Against the Clock in a 2017 Mazda MX-5 RF

It wasn't until my third run that it finally clicked. I have been autocrossing for six years, but I've never driven anything like this. I only need to turn the wheel half as much and the car snakes through the cones. I can control the nose almost as much with the throttle as I do with the wheel. It's just about perfect. I finally understand why the four generations of this car fill not just autocross grids, but club racing grids all over North America.

The car I'm driving is the Mazda MX-5 RF. That's the retractable hard-top version of Mazda's latest roadster. It gives drivers a solid roof, as long as they're okay with about 45 kg of extra weight. It adds more four-season utility and is a little quieter on the highway with the roof up.

That weight gain isn't insignificant, but it's not a big deal either. This is still a light car. The whole thing only weighs about 1,060 kg. That's a little bit heavier than the very first Miata, but it's actually lighter than a 1994 model. That's the first year that the first-gen car added a passenger airbag and side-impact beams. The RF is still about 150 kg lighter than the nearest competition, the 2017 Subaru BRZ and Toyota 86 coupes. And 45 kg is about the same as leaving the gas tank empty instead of full.

It's already well established that the MX-5 handles well. I don't think you will find anyone who has driven one who doesn't love the balance and toss-ability that comes with putting the entire engine behind the front axle line in a flyweight car with outstanding suspension. But can this car still go fast against the clock? After all, that 2.0L four-cylinder only makes 155 hp and 148 lb-ft. Is that enough against the 86/BRZ twins that now make 205 hp? Fortunately, Mazda was nice enough to let me find out.

If you aren't familiar with autocross, I'll give you a quick primer. A group of crazy but like-minded people set up a race course made from pylons on an empty parking lot or runway, or occasionally on an existing racetrack. They then stand in the sun all day on a perfectly nice weekend, waiting for one of their four chances to set a fast time. Times are compared at the end of the day to decide who wins. Hit a cone, get a two-second penalty. It's not high speed, but it's high g-force and quick transitions. Cars that turn and grip do very well.

The 2017 MX-5 competes in the C-street class by SCCA autocross rules. Without bogging you down in details, street is a class for stock and nearly stock cars, and "C" is the performance class for the car. The C-Street class includes the new MX-5, the BRZ/86/FRS, and a handful of others like the 350Z and Mazda RX-8. It's a tough class, with some well known and well-developed platforms.

I would be entering it in a local club event. I'm a member of the Atlantic Sports Car Club, and we were having our first-ever night time event. Under the lights at Scotia Speedworld, a local oval that lets us use their asphalt.

Pulling in to a group of car people in the RF is a dangerous thing. I was immediately swarmed by about 20 people who were wondering what it was. Everybody wanted to play with the roof. If you're an introvert, consider this your warning.

My first run almost ended very badly. My normal autocross car is a 1997 BMW 328iS. It's got lots of suspension upgrades and big sticky tires. It's got an alignment with lots of toe that chews up tires, but has extremely sharp turn-in. Or at least I thought it had sharp turn-in. Turning in to the first corner in the MX-5 I almost ended up on the grass. It turns that much more sharply than what I was used to.

Slaloming through the cones in the RF is great fun. I'm carving through gates using the throttle almost as much as the steering. Press the gas, the nose pushes wide. Release the gas and the nose tucks back in. It's great on the road, but it's amazing on the track.

My second run was more of the same, but without putting myself on the lawn. The razor sharp reflexes and how easy it is to control are putting a massive grin on my face. This is as much fun as I've had at an event since the very first time I tried racing the clock. I brought a passenger this time, and he's squealing enough that it's almost distracting. But I can't blame him.

My times so far have been slow, but I know I'm leaving a lot on the table. But I know what the problem is. And then it was time for run three. I turn in at the last second for the first gate, and the MX-5 snaps around. In the slalom I'm barely turning the wheel, and the car is slicing through the cones like a scalpel. Drive this car like the short and narrow flyweight it is and it flies around the course. At the finish I'm two seconds quicker, and I know the next run could take that much off my time again. But it's late, and we aren't getting a fourth run.

I'm in third place in class, about 0.6 seconds behind the winner. He's in a prepared Scion FR-S with massive sticky tires and he's been driving it for years. I'm in an MX-5 RF that I barely even checked the tire pressures. I'm happy with that time.

So is the MX-5 RF the perfect autocrosser? Well, if it's raining and you're tall, it's probably the worst car you could possibly pick. That roof hits my head when it's bare, and you can see in the photos what I look like with my helmet on. But the rest of the time? It's amazing.

There are some issues, like the short 2nd gear. I hit the rev limit halfway down our short straightaway. That means either let off the gas, or shift into third. The 2-3 shift means that you have to shift back down to second just a few moments later, and the slowness of lifting is better than the possibility of a missed downshift. The possibility of a missed shift isn't the car's fault, but with four short runs, you just don't normally take the chance. Taller gearing would slow acceleration, but could actually improve times.

It's also far too small to take a second set of tires with you, but tire trailers behind Miatas, even behind Corvettes, is common at an autocross event. Fuel economy is rated at 8.9 L/100 km city, 7.1 highway, but I averaged 6.5. That included the autocross runs and lots of idling between runs.

So the MX-5 isn't perfect for autocross, but it's close. And that carries on the tradition that Mazda has been keeping going since the first cars arrived in 1989.

Oh, and the fastest car of the day? It was a first-gen MX-5. With a roll cage and a 2.4L four from an Acura TSX.

Can the MX-5 still zoom-zoom? 8/14/2017 10:00:00 AM

Competitors:

Subaru BRZ Toyota 86