Iconic Roadsters: Mazda Miata/MX-5

Iconic Roadsters

Still absolutely wonderful after all these years.

It's easy to understate the importance of the Miata/MX-5. This is a car which not only revived the roadster as a genre, but it is also the best-selling two-seat sports car of all time. The driving experience is life-changing good, and it manages to be both simple and sophisticated at the same time. On top of all of this, it brings Japanese reliability to a niche previously composed primarily of notoriously unreliable British and Italian cars. The car was originally known as the Eunos in Japan and Miata in the US.

Since 2005 however, Mazda has preferred to emphasize the name MX-5, which was originally an internal code. The car was first introduced to Mazda by then-journalist Bob Hall of Motor Trend in 1976. The classic British roadster was by then in decline, and as Japanese cars were continuing to gain popularity in the US, it seemed logical that they should try to take over this niche as well. The project didn't go anywhere until 1982, one year after Hall was made product planner for Mazda at their California design center. Hall teamed up with a designer named Mark Jordan to compete with another Mazda team in Japan for the design of a new sports car.

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The team in Japan envisioned a car with either a front engine powering the front wheels or a mid-mounted engine powering the rear wheels. But Hall and Jordan stuck to the idea of a classic roadster, and their design was ultimately deemed the more appealing. More and more of the development work was moved to Japan as the project neared completion, although the California design center remained involved. It ultimately debuted at the 1989 Chicago Auto Show as a 1990 model, and the public went crazy for it, even as the factory in Hiroshima was only just gearing up for production.

When the MX-5 hit showrooms, dealers were unable to keep up with demand, and there were long waiting lists for the inexpensive but incredibly fun little car. Detractors would shrug it off as nothing but an MGB that didn't leak oil, but such popularity couldn't have been achieved it that was all there was to the car. For all generations of the MX-5, designers are instructed to keep foremost in their minds the principal of "Jinba ittia", the concept of a horse and rider being as one. This is an old idea, as it is one of the fundamental principles of the ancient Japanese art of mounted archery.

This would probably sound like a load of pretentious crap were it not for the fact that they actually pulled it off. The car has perfect 50:50 weight distribution, and a great deal of attention was paid to the suspension setup in order to deliver unrivaled handling. There is no wasted space, and few road cars (with the obvious exception of the Lotus Elise) are as simple. The first generation of the MX-5 produced just 115 horsepower, but this only had 2,100 pounds to haul around. Weight has increased somewhat since then, but power has increased at a greater rate, and the current model has 170hp with which to pull 2,400 pounds.

Several different special editions have been made over the years, including several club sport variations. The MX-5 continues to be popular in both amateur and professional motorsports, and lower-tier SCCA races are full of them. Options like power steering and windows, as well as an automatic transmission and retractable hardtop have been offered over the years as well. Purists generally turn their noses up to these things, but Mazda makes money off of them, and a stripped-down and unadulterated trim has always been offered.

Just as the US market was the most important for those iconic British roadsters, about half of the more than 700,000 MX-5 units sold globally over the years have gone to buyers in the US. The Brits love them too though, and have bought more than 100,000 themselves, far more than any other European country. Our automotive press also loves them, with the MX-5 having made 11 appearances on Car and Driver's Ten Best list. Sports Car International called it the "best sports car of the 1990s" and one of the ten best sports cars of all time.

Grassroots Motorsports called it the most important sports car built in the last 25 years. Across the pond, Jeremy Clarkson called it "perfect", giving it five stars and lamenting that he couldn't give it 14. There are faster cars out there, quite a few, actually. There are also cars which look cooler, and even a few which are more fun to drive. But when it comes to dollars spent versus hours of fun enjoyed, nothing comes close to beating the value of the MX-5. It's not just an iconic and well-made roadster, it is an example of what happens when car guys build cars.

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