Fun to drive, but the auto gearbox doesn’t make a great combination with the normally-aspirated two-litre engine.

Johannesburg - We love the pure simplicity of the soft, folding roof in Mazda’s latest MX-5 roadster. Undo one latch, and throw the whole thing back manually. It’s about as uncomplicated as convertible tops can get.

But now Mazda’s offering a second roof option in its cute-as-a-button little sports-car with the new MX-5 RF (Retractable Fastback) which ultimately does the same open sesame trick as its ragtop sister, but with a much more theatrical show of mechanised origami. The RF’s designed as a sealed metal roof coupe with all the associated refinement and quiet, cocooned protection from the elements, but with the ability to let the sun pour in at the push of a button.

It puts on quite a display of electro-choreography too. Flick the switch and those twin tapered buttresses lift off the rear deck allowing the back glass and top panel to tuck neatly away into a bulkhead behind the seats in around 13 seconds. The end result is more targa-top than genuine convertible, because only the panel directly above your head is absent in open air mode. Those C-pillar buttresses remain in place whether the roof is retracted or not.

My wife, who normally avoids dropped convertible tops at all costs for fear of whipped-hair syndrome, was pleased with the RF’s design after I insisted on one evening drive in alfresco mode. At regular suburb speeds the flow of air seemed to curl up over the windscreen and back down the rear (plastic) glass without excessive buffeting inside the cabin. Only at high speeds, north of say 110km/h, do this Mazda’s aero properties put hairdos at risk. A regular MX-5 is a canned cyclone by comparison.

The RF’s roof mechanism adds only around 45kg to the normal MX-5’s kerb weight, so it has very little effect on the already lightweight car’s crisp handling. It’s still the same direct steering, easy to throw around, nip in-and-out of traffic little package as it is soft-top guise, and, as it always has been through four generations since 1989.

But, if you look at Mazda’s performance claims you’ll see the RF, in South Africa at least, is much slower to 100km/h than its ragtop sister. At 8.6 seconds to the soft top’s 7.3 it’s almost a second and half slower actually - and that’s light years considering they’re powered by the same 118kW/200Nm engine.

So what gives? Well, for our market Mazda’s made the RF available with an auto gearbox only, and it’s not as up to the task as the manual shifter in the canvas-roofed model. The MX5’s naturally aspirated two-litre is one of those engines that rewards at high revs, and this rather old-school six-speed autobox likes to change up early and often.

It’s really not a great combination to be honest, and we found the RF hunts around for an elusive optimum gear ratio when asked for any more than just easygoing pace. Steering paddles help to overcome some of the shift anxiety, but it’s an inconvenience having to resort to manual finger flicks on every drive. There’s also a Sport mode activated with a console-mounted button, but this seemed to make it even more eager to hunt.

Lovable little machine

It’s easy to forgive Mazda’s drivetrain foibles though, because it’s such a lovable little machine. Besides the fixed-roof Toyota 86 there aren’t many cars to match the MX-5’s compact two-seater with rear-drive appeal; and especially not at this price point.

At R532 800 the RF might be a cool 91 grand more expensive than the roadster, but both cars are by far the cheapest in the genre. If we look at coupe-convertibles only, the next model up the price ladder is a R720 000 (and quite dated) Mercedes SLC, and after that everything is well over a million bucks.

You get a lot for your money too. Standard fare in this MX-5 includes a colour touchscreen with navigation, cruise control, leather seats, a nine-speaker Bose sound system, keyless entry and start, rain-sensing wipers, blind spot monitors, lane departure warnings and more. Value isn’t a topic normally associated with convertible sportscars, but the MX-5, in either guise, nails it.

VERDICT

A more refined but pricier version of Mazda’s multiple award-winning roadster. Disastrous engine/gearbox combo aside, the RF is a fantastic value offering in a relatively expensive (and almost extinct) coupe-convertible market. It’s also hairdo-friendly with the lid peeled back.

FACTS: Mazda MX-5 RF

Engine:2-litre, 4-cylinder petrol
Gearbox:6-speed automatic
Power:118kW @ 6000rpm
Torque:200Nm @ 4600rpm
0-100km/h (Claimed):8.6 seconds
Top speed (Claimed):194km/h
Price:R532 800
Warranty:3-year/Unlimited distance
Service plan:3-year/Unlimited distance

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