As we spend time celebrating the Mazda MX-5 this week, we saw fit to include a brief look back at the history and development of the car from its beginnings in the 1980s through today and to the future. It’s an interesting tale, and through it you get a real sense of Mazda’s commitment to building enjoyable cars for the world. So, let’s take a look back.
The original Miata was released in 1989 to a frenzy at dealerships, but it’s story begins well before that. In late 1983 Mazda launched its lightweight sports car program or “LWS”, with a plan to bring an affordable sports car to the market.
At the time the LWS included three different ideas from different Mazda design studios in Japan and California.
R&D teams from Japan submitted proposals for a front-wheel drive rival to the Honda CR-X along with a mid-engined sports car that would have been very similar to the Toyota MR2. The third idea, from Mazda R&D in Irvine California was a front engine, rear wheel drive two seat roadster. It’s obvious which one of these ideas won out in the end, and by 1985 development of the new sports car was underway.
The decision to move forward with a small two seat rear wheel drive roadster was both forward thinking and traditional at the same time. The idea was to bring back the character of classic European roadsters in a modern, reliable package. Simplicity and driver involvement would be key, with Mazda using the Japanese phrase “Jinba ittai” (horse and rider as one) to describe the car’s personality. Everything was designed to be engaging – from the lightweight chassis and double wishbone suspension to the precise feel of the 5-speed manual gearbox.
Throughout development of the car, engineers paid close attention to what made classic roadsters so great and introduced these elements to the project. The interior was sparse and handsome with no wasted space, the exterior styling drew inspiration from the Lotus Elan, and the valve cover on the 1600cc four cylinder brings to mind Alfa Romeo twin cam motors. Even the exhaust note was fine-tuned to have that classic sports car character.
Sold in Japan as the Eunos Roadster, in North America as the Miata, and elsewhere as the Mazda MX-5 the car was an instant hit when it went on sale. The Miata revived the market for the traditional two seat open top sports car, which had been largely dormant at the time. Veteran sports car fans had discovered a modern version of their beloved but temperamental Alfas, Triumphs, and MGs while others were introduced to the fun of open top sports cars for the first time.
The original NA chassis Miata would be sold until 1997, with a facelift halfway through its run that introduced the larger 1.8 liter engine to the lineup. The bump in power helped to balance out the slight increase in weight from stricter safety laws and other mid cycle upgrades included larger brakes and a stronger rear differential. The world had fallen in love with the car, and the MX-5/Miata/Roadster was well on it’s way to becoming the best selling two seat sports car of all time.
The second generation NB Miata came along for the 1999 model year. Given the success of the first generation car, Mazda was careful to keep the original formula intact and the result was car that was more evolutionary than revolutionary. The underpinnings remained largely the same, but the car had been modernized for the 21st century. The body was slightly more curvy, with the flip up headlights of the original replaced with fixed lamps.
While dimensions were nearly the same as the original, the NB also got a brand new interior with modern design and a few more creature comforts than the early cars. Stylish Nardi airbag steering wheels were also offered. The NB also saw the addition of a six-speed manual transmission to the option list.
All in all , the NB was a more refined Miata – but one that retained everything that made the original so great.
In 2001 the NB underwent some minor changes including a more aggressive front end treatment with projector headlamps and a slight power bump with the introduction of variable valve timing to the 1.8 liter motor.
A larger brake package was also introduced here, which required larger diameter 16″ wheels. By this time, several other companies had introduced two seat roadsters of their own, and it’s hard to imagine the existence of cars like the Honda S2000, BMW Z3, and even the Porsche Boxster without the success of the Miata.
Mazda has released many special editions of the Miata over the car’s lifespan with most of them consisting of special colors and interior treatments, but the later part of the NB’s life saw the introduction of two very notable limited run models. One was a fixed roof coupe version of the car released only to the Japanese market in very low numbers.
The other was the high performance turbocharged MazdaSpeed Miata, which answered the long standing call for more power. The MazdaSpeed Miata was also equipped with an upgraded suspension and wide 17″ tires to match its boosted motr. It was a fitting closing point for a platform that dated back to the late ’80s.
In 2005 the new NC Miata was unveiled, marking the first time the car had moved to an all new platform in its 15 year history. The motor of choice was now a 2.0 liter version of Mazda’s MZR four cylinder outputting 170 horsepower.
Compared to the NB, the NC offered a larger, more comfortable interior with all of the safety and convenience features expected from modern cars. Mazda also dropped the “Miata” name in the US market replacing with “MX-5″ while the “Roadster” nameplate continues on in Japan.
While the car had grown in size, weight, and complexity, Mazda took great care to retain the spirit of “Jimba Ittai”. Weight was shaved wherever possible and the driving experience was still key. It was still a featherweight, simplistic machine by 2005 standards.
The NC also marked the introduction of the power retractable hard top model, which was offered alongside the manual soft top and optional removable hardtop that had been available since the beginning.
The NC was refreshed for the 2009 model year with new exterior styling and other small tweaks inside and out.
From a driver’s perspective, the redline was raised by 500 rpm on cars with manual transmissions and a sound enhancer to funnel induction noise was added for a more lively driving experience.
Most recently, the car has received another refresh for 2013 with a front fascia to match Mazda’s new corporate styling direction. A couple tweaks were also done to improve throttle and brake response.
For now though, most talk is about the next generation of the MX-5 which should be arriving sometime within the next year or two. Rumors have said the new car will be much lighter than the current one, and may be powered by some sort of small displacement turbo motor. With all off the attention on the Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ recently, some are saying a hardtop version of the MX-5 may also be introduced. Even more interesting is the fact that Mazda will be partnering up with Alfa Romeo to share the new MX-5 platform for a revival of the Alfa Spider.
I suppose it’s a fitting move for a car that was originally used inspiration from cars like the Spider and the Elan in its successful quest to bring back the open top sports car to the masses.