Soft-top vs hard-top: We put the Mazda MX-5 to the test

Those after a small, fun-to-drive sports car should instantly place the Mazda MX-5 on their shortlist. It's the best-selling roadster in the world, and for good reason. Through all of its generations, it's remained true to the same ethos – low weight, low power, rear-wheel drive, compact dimensions and maximum fun.

It's also had a fabric roof for most of its life, with only the third-generation car receiving a folding hard-top as standard. However, the current fourth-generation model goes one step further, with a whole standalone hard-top model named the RF.

RF stands for retractable fastback, and refers to the car's roofline – which consists of two sleek buttresses extending back over the car's rear deck, and a central section which lifts out. But how does the RF compare to the standard MX-5s already brilliant soft-top? We pit both cars against each other – our long-term MX-5 RF vs the limited-run Z-Sport, which is fitted with a cherry red, manually-folding fabric roof.

What's the same?

Both of these cars are virtually identical under the skin. They're both 2.0-litre models, with naturally-aspirated four-cylinder engines developing 158bhp and 200Nm of torque.

They can sprint from 0-60mph in 7.1 seconds and go on to a top speed of 133mph.

The RF is available as a lesser 1.5-litre model, while the limited-run Z-Sport is only available with the 2.0-litre unit. Standard soft-tops can be had as a 1.5-litre, though.

The interiors are pretty much identical, too. The Z-Sport, as a special edition model, gains some extra badging and some very comfortable tan leather seats, but everything else – the dashboard, the interior layout and the space on offer is the same.

All MX-5s are decently equipped, and top-of-the-range Sport Nav boasts Nappa Leather and satellite navigation.

Space is undeniably at a premium, but the MX-5 is cosy rather than cramped. There's enough space for (light) luggage for two in the boot, making this just about practical enough for a weekend getaway. Just don't expect to be making many trips to the flat-pack furniture store.

Soft-top vs. hard-top: We put the Mazda MX-5 to the test
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Soft-top vs. hard-top: We put the Mazda MX-5 to the test

What's different?

Though both cars are incredibly similar, the roof mechanisms couldn't be more different. We'll start with the Z-Sport, which is simplicity itself.

To fold the roof down, simply reach above your head and unlock the latch. From there, just pull the roof back – it's manually operated – and click it into position behind your head. Simple as that.

It's a process that takes just a few seconds and is equally easy in reverse – simply pull a lever to release the roof, grab, pull, and re-latch.

The RF's folding hard-top is less involved, but far more sophisticated. As you press the button, the rear buttresses reach up and the centre panel and rear window fold away. It takes a few more seconds than the soft-top and can't be done on the move, either – the process cancels if you move over 6mph.

The different roofs completely change the ownership experience. The RF's heavier hard-top increases cruising comfort when it's raised and makes the MX-5 a better long-distance companion. It also gives more security than the soft-top – being resistant to knife attacks and other aggressive behaviours.

As for the soft-top, it provides the pure convertible sports car experience. Roof up, it's almost as refined, but roof down you feel and experience far more of your surroundings. The downside is more road noise when cruising and a lack of security. Looks are subjective, but the RF is undeniably more sleek than the soft-top.

Which should I buy?

Which you choose to buy really depends on the kind of driving experience you want. If you need something that can carry you for longer distances, but also be a riot on the weekends, the RF hard-top could be the one for you — it also offers an extra layer of security over the canvas roof.

If you're looking for a weekend car, one to be stowed in a garage, the soft-top is the way to go. It offers the purer experience and has the extra edge in spirited driving. It may be a little harsher on motorways than the RF, but it's just as usable elsewhere.

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