What is the Mazda Miata / MX-5?
Launched at the 1989 Chicago Auto Show as a 1990 model, the MX-5 Miata is a small, light weight roadster in the spirit of British roadsters of the 1960's and 70's, like the Lotus Elan, the MGB and the Triumph Spitfire. From the outset it sold well and simply became the best selling two seat roadster of all time achieving a production of more than a 1,000,000,000 (million) cars by April 22, 2016. Over the twenty seven year period between the introduction of the first car and attaining this record breaking benchmark four generations of what has become an iconic brand have been produced. All four have maintained the original light weight sports car concept that inspired the first generation’s car and are all greater than the sum of their parts.
Although built in Japan, and inspired by British roadsters, the original was designed at Mazda’s design centre in Irvine, California following a suggestion by automotive journalist Bob Hall. Three Mazda Design Centres developed different concepts; one a mid rear engine, one front-wheel-drive, and the front-engine rear wheel drive version that was adopted after being presented to Mazda’s management.
Three prototypes of the design configuration adopted were built in England and were evaluated against existing much older British sports cars as part of the car’s pre-production development. Much of the success of the design can be attributed to its being an almost “clean-sheet” design. It used an existing engine and transmission; a DOHC 1.6 L four from the 323, and five speed all synchro from the 626 and other Mazda components but the chassis configuration was all original. Fully independent suspension and 50/50 front rear weight distribution contribute to the cars excellent handling.
Let’s have a look at the four generations of this iconic almost instant classic roadster:
The NA 1989 to 1997
Mazda took a risk in producing this car. The two seat roadsters that inspired the Miata hadn’t been produced in years, and although there was support by hard core roadster enthusiasts, there was no indication that the car would be the success it become.
The car looks a lot like the Lotus Elan with flip up headlights and similar styling although the Elan is much smaller. The bumper incorporated in the front of the car above a wide oval grill is invisible. The original 1.6 litre four was considered by many to be too low-powered but performance was spirited.
The top is easy to put up and down and weatherproof providing great comfort in inclement weather. It retains a feature of earlier roadsters in that the top incorporates a zip-out isinglass rear window. The trunk is large enough for a week’s luggage, the rather small battery is tucked into the right rear fender and the spare tire shares space with your luggage.
A popular accessory was a fiberglass top that could be easily removed or replaced by two people and stored on a special rack. Top on or off tended to be seasonal.
This car has plenty of space to store things behind the seats and a top boot could hold a bag providing more luggage space.
As time went on the engine was enlarged and the car was constantly improved until production ceased in 1997. During its production run a number of special editions were produced.
Many members of the club still enjoy road trips and tours in their first generation (up 28 year old) cars. The NA has become a collectable and many special editions are highly sought after. In 2017 Mazda started a program to restore NA series cars. Unlike other manufacturers like Mercedes and Porsche that have similar programs they are also manufacturing or having suppliers make new parts so that long-out-of-stock NA parts are available to individual restorers.
The NB 1999 to 2005
The second generation car was evolutionary rather than revolutionary with more appearance rather than fundamental changes. The flip up headlights were gone, the door handles changed, and the spare tire migrated to under the trunk floor.
The dashboard was redesigned and the isinglass zip-out rear window was replaced with a glass window that incorporated an electric defogger. Although the car was slightly heavier it had more power than the original car. Handling remained much the same. It felt just like a Miata.
Every year changes were made to improve performance without altering the car’s personality. In 2004 and 2005, a MazdaSpeed version that incorporated a turbo charger was available.
The NC 2006 to 2016
This new car carried the spirit of the first two generation’s cars but was more revolutionary than evolutionary. It had a new more powerful 2 litre engine and a new platform. Originally offered as a cloth top convertible with an optional two person hard top with the same perennial storage problem shared with the first two generation cars, in 2007 the NC was offered with a Power Retractable Hard Top (PRHT) which proved to be very popular. This remarkable top took no more stowage space than the soft top setting an industry standard and could be put up or down by the push of a button. This car appealed to those that never would have considered a convertible who have since discovered the joy of top down driving.
The trunk no longer had to accommodate a spare tire - an inflate-and-seal system replaced the spare. A lighter engine meant that the battery could migrate to the front where it could enjoy the advantages of shorter leads. These changes left more room in the trunk for the car’s user.
Taller or larger individuals who had difficulty getting in or out of earlier generation cars find this one quite comfortable. This series was the first in North America that didn’t have a “Miata” badge affixed. Nevertheless, people still call it a Miata.
The ND 2016 to - - - -
In the fall of 2016 an eagerly anticipated new MX-5 was revealed. This car is shorter than the original NA and lighter than the third generation NC. It has more aggressive styling but like all previous iterations retains the basic principles that all MX-5 share. It incorporates Mazda’s SKYACTIV technology, and electronic devices, sensors and computers play a larger role in this model than any previous versions. All that Mazda had learned in over twenty five years of building a light weight roadster are incorporated in this fourth generation model. It is comfortable, yet there’s great road feel, response and performance. Yet again, a different, better car, but it still feels like a Miata. There’s no mistake.
Like the NC it was originally marketed as a soft top convertible, in this case one that could almost be erected by using one’s index finger. An RF (Retractable Fastback) soon augmented that model. This car has a “Targa” style roof that has a flying buttress. When this roof is retracted one doesn’t see a roadster as is the case with the previous NC.
Why is the MX-5 / Miata so successful?
No compromise engineering and quality construction and a sense of purpose and a well-defined goal certainly helps. Outsourcing for things like steering wheels to Nardi for example incorporates what is best without adding unnecessary expense. This results in a car that is honest, performs better than expected and is very reasonably priced, and is considered by some even to be cheap.
Clubs like the Trillium Miata Club that were once chapters of the Miata Club of America that originally included involvement by Mazda provided a social context for the car. People join because they bought a Miata. They stay because of the friends they have made.
Accessories and upgrade components that are well engineered, well made and perform as advertised make it possible for those who are so inclined to modify or “improve” their car’s appearance and/or performance. Many of these can be removed so that the car can be returned to “stock” if required. Special shops can make well designed and implemented performance improvements.
The car can be used for almost anything. Need a two passenger basic year round daily driver? The Miata will do it well as long as it has winter tires in this climate. Want a car just so you can enjoy top-down drives on country back roads? This car does this extremely well. Enjoy touring with others? Miata provides the best of that kind of experience. Want to pit your driving skills against others? This car excels in gymkhana trials. Want a reasonably priced dependable yet competitive track car for weekend laps? The Miata no matter what generation will provide just what’s needed. Racing on a track appeal? There’s lots of Miata competition out there. Something more exotic like the Targa Newfoundland? Miata’s your car. Granted, it’s not really what’s needed to pick up lumber, but wouldn’t you rather have that delivered?
Last, but not least, is that the car is fun to drive. Not the best handling, not the fastest, nor most powerful, but an amazing balance of attributes that makes any driver a good driver, a good driver a better driver. Added to that is that it is dependable and almost bullet proof requiring very little maintenance. As previously stated greater than the sum of its parts. In 2009, famed automotive critic Jeremy Clarkson (Top Gear) summed it up by saying: “The fact is that if you want a sportscar, the MX-5 Miata is perfect. Nothing on the road will give you better value. Nothing will give you so much fun. The only reason that I’m giving it 5 stars is because I can’t give it 14”.