REVIEW | The 2020 Mazda MX-5 RF is a recipe spoiled
Three years ago we arranged a special gathering of each Mazda MX-5 generation. While owners had their favourites, there was one thing we all agreed upon. And that was how faithful the current ND series model at the time remained to the ethos and spirit of the original.
A refreshing thing, in an era where most automotive successors bear resemblance to their earliest progenitor in aesthetics and name alone. Through no fault of their own, however: there are always going to be unavoidable trade-offs as cars evolve, laden with more technology, better safety and extra stuff in general.
Not to say the 2017 roadster omitted any of these things. It ticked all the essential contemporary boxes and more, but the progression was executed in a way that never lost sight of what made the first car so great. Which was its lightweight, zesty character, rewarding rear-wheel drive dynamics and engaging nature overall. Jinba-Ittai and all that jazz.
Soon after the classic, fabric-covered version was launched, Mazda introduced the MX-5 RF, with an automatic transmission and a heavier metal ceiling. All well and good, trying to appeal to a different customer base. But then it went and culled the regular derivative from its line-up. No more brilliant six-speed manual. No more easy-to-operate rag-top, that goes from snug as a bug to hello springtime in one simple unlatching movement.
The RF recently arrived for me to evaluate more carefully. Admittedly, this was an experience that my subconscious sought to postpone for the longest time, fearing the inevitable. It came amid the recent bout of inclement weather, an occurrence that helped make a good case for the perception of added security brought by that complicated roof.
Hopping into the cosy quarters of the MX-5 brought back fine memories of drives from days gone by. Seeing two pedals and a shifter with letters, rather than numbers, was a little strange. Easing the RF out onto drizzly Johannesburg roads, the normally-aspirated, two-litre motor (118kW and 200Nm) buzzed along.
Not with the same high-revving, crisp and zingy flavour one got with the other car. But with a more muted, monotonous tone, as the six-speed automatic worked through its gears. Turning right at an intersection, with a damp surface below, one expected the rear to say hello. Nothing, not even the slightest inkling of a shimmy, with the lazy slush-box stifling any enthusiasm.
The next day, the weather was a little warmer, offering a chance to drive in al fresco mode. Transforming from coupé to open-air takes about 13 seconds, all via a switch on the fascia.
At least there was some enjoyment to be had when cruising leisurely, at about 110km/h on the freeway, making good use of the nine-speaker Bose audio system.
You have to completely ignore the involvement and reward promised by the traditional MX-5 experience. To completely enjoy the RF, you need to discard that Jinba-Ittai philosophy and see it for what it is in this guise. Which is an agreeable, laid-back companion.
On the plus side, it does look great in this so-called fastback configuration. And the features are plentiful, too, just as they were with the standard roadster before. The RF automatic is for people who wanted an MX-5, sans the involvement that made it such a hoot to pilot. Confusing, I know.
PRICING: From R551,700