The cars we loved.
The ideal for the Miata is said to have come from an American automotive journalist who suggested the ideal to Mazda’s chief of development during the 70’s. He like many other sports car enthusiasts likely viewed the traditional European roadster with delight and dread in equal parts. That journalist Bob Hall would later become instrumental at Mazda in the official development of the roadster. The rest was history that would shake up and revive the sports car industry.
Big Fun and Bigger Repair Bills From Europe
The Mazda Miata or MX-5 as its known outside the USA may be one of the most influential sports cars of the 80’s. When it was introduced in 1989, all the old school roadsters had faded from the marketplace. The small mostly English drop tops that captured enthusiasts hearts 20 years before had long faded, only to be replaced by a new breed of small sporty car that was as fun but no more reliable. Slick rides like the Fiat X1/9 and 124 Spider stirred hearts, but were more likely to be seen in the garage than on the road. The former class favorite the Alfa Romero Spyder was showing its age and had a reputation as a maintenance headache. For these reasons, the classic European marques were fading or gone just as the Miata came onto the scene. The small roadster had morphed into coupes like the Fiero and MR2, small sporty and reliable, they had almost erased the memory of the open
cars of the 60’s.
The Miata changed all of that. It almost single handily revived the roadster market. In the true spirit of the old Lotus and MGs of days past, the Miata was small and light weight using a unibody construction. No need a big powerful engine because at less than 2,200 lbs it was spry with only 116 hp from a 1.6L DOHC inline 4. Its looks were typically Japanese, but evoked the past due to its classic Lotus Elan like proportions. Pop up headlights added to the feel of nostalgia and unlike a lot of cars equipped with such were not seen broken or stuck in the open position. To keep costs down base models came with 14’ steel stamped wheels that came from the Protege. Other things were less obviously the result of cost cutting, like the fully independent double wishbone suspension and slick shifting 5-speed manual transmission. There was an optional four-speed automatic available that would gradually gain favor as the Miata’s buyer demographics changed.
Small Car, Big Impact
Despite reviving warm memories of go-cart like roadsters of the past, the Miata was a serious car. Some models featured a limited slip differential, anti-lock brakes and even traction control. Later models came with optional 17’ wheels. The top of course was soft cloth or vinyl and was manually operated. A plastic factory hardtop was also available. Oddly enough a factory hardtop will fit any Miata from any year. The hard top’s minimal weight increase is offset by improved rigidity and aerodynamics. Those improvements may have sparked rumors of a fixed hardtop coupe, but despite a few concepts none have made it to market.
The Miata immediately became a media favorite for its combination of style, performance and efficiency. Rear wheel drive and a perfect 50:50 weight balance contributed to the neutral handling. It would not take long before the Miata would end up on just about everyone’s top ten list. Car and Driver, Wheels and Sports Car International were just a few of the publications that voted the Miata the car of the year between 1989 and 2009. The only off-putting aspect about Mazdas little sports car was it was a bit girly looking by the standards of the mostly enthusiast male crowd. But that was ok because most Miata buyers were women and Mazda catered to them without doing so directly. The small size of the Miata made it a natural for smaller people anyway.
If It Aint’ Broken…
By the time the first redesign came around in 1992, the rest of the sports car market had noticed the impact the Miata was making. Slowly but surely new competitor models would be introduced, most with more power (and heft) than the Miata. A few special version of the Miata would keep it fresh in the eyes of buyers, but Mazda would resist making the car larger or drastically more powerful. By 2001 the 1.8 had grown to 146 hp. A more powerful 2.0 would be introduced with the third generation car in 2005. The 1.8 became the base engine while a new 6 speed manual and automatic transmission became options. The suspension also changed from 4-wheel double wishbone to a wishbone/multilink setup. Still, the Miata had managed to retain its charter and stellar road manners.
The look of the Miata had evolved also, but keep a somewhat feminine organic look with bigger flush headlights and plenty of oval shapes. In 2011 the front gained the happy face front end that other Mazdas, most notably the 3 shared. Even after 20 years the Miata has few peers. More powerful competitors came and went, but Mazda has continually resisted the urge to make the Miata bigger and heavier beyond the lightweight roadster mode. True latter cars are heavier, but they are also more powerful with hp ratings now in the 170 range. The performance envelope remains pretty much the same. The Miata is simply one of the best handling cars you can buy at any price, and hands down the best inexpensive roadster available in the USA.