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HARD TO TOP

October 13, 2018

If you have one of those primal urges for a low-slung, two-seat sports car, then look no further than the 2019 Mazda MX-5 RF.

Mazda also builds an MX-5 two-seat ragtop, but the focus here is on the RF, which stands for “retractable fastback.” With slick engineering, along with 13 seconds of your time, the fastback MX-5 RF swallows its roof in a maw behind the driver and pirouettes a few other pieces to wind up looking like a 1960s-era Porsche 911 Targa-top roadster open to the sky.

Another touch of the dash-mounted switch sends all the parts back into their cozy tubs so you can enjoy closed-car, weatherproof motoring. However, it’s not particularly quiet: This is a sports car, after all, and the Mazda people want you to enjoy the performance vibes of mechanical and raucous exhaust sounds.

They come from Mazda’s re-defined SkyActiv-G 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, which now makes 181 horsepower and 151 lb.-ft. of torque, sent to the rear wheels through either a 6-speed manual gearbox or a 6-speed automatic transmission.

Though too many exotic sportsters now rely exclusively on automatic transmissions, computer-controlled so anybody could drive them, purists still favor the tactile feeling of mastery and skill driving good manual gearboxes.

And, of course, the MX-5 has a manual with a positive, effortless shift linkage. You’ll want to explore mountain roads with tight curves and elevation changes that encourage attention to the frequent up and down gearshifts of the squat-down, two-seater driving experience. Practice your heel-and-toe technique to match engine revolutions with road speed on downshifts, as the MX-5 RF — unfortunately — does not have automatic rev matching.

As the motoring gods intended, you drive this neat Mazda the way your forbears did the Austin-Healey Sprite, MG Midget, and Triumph Spitfire back in the 1960s. After all, the MX-5 — most people still call it the “Miata” and Mazda doesn’t argue with them — was invented in 1990 to be the reliable Japanese descendant of those wonderful British sports cars.

True, you can derive driving joy from many modern sport-oriented cars — including some crossover SUVs with automatic transmissions. You can shift using paddles on the steering wheel but you soon learn, even on a racetrack, that the onboard computer is way better at it than you are, so why bother?

Two versions are available: Club, which is directed more at a customer who might want to do some weekend faux racing, and the Grand Touring, which is a bit more expensive but more oriented toward the relaxed, automatic-transmission boulevardiers, though it also comes with a stick shift.

The tested Club model had a starting price of $33,240 — not exactly economy-car territory but actually less than the average out-the-door price of a new car these days. With options that include Recaro sport seats with plenty of bolstering, Brembo high-performance brakes, and 17-inch BBS metallic black wheels, the bottom-line sticker came to $37,910.

That’s fairly pricey for what would essentially be a toy for middle-class fun-seeking enthusiasts. It would work for a single person and a significant other but they would have to forego double dating unless there was a second car — even a used compact — in the picture.

Some other choices can deliver some of the same driving excitement as the MX-5.But in the end, however, there’s nothing quite like the MX-5 RF.

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