No other sports car of the last 25 years has had the same cultural impact as the Mazda Miata. After single-handedly transforming the image of the roadster from oil-leaking, unreliable weekend car to rock-solid dependable daily driver, it sparked a major small sports car revival in the 1990s. Without the Miata, it seems a lot less certain that we would’ve had the BMW Z3, Z4, Porsche Boxster, and Mercedes-Benz CLK either.
Heavy on handling and light on power, the Miata has come to define that old cliché that it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow. But from time to time, Mazda has tried giving its small star a little more go, and the results have been interesting. The car has evolved through four iterations in its 25-year lifespan, each one notably different from the last. But while the car has evolved with the times, it has also remained faithful to the idea of being a driver’s car first and foremost.
Because of its popularity and affordability, the Miata has become the entry-level sports car for an entire generation of drivers. As a result, track days around the world are dominated by the little cars. While they can be easily modified, and benefit from a thriving tuning community, Mazda has also tried its hand at giving its roadster a little extra go from time to time. Here’s a look at 8 noteworthy times that Mazda brought some extra speed to its near-perfect sports car.
1. 1991 MX-5 ‘Special Edition’
By its second year in production, the Miata was a runaway success for Mazda. Not wanting to interfere with a good thing, Mazda introduced the first “Special Edition” Miata. While the standard cars were only available in red, white, and blue, all 4,000 SE cars wore a deep shade of British Racing Green. In addition to the paint, the SE came loaded with a tan leather interior, CD player, air conditioning, and wooden shift knob and hand brake by Nardi, the Italian builder of of classic wood-rimmed steering wheels (unfortunately, the Nardi wheel pictured above wasn’t available in U.S.-spec cars). The 1.6 liter inline-four remained unchanged, but the SEs had the limited-slip differential to help keep the Miata’s 116 horses going evenly to both rear wheels.
2. 1994-1997 MX-5 ‘R Limited’
By 1994, the Miata’s engine had grown from 1.6 to 1.8 liters, and Mazda was ready to really tinker with its roadster’s winning formula. The result was the “R Limited,” which was the first truly hot Miata, and came from the factory ready to race. Offered as a $1,500 option for just four years, R Limited cars were about 50 pounds lighter than the base model roadster, had a stiff racing suspension and lightweight BBS wheels, all making the car’s superlative handling even more responsive. To show that it was serious, Mazda didn’t offer creature comforts like power steering, leather seats, or an automatic transmission on the R cars. Despite a serious performance boost, Mazda found few takers for the R cars, selling only 1,841 of its track day specials.
3. 1996 Miata M Coupe
If the roadster for the masses ever had a forbidden fruit, it was the M Coupe. Unveiled at the 1996 New York Auto Show, the hardtop Miata had the same 133 horsepower 1.8 liter inline-four as the production car did, but its carbon fiber exhaust and fiberglass roof helped keep weight down, and helped the car sprint from zero to 60 in around nine seconds. Unfortunately, the M coupe wasn’t to be. Mazda briefly put a second-generation coupe into production in 2002 (pictured above), but it was a Japanese market exclusive.
4. 1997 MX-5 STO
Like the R Limited cars, the STO, or “Special Touring Option” was a package designed to reduce what purists would call “unnecessary” options and return the aging roadster to its roots. Options like cruise control, a hard top, limited slip differential, and premium stereo were unavailable. They were replaced by leather seats, alloy wheels, and a spoiler. Offering special editions like the STO were enough to keep the Miata interesting before its major redesign for 1999.
5. 2003 Club Sport
For the second generation NB Miata, the closest thing to the R Limited was the 2003 Club Sport, an ultra-limited track day special built for the American market. After the Sports Car Club of American requested Mazda build a true track car, the company responded with 50 cars (25 convertibles and 25 hard tops) that shed weight by deleting the stereo, air conditioning, and power steering. A special track-focused suspension was added, and Mazda even offered a $2,000 cash incentive to move the little roadsters, but potential buyers needed to be vetted and approved by the company’s Mazdaspeed division, the SCCA, and the Miata owner’s club. The competition Miatas have developed quite a reputation that revived the Club name a decade later for its performance-focused trim level.
6. 2004-2005 Mazdaspeed
After years of enthusiasts tinkering with the Miata’s engine, Mazda briefly joined the fray with its two-year-only Mazdaspeed Miata. With a turbo and intercooler, power was increased to 178 horsepower, making this Miata fast right out of the gate. Other improvements included an upgraded suspension, heavy duty clutch and driveshafts, and an aero kit. Unfortunately, when the NC Miata was introduced for 2006, the go-fast Mazdaspeed treatment wasn’t carried over.
7. 2013-15 Club Edition
After an impressive nine model-year run, the third-generation Miata’s top performer is the Club Edition. With its 167 horsepower inline-four mated to a six-speed manual transmission, the Club has firmer suspension, and a limited slip differential to keep power going to its rear wheels. Even after 25 years, the Club keeps drivers as connected to the road as they ever have been before.
8. 2016 Club Edition
While early reviews of the all-new Miata have been overwhelmingly positive, the return of the Club Sport should be icing on the cake. With a slight aero kit, beefed up suspension, bigger brakes and BBS wheels, and a return to the original size of the NA cars, the 2016 Club is like a greatest hits package for the Miata. After 25 years and nearly a million cars sold, the next-generation car should be more than enough to keep the Miata as the go-to sports car for the people. We just hope that Mazda decides to keep building interesting go-fast versions too.
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