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Mazda MX-5 RF review: A hard (top) act to follow

The MX-5 has always offered a keen blend of performance and price but can the more powerful, more expensive and more complicated RF match that appeal?

The Mazda MX-5 RF created a bit of a stir when it was first launched.

There had been versions of the famous roadster with a folding hard top before. In fact, late in its life the Mk 3 Roadster Coupe was outselling the soft-top substantially. But that model looked just like the convertible with a removable lid. With the RF Mazda did something different and came up with a whole new design with substantial targa-style rear bodywork that rose up behind the cabin.

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To some it was a dilution of the simple visual and practical appeal of the MX-5, to others a smart piece of design and engineering that offered a more usable day-to-day car without too much compromise.

Nearly five years since its launch the RF is still strikingly different from the regular convertible. The unique rear panel with its flying buttresses and pillbox-like rear screen create a pseudo-coupe look that’s as visually appealing whether the roof is in place or tucked away. It isn’t quite as “pure” as the convertible but it is handsome in its own way.

The high rear structure also means it is not quite as immersive as the convertible since you’re more cocooned in the cabin but you still feel far more involved in the world around you than in most cars. The RF’s advantage over the convertible comes when the weather’s cold and grim (like it was for much of my time with the car) thanks to the folding metal hardtop that is a more solid, substantial protection against that same world. It shuts out more of the noise and disruption than the soft top, although it’s still clearly not as refined as a true coupe.

Of course, the fancy metal roof and its motors adds a bit of weight to the famously lightweight MX-5. In top GT Sport spec, the RF is 43kg heavier than the equivalent 2.0-litre convertible, adding 0.3 seconds to its 0-62mph run and shaving a meagre 1mph from its top speed.

In the real world, that difference in straight line pace is virtually indistinguishable but the extra weight high up does slightly blunt the MX-5’s famous poise, especially compared with the 67kg lighter 1.5 convertible. That’s not to say the RF suddenly becomes some lead-footed lump. It still weighs a mere 1,171kg and compared to most other things on the road - at this price or far beyond - it’s still a gloriously precise and agile machine. Find a B road and point it at the twisty bits and the RF will dance along with near-unrivalled deftness. The steering is as sharp and communicative as ever and the manual six-speed shifter remains one of the best in the business. On the right roads in the right conditions it’s impossible to drive the MX-5 RF without a massive grin on your face.

The larger engine - standard on the RF - also makes up for that modicum of lost agility compared with the 1.5 soft top. The extra 50bhp means it’s 1.5 seconds quicker to 62mph and feels more muscular when hauling itself between corners. Of course, you can have that power boost in the convertible.

One of the key appeals of the MX-5 has always been its value. Entry level models cost less than £25,000 but this top-of-the-range RF weighs in at a more serious £33,000. That does bring all the toys missing from cheaper cars, including heated leather seats with headrest-mounted speakers, a front strut brace, Bilstein sports suspension, 17-inch alloys, adaptive LED headlights, auto wipers and safety kit such as lane keep assist and autonomous emergency braking.

And despite its higher asking price, it’s hard to think of many cars in a similar price range that offer the particular pleasure that the Mazda offers. Yes, other cars are faster or more practical but they lack the pure simple joy of its old-school approach to driving pleasure.

For those wonderful days when the weather plays ball there is no doubt that the regular drop top is the more attractive car. But for the other 350 days of the year the RF makes a strong case for itself.

Mazda MX-5 RF

Price: £32,570 (£33,380 as tested); Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, petrol; Power: 181bhp; Torque: 151lb ft; Transmission: Six-speed manual; Top speed: 137mph; 0-62mph: 6.8 seconds; Economy: 40mpg; CO2 emissions: 155g/km