Mazda looks to draw in new buyers with 2017 MX-5 RF

With the new 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF (Retractable Fastback), Mazda replaces the power-retractable hardtop (PHRT) with a coupé look and targa-style power roof designed to attract a new set of buyers to the model line. The RF has a USD2,700 price premium over the soft-top convertible in a similar grade level.

IHS Markit Perspective:

  • Significance: For the 2017 model year, the MX-5 Miata range adds the Retractable Fastback (RF) model, a powered targa-top version of the standard convertible.
  • Implications: The RF Miata functionally replaces the power-retractable hardtop (PHRT) of the previous generation but takes a coupé profile and aims for a different buyer. The PHRT accounted for about 60% of MX-5 sales and Mazda has said it hopes for a similar take rate from the new vehicle.
  • Outlook: The MX-5 RF is a thoughtfully developed product. Its formula could attract new customers but might also put off traditional buyers. As Mazda expects the variant to account for about 60% of MX-5 sales, the RF is critical to the model line's overall success.

Mazda has introduced the MX-5 RF (retractable fastback), which reflects a reconsideration of the product line and a rethink of how to approach replacing the former power-retractable hardtop (PHRT) model. The RF was revealed nearly a year ago at the 2016 New York International Auto Show (see United States: 23 March 2016: New York Auto Show 2016: Mazda introduces MX-5 Retractable Fastback). As Mazda expects the RF to account for about 60% of MX-5 sales, in line with the PHRT, the model needs to be successful.

The RF is designed for a more mature buyer, said the brand. Like the PHRT of the prior generation, the standard Sport trim of the convertible is unavailable with the RF. All RF models get 17-inch wheels and tyres as well as a higher level of specification than the base convertible. The RF can be ordered in MX-5 Club or MX-5 Grand Touring models. In equipment terms, the RF and soft-top models have very similar trim levels. The RF comes standard with blind-spot detection and alert, as the roof has rear buttresses that create massive blind spots whether the targa is up or down. Suspension changes are minor, mostly aimed at ensuring the same ride between models despite the RF's greater weight. A bushing in the rear suspension has been changed and steering calibration tweaked to reduce on-centre friction and give a little higher effort, according to Mazda. The soft-top and RF versions therefore offer near-identical driving experiences, which is very much to the RF's favour. The roof panel is a combination of aluminium, steel, and sheet moulding compound (SMC) plastic panels. The six-speed manual RF weighs 2,445 lb, compared with 2,332 lb for the six-speed manual soft-top. The RF is 5 mm taller than the soft-top and contains a 4.6-inch TFT colour instrument screen, instead of a black-and-white unit, and an open/close button. To develop the RF mechanism, Mazda refined the motors used for the third-generation PHRT, ensuring operation in the smaller space of the new generation.

2017 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF (Image by Stephanie Brinley)

Mazda expects the RF to appeal to drivers who are looking for the rewarding driving character of the MX-5 but are less interested in driving with the roof down. Mazda expects these drivers to be more satisfied with the RF's dynamic looks when the roof is up and the somewhat quieter environment than the soft-top model delivers. Ken Saward, a designer on the Mazda MX-5 project, told IHS Markit that the company's research had found that buyers of the PHRT third-generation MX-5, especially those who opted for the top Grand Touring (GT) trim line, tended to drive with the roof up and not to take advantage of the PHRT. Drivers of MX-5s with the standard manual soft top tended to drive with the top down. Mazda therefore expects the RF to retain PHRT buyers but also expand consideration among buyers who might have rejected a purer convertible.

The mechanical aspects of the driving experience are similar enough to be equally satisfying in each version. But the open-air experience of driving the RF with the targa down is very different. With the top down, you get the sun and wind, but not the full open-air feeling or near 360° visibility of the soft-top. The RF's visibility issues can be a distraction despite the standard electronic blind-spot monitors. The permanent rear buttresses leave one feeling as if in a cocoon, even with the roof open.

The RF also costs significantly more than the soft-top. In the previous generation, the price difference between comparable models of the soft-top and PHRT was about USD1,700. Stepping up to the RF involves a USD2,755 premium. Excluding the 1,000-unit Launch Edition, already sold out, the RF top trim level starts at USD32,620. While the pricing seems not to be outrageous at the top end, the RF has a significantly higher price point than the PHRT commanded.

Outlook and implications

The MX-5 RF has been thoughtfully developed. Its formula could attract new customers but risks putting off traditional buyers. As Mazda expects the variant to account for about 60% of MX-5 sales, its performance is critical to the model line's overall success. IHS Markit expects this generation's sales to peak in 2017 with nearly 29,500 units globally, continuing the MX-5's trend for new models to outsell their predecessors.

Mazda introduced the car with a special launch edition designed to attract loyalists to order the car, limited to 1,000 units (see United States: 19 August 2016: Mazda MX-5 RF Launch Edition pre-orders start). The first RF in the United States was sold to a buyer who had owned 16 Mazda products. The RF began arriving in December. Sales of the MX-5 range in the first two months of the year totalled 2,037 units, up 54% from the first two months of 2016, when only the soft-top offering was available, according to Mazda sales reporting. Mazda has not provided a breakdown between RF and soft-top sales.

The MX-5's job is to provide the most pure expression of Mazda's jinba ittai (unity between horse and rider) and to create an aspirational feel the brand can carry into other products. Mazda has quite successfully imparted strong driving characteristics into its models beyond the MX-5. The MX-5 provides a realistic and attainable yet aspirational product for Mazda.

As Mazda drives forward with its mission to improve make loyalty and build a relationship with its owners, a look at where MX-5 fits is warranted. Make loyalty, the measure of buyers who return for another vehicle of the same make, has improved among Miata MX-5 owners in recent years. In 2011, 27.5% of Miata owners returning to market opted for another Mazda, which was near Mazda's overall make-level loyalty. In 2016, this figure had improved - to 33.5% - but remained below 50% and was not exceptional for the industry. Overall Mazda loyalty was 38.5% in 2016, compared with 36.0% in 2013. (In this case, we reviewed data on the household methodology, which means that the Miata MX-5 registered to the owner may not have been replaced by the new purchase. Given the specific nature of the sports car, this can provide a better window into behaviour.) By comparison, Ford has often achieved high make-loyalty rates and posted 63% in 2016. Although recent products are improving Mazda's figures, it has some way to go. Mazda's smaller product lineup than Ford or Toyota also makes it less likely to match their loyalty rates. The MX-5 is helping the cause, although not necessarily more than other Mazda models. Mazda3 buyers have increasingly returned to buy another Mazda, with a make loyalty up from 31.7% in 2011 to 39.5% in 2016, according to IHS Markit data.

About this article

The above article is from IHS Automotive Same-Day Analysis of automotive news, events and trends, and is a deliverable of the World Markets Automotive Service. The service averages thirty stories per day and also provides competitor and country intelligence. Get a free trial.


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