Payne: Mazda MX-5 RF’s beauty is more than skin deep

Posted by hpayne on March 22, 2017

Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne played with the

Does anyone remember that Audi introduced a V10-powered, 200-mph drop-top R8 Spyder at last year’s New York Auto Show? I didn’t think so. That’s because the Audi, like everything else that year, was a footnote to the surprise reveal of the stunning Mazda MX-5 Miata RF (for Retractable Fastback) hardtop roadster.

No one saw it coming. After all, the best-selling sports car of all time is autodom’s puppy dog – playful, fun and adorable.

But sexy?

With its flying rear buttress b-pillars borrowed from Ferrari and fully automatic drop top borrowed from Corvette, the RF melted whatever snow was still on the ground in Gotham. In defiance of Soul Red Mazda tradition, the show car was painted Machine Gray – and still I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Baby got back.

A year later and the RF is ready for prime time. A show car no more, it made its much-anticipated media testing debut in San Diego this March. It didn’t disappoint. The RF (or maybe the RF is for Really Fantastic) is a head-turner with specs that make it the most capable Miata ever. And don’t think Mazda doesn’t know it: The RF will come with a $2,600 upcharge from the soft-top Miata compared to the old hardtop upcharge of $800.

Mazda anticipates that the RF will not only make up a healthy 60 percent of sales, but will attract more affluent female buyers to an already female-friendly brand.

I love the soft-top Miata. Unmoor the ragtop from the windscreen and it stows behind me as easily as throwing off a blanket. Feel raindrops? Reach back and pull it overhead like a quilt on a cold night. But I’m a long-armed ape. Smaller drivers will prefer the reduced air turbulence of the Targa top, and the simple, auto toggle-switch in the console that stows the roof in just 13 seconds (while creeping along at up to 6 mph in traffic).

Did I say Targa? Mazda can’t utter that copyrighted Porsche term but the comparison to the iconic 911 variant is deserved. Wee though it is, the RFs (Real Ferrari-like?) will also remind enthusiasts of 1960s lookers like the Ferrari 275 GTB. Such comparisons, Mazda hopes, will attract richer demographics as well. The sports car attracted plenty of gawkers during my morning sprint though the hills of Southern California.

But the RF’s beauty is more than skin deep.

Mazda claims much better aerodynamics which will perk the ears of Mazda’s driver enthusiast core. This is the most raced car in America after all. Mazda says that roll-hoop requirements will keep the Targa-top out of more serious SCCA club racing, but weekend warriors will no doubt notice higher straightaway speeds with the reduced drag coefficient. Mazda isn’t releasing numbers yet, but I’m betting the car-nut mags already have their testing equipment strapped to the car.

The Targa top is also a marvel of packaging – adding just 113 pounds to the 2,332-pound base Miata’s lithe frame, maintaining the car’s superb weight balance, and poaching not an inch on trunk space.

Otherwise, the Miata remains unchanged from the acclaimed fifth-generation roller skate that thrilled us just two years ago.

My RF date came after knee replacement surgery on my 6-foot-5 frame. I told my surgeon and physical therapist (who has suffered through four knee surgeries with my demands) that I had to have the strength and range-of-leg-motion to get into the smallest sports car made in just five weeks. She took the challenge in stride (probably because it didn’t sound as bonkers as a previous request that I had to race a Porsche just two weeks after arthroscopic surgery).

She got me to 110 degrees range of knee motion. That was (just) enough to fold into the MX-5’s cockpit which is the size of a large suitcase. Worse is the passenger compartment and its cramped dash. The glove compartment is between the seats, meaning I have to dislocate my shoulder in order to reach it. Going topless, my head stuck out of the roof, making my cranium the roll bar.

Once behind the wheel of MX-5, however, all ergonomic concerns are forgiven. Few cars are as fun to drive. Over Southern California’s twisted hills, the short-wheelbase RF was a tossable toy.

Mazda has set the table with all the tools right where they should be: Steering wheel straight ahead. Three gauges, tach in the middle. Short-throw, six-speed box. Peppy, 155-horse inline-4 engine. Accelerator and brake pedals perfectly spaced for heel-and-toe downshifts.

Those flying-buttress rear pillars might make a serious blind spot on a bigger car, but they’re not an issue in this go-kart. I can practically loosen the lug nuts on all four wheels without ever leaving the driver’s seat.

With its higher price point, Miata won’t bother with the base Sport trim – offering the RF only in Club and Grand Touring trims. My tester was the posh, leather- and nav-equipped GT, which is going to make life hard on the more upscale brand buyers looking at the Fiata (Fiat’s 124 Spider which shares a chassis with MX-5). My preference, though, is for the Club version with its stiffer Bilstein shocks and track-must, limited-slip rear differential.

The fifth-gen MX-5 is an important step for America’s favorite sports car. Iconic as it may be to Mazda’s ZOOM-ZOOM brand, the Miata had to be co-developed with Fiat in order to justify the enormous costs of a small production car. Sixty years on from European sports car nostalgia, the Mazda now has to set expectations for a new generation of buyers. The sharp, Mazda-esque styling of the soft top was bold – and now RF (for Reach Forward) sets a new bar.

Happily, Mazda’s crack team of engineers and marketing gurus seem up to the challenge of all that heavy lifting. Which means the toughest question you and I have to answer when we jump into the RF is: Should I buy it in Machine Gray or Soul Red?

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2017 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF

VEHICLE TYPE FRONT-ENGINE, REAR-WHEEL DRIVE, TWO-PASSENGER

SPORTS CAR

Power plant 2.0-liter, dual overhead-cam 4-cylinder
Transmission 6-speed manual; 6-speed automatic
Weight 2,445 pounds
Price $32,430 base
Power 155 horsepower, 148 pound-feet of torque
Performance 0-60 mph, 5.9 seconds (Car and Driver)
Fuel economy EPA 29 city/33 highway/29 combined (manual); 29 city/35 highway/29 combined (auto)

Report card

HIGHS FLYING BUTTRESS, FASTBACK DESIGN; FULLY AUTOMATIC DROP TOP
Lows Tight for 6-footers; limited-slip only in Club

trim

Overall:★★★★

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