clear analog gauges for the tach and speedometer, a steering wheel that feels good in the hands and supportive seats.

A minor annoyance in the cockpit is that there are no one-touch down windows, even on the driver’s side, even though this feature is present in the lower priced Mazda3.

There’s also no glove box in the traditional spot. Instead, the only storage bin in the cockpit is between the seat backs and is difficult to reach.

You forget about the minor annoyances and that it has only 155 horsepower when you get the MX-5 RF on a twisty road.

The car is beautifully balanced, with more body roll than you may expect but plenty of grip and sharp reflexes. The 2-liter 4-cylinder is energetic and pulls well throughout its range (redline is 6,800 rpm), with a sporty sound from the exhaust.

Changing gears is also a pleasure, as the short-throw shifter is very precise with no slop or vagueness in its movement and perfect clutch weighting.

Photo: David Haueter

I don’t know if Mazda intended it, but there’s also some transmission whine that comes through, which makes the MX-5 sound more like a race car. The brakes also have good pedal feel.

Lowering the top takes around 13 seconds and it also takes the small rear window with it into the trunk so you get more airflow through the car.

It’s fun to drive the MX-5 RF on country roads with the top down but there is excess wind buffeting at higher speeds, which varies depending on where you have the windows.

If they’re down the whole way there’s too much buffeting on the left side, but if they’re up the whole way there’s too much around your head. The sweet spot seems to be with the windows up around four inches on both sides.

In any case, this car is not the best choice for long interstate drives. It has a surprisingly compliant ride, but it’s loud on the interstate, which can get tiring.

Photo: David Haueter

The MX-5 is already winning races, most recently in the PWC TCA class at Lime Rock Park, where defending champion Elivan Goulart won both races in his No. 70 S.A.C. Racing/SCDA1.com MX-5 Cup car, which is specifically built by Mazda Motorsport.

Goulart won last year’s championship in the previous generation MX-5, so has a good perspective on the new car.

“The new MX-5 actually feels more like the original MX-5 and goes back to its roots,” he said. “It’s lighter and more nimble than the previous car and is easier to drive at the limit.

“It doesn’t rev quite as high but the torque is good and it pulls well. I was surprised that it came pretty easy to get into the 59’s at Lime Rock. The brakes on the car are also phenomenal.”

While racing as a roadster, Mazda’s Global MX-5 Cup car has also achieved incredible success, with 150 of the turn-key race cars having been sold since its launch last year, primarily used for its highly competitive single-make series.

The MX-5 may not have big horsepower, but it’s a pure driver’s car that is solely focused on making you smile when you drive it down a twisty back road.

That’s really what it’s made for and it has a certain rawness to it compared to other cars that is very appealing.

Either MX-5 model is worth a look, but the RF is the one I would choose, as it gives you the choice of closed coupe or open car.

The club model starts at $31,555 with the more equipped Grand Touring model starting at $32,620. The Brembo/BBS package is expensive ($3,400) but worth a look, as it includes 17” BBS wheels and Brembo front brakes.

Find out more information at www.mazdausa.com, or www.mazdamotorsports.com.

Photo: David Haueter

David Haueter (@InfoTrends_DH) has been an automotive writer and photographer for the past 20 years. His writing and photos have been published in Roundel, Bimmer, Forza and Excellence and SportsCarInsider.com as well as other automotive and racing magazines.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Ingrid Kretschmann

    July 11, 2017 at 10:17 am

    Great article! You really captured the assets of the Mazda MX-5 RF perfectly. It really is a blast to drive on twisty back roads with the top down. It responds well to tight turns, transmission sounds like a race car, and makes you smile as you feel the breeze of the country air caressing your face. Would love to own this as my second “fun car”!

  2. Scott Cowden

    July 14, 2017 at 8:04 pm

    Well, if anyone knows that car, it’s Elivan Goulart! He’s a steely eyed racing man.

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