Mazda has recently been having a prod, poke and tweak of its line-up – and it’s not just the SUVs that are getting the treatment; the striking Mazda3 and the iconic MX-5 also benefit from tech-tweaks that improve efficiency as well as power output.
I’ve recently had a week with the 4th-generation Mazda3 e-Skyactiv X GT Sport, followed by another 7 days with the latest Mazda MX-5 RF Skyactiv-G GT Sport Tech. Both cars share similar (but not the same) 2.0-litre petrol engines which push out over 180 PS along with plenty of torque.
This combo of a 5-door family hatchback, followed by a not-so-practical 2-door roadster, is something I have experienced in “real life” as I ran a previous-generation Mazda3 Skyactiv model for a couple of years before it dawned on me that a practical family hatch was no longer essential. Within the week I had sold the bullet-proof Mazda3 and bought a 10-year-old, 10,000-mile, MX-5 20th Anniversary model – which I still have as my daily-driver and it has never missed a beat.
Of course, build-quality and reliability are two of the main reasons why people choose to get behind the wheel of a Mazda – with driver satisfaction being another important factor.
And it’s not just the MX-5 that excels in this department; you’ll find all Mazda models place an emphasis on how the car handles and feeds back to the driver, with even the SUVs being notably more driver-focused than most of their rivals.
This is certainly the case with the latest Mazda3 and (perhaps less surprisingly) the MX-5 RF.
Both vehicles benefit from Mazda’s ability to keep weight down and cubic-capacity up which, alongside brilliant engine innovation, means the Mazda you drive today has all the smoothness that a larger-capacity, naturally-aspirated engine provides.
Other manufacturers, at a similar price-point, rely on smaller-capacity engines, propped-up by forced-induction and consequently, a shortened power band and the prospect of turbo-lag. As they say: “There is no replacement for displacement”. A mantra that Mazda appear to stick to rigidly – until we’re all running EVs, of course . . .
Until then, the Mazda3’s e-Skyactiv X is probably one of the best naturally-aspirated engines money can buy. Maximum torque has increased to 240 Nm at 4,000 rpm and power output to 186 PS. WLTP fuel consumption is further improved to 53.3 mpg (combined), while CO2 emissions (121 g/km) are improved by up to 10 g/km compared to the previous version of the engine.
I struggled to notice any difference over the 180 PS model I drove and reviewed last year (https://www.restingthealfa.co.uk/car-reviews/mazda3-e-skyactiv-x-gt-sport-review/), although the fuel figures were marginally better – despite poor weather throughout the week with more than a little snow on the tops.
But who cares? Innovation along with improvement is always welcome – and anyway, the Mazda3 remains the prettiest mid-sized, 5-door hatchback money can buy right now. It’s also just as engaging to drive as it is to behold.
However, if driver engagement is the subject, then the Mazda MX-5 can’t be ignored. A different prospect altogether to the family-friendly Mazda3, with the MX-5’s emphasis solely on driver engagement and enjoyment – which it has never failed to deliver on since its introduction back in 1989.
The MX-5 offers the choice of traditional soft-top or a folding metal roof – the RF, or Retractable Fastback – which is the model I’ve been driving in its 184 PS, GT Sport Tech guise.
I drove a 160 PS Sport Nav version back in 2017 (https://www.restingthealfa.co.uk/car-reviews/mazda-mx-5-rf-160ps-sport-nav-car-review/) and immediately fell in love with it.
Since owning a soft-top MX-5, I’ve been unsure as to which version MX-5 I prefer – soft top or tin-top? However, I can now declare my loyalty – it’s the soft-top. Just.
The RF certainly has a lot going for it. I think it looks the better of the two when the roofs are up. The RF’s swooping roofline and those flying buttresses give it a mini-hardcore coupe look that the soft-top just doesn’t have. Its metal roof is less of a security risk than the rag-top too. But the best feature of the MX-5 RF is the well-choreographed opening and closing of the roof. It’s a show-stopper and is very satisfying when you push the button at the lights.
However, you can’t ignore the simplicity of the soft-top mechanism. You can have the roof down in around 5 seconds – albeit manually. And, if you’re flexible enough in the shoulders and arms, you can have it up again in about the same time – without leaving your seat. In the RF it takes 13 seconds.
But the main problem for me was the noticeable difference in wind noise when at motorway speeds. The RF appears to suffer from much more buffeting which I found annoying after just a few minutes. In contrast, I’ve travelled from the midlands up to the Isle of Sky in a 2020 soft-top MX-5 – with the roof down almost all the way, and the wind noise was perfectly acceptable.
So, if you intend to go topless at every opportunity and most of your miles are at higher speeds, I recommend the regular MX-5. However, if you’re even more of an exhibitionist who doesn’t mind an ear-battering every now and again, get the RF. Sorted.
So, what’s changed since 2017 when it comes to the MX-5 RF? Not a lot actually, but neither did it need to either.
Inside, I’m happy to see that Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are now standard with Apple CarPlay being wireless. Other than that, and depending on the trim level you choose, there’s not much to report. The bigger differences lie underneath. . .
The MX-5 RF continues to use a more powerful and higher-revving version of the 2.0-litre Skyactiv-G engine. This has seen an increase from 160 PS to 184 PS and a heightened redline, which rises from 6,800 to 7,500rpm compared to the version launched in 2015. Not only can you hear this difference, you can feel it too with new MX-5 RF feeling more eager when hanging onto the gears.
In addition, with higher fuel pressure and more efficient combustion, there’s an increase in torque across the rev range. As a result, the manual RF’s 0-62 mph performance is 6.8 seconds with the automatic models achieving 7.9seconds.
Yes, it drives beautifully and the Skyactiv-MT 6-speed gearbox is razor sharp and a delight to use. All 2.0 litre models benefit from a compact limited-slip diff that adds to the fun factor when cornering.
As if the MX-5s handling wasn’t all-conquering anyway, Mazda have now added their Kinematic Posture Control (KPC) to all models. KPC is designed to increase stability during cornering without impacting the purity of the MX-5’s handling. The KPC system applies a very small amount of brake force to the inner/unloaded rear wheel during cornering with the resulting brake force pulling the body down and suppressing body roll to provide even more reassuring cornering. Guilding the Lilly? Maybe, but once again, if Mazda find a way to improve on perfection – especially when it comes to driver engagement – they aren’t shy to use it.
Lighter, faster and more engaging to drive than ever, the Mazda MX-5 RF provides the undiluted driving pleasure you’d expect from the latest version of the world’s best-selling two-seater sports car. The only dilemma you should have is soft-top or tin-top? Whichever you choose, I guarantee your life will feel richer and more fun. Trust me.