Mazda doesn’t often get it wrong. Over the years, it has produced some very well designed – and successful – cars and trucks.
Models like the Mazda5, Mazda3 and, going back, the B2200 pickup have really struck a chord with buyers. They have cemented the company’s reputation as a thoughtful, astute manufacturer that knows how to hit buyers where they live.
And let’s not forget the MX-5 – or Miata – which has gone on from its introduction in 1989 to become a mainstream classic and the standard by which many other sports cars are judged. It’s everything the MGB could have been but wasn’t.
Pity then about the MX-5 RF, which gets my vote as the ugliest car on the market now. It’s homely and just wrong from every angle – a prime example of what happens when you don’t leave well enough alone. That said, taste is a personal thing.
Basically, the RF is the hardtop version of the MX-5. It does have a power retractable hardtop and that’s a nice feature, but this is not a roadster and doesn’t feel like one. The hardtop also adds some 60 kg to the car’s weight and makes the RF an extremely loud vehicle on the highway. The noise, vibration and harshness level is terrible, and you don’t even have the bonus of an al fresco driving experience.
Power is provided by a two-litre four-cylinder engine that develops just over 180 horsepower. It’s mated to a six-speed manual gearbox, with an automatic apparently available. I would recommend against the automatic because the traditional manual gearbox drivetrain is this car’s strongest feature. The car may be as ugly as a mud fence but the drivetrain is beyond reproach – crisp, well-spaced, predictable, with rifle-bolt precision.
The RF is a pleasure to drive, plus you can’t see the outside of the car when you’re behind the wheel.
(One note here: this engine requires premium gas to get the most out of it.)
It has also managed to retain its prompt, taut handling, thankfully. The RF excels at point-and-squirt city handling, and can carve corners with the best of them. No wallowing nor steering vagueness, and the brakes stop the car on a dime. You still feel like you’re piloting a proper sports car when you drive the RF, so not all is lost.
Let’s talk about the styling – or lack of it. The problem, as I see it, is that Mazda has walked away from the traditional smooth Lotus/Ginetta-inspired styling of the Miata and tried to make the RF look bigger.
Perhaps it’s because one of the few criticisms of the original was that it didn’t look butch enough, that it was a little too cute for its own good. But to quote my grandmother, they’ve come a cropper with the RF. The front is out of sync with the back of the car, it’s perched too high and the hardtop is a stylistic disaster. It’s just discordant and wrong from every angle.
I wonder how this version of the car made it through Mazda’s usually vigorous consumer clinics and styling powwows.
Unsurprisingly, it’s loaded with the usual safety and convenience features: blind-spot warning, lane departure, traffic sign recognition, rear traffic alert, etc. The rear traffic alert is a good thing, as rear and peripheral vision is minimal.
And there’s a trunk with 127 litres of cargo capacity, about enough for a bag or two of groceries but not much else. The RF is a genuine two-seater and elbow room is virtually nonexistent.
As someone who has owned at least half a dozen MGBs over the years and is an enthusiastic Miata aficionado, I was hoping to like the RF.
But it’s not to be – I can’t even look at it.
As well, it’ll run you at $43,000-plus to start. My tester, with the $3,600 Grand Sport Package, is just a hair under $50,000, and that’s before taxes.
If I somehow lost my mind and bought this car and then had a cold, hard look at it the next day, I’d have to have a long conversation with myself – and my therapist.
Mazda MX-5 RF
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder
Transmission: Six-speed manual or automatic
Horsepower: 181 at 7,000 rpm
Torque: 151 at 4,000 rpm
Price as tested: $46,95
Fuel economy: 9.0 litres/100 km (city); 6.0 litres/100 km (highway), with premium fuel
Some alternatives: Nissan 370Z, Fiat 124 Spider, Alfa Romeo 4C, Audi TT, BMW Z4, Ford Mustang convertible
Ted Laturnus writes for Troy Media’s Driver Seat Associate website. An automotive journalist since 1976, he has been named Canadian Automotive Journalist of the Year twice and is past-president of the Automotive Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).