Road tests

New Mazda MX-5 RF 2023 review

Handling remains a strong point for the revised Mazda MX-5, but the interior is cramped

Overall Auto Express Rating

3.5 out of 5

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A refresh to the MX-5 trim line-up hasn’t exactly revolutionised Mazda’s offering, but we still appreciate the effort, and the fact that the brand is keeping its small sports car on sale while those around it fall by the wayside. It’s great to drive and proves once again that huge power and ballistic speed aren’t always necessary to really enjoy a performance car. The cabin is in desperate need of an update, though.

Another week passes, another new variant of the Mazda MX-5 emerges. This time, we’re testing the Retractable Fastback RF model in 1.5-litre form and new Exclusive-Line trim. This mid-spec model is probably the one you’ll want to go for as well (some caveats not withstanding, which we’ll get to in a moment), because it comes with most of the kit you’ll need, some of the toys you’ll want, and few items that really push the price up. It splits the entry-level Prime-Line and top-spec Homura models.

This lesser-engined RF Exclusive-Line model costs £30,025 and features 16-inch alloy wheels as standard. These don’t actually look as small as they sound, given the MX-5 compact dimensions, and they mean the ride is acceptable, too.

Other standard-fit equipment includes heated, black leather seats, adaptive LED headlights, rear parking sensors, climate control, a seven-inch screen with sat-nav, wireless Apple CarPlay and wired Android Auto, full keyless go and a surprising level of safety kit for a small roadster. There’s also a new paint colour available for 2023-model-year cars; it’s called Zircon Sand and costs £570.

When it comes to design, there’s little different on this fourth-generation MX-5, which is good and bad. Despite the fact that the car was launched in 2015, the styling still looks sharp and the Mazda cuts an attractive shape, particularly in RF form – although this model commands a £1,900 premium over the soft-top. Some will prefer the more sophisticated look and roof system the RF brings, while some will think the regular car is purer. We’re still glad they both exist.

However, eight years on from its launch, the MX-5’s cabin is feeling its age, and the infotainment desperately so. The screen now seems tiny compared with what’s offered in even some superminis these days, while the graphics and screen resolution could do with an update as well.

The system is still controlled by Mazda’s BMW-aping click-and-scroll wheel, which works well, and we appreciate the simplicity of the physical climate controls. But it’s cramped inside and some of the materials feel cheap. That was fine given that the car cost from £18,495 when it was launched, but while the price has kept pace with the market, some other features haven’t.

However, the MX-5 has a habit of making all this seem immaterial when you get it on the right road and appreciate what it’s good at – which is delivering plenty of enjoyment by involving you in the process of driving.

The RF adds a 34kg weight penalty, but from the driver’s seat you’d never know. The 130bhp 1.5-litre engine needs working hard, even to move the Mazda’s relatively slight 1,141kg kerbweight. The 0-62mph sprint takes 8.7 seconds and it’ll hit 127mph flat out. However, this means you can genuinely exploit the car on public roads without fear of breaking the speed limit – and while still enjoying yourself.

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The six-speed manual gearbox is a key part of this. While the engine sounds and feels a little coarse at higher revs, the shift the transmission delivers is brilliant. You’ll change gear just because you can.

The gearbox is precise and the ratios are well suited to the MX-5’s relatively scant 152Nm of torque, which is produced fairly high up at 4,500rpm, so there’s still enough flexibility for motorway overtakes without having to change down.

The other key part to the MX-5’s fun factor is the chassis. The steering is fast and precise, while the suspension is soft, so the car rolls to tell you how much grip is left. This also means it’s a fairly good cruiser, and the RF’s roof adds just a little more refinement to help with this.

Model: Mazda MX-5 RF 1.5 Skyactiv-G Exclusive-Line
Price: £30,025
Engine: 1.5-litre 4cyl petrol
Power/torque: 130bhp/152Nm
Transmission: Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive 
0-62mph: 8.7 seconds
Top speed: 127mph
Economy/CO2: 44.8mpg/142g/km
On sale: Now

Sean’s been writing about cars since 2010, having worked for outlets as diverse as PistonHeads, MSN Cars, Which? Cars, Race Tech – a specialist motorsport publication – and most recently Auto Express and sister titles Carbuyer and DrivingElectric

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