Convertibles

Mazda Miata history: How the MX-5 has charmed us over the past 30 years

Way back in 1989, Mazda gave us the two-seat roadster that would come to set the benchmark for simple driving fun.

Mazda

We love Miatas here at Roadshow. In fact, four of us have examples of the two-seat roadster in our personal garages. I, myself, have owned three MX-5s over the years, and my current daily driver is a 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata.

There's a reason why so many of us subscribe to the "The answer is always Miata" theory. The inexpensive, lightweight roadster has been charming drivers around the world since it was first introduced in 1989. Even now, in its fourth generation, the Miata remains one of the finest driver's cars money can buy.

Mazda debuted a 30th Anniversary Edition MX-5 Miata this week at the 2019 Chicago Auto Show, commemorating the momentous occasion when the very first Miata popped up its headlights at the 1989 show. But as we look at where the Miata is headed, let's also remember where it's been. This little sweetheart has had a wonderful 30-year run.

NA generation: 1990-1998

The original Miata debuted as a 1990 model, with a 1.6-liter I4 engine underhood that produced a wee 116 horsepower and 110 pound-feet of torque. Power went to the rear wheels through a five-speed manual transmission, and you really had to wind the car out in each gear to truly make the most of that power.

Mazda says the first-generation Miata had a top speed of 116 miles per hour, and did the 0-60-mph run in 8.6 seconds. Those aren't blistering specs by today's standards, but at the time, and considering the car's 2,100-ish-pound curb weight, it was plenty.

The first Miata was a pretty bare-bones offering -- simplistic, to say it another way. Available options included a viscous-type limited-slip differential and an optional removable hardtop (in red only). At a base price of $13,800, the Miata was a relatively affordable little thing, and Mazda moved 23,052 Miatas in its first year of production. For comparison, the sprightly Honda CRX sold 40,000 units that same year, but at the very least, the Miata's sales bested those of the Toyota MR2.

With its flip-up headlights retracted, the Miata had a seriously clean look.

Mazda

The 1991 to 1993 model years saw a few special editions, as well as the option of a four-speed automatic transmission. More colors were added to the removable hardtop palette, and anti-lock brakes were added, as well. The first major update didn't come until 1994, when Mazda put a 1.8-liter engine under the Miata's hood, upping power to 128 horsepower.

New safety requirements meant the Miata gained some weight midway through its NA generation, tipping the scales up near 2,300 pounds. But hey, we got airbags! Stopping power increased thanks to larger-diameter front discs, and a new Torsen limited-slip diff was added to the options list in 1994.

A second update came in 1996, where a new engine control unit bumped output to 133 horsepower and 114 pound-feet of torque. Mazda also added a rear subframe lateral brace bar, to improve handling.

NB generation: 1999-2005

The second-gen Miata ditched the iconic pop-up headlights of its predecessor, largely thanks to revised pedestrian crash safety standards. The NB Miata was also wider than the car it replaced, and got a bit of a price hike, with a $19,770 MSRP in 1999.

The NB Miata was powered by the same 1.8-liter engine as its predecessor, but a higher compression ratio brought power up to 140 horsepower and 116 pound-feet of torque. The new Miata was also heavier than its forebear, coming in around 2,350 pounds. When equipped with the five-speed manual transmission, the '99 Miata could sprint to 60 mph in about 8 seconds flat, but a newly optional six-speed manual gearbox shaved half a second off that time.

The zip-out plastic window from the previous-generation's soft top was replaced with proper rear glass and a defogger. The Miata even got a retractable wind deflector to keep things a little less blustery in the cabin when the top was down. Larger 15-inch wheels replaced the 14s of the old car, and 195/50-series tires offered better traction.

The 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata was the only one to get a turbocharger, and produced a healthy 178 horsepower.

Mazda

An update came in 2001, where the Miata got a revised front fascia with standard fog lights. Horsepower increased from 140 to 143 thanks to a revamped intake and exhaust system, and all Miatas got more supportive seats as well as a new instrument panel. New 16-inch wheels became available, and the front brakes got a bit bigger, too.

The holy grail of Miatas (OK, I'm biased) came in 2004, when the turbocharged Mazdaspeed version launched. Sure, the tiny little turbo only put out 7.25 psi of boost, but that was enough to increase overall output to 178 horsepower and 166 pound-feet of torque. The $25,500 Mazdaspeed Miata also included Bilstein shocks, upgraded springs, 17-inch wheels and wider tires, and a six-speed manual transmission. Just 4,000 Mazdaspeed Miatas were produced in 2004, with an additional 1,428 arriving in 2005 -- production was limited due to an unfortunate fire at the factory.

NC generation: 2006-2015

Mazda officially dropped the Miata nomenclature for the third-generation NC model, simply calling the car MX-5, even though it never really stuck. Why would you ever want to drop a name like Miata?

The NC got a healthy increase in power -- 170 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque from a 2.0-liter engine -- but this car was also a bit bigger and heavier than its predecessor, tipping the scales at over 2,400 pounds. A five-speed manual transmission came standard, but a six-speed stick was optional. What's more, buyers could opt for a six-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters.

The NC Miata added a tilt-steering column to its list of comfort and convenience features, and in mid-2006, a power-retractable hardtop became available. The 2006 Miata started at $20,995.

The power-retractable hardtop added weight, but provided better foul-weather friendliness.

Mazda

New headlights and taillights arrived in 2009 as part of a face-lift, as did a redesigned grille reminiscent of the smiley-face Mazda3 and RX-8. A few engine upgrades increased the engine's redline by 500 rpm, to 7,200 rpm, making it more enjoyable to really wind out each gear. On the other hand, horsepower had dropped slightly to 167, thanks to new SAE power-rating standards introduced in 2007.

2012 saw the addition of standard stability control and traction control across all MX-5 models, and 2013 marked the arrival of a slight face-lift and the addition of a lip spoiler. Aside from a couple of special editions and a Club package, the NC Miata largely stayed the course until the fourth-generation car arrived in 2016.

ND generation: 2016-present

Mazda took the approach of revolution, not evolution, for the 2016 Miata, with a clean-sheet redesign taking the car back to its roots.

The ND Miata's 2.0-liter engine offered less power than its predecessor -- just 155 horsepower and 148 pound-feet -- but packed it in a car that lost a lot of weight, going back to the 2,300 pounds of the NA generation. A six-speed manual was standard, the six-speed automatic still optional.

A big change for the ND Miata was the switch from hydraulic to electric power-assisted steering. And while I've always thought the new Miata's steering setup is fantastic, some purists bemoaned the arrival of this more modern technology.

Inside, the MX-5 got a brand-new infotainment system, with a 7-inch screen. All of the cabin materials got a big upgrade, as well. In fact, the only thing most reviewers really hated was the placement of the cup holders, right behind your elbow, though they could be moved to the passenger side of the center console. The base price for the 2016 Miata was $25,735.

The Miata RF has a power folding hardtop, and looks like a proper coupe with the top up.

Mazda

The gorgeous MX-5 Miata RF arrived in 2017, with a power-retractable roof panel that neatly stowed underneath the rear pillars. Top up or down, the Miata RF is probably the best-looking MX-5 of all time, to my eyes, even if the folding top mechanism did add 113 pounds to the car's weight.

The 2019 Miata received a few noticeable improvements, including a little more power and a 7,500-rpm redline. The Miata also joined the rest of the modern automotive world and added a telescoping function to its steering column, as well as a backup camera, now a federally mandated piece of standard equipment. The 2019 Miata is the quickest MX-5 yet, able to accelerate to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds.

The 30th Anniversary Edition MX-5 Miata doesn't radically shake up the roadster's formula, and that's a good thing. All 3,000 examples will be painted in a new Racing Orange color, and ride on dark-finish Rays wheels. Brembo front brakes and Bilstein dampers ought to make it a great-handling little thing, too -- as if the stock Miata wasn't sweet enough. Both convertible and RF models will be available, but sadly, only 500 are earmarked for the US.

Here's to the next 30 years.

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