Prepare the pitchforks and torches because not everyone will be happy with our choices.
The Mazda MX-5 Miata is an icon with a cult-like following, which is entirely justified by it being the world's best-selling two-seater sports car ever: more than 1 million units sold across four generations and 34 years. But which Mazda Miata is the best?
It's a question that causes civil war among Miata fans, making this a dangerous topic to even bring up. Still, we're going to try, and being the owner of two MX-5s myself and having driven multiple examples of each generation, I'll try to bring my experience to this topic.
It is this author's feeling that simply classifying the four core generations (NA; NB; NC; ND) is an oversimplification, as within these, pre- and post-facelift variants have seen substantial changes that make these derivates better or worse than other sub-generations. For that reason, I've broken it down into pre- and post-facelift variants, too.
Lists like these are entirely subjective, and I'm fully willing to admit that your favorites might not be mine and vice versa. Often, our favorites are influenced by circumstance, nostalgia, and, above all, taste.
With that said, I'm ready for the war in the comments...
The third-generation (NC) Miata tends to be the black sheep of the Miata family. It's seen by the purists as the fatty of the lightweight family, with that impression spurred on by its bulbous styling and awkward proportions. We tend to forget that it was lighter than the Mazdaspeed Miata, and it is still a great buy today.
Still, there has to be a car ranked last, and in my experience, the NC1 is that. Sold for the 2006-2008 model years, it shared a platform with the Mazda RX-8 (in my opinion, the more fun platform sibling to pilot), but instead of a rotary, it had a 2.0-liter piston engine with development shared by Mazda's then-owners, Ford. Rated at 170 horsepower and 140 lb-ft of torque, it retained the traditional manual gearbox (available in five- or six-speed) and rear-wheel drive layout. Still, it was a little sloppy in the handling department compared to the keener earlier models. Much of this was easily rectified by the aftermarket, but in stock form, it's the model that least closely adhered to the Miata blueprint.
While this is my least favorite Miata, a bad Miata is still a great sports car.
In the early years of Miata, Mazda focused on continual refinement, with the NB arriving for the 1999 model year as the second generation, underpinned by the same chassis as the NA. Improvements beneath the skin included a wider track, more refined suspension, larger brakes, stiffer anti-roll bars, and additional body bracing, making it stiffer and sharper than the NA. It also got more curvaceous styling and a more refined interior, although its most egregious mistake was the loss of the iconic pop-up headlights.
Under the hood, it retained the 1.8-liter four-pot from late NA8 models but with a few upgrades like a higher compression ratio, a solid-lifter design for the intake cam, and enhanced intake runners and manifold. The changes gave it 140 hp and 116 lb-ft across a more usable powerband.
Driving an NC1 Miata left me disappointed with the icon I'd heard so much about, but driving the ND1 - which arrived for the 2016 model year - ignited a love for the MX-5 that led to me buying my first Miata (an NB2 for the record). So why is it third from the bottom of this list? I'll explain in a moment, but not before I explain what made the ND1 so great.
The ND is the smallest and lightest Miata since the original, only weighing around 100 pounds more and measuring an inch shorter than the NA. After the NC's boating aspirations made many fans lose faith, the ND reignited them with a back-to-basics approach to recapturing the original essence of Miata. It succeeded. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder in US cars produced 155 hp and 148 lb-ft, giving them ample power-to-weight, paired with a slick six-speed manual and exceptional styling.
But it wasn't all good. The suspension was too soft and heaved from side to side under duress, and the electronic power steering lacked the feel of the prior generations. The motor also didn't rev out cleanly and sounded a little gravelly. While the ND1 ignited my passion for the MX-5, it still isn't peak Miata.
If we'd just ranked this list based on overall generations, the NC would've been last, but the NC2 and NC3 were so special that we'd rank them above early NBs and NDs. These facelifts of the third-generation Miata arrived in 2009 and 2013 (US model years), respectively, and were largely the same mechanically.
Visually, the NC's design evolved into something striking, stylish, and which has stood the test of time, but it was under the skin where bigger changes occurred. Thanks to Mazda USA and the Miata's involvement in Spec Miata racing, the upgrades were more meaningful in reality than on paper, as the NC2 technically lost a few horsepower at 167 hp. Crucially, however, the valvetrain was upgraded, meaning a 500 rpm increase in redline and a keenness to rev that was previously missing.
Further enhancements to the chassis and suspension made the NC2 and NC3 a hoot to drive at ten-tenths but refined at anything less than. The NC3 received further tweaks to the braking, ECU, and manual shifter to enhance the experience further.
We're approaching peak Miata here, and largely for the same reasons as the NC2/NC3 rank so highly - more revs. The ND2 was announced for the 2019 model year, and while its styling remained largely the same, the 2.0-liter engine got 26 more horsepower (181 hp and 151 lb-ft) thanks to a 7,500 rpm redline (up from 6,800 in the ND1), with peak power now arriving at 7,000 rpm.
The internal changes included lighter pistons and a larger throttle body, resulting in more torque everywhere, while the dual-mass flywheel made it easier to live with. And, it got a more soulful exhaust to remedy the ND1's uninspiring soundtrack. One of the big perks was better suspension tuning that was far less wallowy, but the EPAS means the steering still has less feel than earlier generations.
Subsequent updates have seen Kinematic Posture Control added for 2022, with the official ND3 arriving for 2024 with a new DSC Track setting and asymmetric limited-slip differential. We haven't yet driven the ND3, and once we do, it may earn a higher spot on this list.
I can hear the angry mob at my door already, and I'm sorry, not sorry. I own an NA, too, and while I love it, I don't feel it was peak Miata. But it was genesis, the revival of the small sports car; it was driving fun incarnate, and for God's sake, it had pop-up headlights.
The NA is by far the most iconic Miata, and its combination of nostalgia and significance could easily make it number one on anyone else's list. I won't even argue that as a personal choice. Quite simply, the NA Miata redefined the sports car space when it was launched on February 10, 1989, at the Chicago Auto Show.
The fascinating history of how it came to be is a story all on its own, beautifully summarized in the video below by Jason Cammisa.
Originally powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder (the one I own) with 115 hp and 100 lb-ft, drive was sent to the rear axle through a five-speed automatic gearbox widely regarded to be one of the best. It wasn't fast, and until later models received their fair share of chassis upgrades, it wasn't the stiffest either, but you can't help but have a smile on your face when you drive an NA6 Miata.
Later models upgraded to a bigger 1.8-liter with 129 hp and 110 lb-ft, and some trims even got an optional Torsen LSD in place of the earlier viscous LSDs. The 1.8s were torquier and easy to drive but lacked the 'pure' sports car revviness of the 1.6s. For me, the 1.6 is better for this inherent buzziness, but in any form, the NA Miata is exceptional.
This may be my most controversial choice on this list, and perhaps it's my bias creeping in, as I own an NB2, but I feel the NB is peak Miata for a few reasons.
Whereas the original NB was a significant upgrade on the NA's platform, the 2001 arrival of the NB2 refined that recipe the furthest, with better suspension and braking and more rigidity than the platform had ever been given before. The 1.8-liter four-pot also received its biggest update - variable valve timing - which left it with 143 hp sent through its six-speed manual gearbox.
Visually, the alien front end was cleaned up and became sleeker overall. The interior is a personal favorite element, as it still feels modern despite its 22 years of experience.
While some may not be fans of it, the NB2 also saw the introduction of the only factory turbocharged Miata, the Mazdaspeed, in 2004, which got 178 hp and 167 lb-ft, enhanced suspension, and the ability to pull as much as 0.98g on the skid pan.
While the NA has nostalgia, and the NC and ND variants had power and refinement, I believe that the NB2 managed the best balance of retaining the original feel of the Miata while evolving into something modern and refined. As a platform, it's ideal for modification, track days, and more, and yet in stock form, it's a perfectly fun daily that thrills the driver without ever overstimulating.
It doesn't have pop-ups, but hey, they can't all be perfect.
As stated at the outset, a list like this is always a subjective one to some degree, but I'm ready to be lynched in the comments and ready to hear your opinions. So tell me, which is the best generation of Mazda Miata?