Driving All Four MX5 / Miatas: Is this the Answer?
Driving a convertible just adds to the driving experience. In most cases they are slower, but cruising around with the top down imbeds you more in the surroundings and makes for a joyous occasion. While there are several convertible cars being sold today it is hard to have a conversation about them without mentioning the Mazda MX-5. However, the MX-5 is the only modern example that keeps close to traditional British roadsters such as the MGB and Triumph TR6. With a new one now available we decided to gather all four generations on a favorite piece of pavement to trace the canyon and this car back to the beginning.
Back in the 60s there were lots of small, affordable roadsters available but in the following years they slowly fizzled out. In 1976 a journalist named Bob Hall told Mazda someone should build a British style roadster similar to the Lotus Elan. A few years later Hall took a job at Mazda and set out to make this roadster happen. By 1989 the original MX-5 Miata was born.
The first Miata, known as the NA, is clearly inspired by the Lotus Elan. It’s small and light and if it weren’t for the Mazda emblems you’d think it was British. It looks exactly like you’d expect a modern Elan to be; small, simple, and sporty. This is the only generation that featured pop-up headlights. There isn’t much power coming from the 1.6L 4 cylinder, just 115 hp, but the car only weighs a bit over 2,000 lbs. Unfortunately, our test car decided its clutch was done before it was my turn to drive it, nonetheless it was a favorite with Todd and Paul and the rest of the world thought so too buying more than 215,000 of them in the US alone.
For its 10th birthday Mazda gave the MX5 a redesign. The NB generation grew a slightly larger footprint, gained 200 lbs, and traded in the loved pop-up headlights for more conventional ones. The materials used felt a little nicer but the cabin is still Spartan, with the bare necessities all laid out before you in a manner that makes sense. Cody was excited to let us borrow his 2002 MX5 for our shoot. At 170,000 miles the car still looks and feels great. It’s used but not showing many signs of wear and tear. The black interior is contrasted with easy to read white-faced gauges, probably my favorite part of this interior.
The NB retained the 1.8L from the late NA Miatas, but power output was increased to 143 hp in the US to account for the weight gain. Even with this gain it isn’t a straight line rocket, especially in a canyon that climbs from 6500 ft to 9500 ft, but who cares? It more than makes up for its lack of acceleration when you chuck it into a corner. There is an on-center dead spot in the steering but once it loads it’s fantastic. The feel available here should make carmakers ditch electric assist and go back to the old ways. The 14-year old suspension is surprisingly supple, soaking up bumps and keeping body roll at bay. This NB is nearly everything I love in a fun car, except the lack of legroom for my 34-inch inseam. Can it really get better?
The NC generation grew even bigger and remains the biggest MX5 to date. Everything is bigger, from the weight to the size of the engine itself. Mazda even offered a wonderful retractable hardtop option for the first time. The result is a car trying to be more usable but to me it looks like the NB put on a fat suit. Even though the NC now weighs 2500 lbs, it can still be considered light, and with 167hp from its 2.0L engine it’s also quicker than ever. The power delivery is the best of the bunch and will happily rev for you and keep you entertained for hours. The steering is light and quick but a tad numb. The steering wheel grip is also quite small and in some ways reminds me of the old wood wheels found in cars like the Elan. The shifter was my biggest gripe about the car. Todd and Paul seemed to like it, but both Gavin and I hated it. It felt notchy and synthetic, as if it weren’t connected to anything. The interior is also a let down, it’s well laid out and updated, but the hard plastic finishes look cheap. In spite of these issues, the guys really liked this generation. For me it was the hardest to connect with. While improved in many ways, it also lost a lot of the Miata charm.
For 2016 Mazda went back to their roots for the ND with three goals in mind: smaller, lighter, and keeping the original Miata spirit alive. This new car is not only the best looking of the bunch but is surprisingly the smallest as well. It is shorter in length than the original NA and weight is down to 2,300 lbs, which is simply amazing considering today’s safety regulations and the tech we expect in our cars. The interior is well-equipped featuring Bluetooth, navigation, blind spot monitoring and lane departure warning. Power is down as well, from 167 hp to 155 hp sig Mazda’s Skyactiv 2.0L 4 cylinder from the Mazda3. In spite of the power reduction, the power-to-weight ratio is greatly improved making this the fastest MX-5 to date. In our world of 3500+ lb sports cars, this NA is a lightweight revelation.
Everything about the car follows the same theme of lighter. The steering is where you notice it the most; so light you can drive with two fingers and must be delicate with your inputs. The suspension rolls about hilariously like a chase scene in a movie from the 70s. The Launch Edition car we used is essentially a Grand Touring trim so corning isn’t its first concern but even the available Club trim which comes with a limited slip diff, shock tower brace, Bilstein shocks and for an additional $3,400 a Brembo brake package has surprised journalists around the world with the amount of body roll. At first I hated it but I have since come to terms with this setup and would say that the ND is one of the best Miatas ever built. It is certainly the most stylish.
For a quarter century, Mazda has continued to build this little car that is the antithesis of most modern automobiles, and gained a cult following in the process. On any given weekend, at any racing event, you’ll find Miatas. Sunny days on back roads you will find them cruising with the top down. These cars can commute, they can be pushed, and they will always put a smile on your face. There are elements of each generation that I love and we are very glad Mazda continues to build and refine their icon. So which one should you buy? The right answer is Miata.