When Slow Is Fast: The Mazda MX-5 RF
Low Limits

At the moment, we’re living in a great age of performance cars. In fact, I can scarcely think of a better time in recent history.

Nearly every major manufacturer offers an option to the driving enthusiast; Ford has finally built a 4WD Focus RS, not to mention the Mustang can be had in Europe for the first time; the Volkswagen GTI has never been faster; BMW has more M cars on offer than ever before; there’s a new Supra coming; the GT-R is still batsh*t fast; and we’re experiencing an arms race between hypercar manufacturers that we will likely never see again in our lifetimes. If Nissan release a new S body, I think we might actually reach automotive nirvana.

There’s a but, though.

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If you’ve driven any recent performance car, you might agree that they make driving fast a little bit too easy. Only in the last year I’ve achieved speeds in cars where afterwards I have stepped out and immediately thought ‘I definitely should not have been able to go that fast.’ These cars look after you so well and make you think that you’re a much better driver than you are; they install a false confidence in your own ability.

That’s all well and good – until you reach the point of no return and step beyond the limit of both yourself and the car. Where a much slower car will give you a gentle slap on the wrist and the time to get yourself out of trouble, a new fast car will almost immediately eject you into the scenery at probably double the speed you would have been going. The bigger the speed, the bigger the mess is going to be when it goes wrong.

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I’m far from a saint when it comes to driving on the road, but I do live by an ethos of minimising risk as much as possible. I’ll only go as fast as my known stopping distance for the particular conditions I’m driving in. If I can’t see what’s ahead or around a corner, I back off. I’m not talking about motorway driving or major roads which are four lanes wide, I’m talking about proper driving on real roads. The sort of roads where the rev limiter in third has the hairs on the back of your neck standing.

The problem I’ve been experiencing recently is that I’m spending more time braking, lifting and coasting off throttle because the car has more power than it really needs. I feel like I’m just accelerating between corners and not really driving as I can’t get anywhere near the car’s full potential on the road. On the track, it’s obviously no problem, but to do so on the street involves a level of risk that I’m just not comfortable with. Also, it’s a really f**king stupid idea.

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When a car’s limit is set that high, it’s almost futile to even bother trying to really enjoy it on the road. It always feels like an anticlimax of sorts, as you know that you could have gone faster. This is precisely where a car like the Mazda MX-5 comes into play.

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While we don’t often bring you experiences of stock production cars, the MX-5 is undoubtedly one of the icons of the Speedhunters world and I think it warrants our attention. It represents an affordable driver’s car that delivers an experience far beyond its small size and relatively low power output. In almost three decades of production, there have only been four major revisions to the model and all of them have retained the original concept of a lightweight, front-engine and rear-wheel drive sports car. It’s a car that doesn’t really require extensive modification and even the most basic examples will almost certainly put a smile on your face. In saying that, it’s still a great car to build and expand upon.

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Last year, Mazda announced that it would be introducing an MX-5 with a retractable hardtop. It’s maybe the biggest change to the MX-5 in the car’s history, save for some limited run, Japan-only coupe and other concept models. This would be its first real attempt at bringing a proper roof to the MX-5, and Mazda calls it the MX-5 RF (Retractable Fastback). You will likely already know this, or else you’re probably on the wrong website.

The news was greeted with a lot of justified questions. How much heavier is it going to be? Will the car lose its magic?

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To start with, yes, it is heavier, but not by that much. The solid retractable roof adds around 45kgs (99lbs) to the car and moves its centre of gravity up at the same time. The RF’s grand total is a kerb weight of 1,045kgs (2,304lbs) compared to a similar spec convertible’s 1,000kgs (2205lbs). It’s hardly lardy, especially by modern standards.

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While it has been a little while since I – briefly – drove the convertible, I genuinely think that the RF is the better car to drive. So, no, it hasn’t lost any of the MX-5 magic either. While it’s completely subjective, I think it’s much better looking too. I’m not going to draw any lazy comparisons and call it a mini Jaguar F Type, as I think it stands quite well on its own four wheels. Its diminutive size ensures that you would never confuse it for the big cat either.

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It’s best angle is either from a front or rear three-quarter view. The bulk of the bodywork at the rear and the long bonnet create that classic sports car look, but the sharp body lines and narrow lights keep it firmly in the modern era.

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Inside, it really impressed me. I typically associate Japanese car interiors being a step down from their European counterparts, but this bucked that trend completely. In particular, the instrument cluster is quite clever. A large tachometer resides in the centre, with the speedometer to the right, and the left most gauge is actually a TFT screen presented in a similar style to the mechanical gauges, but which can be adjusted to navigate menus or show different information.

The driving position is good and I was just about able to get the seat back to just the right distance for my height (6ft). With the roof up, my head did clear the inside of it, but only just. The lower part of the seat’s rake can be adjusted, while the steering wheel can be adjusted up and down but not telescopically.

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The manual gearshift is excellent.

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This particular car was fitted with the 2.0-litre DOHC Skyactiv-G engine which produces 160ps from a naturally aspirated inline-four. It’s obviously quicker than the alternative 130ps 1.5-litre engine, but on the whole, they’re both equally suited to the car and fun will be had, regardless.

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The real advantage of the 2.0-litre model is that it comes equipped with a limited slip differential, Bilstein dampers and a strut brace. Which leads me neatly onto the next part – just what it’s like to drive.

First gear engages smoothly and the clutch pedal has a nice easy-to-use weight to it, neither too light or too heavy. It instantly feels familiar. Short shifting to second, again the shift is smooth but engaging, and there’s no doubt when the shifter has slotted back into the next gear. The throw is nicely judged; again it’s not too long or too short, but it’s more of a wrist action than a whole arm motion.

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You can get on the power hard and early without any real surprises. Even in the greasy conditions I constantly found myself in, it was predictable and there was little issue with traction breaking away unexpectedly. It’s not the most powerful engine, but it doesn’t need to be considering the little weight it’s pushing. I thought it was very well matched to the car’s balance and brakes.

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To get the most from it, it needs to be wound out and that in itself is a fun part of the experience. Between corners you’re accelerating right up until your braking point before hitting the brakes, rev matching your downshift and accelerating through the corner. While the experience itself is enjoyable, the vehicle speeds remains relatively low. Should you need to bring proceedings to a halt or make a correction, you can do so with little drama.

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Mid-corner, the car is quite neutral, and it will certainly begin to push long before the rear breaks away. But should you wish to provoke the rear, you do need be aggressive with your inputs or carry huge speed; it’s not going to happen accidentally.

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With the photographs wrapped up for the evening, I had a one-way journey down the mountains and back to Dublin under the cover of darkness. My camera and cleaning gear was securely stowed away in the boot (which I’m told is the exact same size as the convertible, so no loss there) and the roof retracted, I took to the road with added fever.

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What followed was maybe one of the most enjoyable drives I’ve ever had, easily an all-time top five anyways. There was nothing else in my mind except the car and the road ahead of me. Watching the adaptive headlights swivel back and forth through the twisty corners which meander down the hill, across old bridges and around tight hairpin bends, I was experiencing absolute joy of machine. I might have only been doing two thirds the speed I could do in Project GTI on the same stretch of road, but I was having to work twice as hard to do it.

I was driving.

I was recently scolded in the comments section for bringing up the fact that a GT86 is chronically underpowered from factory. I’m not wrong, they are, but like the MX-5, that’s not the point of the car, which I’m well aware of. This experience only served as a reminder that it’s infinitely more fun to drive a slow car fast, than a fast car slow.

Less is definitely more.

Paddy McGrath
Instagram: pmcgphotos
Twitter: pmcgphotos
Facebook: Paddy McGrath
paddy@speedhunters.com

Cutting Room Floor
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51 comments

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1

What a story, now I just wanna go and drive. Amazing photos too Paddy, one of the best I've seen here! :)

Author2

Thanks!

3

That cover photo is pure gold.

Author4

It was the only sunshine on that day, but totally worth hanging around for.

5

Whats the point of ruining the lightweight MX5 with such a heavy mechanism?
They could put a T-top, make it stiffer and lighter ...

Its not like having a small bar in the middle would ruin the open roof experience ...

6

A T top would also need manual operation, and stowing it away. Most modern consumers expect and automatic roof these days. TBH it's a small weight penalty to pay, especially when they did such a great job keeping the curb weight down.

Author7

It's only an extra 45kgs, which I'd wager you'd never notice unless you drove both cars back to back or your surname was Vettel.

It is stiffer than the convertible, but I think a targa top would defeat the purpose of the car, as you couldn't have a roof on demand.

8

Lots of reports keep mentioning lot of wind noise and whistling in your right ear with top down when driving at over 50mph, did you find this ?

Author9

I didn't get to drive it much with the roof down, due to the weather. The times I did, I usually had the windows up, so I wouldn't have experienced the issue if it was there.

10

But how do you drive a slow car fast if it's too f**king slow to begin with?

11

If you can't drive fast on 90 hp, 900 hp won't help you.

Author12

It's up to you to make it fast.

13

Next time I see you I'm chucking you the keys to the S2000. I have a feeling you'll love it if you liked this.

Author14

I'd love a go in an S2000, being honest. I don't think I've ever drove a proper Honda, although I've been in loads of them, albeit in the passenger seat.

15

Iam not the biggest fan of the old MX5 because it just is so small for bigger guys.
I drove the one of my buddy (RX7 guy on the picture) and was surprised by the agility of that little car and engine.
It somehow felt very fast because everything is so direct and..loud too.

I used to drive a MR2 MK2 with 170hp.Weight about 1200kg.After 3 years i upgraded to nearly 300hp/turbo - as seriously, even if you can go fast with the small light NA - as soon as it goes uphill through corners - your 170hp dont push a thing up there.Thats the point where the new MX5 bugs me a bit.I get the point of saving weight and the emission.but even with its light weight it would for me at some point miss the power.
On the other hand power is not everything, we all know the NA vs turbo battles on youtube on windy racetracks.
A few weeks ago i hunted a c63 amg through a wet corner and was pretty struck by his hard attempt to control the power in this tight corner.I was completley relaxed in my 318is e36 /140hp on KWv3.
Anyway - a bit more power would have been nice.

Author16

There's a particular route I use to get to the mountains, and it features a maybe 2KM stretch of steep uphill corners which constantly flick left and right. It was really enjoyably to drive the car through them, I didn't think it felt underpowered at all.

You could always turbo it (the MX-5), but I think you're maybe in the wrong car in the first place if that's what you need from it.

17

i just read an article in the german sportauto mag.
what i ask myself is how the grip feeling is in fast left right corners, as it seems it has an impressive body roll?In the pictures of that mag i see an unreal body roll.
iam a big fan of softer forgiving suspensions, but this looks pretty dang soft.
whats your opinion on the suspension after the drive?

http://forums.vwvortex.com/showthread.php?7113115-2016-Miata-Holy-Bodyroll-Batman!!!

soft suspensions are forgiving,but this does not look plantet to me at all.I have 2 cars both equppied and dialed on KW v3.In winter i dive on a pretty soft setting.Its crazy comfortable,but the low speed damping isnt opening that much even on long corners.This way i have massive traction in corners and can sit straight on stock seats too - meaning smoother steering inputs.

http://i.imgur.com/goluxW9.jpg
also wehn you get that kind of body roll you better dont run over bumps in the corner,as it seems your dampers are compressed as much as possible.

Author18

The car I drove was fitted with stiffer Bilstein dampers and a strut brace. I recall the convertible having considerably more roll than the RF.

19

The thing many people forget or do not realize is that body roll, while unsightly on the outside, gives the driver a bigger since of grip from the seat. Think about a tilting simulator, they lean you in different directions to give your brain the sensation of g-forces. So by having a more forgiving suspension without loosing lateral grip, the driver (and passenger) have larger sensation of corner speed without having to go as fast. I also believe that Mazda knows that true enthusiasts looking to go faster are going to personalize the cars to their taste. So by making a car enjoyable to the majority of people, the minority gets a more affordable platform to build their own vision of a fast car.

20

This car looks amazing just like the photography.
My favourite drive ever has been in a Mercedes 220D from 1979 in Norwegian winding roads. Ridiculously slow by numbers but unbelievably fun with all four wheels howling at the corners and revving the old diesel to death. Slow, softly sprung cars with narrow tires are the best

21

As always, great writeup Paddy!
I totally feel you with modern cars being to easy to drive fast, any moron with money can do that now. What's worse for me is the feeling of disconnection. The newer cars usually don't communicate with their driver as the older ones did, even the sporty ones. And you feel like the car is driving itself, you're just steering...
I used to have a second gen. MX-5 for a few years, I still miss it. Though I've always felt a bit more power would really make this car perfect (diesel family saloons could easily keep up and even outpace me - this sucked!), I never got to turboing or supercharging it and still grinned every time I drove it, leisurely or hard.
By the way, previous gen. (NC) also came with a power retractable roof - it was called roadster coupe.
I'm thinking of getting a 2011-13 Mustang now and while I love how the 5.0 V8 sounds and goes, it'd likely be a 3.7 V6. 300 hp should be just about right for a daily driver with occasional B road blast.

22

Nice article man. I know that the MX5 was a great little car but i think mazda should increase the power of the car. Doesn't need to be a massive power increase but at least a little bit more so it could perform better uphill and on the highway

23

they've got the 160hp/2.0 option. and believe me, it's more than enough to bring smile to your face

24

I love your conclusion.
That's what I desesparely try to explain to my car friend when they tell that BRZ/GT86 are nice but underpowered.
Of course, many modern diesel family hatchbacks can overtake you on straight or the motorway but if that scares/bothered you, that's clearly not the type of car you're looking for.

25

I've got a Golf TDi that I daily and it's more than fast enough for motorway driving, but once you get on to a twisty road the chassis gets flustered very quickly. It's also so boring that sometimes I ponder how best to kill myself on a long journey. Time for a new daily!

26

The RF, in my opinion, looks much better than the standard ND Miata. I love it, and it's much more of a car to have fun in, rather than a car to go fast in. It's spectacular, and, dare I say this, I may love it more than the 1997 model. Beautiful car, and nice pictures and article too!

27

Great article, awesome story. Loved every word of it and can't wait to step in my 94' na now :) Thanks!

28

I hope they're make a raw coupe version, RF looks soo nice. I never thought I'll like the "gay miata" one day... Didn't liked the roadster at first, but RF? Hatts off.

29

900Kg Coupe MX5 when Mazda??
Making one with a actual roof would without doubt allow them to save a lot of weight from bracing used on the open models.

I had a NA, and while the soft top was nice for 15-20 days a year, I'd much rather have the benefits of a real roof for the other 350 days (the HT adds weight and no rigidity, do not want)

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30
The can only be 1 Miata

Definitely A-game photos - throw up in my mouth car, but excellent pictures. Too bad the Miata is the only double wishbone 2 door, 2 seat, rear wheel drive light weight convertible that's affordable sans a used s2000. The convertible is much better looking.

31

I have not read your article but I am sure that I will enjoy it as I enjoy your really stunning pictures.
Usually I prefer cars with vivid colors (red or white for the Mx-5 ND) but this grey is really beautiful with sunlight.

32

grey is new gold

33

...sunlight or darker sky or even rain drops ;)

35

what are the tyre sizes on this little weapon Paddy? Just like the FRS/BRZ it looks like there is a good use of limited grip to enhance the 'danger element' and make a relatively low powered car feel much more entertaining!

36

Being able to wring the absolute neck of a car on the road, is almost always all the more fun, than having too much power!

Author37

205/45/17 on the rear, can't remember the front. It works well, makes the car much more livelier.

38

Looks like you had a fun adventure. What did you hate about it the most? You must have hated something! Ha.

Author39

That you kept messaging me? Does that count?

40

Spoiling Dream Drive experiences since 2012! I'm always here when you need me the least.

41

I never appreciated or understood the phrase "Mechanical Grip" untill i drove the New MX-5 ... it gave me a whole new kind of appreciation for automotive engineering. A1 to Mazda.

42

The MX-5 will always be the best British sports car. Not to mention, the lines on the RF are pretty much only second to the S30. Mazda has been killing it lately.

43

Whilst I'm sure I'll attract derisory comments from some quarter, I have to agree wholeheartedly with the notion that it's possible to have just as much fun with a smaller car and less power.

I've had my fair share of GTi's and other such fun machines but my current steed, a 66 plate, 75ps Polo is just as much fun as anything I've ever owned. It's got just enough get up and go to get me out of sticky situations, it revs freely and the chassis and steering input are spot on.

I regularly find myself out-pacing bigger, faster cars around tight corners and away from the lights (for the first 20yds or so anyway) and always do so with a little grin on my face.

Less is most definitely more!

44
MPistol HVBullets

I absolutely LOVE that car........... but........... I'm over 6ft tall......... and over 200lbs (I'm working on the weight - but can't change the height)...........so........ don't actually fit - I sat in one, I mean it's like an absolute glove, where if I move 1/2inch (12.7mm), I'm hitting everything - ugh - damn you Miata

45

Great article. I've gone from a 2011 Megane RS250 Cup (one of those grip monsters that flatter the driver and are insanely fast across a tight back road) to a 2014 BRZ and now a 2017 MX5 2.0 GT RF (pretty much identical to the on in your pics) and I totally get where you are coming from. I live in Melbourne Australia. A land where governments are drunk on "road revenue raising" and speed cameras are everywhere and set at tiny 3kph tolerances. Speed limits are determined and set such that they are safe in a 1960 Ford Anglia. Quite seriously, having a fast road car here is a) not much fun and b) a recipe for rapid licence loss. The BRZ/86 and MX5s are the antidote.

46

Oh....and fantastic pics BTW

47

Great article Paddy, sounds like you had a good time, there nothing better than a brisk drive to forget the cares of the world!

48

I own the RF LE and the car is pure pleasure, it's quick, light, appointed very nicely, a blast to drive. Traction control off and I can spin those tires just fine. Oh did I mention it's a coupe and convertible in one LOL !

PS ----> if you want to add the 0-60 speed Edelbrock is developing a Supercharger for the 2.0L :)

49

So you can make the slow car fast? Maybe you missed the point.

50

I just purchased one and it is a BLAST to drive. Love it as much if not more than my Corvette C7!!! BUY IT!!!

51

Fantastic review and photos! Every iteration of the MX5 is just so photogenic, even my 17 year old MK2.

I'm looking at my old lady's successor (getting closer to 100K and running fine) and I love the titanium colour and Mazda's staying true to the styling of the original MX5 (and of course, classic Roadster) but I'm not sure about a retractable as opposed to the convertible. It simply feels too confined.

Having said that, I'm sure I'd be hooked instantly after a test drive.

I totally agree with your driving ethos. It took me years to find the car that was 'me' and I really couldn't handle any of the more powerful cars out there - it's all about the experience!

Great work. I'm not usually a car review type person but this was a pleasure to read.

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