In hindsight, the hole in the market Mazda filled with the MX-5 Miata in 1990 was obvious. MG had sold its last decrepit MGB in 1980. No tears were shed when Triumph gave up and pulled out in '81. The last Fiat 124 Spider was sold to some fearless (or ignorant or deluded) soul in '85 as a "Pininfarina Azzurra." Really, the only four-cylinder, front-engine classic two-seat roadster for sale in the U.S. at that time was the Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce, which was essentially just the 1966 Duetto with ugly bumpers. Any manufacturer with perception and bravery could have fed the world's appetite for an affordable true sports car. But it was Mazda that did it.
The apocryphal story is that in 1979, a journalist named Bob Hall, then working for the trade journal Automotive News, was asked by Mazda's managing director what type of cars Mazda should be building and Hall answered, "A small open two-seater." While that conversation may not have led directly to the Miata, what is undeniable is that Bob Hall went to work for Mazda two years later in California and was the product planner on the Miata development team. It's also true that the basic look of the Miata came out of Mazda's California studio, though the engineering was done in Japan and the car has always been built in Japan.
But it's probably too much to call Bob Hall the father of the Miata. Cars aren't designed by a single man working alone, they aren't approved for production by a single product planner, and a lot of things have to align just so for a car to come out just right. There's so much passion in the Miata that it couldn't have all come from one individual. And there's enough glory in the Miata's success that it can be shared among many designers, engineers, executives and product planners.
Though the Miata was developed in America and Japan, it has been a huge success throughout the world. With its tidy size, clean lines, simple drivetrain, outstanding handling and unpretentious character, the Miata maintains far-reaching appeal. There are Miata clubs in New Zealand, where there are more sheep than people; in England, where this sort of car was invented; in Sweden, where it's way too cold to drive with the top down most of the year; and in New York City, where no one drives. The Miata was, and continues to be, a phenomenon.
The Miata deserves credit not only for reviving a dormant passion for roadsters, but for emboldening other manufacturers to pursue what at first seem to be whimsical ideas and turn out to be good business. If it weren't for the Miata, there probably wouldn't be a Dodge Viper, Volkswagen New Beetle, new Ford Thunderbird, Chrysler PT Cruiser or Chevrolet SSR.
Pop-Up Headlights (1990-1997)
Introduced in the summer of 1989 as an early 1990 model, the Miata looked somewhat like an early-'60s Lotus Elan and had a base price of $13,800. But though it was a sensation, it wasn't (and never has been) particularly quick or fast.
The 1990 Miata was truly tiny. With an 89.2-inch wheelbase and stretching out just 155.2 inches overall, the Miata was 16 inches shorter than Mazda's smallest sedan that year, the Protegé, and rode on a wheelbase 9.2 inches less expansive. Mazda made the Miata's small size a virtue. Everything about the car had a delightfully light touch. Instead of smothering the pavement under huge rubber, it relied on careful tuning of the double wishbone (front and rear) suspension to get the most out of modest P185/60HR14 tires. Power steering was an option, but the standard manual rack-and-pinion setup reacted instinctively to steering inputs and reported back even subtle details about what was going on with the tires. The four-wheel disc brakes weren't very big, but they didn't need to be on this car. A six-footer fit in the Miata, but even a five-footer felt as if the cockpit had been tailored around him, and he could operate the convertible top while seated. The shifter atop the five-speed manual transmission swapped ratios with just a nudge. The first Miata's options list was a short one and included a limited-slip differential and air conditioning. After all, loading a Miata down with luxuries beyond a radio could have upset the car's spot-on balance.
The biggest advantage of the Miata's small size was its feathery weight just 2,116 pounds in base trim. Because light cars don't need big engines to achieve an entertaining power-to-weight ratio, the first Miata was powered by a 1.6-liter, dual-overhead cam, 16-valve inline four making a modest 116 horsepower. Magazine tests had the car waltzing from zero to 60 mph in just under nine seconds, and completing the quarter-mile in 16.8 seconds at around 80 mph. That isn't hideously slow, but hardly the sort of performance that would put the scare into a Porsche. It was enough, however, to be entertaining.
Mazda sold 35,944 Miatas during the 1990 model year in the United States. Not a lot compared to, say, the Honda Accord. But if Mazda could have made 100,000 of them, every one of them would have sold for sticker price or more that first year. About the only "Top 10" list the Miata didn't make that year was the FBI's Most Wanted.
Unwilling to mess with success, Mazda sent the Miata over for 1991 with only minor changes. Antilock brakes and a four-speed automatic transmission were added to the option list, but otherwise the changes were imperceptibly slight. Mazda also inaugurated what has become a Miata tradition: the Special Edition.
The first Miata Special Edition wore a coat of British Racing Green, as in the color once adorned by British racing cars. Mazda built only 4,000 of these Miatas, each of which had tan leather upholstery, a tan tonneau cover, a wood shift knob, air conditioning, stainless steel sill plates, a compact disc player and limited-slip differential.
A new color, Sunburst Yellow, blazed onto the Miata's paint chart for 1992. This year also saw the Brilliant Black Special Edition Miata, which had leather seating and BBS wheels. Other changes included a rear suspension cross brace and the additions of a roof liner and defroster for the optional hardtop.
A few minor tweaks came for 1993, including a new "sensory" sound system and a new corporate logo on the nose. Leather upholstery was now a regular option, Sunburst Yellow faded out and the black Special Edition model was now called the Limited Edition and sported a red leather interior.
Adding a passenger-side airbag to go with the one already in the steering wheel for 1994, Mazda made up for the additional weight by up-sizing the Miata's engine to 1.8 liters and 128 horsepower. The optional alloy wheels got wider, the fuel tank increased from 11.6 to 13.0 gallons, the brake disc diameter increased slightly, and the "Miata" script in the nameplate switched from black to red letters. Also, a Torsen limited-slip differential was offered for the first time. The first M Edition debuted, which was basically a loaded Miata with a wood shift knob, wood parking brake handle, chrome wheels and a dunking in Montego Blue paint (3,000 were made). Later in the year, the R package debuted. Geared toward hard-core driving enthusiasts, the R featured a Torsen limited-slip differential, alloy wheels, Bilstein shocks, recalibrated springs and sway bars and available dealer-installable hood stripes.
A second M Edition appeared midway through the 1995 model year, this time featuring Merlot Mica paint and BBS 15-inch wheels. Otherwise, except for a revised ABS system, the '95 Miata was almost indistinguishable from the '94.
Compliance with the U.S. government's emissions regulations for 1996 meant a new engine control computer for the Miata. Amid the recalibration, Mazda found another five horsepower in the 1.8-liter engine for a total of 133. Other than that, the chrome rings around the gauges vanished, the rearview mirror now attached to the windshield glass and map pockets were added to the doors of Miatas equipped with power windows. For '96, the M Edition wore Starlight Mica paint, 15-inch Enkei wheels and a wood Nardi shift knob. Again, 3,000 were produced.
With a full redesign in the works, Mazda let the existing Miata glide through 1997 almost unchanged. There was a new "Touring Package" that included power steering, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, power windows, power mirrors and aluminum alloy wheels. An STO (Special Touring Option) Edition roadster was offered in a batch of 1,500 and included all the Touring Package equipment plus stainless steel scuff plates, Twilight Blue paint, 15-inch Enkei wheels and a Nardi shift knob. Only 47 brave souls opted for the competition-oriented R package, and this year's M Edition came painted Marina Green.
Technically speaking, there weren't any 1998 model Miatas (any registered as such were likely late-delivery '97s). And with the conclusion of 1997 model production, the Miata lost its pop-up headlights that gave the car the bug-eyed look of an old Austin-Healey Sprite. Some enthusiasts still miss those lights and the purity of the Miata that wore them. Others think Mazda took a noble step further along the path towards sophistication with the new '99 Miata.
Exposed Headlights (1999-2005)
The 1999 Miata actually went on sale in February 1998, and while its body was more curvaceous and it used flush headlamps, it was still unmistakably a Miata. The new Miata, unlike virtually every other "new" car ever introduced, wasn't bigger or smaller than the car it replaced. It still rode on an 89.2-inch wheelbase, was still 155.4 inches long and still 66.0 inches wide. In fact the chassis was hardly changed at all. However, the trunk was now larger (it was finally possible to shove in enough baggage to cover two people for a weekend), and there was now a real glass rear window in the convertible top (instead of hazy plastic). Additionally, a new cylinder head design, higher compression ratio and variable intake boosted output of the 1.8-liter four to a full 140 horsepower.
The most intriguing Miata of 1999 was the 10th Anniversary Edition which featured a series of visual plucks (Sapphire Blue Mica paint, glossy five-spoke wheels, two-tone leather interior trim, chrome rings around the speedometer and tach, a Nardi leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, a carbon-fiber-look trimmed center console), a killer Bose stereo, a firmer suspension and, for the first time, a six-speed manual transmission. Beyond that, buyers (3,150 of them in the United States and Canada) also got a miniature version of the car, a special key ring and a set of his-and-hers Seiko watches. At $27,325, the 10th Anniversary Miata wasn't cheap, but it was the most elaborately equipped.
It would be a stretch to call the six-speed a big improvement over the five-speed, but the performance difference was there. With smaller steps between the gear ratios, the engine could stay in the meat of its power band more efficiently and, since the six-speed also came with a 3.91 instead of the regular 4.30 final drive ratio, it cruised down the freeway at slightly lower engine speeds and was therefore a tad quieter. In a Car and Driver test, the six-speed 10th Anniversary Miata made it to 60 mph in 7.6 seconds or about 0.3 second quicker than a five-speed Miata.
The 2000 model year saw the introduction of a new Miata LS model and another limited-run Special Edition model, as well as the inclusion of alloy wheels on even the base car. The LS included tan leather upholstery, 15-inch alloy wheels and the blasting Bose audio system. Special Edition roadsters came with Mahogany Mica paint, a Parchment convertible top, Parchment leather upholstery, a wood Nardi steering wheel, white-faced gauges and polished 15-inch alloy wheels.
Mazda undertook a surprisingly ambitious improvement program for the 2001 Miata. A new front fascia featured a reshaped air intake, and headlights and taillights were slightly changed. Additional cross members in the body stiffened the entire structure; 16-inch wheels were offered on some models and inside those bigger wheels were larger diameter disc brakes controlled by an Electronic Brakeforce Distribution system. More importantly, Mazda claimed that the addition of variable valve timing would allow the Miata to make 155 horsepower. This rating came from a vehicle with 49-state emissions certification. However, when Mazda decided to make the Miata a 50-state certified car, it was not given another validation. The more restrictive emissions equipment kept the car to 142 horsepower, or two more than the 2000 model's 140. To make up for the mistake, Mazda offered 2001 Miata owners free factory-scheduled maintenance for the length of the car's basic warranty as well as a $500 debit card to spend as they chose. Furthermore, if a customer wasn't happy with his Miata, Mazda offered to buy it back and refund the entire purchase price of the car including taxes. In other news, a British Racing Green edition returned, sporting polished 16-inch alloys, a six-speed gearbox, a wood Nardi steering wheel and shift knob and white-faced gauges.
The Miata was an entrenched hit as it entered 2002 and was now offered in two new colors Vivid Yellow and Laser Blue Mica but only if ordered through Mazda's Web site. Other changes included the option of an in-dash six-disc CD changer and two new special editions offering a choice of either Blazing Yellow or Titanium Gray paint along with the expected upgrades such as leather seating, white-faced gauges and special badges.
For 2003, Mazda's little go-kart received 16-inch wheels, a strut-tower brace, bigger brakes and a child-seat anchoring system. Other updates, such as a cloth top and aluminum interior accents on the LS, and options such as an auto-dimming rearview mirror and bezels for the headlights and taillights, kept the Miata current.
The 2004 Miata was enhanced by the introduction of the Mazdaspeed variant, the first and thus far only factory-produced turbocharged Miata. The Mazdaspeed Miata squeezed 178 horsepower out of its turbocharged 1.8-liter motor, enough for 0-60-mph sprints in the mid-to-high 6-second range, roughly a second and a half quicker than the standard Miata. A beefed-up six-speed manual was the only available transmission. Additional modifications included 17-inch wheels, a lowered suspension with stiffer springs, bigger antiroll bars and Bilstein shocks. Mazdaspeed Miatas quickly developed a cultlike following among enthusiasts, and they are highly valued as used cars to this day.
For 2005, the Miata stood pat as Mazda readied the next-generation model.
Third Generation (2006-Present)
While the Miata largely retained its original underpinnings in the switch from the pop-up to the exposed-headlights generation, that wouldn't be the case for the new 2006 model. According to Mazda, the new Miata shared no components with the old. In place of the familiar double-wishbone suspension all around, the new car featured a wishbone front suspension and a multilink rear setup. The only available engine was a 2.0-liter four, which employed some variable-valve-timing trickery to produce 170 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque — healthy amounts for this 2,441-pound roadster, though less on both counts than the Mazdaspeed Miata's turbocharged motor. A five-speed manual transmission was standard on the base car, with a six-speed manual standard and a six-speed automatic (dropping power to 166 hp) optional on upper trim levels. Accelerating from zero to 60 mph in this fresh Miata required 7.5 seconds, making it quicker than the old base Miata but slower than the old Mazdaspeed.
The 2006 Miata was longer, wider, heavier and roomier inside than before, and it was packed with more amenities as well. There were five trim levels to choose from, from the back-to-basics Club Spec model to the loaded Limited edition. With higher trim levels came black or tan leather seats (versus black cloth), a cloth top (versus vinyl), a seven-speaker Bose audio system and numerous options, including xenon headlamps and a sport suspension package with Bilstein shocks and a limited-slip differential.
Fortunately, it retained that characteristically elemental Miata feel no matter how many option boxes were checked. But we did (and do) question the point of a pimped-out Miata. "If you're adding a ton of extras to the Miata," we wrote in 2006, "you're missing the point. This Mazda roadster is about simplicity in design and operation. It's about having fun behind the wheel. It's about feeling free and young on warm summer nights. Not a serious car, the 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata, but that's part of its charm."
For 2007, a power-retractable hardtop (PRHT) model joined the lineup, giving the Miata all-season versatility and making it easily the most affordable sporting vehicle to offer this feature. Remarkably, the hardtop added just 70 pounds to the Miata's curb weight. Also, the horsepower rating was changed to 166 due to the implementation of new SAE power-rating standards. Finally, trim levels were also shuffled and renamed, leaving SV, Sport, Touring and Grand Touring as the four available models.
For 2008, a Special Edition trim level and a 5-hp drop for automatic transmission-equipped Miatas were the only notable changes.
2009 saw a handful of midcycle changes, including a stem-and-stern update (grille, headlights and taillights), an auxiliary input jack and two more speakers for the base audio system, and automatic climate control for the Grand Touring version. Most significant, though, were engine modifications designed to improve both midrange and top-end response. That they did. In a review of the 2009 Miata, we called its powertrain "the most engaging setup you'll find short of a [Honda] S2000: The reworked engine winds out to 7,600 rpm like a sport bike's while still providing respectable midrange torque, and the quicker you shift the marvelously precise six-speed manual, the better it feels." We also recorded a 0-60-mph sprint of 6.9 seconds in that car, a half-second quicker than previous Miatas and nearly as quick as the venerable Mazdaspeed.
For 2010 and 2011, Mazda left the Miata virtually unchanged.
Some enthusiasts still wonder why Mazda has not seen fit to release a Mazdaspeed version of the third-generation Miata, but the fact is, this diminutive roadster remains one of the most entertaining drives on the road, particularly with the motor tweaks for 2009. If you're after a pure sporting driving experience, the Mazda MX-5 Miata is without peer at its affordable price point.