The basic concept of the Mazda MX-5 Miata sounds simple. Make a lightweight, two-seat convertible sports car that is fun to drive, and make it affordable to a wide segment of the population. British cars like Lotus Elan and MGB delivered on this idea throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Fiat also did it with the original 124 Spider that remained in production until 1985. So no one needed to reinvent the wheel.
However, by the late 1980s, rear-wheel drive convertibles were rarities on the market. In fact, the period was one of the darkest in auto history when it came to fun-to-drive cars. Mazda changed the situation — permanently — when it introduced Miata in 1989. It had the attractive design and driving characteristics that people expected from the classic roadsters, but it delivered something revolutionary for the segment: reliability. The result was a smash hit, and just 11 years after its release, Miata became the best-selling two-seat convertible sports car of all time.
Mazda never got complacent with MX-5. In 2017, the automaker released a retractable fastback (RF) model that gives open-air drivers another reason to get on board with the million and counting who have already bought one. Let’s take a walk through the history of Mazda Miata with 25 snapshots and details on the evolution of a modern classic.
1. Miata designs
The Mazda company philosophy revolves around “Jinba Ittai,” which translates roughly as the sense of harmony between horse and rider. Engineers and designers labored to deliver a car that would feel like an extension of the driver’s body, and Miata was the closest they came to perfection. Of course, they also wanted the new MX-5 to turn heads and prompt admiration from everyone who saw one at the street. Bob Hall, an auto journalist, came up with the Miata concept in the 1970s. By the early 1980s, Hall was working for Mazda and the concept got the green light for development.
2. MX-5 concept debuts in Chicago
It is difficult to get a better reception than Mazda received for the MX-5 concept in 1989. Members of the press were awestruck at that year’s Chicago Auto Show, and the public heartily agreed with them. Along with the base model, Mazda wowed the crowd with the yellow Miata Club Sport with eight-spoke alloy wheels (seen on the right in the photo). Featuring an aerodynamically superior alternative to the standard headlights, this Miata was a nod to legions who would go on to race the roadster in the future.
3. First generation Miata
Miata had a quick turnaround from concept to production car, and the debut model appeared in U.S. dealerships in May 1989. Released as a 1990 model, the first-generation MX-5 came with a standard 1.6-liter, 116 horsepower four-cylinder engine, and a top speed of 116 miles per hour. It weighed just over 2,100 pounds and was offered only with a five-speed manual transmission. Base MSRP was $13,800. Buyers could choose from three colors: classic red, crystal white, and mariner blue.
4. Japanese models
Oddly enough, the Miata reached U.S. customers first, leaving Japanese enthusiasts waiting a few months longer. Color combinations and specs were mostly the same, though there was a difference in badging: MX-5 bore the name Eunos Roadster in Japan. Automatic transmissions would come later in the first-gen Miata (also known as “NA”), but early reviewers gushed over the original’s manual gearbox. If you’re driving a Miata, nearly everyone agrees you should be driving it stick.
5. More colors and special editions
Miata drivers started getting more color choices by 1991, when a limited edition model came in British racing green with a tan interior and top. For 1992, yellow made it to production models for the first time. Black made the cut for yet another special edition in 1993. After that, Mazda decided to upgrade the Miata’s powerplant, with a new engine arriving for 1994.
6. More power for 1994
Beginning with the 1994 model year, Mazda equipped the Miata with a standard 1.8-liter engine. This upgrade boosted output to 128 horsepower and 110 pound-feet of torque. More special versions arrived in 1994, when the first M Edition rolled off the production line. It was followed in 1995 by an M Edition in merlot mica, which caught the sun just right on the California coast at dusk and retailed at $23,530. Adjusted for inflation, that was the equivalent of $37,611 in 2017.
7. Second generation lands in 1998
For the second generation introduced in 1998, the most obvious change was in the headlights, which no longer emerged from the hood. That cleared up pedestrian safety issues and let engineers go to work on improving performance. Miata “NB,” which arrived for the 1999 model year, was only slightly wider than the first model though it shared the same wheelbase. Aerodynamics were improved, and it now pumped out 140 horsepower.
8. Cosmetic changes for 2001
For 1999, Mazda introduced an optional six-speed manual transmission, which got Miata’s time to 60 miles per hour down to about 7.5 seconds. By 2001, the automaker was ready to give Miata a new look as well. A revamped fascia and upgraded air intake allowed for a slight boost in horsepower (to 142). Meanwhile, new color options became available.
9. British racing green returns for 2001
The British racing green that first graced a ’91 special edition returned for another go in 2001. In addition to standard tan leather interior, these models got a Nardi wood shifter knob with matching steering wheel, a CD player, cruise control, and air conditioning which, yes, was an upgrade even in 2001. Special edition buyers also got the six-speed manual transmission.
10. Blazing yellow for 2002
A year after British racing green made its comeback, Mazda delivered another special edition for 2002, this time in “blazing yellow mica” with black leather interior. For the first time, a Miata special edition came in a second color option: titanium gray with brown interior. Both emerged where MX-5 made its start — at the Chicago Auto Show.
11. MazdaSpeed MX-5
For 2004, Mazda tried something completely different and released a turbocharged Miata, the only of its kind to emerge from the factory. Dubbed MazdaSpeed MX-5, this model peaked at 178 horsepower and 166 pound-feet of torque. Along with the power boost, it came with Bilstein shocks, a rear spoiler, 17-inch wheels, wider tires, and upgraded springs. Besides being one of the fastest Mazdas ever sold in America, the turbocharged MX-5 has a reputation as being the most fun Miata to drive.
12. Third generation Miata
For the third generation, Mazda decided to start from scratch. The model known as Miata “NC” arrived in 2005 for the ’06 model year. Once again, width increased with the new generation, but this time it also grew in length, weight, and power. Third-gen Miata peaked at 170 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque. Mazda offered five trim levels as well as an automatic transmission and the choice between a five- or six-speed manual gearbox. Weight rose beyond 2,400 pounds for Miata’s third act.
13. Retractable hardtop
The most notable cosmetic change for third-gen Miatas was the availability of a retractable hardtop. Arriving in 2007, this version gave consumers protection from the elements and a new look with less than 100 pounds added to the total weight. Opting for the hardtop meant an additional $2,915 for the lower trim (MX-5 Sport) and $1,860 extra for pricier models. That pushed the once-humble Miata to a price point near $30,000, but it never stopped selling.
14. Major changes for 2009
Mazda continued tweaking its halo car through the last decade, with major changes coming in 2009. This MX-5 had new lights both front and back, a revised grille, and multiple engine upgrades. Using the six-speed manual, Car and Driver needed only 6.9 seconds to hit 60 miles per hour in this MX-5 — over two seconds faster than the original model. Improvements were coming quicker than anyone could reasonably expect.
15. Superlight concept
While Miata had increased in power and weight over the years, Mazda took it back to basics with the Superlight concept at the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show. Weighing in at 2,000 pounds, this 20th anniversary edition forgot the door handles, windshield, side windows, and other tedious tidbits regulators demand. Though there was no intention to build it, MX-5 fans everywhere rejoiced at the sight of the Superlight, and engineers plotted ways to put the production car on a diet.
16. Matte black special edition
By 2010, Miata was celebrating its 20th anniversary in France and other markets, so Mazda decided to celebrate. That’s how the “black and matte” special edition arrived in Paris for a showing at the Salon du Cabriolet, Coupe, et du SUV in 2010. Inside, this Miata was adorned with a lavish assortment of jewels to contrast the flat-black paint job. Outside, the retractable hardtop looked great with MX-5’s new finish.
17. High performance by BBR
In 2013, Brodie Brittain Racing took the Miata and pushed it to 268 horsepower and 227 pound-feet of toque with a custom turbocharged engine. This powerplant made the GT270 the quickest MX-5 ever made, capable of hitting 60 miles per hour in 4.9 seconds. Only 100 were made for the right-drive market, and they were electronically limited to a top speed of 150 miles per hour.
18. Mazda MX-5 GT
For the 2012 Goodwood Festival of Speed, Mazda upped the ante with this MX-5 GT concept. British tuner Jota Sport did the honors for this model, which was produced to gauge the reaction of the public. Would the public want a 205 horsepower Miata? People certainly did, but only Brits got a crack at it. When it went to production, GT ran for about $48,000.
19. 2013 Miata Club
The special editions kept coming at the end of the third generation, culminating in the 2013 MX-5 Miata Club. This model featured the six-speed manual transmission, Bilstein dampers, and upgraded splitters to make each of the 167 horses count. Miata had, at that point, been a club racing favorite for decades, so this edition had a built-in audience. For an amusing take on the macho posturing a Miata driver might encounter on a weekend in Texas, check out Murilee Martin’s review of the ’13 Club model.
20. Miata 25th anniversary edition
To celebrate 25 years of Miata, Mazda unveiled a special anniversary edition, of which 100 went to U.S. customers. It came in the automaker’s stunning soul red with a retractable hard top in black. We got a peek at this beauty at the 2014 New York Auto Show, but that was probably the last time we’ll see one. When Mazda opened up pre-orders online, it sold out within 10 minutes. Bilstein shocks and many other custom details made it a true collector’s item.
21. Fourth generation Miata
For the fourth generation of Miata (“ND”), Mazda had a quarter century-long legacy to top. The automaker answered by producing a car that was almost as light as the original while surpassing every previous generation model in performance and drivability. With just 155 horsepower, this Miata could outrun the potent turbo MX-5 model to 60 (6.0 seconds). Style was not left behind either, though ND’s best look comes in profile. This all-new model won both World Car Design of the Year and World Car of the Year in 2016 — the first time that ever happened.
22. SEMA concepts
In 2015, Mazda brought two models of the fourth-gen Miata to SEMA: MX-5 Speedster and MX-5 Spyder. The Speedster had an old-school feel in its style and umbrella-style top. Meanwhile, Spyder recalled the Superlight concept of 2009 with its bare-bones approach to performance (though this one came with door handles). Spyder weighed in at 250 pounds less than a stock gen-four Miata.
23. The 2017 Retractable Fastback (RF)
For 2017, Mazda introduced the retractable fastback (RF) Miata. Unlike the retractable hardtop of 2008, RF keeps the designer’s gorgeous roof bridge in place, allowing MX-5 to project elegance with top up or down. Like the previous hardtop model, RF only adds a little over 100 pounds to the car’s weight. Engine specs of the fourth-generation Miata (2.0 liters, 155 horses) remain in place. It starts at $31,555 with six-speed manual transmission in Club trim. This gorgeous machine gray metallic paint job only comes on RF models.
24. RF in action
Anyone who has driven the fourth-generation MX-5 will find the same thrills behind the wheel of the RF. In our March 2017 test of this edition, we mostly noticed the head-turning power of the machine gray GT ($33,795 before adding packages). To our eyes, no Miata ever struck such a gorgeous profile. Meanwhile, operating the roof is as easy as looking at RF. Just push a button while in the driver’s seat and watch it drop. The process lasts about 13 seconds and can be done at speeds up to 6 miles per hour.
25. Three decades of Miata
If it seems like Miata has gradually gone upscale in nearly three decades since its launch, it’s more than a feeling. According to the automaker’s statistics, the average Mazda buyer’s income jumped 16% between 2011 and 2016, and now sits over $90,000. Yet even with these numbers in mind, Miatas have remained a great deal. The first model, which went for $13,800, would cost $27,110 in 2017 dollars. For all its mechanical improvements and interior refinement, the base 2016 model starts at just $24,915.
Whether you go for a stripped down MX-5 Sport (the base ’16) or the elegant ’17 RF Grand Tourer, it will be money well spent. Actually, journalists and enthusiasts have been saying the same thing for decades. If any car has offered a better value for drivers than Miata has since 1989, we don’t know its name.
Learn more about the best and worst cars of the generation on Autos Cheat Sheet.