Looking for a light-weight, rear-driven, convertible sportscar under R600k? In SA there is only one choice left, the Mazda MX-5.
The Mazda MX-5 soft-top roadster introduced in 2015 started from a shade under R390 000 and to the dismay of many driving enthusiasts, this model was discontinued along with its snappy 6-speed manual gearbox and limited-slip differential a mere two years later in 2017.
The replacement model you see here, the MX-5 RF (retractable fastback) is a hard-top convertible offering and is available only as a 6-speed automatic and without the mechanical limited-slip differential. The new roof design and the auto transmission add 40 kgs over the now defunct roadster and the suspension has been tweaked for a softer ride. For the hardcore Mazda enthusiasts, it seems as though the core principles of MX-5 have been diluted for a more usable everyday kind of drive.
In the confines of the city the MX-5 is ideal for weaving your way through cut-and-thrust traffic. Its dimensions are incredibly compact making it easy to manoeuvre and forward visibility is good despite the ultra-low driving position. The view out is marked ahead by chiselled lines on the bonnet. These pronounced wheel arch flares seem (dare I say it) Porsche 911-esque from behind the wheel and allow you to be acutely aware of where the nose is pointed at all times. Rear visibility, by contrast is unfortunately poor thanks to those Ferrari 488 Spider mimicking buttresses. They create a whopping blind-spot to the right-hand side of the driver. To ease the stress of merging into traffic though, an intuitive blind-spot monitoring and lane-departure warning system come as standard and reverse sensors take the edge off when alley-docking. On the road, you do need to swallow a brave pill when navigating around mammoth trucks and busses as the pint-sized Mazda can make you feel a little vulnerable.
Underneath the bonnet, the 2.0-litre engine is highly responsive and surprisingly torquey for a naturally aspirated motor and can get you out of a sticky situation with a gruff exhaust note. It’s, however, not the sort of drivetrain you gently lean on to make progress as you would in a turbocharged car. When the traffic subsides and the road opens up the SkyActiv motor needs revs to get really going and it’s happy to oblige with a raspy soundtrack. It’s still lightweight at 1 126 kg so you need to maintain momentum on undulating sections of highway. At an indicated cruise of 120 km/h in sixth gear the rev counter reads around 2 750 rpm. This is more than acceptable for a naturally aspirated engine but roar of wind and tyre noise at speed could become tiresome after a few hours.
Peak power of 118 kW is made available at 6 000 rpm and with Sport mode engaged the transmission will allow you to push to 6 800 rpm just for a laugh. It’s inoffensive around town and slick on the open road but on your favourite serpentine backroad, it’s not as crisp as you’d expect. For the track-day junkies we suspect that it’d be a bitter disappointment when trying to set the best lap time.
Luckily for the diminutive Mazda our test was conducted on the road. Dynamically on a twisty section of asphalt the MX-5 comes alive. It behaves like a mosquito as it darts from apex to apex, the chassis feels as agile as a go-kart and it grips ferociously into the tar. The RF the sort of car you can drive near to the limit of grip and still feel absolutely glued to the road, while the modest power output means that you can hoon around and not jeopardise your driver’s license.
The suspension is supple and breathes with the road, which is lovely for cruising around but this soft suspension allows for excessive body roll. Push hard and you’ll have to hold on for dear life. Despite the loose body control the MX-5 rewards you with a sense of balance and loads of mechanical grip. The sticky Bridgestone S001 rubber fitted to our test unit is mostly to thank for this. It seems as though the impact of that extra 40 kg resting over your head and the revised suspension actually assists you when chucking the car into a corner. The body-roll is so exaggerated and the grip levels are so high that you can experiment with your corner entry speeds. This is a very rewarding driving characteristic but the thought of a 6-speed manual is sorely missed.
Not only is the RF an easy and joyful car to drive fast, it’s efficient too. On the open road the MX-5 RF is impressively comfortable too and the 9-speaker BOSE sound system is one of the best in the business. It is unfortunately utterly impractical with a small boot and a snug interior but all the kit you could want and need is standard including heated seats, satellite navigation and a full suite of the latest safety tech.
At well under R600 000 the fact is that the Mazda MX-5 is without peers in this area of the market. With its open-air charm, grin-inducing rear-driven chassis balance, rich heritage and sensible performance it’s a car I’ve come to adore. Unfortunately, I cannot forgive Mazda knowing that the roadster was lighter, had a limited-slip differential and was available with a manual.