Mazda MX5 RF Vs. Soft Top

January 17, 2018

Last year we completed a two year "living with" test on the Mazda MX5 soft top, now we have the latest RF version so it's time to find out which is better! 


Being in it's fourth incarnation some 28 years after being launched back in 1989, the MX5 is a common sight on the worlds roads. However as I said in our original review of the soft top last year, until now it hasn't been a great looking machine. Soft, cute and in the case of the NC version, getting a little chubby and heavy. 


Fast forward to last year and the launch of the MX5 2016 ND, the MX5 was back. Masculine new looks, sweeping continental styling and performance, all in a well equipped package. Many of us thought that this was an unsurpassable machine, then we heard the news...there was to be a hardtop version the following year!


When I first heard that there was to be a hard-top version of the MX5, I really didn't care. By this point I was a ragtop fanboy, loving everyday with my new soft-top toy. Also, having seen previous variants of the MX5 with hardtops, all of which looked like Darth Vaders helmet, I wasn't hopeful it was going to be a looker. I may have been a little wrong. 


Launched to great fanfare, the first pictures of the RF hit online and many of us were truly astounded by the racy new design. The fastback styling and the gorgeous new "gunmetal grey" paintwork made a bold new statement. 


So which is better? The ragtop or RF? 


Outside of the roof, there are very few differences between the two models, much as you'd expect. However there are a few minor changes that many reviewers gloss over that may interest the potential new owner of one of these machines. 



The MX5 is certainly no courier van, a boot space suitable for a weekend getaway or a weekly grocery shop. Certainly not enough room for golf clubs or an ikea coffee table. The soft top has marginally more boot space due to the inclusion of an intrusive storage tray in the RF. For some reason the owners manual in now in the boot along with the tools and jack. I'd previously had the manual in the centre cubby in the cabin but now there is a tray bolted to the boot floor taking up valuable space. 




Inside the car, little has changed. Still one large storage cubby between the seats and a deep coin tray behind the gear stick. The main changes in terms of storage are that the two deep storage bins behind the seats have all but disappeared in the RF. These two hidden bins were extremely useful on the soft-top version, holding first aid kits, maintenance kit and anything else you'd want to carry but not need everyday. The RF has all but done away with them, the one behind the passenger seat has disappeared all together and the drivers side bin is about half the size now. I suspect this is to accommodate some mechanical part of the roof mechanism but it's a bit of a blow to lose such useful space. 




The parcel shelf has also gone! Ok, now officially there isn't a parcel shelf in either version. However, in the case of the soft-top, you could remove the wind deflector and you then had access to quite a substantial carpeted area with which to store hats, coats, books etc. for a long journey....just remember to check it's completely empty before trying to lower the roof!!!    

The RF has none of these features, the "parcel shelf" area has huge carpet gaps in the floor for mechanical bits and bobs to operate through, so don't bother trying to do as with the soft top, you may end up losing stuff through the floor and onto the M25. Granted it was never an official storage space, but it was a handy hack if you had a long getaway planned and space was at a premium. 


The Roof 

Mazda estimates that the RF will make up around 60% of Mx5 sales, with owners preferring the safety, quietness and security of a solid metal roof. However to purists of the MX5, there is no option but a true roadster ragtop. The first day of driving with the top down was a truly mind-blowing experience, you'd think it was little different to just driving with the windows down on a regular car, just windy and noisy. But it was so much more than that, like driving in widescreen, your peripheral vision comes alive and you no longer feel confined by a box around you. Driving at 70mph on a sunny day with the roof down is an opinion changing experience. The nearest experience to it i've found is riding on Test Track at Walt Disney World...only much better.    

Soft or Hard top? Each has it's own market, soft is original and pure, the hard is practical and stylish. I enjoyed the soft top mainly with the roof down, the rag top roof feeling a bit like being in a raggy tent in a high wind while driving on the motorway. Noisy but bearable. I enjoy driving the RF in both configurations both roof up and down, checking out my stylish reflection in shop windows with the roof up and enjoying the sunshine when the roofs down. 


I do however feel that the soft top is more practical in certain circumstances, the vast majority of my happy memories with the soft top occurred when I was able to quickly drop the roof. Those brief sunny spells (we live in England, a sunny spell is a rare blessing) when you have to snatch the opportunity to drop the roof. Sometimes when there wouldn't be chance to pull over and take the roof down. This is the RF's weak point, it isn't as convenient in this regard. You can drop the roof as long as you're not travelling over 5mph, so you may as well pull over to drop it. This means that when the sun pokes through, you're constantly looking for a lay-by or place to stop, drop the roof and then carry on. In the soft top, I've had the passenger chuck the roof back at 50mph and replace it when it's threatened rain. 


In all I don't feel this convenience warrants choosing a soft top over an RF, the RF is for people who want the roof down occasionally, on a summers day drive to the coast. The soft-top is for people who want the roof down as often as possible. 


1.5 or 2 Lt ?

Having gotten used to driving the 1.5 litre, I feel I was very much in tune with the car. Knowing intimately when to change gear, what performance I could expect in various situations and even fuel economy on my regular commutes. The 1.5lt was punchy, economical and perfectly adequate for the car. There were times however, where more power would have been more useful, such as on the long, steep, uphill stretch of slip road that joins the A1 near our office. The 1.5 struggling to maintain 40mph in fourth and me eventually surrendering and dropping to third.  



Now we have the 2 litre RF and it's back to school time. On startup there is a definite base note added to the revving engine. On pulling away at traffic lights, the engine is less noisy, requiring lower revs to pull away smoothly. The 2 litre is a bit of a sleeper, with many vans and VW Golfs getting close, ready to move out for an overtake on the approaching dual carriageway, and being left far behind as you floor it. The combo of this engine with the lightweight design make it a true drivers car.  



So which is better? This is a tough one, in the course of writing this i've changed opinion twice. The soft top will always appeal to purists and previous owners of the MX5. The Rf will appeal to new converts who are unsure of the convertible experience. For me the one I'd spend my money on is the RF, I need the practicality of a roof and as happy as those sunny days with the ragtop down were, they don't make up for the downsides. I will miss being able to through the roof back in a flash and the true 360 view, but the style, security and practicality of the RF are the winners. Also, just look at it! 

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