With Mazda’s pokey little MX-5 Miata sports car celebrating its 25th birthday this year and the new, fourth-generation car’s arrival just around the corner (tomorrow!), we called a staff meeting to determine how best to celebrate. Cross-country trip? Already done (thanks, Road & Track). Take one racing? Also not exactly a new concept for the easy-to-race Miata, plus—shockingly—no one in the office has a race-prepped Mazda. Ultimately, we figured that the most appropriate course of action involved simply driving the thing.
As it turns out, finding examples of each generation of Miata to drive isn’t terribly difficult. Survey the staff at any car magazine, and chances are you’ll find numerous Miata owners. There’s a good reason for this—the MX-5 is lightweight, agile, and doesn’t need to be driven fast to reach its limits. These traits make it not only an ideal palette-cleanser for folks who review cars for a living, but also a ball of fun. Further helping matters is the Miata’s affordability; the current-generation model is priced in the $25,000-to-$30,000 range, and used examples of the first- and second-generation cars can be had for less than $5K. We think more people should drive Miatas, and although this analysis won’t go too in-depth with each model—that’s what our original tests sprinkled throughout this report are for—perhaps it will kick-start your search. And besides, the best way to pick which Miata to buy is to go out and drive one!
First Generation/NA, 1990–1997
This is the car that started it all, the rear-drive sensation that dragged the small roadster’s image out of the primordial, short-circuiting, oil-percolating British Leyland muck. The example you see here belongs to this author, and it’s a 73,000-mile cream puff previously owned by an elderly couple who bought it new in 1995. Production of the so-called “NA” Miata began in calendar year 1989, and along the way Mazda implemented just two major changes, both for the 1994 model year: a new dashboard to accommodate a passenger-side airbag and the fitment of a larger 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine in place of the original’s 1.6-liter.
Being a ’95, this Miata has the 1.8-liter; as God intended, it is mated to a five-speed manual. Having driven a 1.6-liter Miata, I can say the only real difference between it and the 1.8 is that it packs less torque but feels more rev-friendly. In both cars, the stick notches into gear precisely, the motion so short that shifting requires less than half a wrist flick. The body is surprisingly stiff for a nearly 20-year-old open-top car, largely thanks to the underbody bracing Mazda added for ’94. The ride is never punishing, just very, very firm. The steering? With power assist, it’s a revelation; without it, you’re fondling the most talkative rim outside of a Lotus. If you’re looking for an affordable near-classic car—next year, first-year Miatas qualify for historical license plates here in Michigan—with everyday drivability, a wonderful engine note, and great handling, look no further. Plus, pop-up headlights are just the coolest.
NA MX-5 Miata Reviews, Tests, and Comparos:
Instrumented Test: 1990 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Instrumented Test: 1994 Mazda Miata
Instrumented Test: 1994 Mazda Miata Specials
Second Generation/NB, 1999–2005
Being nearly a decade newer than the NA Miata, the NB feels far more substantial, even though the two are closely related underneath. Visually, Mazda painted the NB with a less-accurate brush, imbuing the car with a bubbly, chubby-flubber look that does an excellent job of hiding the fact that the NB is no larger than the NA. After skipping the 1998 model year, the NB MX-5 was introduced for ’99 and stayed on sale through 2005. The red 1999 example seen here belongs to C/D’s online production manager and news guy, Nicholas Wallace. Like most Miatas, this one has been fettled with: It sits on a lowered suspension and wears a sweet set of gold wheels with sticky Hankook RS-3 rubber. The stock muffler’s been replaced with a louder one, too.
Even with its stiffened springs and stunted suspension travel, this NB traverses bumps and expansion joints with less crash and harshness than the NA. The interior is more modern, with a digital trip computer and more concessions to occupants’ comfort. Mazda fitted a three-spoke Nardi steering wheel, which is a far better piece to grip than the NA’s four-spoke tiller. Early NBs shared their 1.8-liter four-cylinder with the NA, albeit with a different head making more power; later, Mazda added variable valve timing to the mix. The five-speed shifter in our ’99 example is just as slick as the NA’s (a six-speed was eventually offered, too), and the steering is just as communicative. By its second generation, the Miata starts to feel like it has actual power—and in turbocharged Mazdaspeed form, it makes quite a lot of actual power—making this an ideal starting point for a cheap track car or an easily enjoyed weekend toy.
NB MX-5 Miata Reviews, Tests, and Comparos:
Instrumented Test: 1999 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Instrumented Test: Mazda MX-5 Miata 10th-Anniversary Edition
Instrumented Test: 2001 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Instrumented Test: 2004 Mazdaspeed MX-5 Miata
Comparison Test: Mazdaspeed MX-5 Miata vs. Caterham Seven Superlight R, Factory Five Racing Roadster, Honda S200, Lotus Elise
Third Generation/NC, 2006–Present
Of the three existing Miata iterations, the current-generation “NC” model sits largely alone, sharing nothing with the NA and the NB. This is not, of course, to say it is lesser than; on the contrary, it wonderfully blends the essence of the first two Miatas into a livable modern package. Dimensionally, the car is only marginally bigger, but there’s interior room to spare and a trunk that’s even more spacious. A full complement of modern safety equipment eases the subconscious dread that wayward crossovers inflict on NA and NB drivers, and Mazda even offers a power-folding hardtop that’s barely heavier than the standard cloth top. All in all, this is the Miata for those who need a roadster and a daily driver—but want both in the same package.
Our NC was provided by Mazda and is a 2014 Grand Touring model with the power-folding hardtop and a six-speed manual transmission. Driven back-to-back with either the NA or the NB, it’s immediately apparent why Mazda’s ride-and-handling tuners are considered some of the best in the business: The current Miata feels supple over Michigan’s knackered pavement but is beautifully neutral and flat through corners. With 167 horsepower on tap from its 2.0-liter engine, the NC can actually be drifted with relative ease, although the charming exhaust blat of the NA and NB cars is absent here. While all of the NCs are daily drivable, we’d grab one of the last power-hardtop Miata Club models; these get a cool two-tone paint job that mixes a black roof with your choice of a silver, black, or red body, as well as a sport suspension and black wheels.
NC MX-5 Miata Reviews, Tests, and Comparos:
Instrumented Test: 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Comparison Test: 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata vs. Pontiac Solstice
Instrumented Test: 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata Sport Automatic
Instrumented Test: 2007 Mazda MX-5 Power Retractable Hardtop Grand Touring