Happy birthday Mazda Miata!
You don't become the best-selling convertible sports car overnight. No, in the case of the Mazda MX-5 Miata, it took nearly three decades. To be precise, in 2016, Mazda MX-5 production reached number 1 million. But that same feat took the Porsche 911 more than 50 years, and that was including all body styles for the German. The MX-5, or Miata as many Americans may still know it, has transcended to the ranks of true sports car elite, but what is its secret, and why is the MX-5 still one of the greatest sports cars money can buy? To figure that out, we have to go back 32 years ago from this day, when the world first met the Miata...
On February 10, 1989, the Mazda stand at the Chicago Auto Show became a hive of attention. While many were trying to see what the next decade of motoring might look like for in-car technology, the Japanese brand took a refreshingly different approach, looking back to sports cars of yesteryear to pioneer an open-top roadster for the future. This was the day that Mazda introduced the world to the first MX-5 Miata. 32 years on since that day and the Miata is still stealing the attention of automotive enthusiasts the world over. From NA to ND, four generations have become smash hits, automotive icons, and sought after collector's classics. The Miata has grown and then shrunk again, but there are some things that have never changed: rear-wheel drive, a low curb weight, and a sense of purity that even the most hallowed of marques can't hold a candle to.
The NA-generation Miata may have debuted in 1989, but the story of the icon began sometime before then when seven engineers decided to pioneer a sports car for a new era of motoring. A number of concepts were developed, various engine layouts considered, including mid-mounting the engine, and several styling languages pored over. Every detail needed to be perfect, and once the front-engine rear-wheel-drive layout was decided upon for purity and balance, the concept took shape. An early concept was shown to a focus group in April 1987, and the response was overwhelming. The Miata was a go.
Inspired by classic post-war British roadsters like the Lotus Elan, Triumph Spitfire, and MG B, the first-generation Mazda Miata became an icon in no time at all. It forewent the ever-growing proportions of the 1990s and instead pared everything back. A compact wheelbase, less than 2,200 lbs of weight to carry around, and free of luxuries like a power-operated roof, the Miata was a car wholly focused on one thing - driving; an ethos embodied in the motto of 'Jinba Ittai', the Japanese phrase for "horse and rider as one unit."
It didn't have much power - with only 116 horsepower and 100 lb-ft of torque eked from a 1.6-liter naturally aspirated four-pot - but it was more about how it felt, something Mazda called "Kansei Engineering".
That was an area where the Miata flourished. The five-speed manual transmission was joyfully quick to flip between the gears with (throws were just 1.8 inches between gears), the steering was beautifully weighted and supremely transparent, and the chassis could dance as well as it could carve corners with efficiency. With 0-60 mph rung up in 8.3 seconds and a 126 mph top speed, it wasn't fast - not by any stretch of the imagination - but it was a car that could be enjoyed at ten-tenths within the legal limits of the law, a car that could be used to its limit and toyed with, a car that was so unashamedly fun-oriented that nothing of the 90s could come close.
In the pursuit of perfection, more than 100 tape recordings of the exhaust note alone were analyzed to ensure the Miata sounded perfect. It rapidly built up a reputation of being the best sports car you could buy, and at just $14,000 in the US, it was actually affordable.
Later model years brought a larger 1.8-liter engine with more power - up to 133 hp and 114 lb-ft - and the body was reinforced to make it safer. The chassis was reinforced, making it even more joyful to exploit with less flex, and limited-slip differentials found their way onto the rear axle. But the core recipe remained the same and the Miata was more than the sum of its parts, it was joy in automotive form. It was discontinued after the 1997 model year and after a number of special editions had been produced.
The Miata couldn't have been a more perfect first attempt if it tried, with iconic styling and pop-up headlights being the ultimate cherries on top of a perfect sports car sundae.
How do you improve on a sports car that started off perfect? When it came to engineering the second-generation Miata, codenamed the NB, Mazda's engineers didn't try to reinvent the wheel. Despite tightening restrictions resulting in the pop-up headlights being culled, the styling was evolutionary, and the proportions remained true to the original. That's because, under the sheet metal, the NB utilized the same basic components as the NA. Mazda didn't reinvent the Miata, they simply honed it.
Slightly wider than the NA, the NB retained the four-wheel independent suspension of its forebear but employed all the structural enhancements made to later year model NAs with beefed-up anti-roll bars front and rear, and bigger, more potent brakes. In the US, the 1.8-liter engine was retained, but with compression raised from 9.0:1 to 9.5:1 and changes made to the intake cam, power outputs increased marginally to 140 hp and 116 lb-ft mated to a five-speed manual gearbox.
The enhancements were small but meaningful, refining the recipe of the Miata and making it a little more livable on a daily basis but without removing the joy of driving that had made the original so special. It worked, and in May of 2000, the Miata was recognized by Guinness World Records as the best-selling two-seater sports car in the world at 531,890 units.
Despite being the only genuine affordable sports car around, the Japanese manufacturer refused to rest on its laurels, enhancing the NB even further for the 2001 model year. Visual tweaks were noticeable on the outside, but beneath the skin, Mazda had worked its magic. Further strengthening of the chassis yielded a 16% enhancement in bending rigidity and a 22% gain in torsional rigidity, while top-tier models benefitted from larger brakes and limited-slip rear differentials.
Variable valve timing was added to the four-pot to lift power to 142 hp and 125 lb-ft and buyers could opt for either a standard five-speed manual, a six-speed manual, or a four-speed automatic gearbox. The new six-speed 'box lacked the crispness of the original five-speed but aided daily drivability and reduced fuel consumption without too much of a negative influence on the drive itself.
Still, this was not enough for Mazda. The brand answered the calls of enthusiasts and tinkerers and finally gave the Miata a turbo. For the 2004 model year, the Mazdaspeed Miata strapped on an IHI turbo running at 8.5 psi of boost. It turned the Miata into a speed demon, with 178 hp on tap and 166 lb-ft. The gearbox was upgraded, as were the driveshafts, clutch, LSD, and exhaust.
A lowered suspension system was strapped in with Bilstein shocks and the 17-inch Racing Hart alloy wheels were wrapped in W-rated Toyo Proxes high-performance rubber. 0-60 mph came up in 6.7 seconds, a top speed of 127 mph was in the cards, and the suspension and tire upgrades resulted in up to 0.98g of lateral grip.
The Mazdaspeed Miata became a halo for the Miata nameplate, especially in the US, and ranked as one of the most powerful Miatas for years - only bested by the Australia-only MX-5 SP from 2002, a limited-run model that had 200 hp from its own turbocharged 1.8-liter, and the most recently updated ND.
Mazda did it. Against all odds, they took the Miata successfully through a second generation, making it better than ever without losing out on the hallmarks that had made it so special to begin with. Production ended in 2005, but this wasn't the end of the Miata's story, as a third-generation was waiting in the wings, ready to inherit the baton.
There are two types of Miata owners in the world - those that love the NC, and everyone else. To the purists who adored the sports car from its early days, the NC was an imitator, lacking the purity of purpose that had been a trademark of the Miata since day one. The thing is, they weren't exactly wrong. Due to budget constraints and a short leash on Mazda's development team by then-parent company, Ford, the third-generation Miata was the first to share a platform with another vehicle - in this case, the Mazda RX-8. That meant it was bigger, heavier, and to many, far too overengineered for a vehicle that was supposed to buy into the 'slow car fast' philosophy. It became a more mainstream model for the brand, seen by many as a lifestyle vehicle. This was particularly apparent when the NC became the first-ever Miata to feature a retractable hardtop roof.
With an increase in size and weight, Mazda did compensate with more power, giving the NC a 2.0-liter four-pot with 167 hp and 140 lb-ft - although automatic-equipped variants only had 158 hp. The performance was on par for what was expected from the Miata, but the NC was largely regarded as a softer model, with plusher suspension, nicer interior finishes, and more sound deadening, turning it into a more relaxed vehicle than its predecessors with a clear bias towards comfort.
The US was a major market for the Miata, and with a history of Spec Miata racing, the NC benefited the most from the involvement in motorsports. Throughout its time on the market, the NC was updated regularly, with Mazda USA being heavily involved in the updates.
One of the benefits of sharing a platform with the RX-8 was that the NC's mechanical components were robust and ideal for increased performance. Later model years benefited from this and the NC became better and more focused to drive nearer the end of its lifespan. Importantly, for those who bought into the brand for the ability to spend time on the race track, the NC was an ideal platform for performance upgrades, and many components from the more potent RX-8 could be swapped straight into the Miata, making it an ideal platform for performance enthusiasts.
The NC may have deviated from the original Miata recipe, but it came to market in an era where rivals were stopping sports car production altogether, and it saw the marque surpass 900,000 sales of the Miata worldwide. Mazda's commitment to the sports car paved the way for the fourth generation, a return to form for the brand.
Despite the NC getting better as time went on, many fans were concerned that the Miata's time in the limelight was fading. Fresh from its emergence out from under Ford's thumb, Mazda committed to the future of the sports car when it launched an all-new, fourth-generation Miata for 2016. The ND-generation returned to the Miata's roots, despite being rechristened the Mazda MX-5 Miata. Not only was it the smallest and lightest Miata since the original, shedding up to 220 lbs compared to the NC, but like the very first one, the MX-5 was unveiled in the US.
Foreign markets received a 1.5-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine, but the US-spec models received a 2.0-liter developing 155 hp and 148 lb-ft. As always, drive was sent to the rear, and a six-speed manual was at the heart of the whole operation, although an automatic could also be equipped.
Gone was the folding hard-top, and in its place was the good old manual soft-top roof. Mazda employed a 'gram strategy', shaving off tiny bits of unnecessary material wherever possible to reduce weight. At 2,332 lbs, the MX-5 Miata was only 182 lbs heavier than the original, despite having more safety features, a stronger body, and modcons like a large color infotainment screen and available features like a Bose sound system. Instantly, the ND was a hit, praised by all as a return to form and a true revival of what the Miata was all about. Sure, the suspension may have had too much roll engineered in, which made the ND an eight-tenths kind of car, but the purity was back.
It was in this generation when Mazda hit a momentous milestone with the Miata. In 2016, the 1 millionth Miata rolled off the production line, achieving a remarkable feat that would cement it in the pantheon of sports car greats.
But while the ND once again catered to the purists, a whole lot of NC fans wanted something more 'grand tourer'. This resulted in Mazda diversifying with the MX-5 Miata RF - a retractable fastback Miata that had a targa-top design. It gave buyers the coupe styling they wanted and added the diversity needed to keep conquering the market. Despite the fact that there were newcomers in the sports cars segment including the Subaru BRZ and Toyota 86 twins, and even the MX-5 in drag - the Fiat 124 Spider - the MX-5 Miata still shone brightly.
The evolution of the icon continued, and for 2019, Mazda updated the ND and stiffened the suspension a little. More than this, power received a bump that took outputs to 181 hp and 151 lb-ft while the redline was raised to 7,500 rpm. By the turn of the decade, Fiat had decided to cull the 124 Spider, and Toyota and Subaru had started phasing out the BRZ/86 - albeit in preparation for another generation. And still, the MX-5 Miata persisted, excelled, dominated.
Over a little more than three decades, four generations of Miata have dominated the market. Traits may have changed, and the Miata may have ebbed in and out of favor with enthusiasts, but in a world that has turned to SUVs and crossovers as a way of life, the Miata has somehow managed to outlast any other attempt at an affordable sports car from rival manufacturers. Why?
Maybe it's the fact that Mazda has stuck to its guns for so long, refusing to back down on keeping a Miata in circulation. Maybe it's the fact that the Miata was a junior sports car to the RX-7 and RX-8 for years - spurring buyers into action to 'settle' for the little sports car because the big one was unattainable. Maybe it's some combination of both. But no, the real reason is that Mazda has avoided complexity - NC aside - and focused on keeping the recipe more or less the same for three whole decades.
It doesn't matter if you're 18 or 80, the Miata is simply the best way to learn how to drive a car properly. It thrills at speeds that won't kill, it communicates simply and deftly, but above all else, it's the embodiment of joy. You can't drive a Miata down a snaking backroad without smiling, without giggling like a kid experiencing the rush of riding a bike for the first time. It really is that simple: in a world full of dull, anesthetized crossovers, the Miata is an antidote to all that. It turns every drive into a pleasurable one. It makes you feel.
The Miata is well-engineered, reliable, and technically brilliant. But on top of that, Mazda's engineers have imbued a collection of parts made from metal, plastic, glass, and leather with a soul, not just once, but four times, and more than a million times over. Just how they've done that is a recipe I'm sure they'll never quite divulge.
Happy birthday Mazda Miata, and thanks for being special.