Featured: The Iconic Mazda Miata Revived the Affordable Roadster

The Iconic Mazda Miata Revived the Affordable Roadster

By Ryan Connolly
January 23, 2015

Photography by Rémi Dargegen

A quarter century ago, one might describe the everyman’s automotive landscape as a rather bleak place. While some of the wackiest and most delightfully nonsensical automobiles emerged during this era—poster children like the Testarossa, the LM002, and the Countach—these options were not exactly budget-friendly choices for your average Joe. For the most part, affordable family sedans were heavy, floaty, glorified piles of scrap, American Muscle offerings came standard with a flowing mullet hairstyle, and once-classic British sports car companies were washing ashore dead faster than an endangered species shellacked by a rogue Cigarette boat.

Thankfully, as the 1980s ended and the Berlin Wall crumbled, it seemed that the continent began to emerge from a decade-long, cocaine-fueled haze. Supercars once designed with the ergonomic efficiency of a Dr. Seuss cartoon became useable again, Seinfeld rolled up in his Porsche 911 right as Don Johnson sped off into the sunset on his prancing white stallion, and the sensible Japanese emerged from the shadows and took the auto industry by storm.

Honda took an early lead, capturing Car & Driver 10Best awards repeatedly in the 1980s with their family-focused cars. However, there was still a little something missing, a hole left in buyers’ hearts that they had just sort of forgotten was there. On February 9th, 1989 at the Chicago Auto Show, Mazda filled that vacant space with a simple and diminutive roadster dubbed the MX-5 Miata.

Surprisingly, the idea for this sprightly little fun-machine emerged in 1976, over a decade before its introduction. Distraught over the withering of the classic British sports car, an American autojournalist by the name of Bob Hall (who definitely lacked Bob Ross’s artistic prowess) picked up a piece of chalk during a meeting with Mazda’s R&D department head and slathered together the rough shape of a rather generic roadster. While it didn’t resemble the Miata that we now know, this simple sketch lit the proverbial bulb in Mazda’s brain. It stewed for years before Mazda hired Bob Hall to their product planning and design team (writer’s note to Mazda: I can draw too!).

Hall was plunked onto projects totally unrelated to the Miata, which basically remained nothing more than a distant pipedream for the executives at the automaker throughout the early 1980s. Despite this, Hall was unfazed and remained stalwart in his belief that this was the car both Mazda and America needed, and moved forward to pioneer the development of the “light-weight sports” idea. In 1983, the nod was given to pursue Hall’s concept further, and a design battle between the mutually exclusive Japanese and American teams commenced.

This internal rivalry led to three concepts that would have taken the Miata in three very different directions. The Tokyo team produced two varying layouts, one with a front-engined front-drive layout, and another with a mid-engined rear-drive layout, like the Honda NSX. Hall’s American team, steadfastly inspired by the classic British sports car, produced a front-engined rear-drive concept, and as we can all likely infer, the rest was history. Final approval for the Miata (known internally as the P729 at the time) was handed down in early 1986.

After the concept made its debut, the production 1990 model year MX-5 Miata was first delivered to the US (followed by Japan and then Europe) to kick off the new decade in style. Providing the lithe 2,150 lb (about 980kg) roadster’s motivation was a 1.6L four-cylinder powerplant designed specifically for this application, mated to a slick-shifting five speed manual transmission.

While the impeccably balanced car would have to be decontented for buyers to pick one up at its very reasonable base price of $13,995, Mazda made sure not to cut corners when it came to the crucial bits that provided the car with its pure, lively performance. Disc brakes remained at the four corners, along with the electronically fuel injected dual-overhead-cam engine and an independent double wishbone suspension all around. While the base price was highly affordable, the insane demand for the MX-5 led to dealer markups on the universally loved roadster nationwide. Annual sales were regularly double that of Mazda’s initial goals.

Throughout its seven-year lifecycle, the first-generation ‘NA’ Miata received numerous tweaks and improvements continue the instantly iconic model’s evolution. Updated safety requirements along with added comfort features forced the weight of the MX-5 slightly upwards, but an additional 18 horsepower from a newly available 1.8L engine more than offset the added heft.

The first-generation MX-5 found itself a home in over 400,000 driveways before being redesigned for 1998. As with any car these days, the Miata has continued to evolve and advance over the years, with the fourth-generation debuting this past season for the 2016 model year. While it has put on a few pounds and lost its classic pop-up headlamps, the Miata has always managed to stay true to its roots, fending off challenger after challenger and maintaining its perennial title of the purest affordable sports car in the world.

Thank you to Philippe, a member of the French MX-5 Passion Club for allowing us to photograph his Mariner Blue MX-5.

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1 year ago

Love my Sunburst Yellow–hardtop, 1.6, Borla exhaust . . . just about the perfect little plaything!

3 years ago

I’ve had my ’97 R since ’98! Awesome car!

3 years ago

It is my first car and I don’t think any other car will beat the sensation of driving with the lights up, top down and blasting through twisty roads. It has no power at all, but its handling is marvelous. And it revs like it’s nothing.

5 years ago

Still want a white or green ’96 or ’97 with a hardtop. I bought the last white 323GTX in September of ’89. I had to buy it sight unseen across the country to get it. I think there were a total of 8 new GTX’s left at the time. If I hadn’t gotten the GTX (which did become a PRORally competition car), I would have gotten a Miata.

Tom Bruynel
Tom Bruynel(@ledzep)
6 years ago

A few months ago our 17 year old son gained his driver’s licence and started looking for a car. He was becoming interested in ‘old school’ cars and was looking into Mk1 and Mk2 Ford Escorts and the like. However these cars were fairly dire when new and no better now – plus also now very long in the tooth. I suggested that he had a look at the MX5. It took just a few hundred metres of our first test drive in the Canterbury Port Hills to realise that it fit the bill perfectly – sporty enough but not too powerful, predictable rwd dynamics and of course the wonderful soft-top that can quickly be opened and closed (so much like that of the Alfa 105 spider). We enjoyed test-driving plenty of MX5s over the following months before settling on an excellent 1989 Mariner Blue example – just like the one in the article except for right hand drive of course. The car sported a beautiful Nardi steering wheel and Japanese-made Spa-Francorchamps alloy rims that make it look much more modern that its 25 years would suggest. The car came with limited slip diff, aircon, manual gearshift, non-power assisted steering and a rollbar behind the driver seat – really matching our dream specification with only the fitment of electric windows being a minor detraction. As mentioned by others, the car is quite easy to work on, and replacing the front rotors and pads became a nice afternoon father & son bonding activity. Another benefit is the vast amount of information available in print and on-line.

Yes the design has obvious influences from British and Italian sportscars but that’s hardly a bad thing. Viewed both as a design piece, and as a machine fit-for-purpose, the Mazda sits well with the other cars in our garage (911 Carrera 2 and Giulia Super).

Time will tell which directions our son will take with his motoring but I think he’s off to a great start.

Antony Ingram
Antony Ingram(@antony-ingram)
6 years ago

Count me in as another fan of the Miata. Owned one several years back, and bought another this week. Everything that needs to be said about their fun factor already has been – for me, one of the biggest aspects of the car’s appeal is that it delivers thrills like that of classic cars yet can be run as easily as a modern one.

As someone who needs to use their car every day, and can’t stretch to a daily driver [i]and[/i] a toy, the importance of that mix of fun, classic appeal and modern reliability and frugality can’t be understated.

Todd Cox
Todd Cox(@mc70)
6 years ago

One thing about the NA (1990-1997; pop-up headlights) that hasn’t been discussed here is what it is like to live with one of these cars. Like all cars, they do have a couple of quirks. The HLA (hydraulic lifter assemblies) will tick/tap when the oil gets tired or low, they have a fairly short spark plug & plug wire life (around 25Kish), they tend to have a leaky cam angle sensor O-ring which on later models will allow oil to weep onto the upper heater hose, and they don’t like being overheated. Electrically, the only thing that comes to mind is that a run in the headlight nacelle relay tends to open, and is easily fixed with a bit of wire. So, that’s the bad, and that’s as bad as the car gets.

Unlike Euro roadsters, our tops really don’t leak. Aftermarket support is nothing short of amazing with incredibly high quality parts. Because they are a parts-bin car, OEM parts are plentiful and cheap. You can find most anything you’d need for your car at your local AutoBox store, and it isn’t like the dealerships are hard to find (yup, they still stock or can quickly get everything). There really isn’t a part that takes more than a day to get to you from anywhere.

The engines are incredibly robust. If not overheated (which is hard unless you’re being truly inattentive) will often go to 300K. They love cheap, low octane gasoline, and feeding it to them regularly will return the best mileage and performance. Even on all-season tires, these cars out-handle most much more expensive cars; so the thought of doing a tire replacement won’t see your bank account hemorrhaging.

They can easily be equipped with forced induction and generate ~250hp while remaining reliable; any more than that and you’ll want to have a built engine. You can get in the Miata game for as little as $2k, however prices are rapidly appreciating as the ‘hairdresser car’ stigma is finally being viewed as the nonsense it always was. The upcoming drivers find the cars desirable, and the older drivers are generally beyond using horsepower numbers to peacock behind. As a result, finding a clean car from the ‘hairdresser’ era sellers is getting very rare; expect to pay upwards of $5k for a hardtop equipped example in good condition with ~100k on the odo.

Miatas are profoundly easy to work on; there’s actually room in the engine bay. If you ever wanted to get a car to learn about mechanics, I can’t imagine a better machine than this. With little more than a flat-head, Japanese Phillips (JIS) (#2 Phillips works fine in most cases), a flat-head screwdriver, a rubber mallet, and an 8, 10,12,14, 17, 21, & 29mm sockets/wrenches you can effectively dismantle and reassemble the entire car; and if you’re handy, you can probably do it over a couple of weekends.

They’re dead reliable. I drive mine almost every day. I purchased it two and a half years ago and ramped the mileage up from 84k to 118k. They are excellent long distance touring cars and actually do quite well in bad weather; even snow (until it gets too deep)! They have air conditioning and heat that works very, very well. The hardtops (after the fist couple of years) had rear defrosters. Unless you set it up for racing, they’re quite a comfortable car, which can be made vastly more comfortable with a bit of soundproofing.

In short, they are everything that is enjoyable about having a Euro roadster but without the more common issues that tended to sour the experience. I agree that having a car you need to work on to keep it running is a bonding experience, however with the Miata, you tend to work on them to make them unique and improve performance or appearance; it is a fun pursuit instead of a necessary evil. Very few of us would have any reservations about getting in our cars and driving them across the country. In fact, if you’d like a GREAT story that shows off our community and the durability of our cars, check this out: http://forum.miata.net/vb/showthread.php?t=544121

So to anyone dismissing these little ‘imposter’ cars (and I’ll admit that’s exactly what they are, in a way) really ought to spend a little time behind the wheel. Chances are they’ll have a change of heart.

David Ancona
David Ancona(@jensen541)
6 years ago

Great little car, I had a blue one just like the pictures many years ago, sorely missed. I was lucky enough to be involved in some early concept design work for the original MX5 interior whilst working for IAD, a UK based consultancy (they built the first running prototypes). Incidentally it is no coincidence that there is a whiff of Lotus Elan about it, there was an immaculate red Elan Sprint that was present in all design reviews !

6 years ago

Indeed, I love my 07 mx5. Pushing 102,000 miles. My only complaint is the lack of exhaust note….

Gunther Hanke
Gunther Hanke(@g-man)
6 years ago

I’m afraid the Brits were ahead of the curve on the “acoustically tuned exhaust system.” Way back when, the story goes, when Triumph was developing the TR6 the brass were saying they needed to get the exhaust sound right for sales reasons. So the engineers got a bunch of mufflers together and kept swapping them out, found one that was close to what they wanted, then beat broomsticks into the various openings till they got the sound right. The ‘winner’ was then cut open and the baffle shape/position duplicated.

Todd Cox
Todd Cox(@mc70)
6 years ago
Reply to  Gunther Hanke

And the Japanese would agree. They tuned the Miata’s exhaust to replicate an MGB.

Ae Neuman
Ae Neuman(@fb_1293493178)
6 years ago

love these cars !
good looking, great to drive, afoordable and cheap to maintain.
the mx5 will forever have a place in history as part of the mighty 1990’s triumvirate of japanese cars (lwith the honda nsx and lexus ls400) good enough to take on and beat the best in the world.

6 years ago

Great! Finally!! Another thumb up from all-time Miata lover. It really has got to be the best car ever made since original hot hatches (i.e., Golf GTI, 205 GTi, etc.). Back when I was young and stupid, AE86, Silvia (and 180SX), and this (Eunos Roadster in Japan) were the cars I learned to drift on the mountain roads, and Miata was always my favorite. A little trivia probably everyone here would know: Miata is the first production car that had acoustically tuned exhaust system. Say, does anyone have original Miata US brochure?

Evan Bedford
Evan Bedford(@quixotic)
6 years ago

Hooray from another Miata owner! (1991 NA). I’ll also add that they are potentially the best winter vehicle going (except if there’s an overnight snowfall approaching a foot or more). Low mass, winter tires, limited slip differential, perfect 50/50 weight distribution, bolt on hard-top, heated leather seats, and a few engine extras gives me a marked advantage over most other vehicles when the surface gets slippery. Commuting is my favorite time of day.

Javier Valencia
Javier Valencia(@fb_632337717)
6 years ago

* I meant Kart, not cart. My car is not wooden, as far as I’m concerned.

Javier Valencia
Javier Valencia(@fb_632337717)
6 years ago

Another happy Miata owner here.

This is my first car, I’ve had it over a year now and I absolutely love it, it’s a Nb2 with the 1.8 engine in it. I wanted my first car to be something enjoyable, as I have always liked cars, but did not want to be diappointed with my first experience as an owner. I can gladly say it was a good choice, it feels almost like a cart. Whenever I drive something else I ussually find it cumbersome and unresponsive!

I do want to learn some mechanics and move on to older machines as soon as the budget allows it though. But at the moment, this makes a magnificent machine, specially living in a mountainous area as I do.

Todd Cox
Todd Cox(@mc70)
6 years ago

A long overdue entry to Petrolicious! You’ve just made a great many Miata owners quite happy (and they are quite a friendly bunch).

Great introductory article and really nice photography. The only quibble is about the engine description. The Miata is a parts bin car, sand the engine is no exception. It was used as a front wheel drive engine, and adapted for use as a longitudinally mounted engine in the NA.

Kevin Fitzpatrick
Kevin Fitzpatrick(@kevin)
6 years ago

Just great! I drive a Miata and I’ve been hoping that Petrolicious would give the Miata some love. It’s a gateway drug into the addiction to driving.