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David Haueter test drives the latest Mazda MX-5 RF…

Photo: David Haueter

You don’t need a lot of horsepower to have fun in a sports car. It helps, of course, but the handling and balance of a car and the interaction with the driver through the seat, steering wheel, pedals and gear lever are much more important when it comes to driving pleasure.

There’s no better example of this automotive truth than the Mazda MX-5 RF, which has a mere 181hp and costs only $33,000, but is just as much fun to drive as cars with three times the horsepower that costs more than three times the price.

The MX-5 RF (RF stands for “Retractable Fastback”) is one of two choices buyers have in the MX-5 model lineup, the other being the MX-5 convertible, which utilizes a manual soft-top for a full open experience.

The middle section of the RF’s hardtop roof section between the windshield frame and the B-pillars folds mechanically into the trunk, opening the cockpit to the open air while retaining a coupe experience with the rear section of the roof still in place.

The MX-5 RF comes in two different equipment levels. The Club model starts at a base price of $33,045 while the Grand Touring model starts at $34,425 and adds extra features, though both are the same mechanically.

Photo: Mazda

Both models come standard with a 6-speed manual transmission as well, though a 6-speed automatic with paddle shifters is also available on either model for an additional $600. Prices for the RF are a bit higher than the MX-5 convertible, which can be had for as low as $26,580.

The MX-5 RF was the first car I tested for Sportscar365 in July 2017. Since then, Mazda has kept the great qualities of the MX-5 intact while making some significant and welcome changes, particularly under the hood.

It still uses a normally aspirated 2-liter 16-valve 4-cylinder motor, but power has been increased to 181hp from 155hp and the engine redline was increased from 7,000rpm to 7,500rpm.

Torque is a modest 151 lb-ft at 4,000rpm. Pistons and connecting rods were also lightened, and there’s now a standard limited slip differential with the manual transmission models.

Photo: Mazda

While it still has power figures well under many other cars in its price range, the MX-5 RF can still make it to 60mph in a relatively quick 5.8 seconds with the manual transmission, thanks in large part to its svelte curb weight of just 2,453 lbs.

In comparison, the Honda Civic Si coupe weighs 436 lbs. more.

The updates to the engine give the MX-5 RF more vigor, as that extra horsepower combined with the higher redline allows for more power and flexibility without giving up midrange torque.

You can also stay in lower gears longer where before you may have had to upshift, which comes in very handy on twisty roads or at the track.

The MX-5’s forte has always been handling, and the MX-5 RF is still one of the best cars to drive on a twisty back road. Weight distribution is nearly even front to rear and the sport-tuned suspension with Bilstein shocks strikes a nearly perfect balance between compliance and handling.

There’s still plenty of body roll when you push this car hard, but body motions are always in control and telegraph to the driver exactly what the car is doing.

Combined with the sharp steering and nicely weighted pedals and gear lever, the MX-5 hits all the right notes when it comes to driver involvement.

Photo: David Haueter

Downsides to the MX-5 are minimal as long as you keep in mind that this car is made primarily for fun and not practicality.

The biggest drawback is that the cockpit can be very cramped if you’re over 6’ tall.

I’m 6’5” so can barely fit into the car. It was a challenge to drive without having my hands bump into my knees and my hair always rubbed against the ceiling.

The RF is actually slightly better on headroom than the convertible with the top in place. There’s minimal storage in the cockpit and the car is on the loud side when traveling on the interstate, and the B-pillars of the hardtop make a blind spot on the sides of the car.

As a car made for driving enjoyment that can also give you an open air experience when you want it, it’s hard to beat the MX-5 RF if you can fit comfortably in it. It still feels very analog and old school but in a good way.

At a time when even expensive sports cars have become overly reliant on driver aids and digital everything, the MX-5 RF is a breath of fresh air and keeps the driver as an important part of the driving equation.

You feel at one with this car when you’re driving it, which is becoming increasingly rare.

Photo: David Haueter

David Haueter has been an automotive writer and photographer for the past 20 years. His writing and photos have been published in Roundel, Bimmer, Forza and Excellence and SportsCarInsider as well as other automotive and racing magazines.

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