Cars

The Misunderstood Mazda Miata

TRUE TO ORIGINAL FORM: Every generation of the Miata is lightweight, with a front engine and rear wheel drive. It is an enthusiast’s dream.
TRUE TO ORIGINAL FORM: Every generation of the Miata is lightweight, with a front engine and rear wheel drive. It is an enthusiast’s dream.MAZDA

This week, Mazda is set to take the wraps off the next generation of the Mazda Miata. For many, the MX-5 Miata is a friendly convertible for summer commuting, but those who are true driving enthusiasts know that the Miata is so much more. It is one of the most well-balanced and well-sorted sports cars of all time—a spiritual successor to British and Italian post-war roadsters. It is also one of the most unlikely cars in automotive history.

Wikipedia has a very elegant and accurate description of the Miata: “The MX-5 was conceived as a small roadster—with light weight and minimal mechanical complexity, limited only by legal and safety requirements; technologically modern, but philosophically descending from small British and Italian roadsters of the 1960s such as the Triumph Spitfire, MG MGB, Fiat 124 Sport Spider, Alfa Romeo Spider, and Lotus Elan.”

Consider that phrase, “limited only by legal and safety requirements.” It’s enough to make any gear head smile. And yet, the Miata gets a bad rap from people who just don’t “get it.” Critics try to deride it by saddling it with female attributes. This is not only inaccurate, but also sexist; I know female drivers who could make most men look like a driver’s ed student. The “cute” correlation for the Miata is just wrong, and to understand why, we have to go back to the beginning.

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The idea for the Miata came about during a 1976 conversation between Mazda executives and journalist Bob Hall. At the time, Hall, who is fluent in Japanese, was with Motor Trend. He was asked what kind of car Mazda should build next, to which he replied that Mazda should build the type of “classically British sports car” that doesn’t exist anymore.

Hall later took a product-planning job with Mazda USA and in 1982 was given the green light to start development of a small roadster. Several ideas were thrown around, including a front-engine, front-wheel-drive and a mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive sports car. But it was the front-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout of Hall’s design team that won. The design was heavily inspired by the Lotus Elan.

The Miata’s initial design was called Duo 101, based on the fact that it would have two tops, a convertible, and a removable hard top. The prototype featured a fiberglass body, 1.4L engine, and traveled on public roads in Santa Barbara to see how the public would respond. Reaction was positive enough to move the project into the next phase, and by 1989, the car was ready, taking the name MX-5, for “Mazda Experiment, project number 5.”

The first generation, or NA, Miata debuted in February 1989 at the Chicago Auto Show. It started at $14,000, which today would be $25,400, adjusted for inflation. Demand was high. Many dealerships had long pre-order lists. Starting in 1994, it featured a 1.6L I4, with 1.8L engine. The 1.6 remained as an economy option. The MX-5 weighed a scant 2,070 pounds.

The Miata was an instant success. After selling 35,000 MX-5’s globally in its first year, the company’s sales shot up to 75,000 in 1990, and Mazda never looked back. In the 10 years that made up the first generation, Mazda sold more than 400,000 MX-5’s around the world.

At the 1997 Tokyo motor show, Mazda previewed the second generation Miata, internally named NB. This new MX-5 featured a larger engine and fixed headlights, as the retractable assemblies were no longer compliant with new pedestrian safety regulations. Other styling cues were borrowed from the rotary powered RX-7.

The NB was heavier, at 2,300 pounds, but was also more aerodynamic. It featured the same basic 1.8-liter I4 engine but had updates that raised output to 140 hp. For 2004, this engine was joined by a Mazdaspeed version. The Mazda performance division fitted the nimble Miata with a turbocharger, allowing it to make 180 horsepower, and get from 0 to 60 in just 6.2 seconds. This Mazdaspeed Miata is arguably one of the most collectible and sought-after Mazdas ever built.

The NB Miata was replaced by a third generation of the roadster in 2006. Despite winning Car of the Year in Japan that year, Miata sales were down globally. Designer Moray Callum was tasked with livening up the Miata. Moray is the brother of Jaguar designer Ian Callum, and Moray is currently design director for Ford North America’s passenger cars. Callum added some much-needed visual muscle to the Miata, with bulging fenders at the wheel-wells.

In 2012, I reviewed this car and fell in love. It was a thoughtful, purist’s car, with an extra blower layer so that drivers could enjoy the top down even in the early spring and late fall. The steering is direct and low power forces a driver to really work the manual gearbox.

In this sense, driving a Miata is like playing an acoustic guitar; the operator’s nuances and shortcomings are amplified by the lack of technological assistance. Any greenhorn can look like a pro with 500 horsepower under the hood, but master a Miata, and you have learned what it means to handle a true throwback sports car. When the fourth generation of the Miata debuts this week in New York, we hope to see a car that will carry on this tradition, but also a car that will put the misinformation to bed.

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