This year, Mazda celebrates the 25th anniversary of its popular and critically-acclaimed little roadster. Indeed, it is arguably the best overall sports car on the planet. Lightweight, perfectly balanced and with just enough pep to engage the goosebumps, the Miata's combination of divine driving dynamics and, importantly, affordability have made it the choice of car enthusiasts and critics since it was unveiled back in 1989 at the Chicago Auto Show.
"There is a maxim that the buyer will buy the most expensive car he can afford," said Bob Hall, the man credited as the Miata's father, at a recent dinner celebrating the car's birthday. "That's where the Miata has an advantage, because there is nothing like it in its price range. It's either this, or nothing."
Hall, then a writer at Car and Driver, came up with the idea for the car in 1976. Noting an appalling lack of small, fun-to-drive roadsters, he approached Kenichi Yamamoto and Gai Arai, heads of Research and Development at Mazda and told them, matter of factly, that somebody needed to build one. The idea hung around, and after Hall moved to a position in product planning at Mazda in 1982, he began researching the idea further.
"The car had to be as good as a Corolla," Hall said. This, of course, did not refer to the Corolla's driving dynamics, but to its usefulness as a daily driver. Essentially, the Miata had to be loads of fun to drive, but still employable as an errand-runner.
"Americans would want to drive this car to work, to the supermarket, and all around town," he said. "With the roof up, people could theoretically fit a week's worth of groceries inside, if they were creative."
After seven years of work, the Mazda MX-5 ("Mazda Experiment, project number five") was ready for production. It made its debut in Chicago and started its legendary tenure as one of the greatest cars we've ever had the pleasure of driving.
In celebration of the car hitting the quarter-century mark, we've compiled a gallery that takes you through a brief history of the Miata, complete with some of our favorite concepts and customizations. Head on through to see the story of one of the industry's great achievements.
1989 Mazda MX-5 MiataThe first Miata was released in 1989 at the Chicago Auto Show. The car came with a 1.6-liter dual overhead cam inline four-cylinder engine, which produced 115 hp and 100 lb-ft of torque. While that may not sound like much, it's important to remember that the car weighed just 2,150 lbs. The engine was mated to a five-speed manual transmission.
The car's design included the iconic retractable headlights, as well as numerous styling cues from the late-1960s Lotus Elan, a similar roadster with its own celebrated history.
The car was met with much enthusiasm from the public and from critics. Before it went on sale in May 1989, pent-up demand caused dealers to draft waiting lists and even mark up the price of the car. Through 1998, when it was redesigned, the Miata rode strong sales numbers without having to change much to the design or performance, save an upgrade to a bigger 1.8-liter engine in 1994.
1999 Mazda MX-5 MiataThe first-generation Miata lasted almost an entire decade without undergoing a redesign. This second-gen Miata, which went on sale as a 1999 model year vehicle, featured a lot of changes, including a completely new exterior (bye, bye pop-up headlights) inspired by the more expensive RX-7 and a more powerful engine, courtesy of an upgrade in the compression ratio. The new power numbers were 140 hp and 116 lb-ft of torque.
The roadster received a facelift in 2001 and also featured a variety of special edition models before another redesign in 2006, some of which offered significant performance enhancements. Some of these, such as MX-5 SP, are voraciously sought-after around the world.
2001 Mazda MX-5 MPS Concept
The MX-5 MPS Concept was released in 2001 and featured numerous performance, functional and design enhancements that made it into a much more aggressive car.
Mazda worked with its performance affiliate, Mazdaspeed, in order to make this car into a bonafide speed machine. With the addition of a bigger 2.0-liter engine complete with independent throttles and an aggressive camshaft, the little car could produce 200 horsepower and 145 lb-ft of torque.
The hot little roadster never went on sale, unfortunately.
2004 Mazdaspeed MX-5The Mazdaspeed MX-5 was released for a short run in 2004. The car most notably featured a turbocharger, which upped the power to 180 hp. It also came with an upgraded suspension, wider tires, an upgraded 6-speed transmission and clutch assemblies and upgraded drivetrain components.
Only 5,428 Mazdaspeed MX-5 units were manufactured, partly because of a large fire at the production facility in 2005.
2006 Mazda MX-5 MiataThe third, and current, generation Miata began production for the 2006 model year. The styling wasn't as much of a dramatic departure as the second-gen, but it still employed some notable tweaks when it was unveiled.
Almost everything on the car was new, including the bigger 2.0-liter engine, which produced 170 horsepower and 140 lb-ft of torque. The car also included new technology such as a front wishbone/rear multilink setup, traction control and stability control in order to increase driveability. The car got heavier, it could weigh up to more than 2,500 pounds, but the more powerful engine essentially offset the gain and it still retained its legendary driving dynamics, handling like a dream around sharp corners.
The third-generation Miata was given a facelift in 2008, bringing the design of the car more in line with the rest of Mazda's vehicles. This meant even the MX-5 was not spared the infamous "smiling grille" present on cars like the Mazda3 and Mazda5, though it wasn't nearly as gaudy on the smaller roadster. This is, more or less, the Miata we have today.
2009 Mazda MX-5 Superlight ConceptThe MX-5 Superlight Concept was unveiled for the car's 20th anniversary at Mazda's studio in Frankfurt, Germany. Making use of ultra-lightweight materials, and noticeably forgoing a windshield, the car tipped the scales at just 2,200 lbs.
The Superlight Concept employed a 127-hp 1.8-liter engine, a 5-speed manual transmission, and double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension. The car was obviously never intended to be driven, but we can't help but imagine how amazing it would've been like to do so.
2011 Mazda MX-5 Spyder ConceptThe Mazda MX-5 Spyder Concept debuted at the SEMA show in Las Vegas back in 2011. The car eschewed the normal folding roof in favor of a lightweight grenadine-red canvas covering, similar to that on the Porsche Boxster Spyder. The car also employed big 17-inch alloy wheels.
Interestingly, the Spyder Concept didn't run on gasoline, but on isobutanol, which is a biofuel that powered Mazda's ALMS car. The Spyder also had a lightweight lithium ion battery, among other changes that made it more sustainable.
2012 Mazda MX-5 Super 25 ConceptThe MX-5 Super25 Concept was created with one thing in mind: endurance racing. It came with a set of PIAA 40 Series halogen lamps front and center to light up dark roads, and a Sparco racing seat, harness and suede steering wheel to help keep exhausted drivers in control.
The colors of car -- red, gray and black -- are the Mazdaspeed racing colors and the number 55 commemorates Mazda's historic Le Mans racer from back in 1991.
Mazda MX-5 GT ConceptThe MX-5 GT was a variation of the Miata built by Jota Sport. Revealed at the 2012 Goodwood Festival of Speed, the GT employed a 2.0-liter engine rated 205 hp, a manual transmission, adjustable suspension, carbon front splitter, a rear diffuser and spoiler, sports exhaust system with a central tailpipe, Recaro seats and road slicks tires.
We really wish we could have driven this incredible machine, preferably on a track on a sunny day.
2014 Mazda MX-5 25th AnniversaryLast week, Mazda unveiled a 25th anniversary edition of the MX-5 Miata at the New York Auto Show. In fact, it was one of our favorite things out of the entire event.
This special edition is based on the retractable hardtop model, and it comes with either a manual or automatic transmission, Bilstein shocks, a metallic red paint job with contrasting black roof and an off-white leather interior. Special badging can be found inside and out to set it apart. Just 100 examples will find their way to American buyers.
We're tempted to sign up for one.