You bet the Miata is on this list.
Of all the automakers with a deep history and back catalog, Mazda has remained the most consistent in its focus on design and technology. Where many car companies have had periods of producing bad cars, chasing fads and fashions, Mazda has had just a few rough patches. The biggest rough patch coming at the beginning.
Going back to the beginning, Jujiro Matsuda started Toyo Cork Kogyo Co. in 1920 as a Hiroshima-based cork making company. Financial struggles came, then the company became Toyo Kogyo and made machine tools. In 1931, Toyo Kogyo started producing automobiles, the first of which was the Mazda-Go Autorickshaw. Then came the war, forcing Mazda to shut down through the 1950s, before it started developing the Wankel rotary engine in the 1960s to differentiate itself from its other Japanese competitors. But that's not quite where we'll start this list.
Mazda's first passenger car was the R360 Coupe more commonly referred to as "Mazda's Coupe." With the benefit of hindsight, the microcar was a statement of intent when it came out of Mazda's factory as the product of state of the art technology, including early computer-aided design. Light alloy was used for construction to keep the weight down and a four-cylinder 356 cc V-twin engine powered it. A four-cylinder engine was considered a luxury at the time, but Mazda was able to make it affordable and, within a few years, was dominating the Kei-car market in Japan.
Talk about Mazda's best cars, and the Wankel rotary engine will inevitably come up in the conversation. The Mazda Cosmo Sport 110S was the first. The beauty of the rotary engine is that it uses fewer parts to build than a regularly configured engine, and is therefore lighter. There are no pistons, as, instead, the engine is a hollow barrel with rounded triangular rotors spinning inside. Kenichi Yamamoto and his team spent years developing Mazda's first rotary engine using German engineer Felix Wankel's design. The 1.0-liter two-rotor engine made just 110 horsepower and 97 lb-ft of torque, but the Cosmo Sport weighed only 2,050 lbs.
The story of the RX name started in 1971 with the RX-2 aka the Mazda Capella in Japan. One of the benefits of the rotary engine is that it can make as much power from less displacement as a larger conventional piston engine. In Japan, engines with a displacement of over 1.5 liters had a higher tax rate, so choosing the 1.1-liter rotary engine option saved Japanese buyers money. In the US, it was available as a sedan or coupe, but the tuning was "softened" for the American market. The RX-2 became a stylish alternative to other sedans and coupes and was celebrated for its creative rotary engine and excellent interior design.
Unfortunately, a downside to the rotary engine is fuel economy, and the mid-1970s saw the triple whammy of heightened emission regulations, safety regulations, and the oil crisis. In 1978, the RX-2 was replaced by the Mazda 626 powered by more traditional four-cylinder engines. However, it provided a stepping stone to a cult favorite.
The first-generation RX-7 was not the best RX-7, but it put Mazda on the map as a company that could deliver an incredibly well-balanced two-seater sports car. It was conceived by Yamamoto and put together by most of the team responsible for the Cosmo Sport as well as designer Matasaburo Maeda. The team achieved a perfect 50:50 front/rear balance ratio with a low center of gravity, creating the precise handling Mazda has become known for. Another key to the new RX-7's handling was the small twin-rotary engine being mounted just behind the front axle and providing rear-wheel-drive through a manual transmission.
Mazda took the idea of the 1960's British roadster, then revived and refined it with modern technology to create a timeless icon. The pursuit of Mazda's Jinba Ittai (rider and horse as one) in automotive terms created an almost perfect driver's car for the mass-market. Not only did it bring all of the joy associated with classic British roadsters, but added modern Japanese reliability. On release, the Miata came with a manual transmission controlling power from a 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine that delivered just 116 hp and 100 lb-ft of torque. That was then upgraded in 1994, however, anyone judging the Miata based on specs is missing the point.
The second-generation RX-7 was a more serious effort from Mazda and aimed to compete with the Porsche 924/944 as a GT car. It was fast, with turbocharged engine options, and built on the philosophy of the original. However, when Mazda took its third swing at the RX-7, the automaker changed its game again. All thoughts of a GT style car were dropped to produce an uncompromising sports car that blended power with grip and balance. Everything was upgraded and wrapped in a timeless aesthetic design that still doesn't look out of place on the road. Under the hood was a twin-rotor engine bolstered by two turbochargers to produce 255 hp and a wealth of low-end torque. Its balance and precision in handling, its unique and reliable delivery of power, lack of weight, and timeless looks make low-mileage examples some of the most sought after Mazda models today.
The second-generation Miata doubled down on the philosophy of the original and refined the small roadster concept even more. In 2004, though, Mazda's in-house performance division Mazdaspeed bolted a turbo onto the 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine to force 7.25 lbs of air into the combustion chambers. The upgraded engine was matched to the optional six-speed transmission and delivered an extra 36 hp, bringing the total to 178. It didn't turn the Miata into a traffic light racer but transformed the little roadster to the point people started, and still do, wonder why turbocharged options aren't consistently an option. The Mazdaspeed Miata is rare, but not highly coveted because second-generation Miatas are as plentiful as aftermarket turbo kits ready to bolt on in the garage. However, as a factory option, it's one of Mazda's finest.
The Mazda 3 has consistently been one of the best hatchbacks you can spend hard-earned cash on. Mazdaspeed took the eager little car with a turbocharged 2.3-liter engine and turned it into a hot hatch. The second and final generation refined the recipe with Mazdaspeed's engineers adding a 6-speed manual transmission with wider ratios. The carryover 2.3-liter DISI Turbo engine's ECU was also tweaked to give the 263 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque a more aggressive power curve. The drivetrain then took advantage of a torque-sensing conical limited-slip differential, and the chassis received extra bracing, thicker stabilizers, and larger diameter brakes. The second generation also gained a functional hood scoop to help with cooling. Unfortunately, the Mazdaspeed3 disappeared in 2013 and it doesn't look like it'll return anytime soon.
The RX-8 is one of Mazda's most underrated cars. The reason it didn't live up to the expectations of the RX-7 is that it was a completely different car that also happened to have a rotary engine. It had an extra door for rear passengers, which should have been the first clue for diehard RX fans. As a driver's car, the chassis is beautifully balanced and responsive, the engine isn't powerful but has fantastic throttle response, and it looks good. The 238-hp rotary engine is a gas and oil guzzler, but that's the cost of driving such a unique and responsive engine. Despite that and a reputation as being underpowered, the RX-8 sold well and managed to stay in production from 2003 until 2012. Ultimately, it was emissions standards in Europe that ended the RX-8's run as without those sales, Mazda couldn't justify its continuation.
The midsize crossover segment is one of the hottest fought battles in the industry. Mazda entered the fray in 2013 with the CX-5 and showed off its then-new Kodo design language. Also on the menu was Mazda's new Skyactiv Technology suite. The Skyactiv Technology suite includes a rigid and lightweight platform and a series of fuel-efficient engines and transmissions. Then, in 2017, Mazda overhauled the CX-5 and dropped a thing of beauty that also showed you didn't have to spend a fortune for a lively, fun-to-drive crossover. On top of that, Mazda showed us just what it could do with an interior, and that premium doesn't have to mean expensive.