The Evolution of the Mazda MX-5 Miata

It’s said that driving a slow car fast is one of the greatest automotive thrills, especially when it’s a lightweight, rear-wheel-drive roadster with a rigid chassis, slick manual transmission, phenomenal balance and perfectly-weighted steering — a car like the Mazda Miata.

No other car is loved this much

Getting behind the wheel of the first Mazda Miata from way back in 1990 probably won’t boost your pulse the way a Porsche 911 Cabrio or a Ferrari Spider might. But contrary to popular belief, driving purity and passion isn’t simply about horsepower, 0-60 times, exotic brands or even the ability to make heads turn as you burp the throttle. It’s said that driving a slow car fast is one of the greatest automotive thrills, especially when it’s a lightweight, rear-wheel-drive roadster with a rigid chassis, slick manual transmission, phenomenal balance and perfectly weighted steering — a car like the Mazda Miata.

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Every iteration of the small, impractical, lovable Miata clinches its place in automotive history as the most popular roadster of all time, with somewhere around a million models sold since its inception. It’s the most raced car in the world, a darling of car clubs and racing leagues everywhere for its tractability, easy modification capabilities and affordability. Mazda Design Chief Kenichi Yamamoto never could have predicted the Miata’s monumental success at its inception. As the fourth generation of the Miata approaches, a celebration is in order for the little car that could.

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1st Generation (NA) 1990-1997

1st Gen Specs


Price (Base): $14,000
Type: 2-seat convertible
Engine: 1.6-liter I4
Horsepower: 115
Transmission: 5-speed manual
0-60: 8.1 seconds
Top Speed: 126 mph
Weight: 2,070 lbs

With just one other small roadster on the public market in 1990, the Miata couldn’t have been timed any better. The first generation was bare bones, capturing motoring purity at its most basic levels. It had everything you needed in a small roadster and nothing you didn’t — the only touch of ornateness was the flip-up headlights.

It was cleverly modeled after legendary British roadsters like MGs and Triumphs with rear-wheel-drive. To ensure great weight balance, the engine was positioned behind the front axle and fitted with independent double wishbone suspension, front and rear, along with dual anti-roll bars to increase torsional rigidity. The only transmission was a five-speed manual. The car was an instant hit — so much so that dealers tacked on premiums — and the Miata single-handedly revived the market for small two-seat convertibles.

2nd Generation (NB) 1999-2005

2nd Gen Specs


Price (Base): $19,770
Type: 2-seat convertible
Engine: 1.8-liter inline 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 140
Transmission: 5-speed manual
0-60: 7.7 seconds
Top Speed: 130 mph
Weight: 2,348 lbs

As with most automotive second comings, the Miata grew in both weight and power in its second-gen model. The much-needed update came after nearly a decade; though it put on a beer belly of around 200 pounds, it also received 25 more horses. None of the balance and toss-ability of the original car was lost, but it did ditch the pedestrian-unfriendly, bug-eyed pop-up headlights for flush-mounted, ellipsoid ones that smoothed out the front end. The body was more or less in keeping the first Miata, spiritually, but it was also infused with some Mazda RX-7 DNA: more sculpted, less vanilla.

3rd Generation (NC) 2005-2015

3rd Gen Specs


Price (Base): $23,970
Type: 2-seat convertible
Engine: 2.0-liter inline 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 170
Transmission: 6-speed manual, 6-speed auto
0-60: 8.1 seconds
Top Speed: 124.3 mph
Weight: 2,542

Sales weren’t as strong as Mazda had hoped for the second-gen Miata, so the third generation required a more significant change. Moray Callum, the brother of famed Aston Martin and Jaguar designer Ian Callum, was brought in to handle the new Miata’s sheet metal. Interestingly, the third-gen car echoed the original Miata with its more rounded shape; but with its pronounced fender wells, hood bulge and refined interior, it was clearly a 21st-century vehicle. Weight dropped to its lowest since the first-gen car, and displacement and horsepower jumped. Most notable (and impressive) was the new MX-5 Miata Power Retractable Hard Top, which gave the little roadster additional levels of protection and class typically reserved for far more expensive convertibles, like the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes SLK.

4th Generation (ND) 2016-

4th Gen Specs


Price (Base): TBA
Type: 2-seat convertible
Engine: 1.5-liter I4
Horsepower: 130
Transmission: 6-speed manual
0-60: TBA
Top Speed: TBA
Weight: 2,250

Touted as one of the best-kept secrets of the automotive industry in 2014, the introduction of the fourth-generation Miata was hotly anticipated and did not disappoint. Lending its chassis to the next Alfa Romeo Spider, the new Miata is both edgier and more sophisticated in its design than past versions, retaining the true motoring spirit of the original car with a lighter body plus enhanced performance and efficiency.

Though the car’s performance numbers have yet to be revealed, the 200-pound weight drop will make the fourth-gen Miata the lightest since the original. Surprisingly, power is purported to be less than expected, potentialy down from 170 to 130 horsepower, but making use of a higher-revving, more efficient Mazda SkyActiv inline 4-cylinder engine. Don’t expect it to be slower or less scintillating to drive: the weight drop will more than make up for the decrease in power. Do expect handling to be the best out of all four generations: the car is 1.4 inches shorter than the first-gen Miata, but wider and with a longer wheelbase. Impressively, it just might be the most coveted Miata yet. At the very least, it’s one of the most exciting cars of 2015.

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