Since its introduction as a 1990 model, the Mazda MX-5 Miata has been like a greatest hits package for cars. As the buying public’s tastes have changed from minivans to SUVs to crossovers, the Miata has been there to remind us of what a pure driving experience can be. A light, reliable, and uncomplicated roadster that is designed to connect the driver to the road, it’s given us a direct link to the great sports cars of the past while staying thoroughly modern; a sports car for the people that’s remained true to its principles for more than 25 years now.
But after decades of success and nearly 950,000 Miatas sold, the latest-generation Miata was spiritually the weakest link. It was still a thrill to drive but it was a little bigger, a little heavier, and a little more expensive than the original. A pattern was beginning to emerge: The original Miata was a pure, unadulterated sports car.
The second-generation one was a little bigger and more modern, and the third one even more so. It was still a Miata, but maybe just a little more of a grand tourer than a pure sports car. When Mazda announced a new Miata for 2016, there was legitimate cause for concern. Was it going to remain a driver’s car, or would it continue to evolve into a more comfortable roadster, like the BMW Z4?
Well, the road-ready 2016 Miata is finally here, and it’s a true return to form. The new Miata is so close to the 1990 car in principle that if it were any closer, Mazda would’ve violated modern safety and emissions laws. But there’s nothing old-fashioned about this Miata — it’s been redesigned from the ground up, and the result is a cutting-edge sports car with a renewed focus on the road. A new high-tensile steel and aluminum construction means the new Miata is stronger, stiffer, and 220 pounds lighter than the outgoing model.
The 2.0-liter Skyactiv inline four from the Mazda 3 is longitudinally mounted and situated behind the front axle, lowering the car’s center of gravity and giving it the excellent handling characteristics of a front mid-engined rear-wheel drive car. In short, the new Miata more than lives up to its lofty name, and that’s cause for celebration. What’s extraordinary is that it’s been a near nonstop celebration for the Miata since the day it was unveiled.
To say the Miata came along at the right place at the right time is an understatement. The 1980s was a transformative decade for cars, as imports began to take hold in America and domestic sales started to slide. Economically, Japan was experiencing a boom that left many companies flush with cash. This included Mazda, a small car company known in the U.S. for its quirky economy cars cars and rotary engines.
But with business booming, Mazda sought to build a compact, affordable sports car that could take on the Toyota MR2. By 1986, the car had reached its final design stages and was testing positively among consumer groups. The only problem was it didn’t have a name. Eventually, Mazda decided to call the car (known as the MX-5) the “Miata,” which means prize, or reward.
The Miata bowed at the 1989 Chicago Auto Show, and while it was overshadowed by the blockbuster Acura NSX, the Miata was a huge hit. By the time the car hit showrooms that fall, Mazda had a runaway sales success. A generation of Americans who grew up in the 1960s coveting affordable roadsters like Triumph Spitfires and MGBs were now entering middle age and had the means for a hobby car, and the $13,800 little Japanese roadster checked all the right boxes.
It looked like a classic British roadster — it was inspired by the Lotus Elan — but it had none of the reliability issues. It didn’t leak oil, leave you stranded, or refuse to start. And the Miata was no bland retro-mobile, it was a pure joy to drive; it was scientifically engineered to be. It was light and instinctually agile, and quick but not especially fast.
It wouldn’t win any drag races, but the free-revving 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine’s 116 horsepower was more than enough to carve corners on a twisty road. A beautifully-shifting five-speed manual transmission made gear changes second nature, and one of the best suspensions in the world led Miata project manager Toshihiko Hirai to declare, “Every mechanism has been designed for sheer driving pleasure.”
The first generation was so successful that Mazda kept it in production mostly unchanged for seven model years. The next generation launched in early 1998 as a 1999 model, and the Miata began to modernize. The pop-up headlights were gone, and the delicate, minimalist design gave way to a more contemporary, muscular look. The new Miata gained a larger 1.8-liter inline four and a more modern interior. By then, the roadster market had grown crowded, and with the Mercedes-Benz CLK, Porsche Boxster, and the BMW Z3 in the picture, the Miata had to grow up some to compete.
The third-generation Miata was redesigned from the ground up and debuted in 2005. While it gained a larger 2.0-liter engine, a six-speed manual transmission, and better weight distribution, Automobile Magazine’s Jean Jennings declared, “It is no longer quite so sensational to ride along in this … Miata.” More than the earlier cars, it was designed with comfort in mind, and offered heavy options like a mechanically folding metal convertible top, heated power seats, and a seven-speaker stereo.
Despite a reputation as the most polarizing Miata yet, the car offered one of the best driving experiences in the world and was popular enough to stay in production for 10 years. As the car aged and began to feel dated, Mazda was at a crossroads. Does it continue to build a comfortable, sporty car or return to form with a performance-minded roadster?
The 2016 Miata answers this question with an exclamation point. Like the 1990 model, the new Miata appeals to the enthusiast who wants a reliable roadster that can handle rush-hour traffic as comfortably as it can take a twisty mountain road. Its cutting-edge mechanicals are hidden by a gorgeously lean body with Coke-bottle fenders and a rear end like a 1960s Jaguar. This is all in a car that sits shorter than the 1990 car and only weighs 200 pounds more while meeting all modern safety and emissions standards.
With the new Miata, Mazda has accomplished a rare feat by creating a next-generation car with improved safety, performance, and stability while drastically reducing weight and size. Even though it won’t reach U.S. showrooms until May, there’s already talk that this could be the greatest car to ever carry the Miata name.
Mazda has been experiencing a renaissance in recent years. Its reputation for building beautifully designed and affordable cars with world-class handling has been hard earned, and it’s a reputation built squarely on the Miata. Legendary nameplates often stray from their roots as the years pass, but incredibly, the Miata never has. For more than 25 years, the car has been a consistent winner.
From its inception, the Miata has been a world-beater on a budget that has delighted the automotive world. The 2016 MX-5 Miata could be the best manifestation of this yet. It’s a great sign that Mazda is committed to future filled with small, affordable sports cars. The future couldn’t look brighter for the Miata, so may it live on for at least another 950,000 cars.
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