From timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without. For this installment, we discuss the Mazda MX-5 Miata's iconic past.
If you know me, you know that horsepower's usually what gets me going. And I mean lots of it. Tire-smoking V8s. Twelve-second quarter-miles. These days I'm thinking lustful thoughts about the new 650-hp Corvette Z06. That's where my head's at by default. But occasionally I make exceptions, and the Mazda MX-5 Miata might be the most notable one. We're talking about a tiny Japanese roadster that started out with 116 hp and still doesn’t even have 170. Like everyone who loves sports cars, though, I love the Miata. With rear-wheel drive and the Lord's own manual shifter, it's like an extension of your body on a winding road. There's a new 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata just around the corner, but before we get to that, let's take a quick stroll down memory lane and remember where Mazda's one-of-a-kind ragtop came from.
Code-named "NA" and distinguished by its pop-up headlights, the original Miata (1990-'97) took the world by storm with its proper sports-car handling, Japanese reliability and downright reasonable pricing. Like I said, the base 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine made just 116 hp, and the updated 1.8-liter four-cylinder ('94-'97) only gained about 15 hp, depending on the exact year. But the Miata's painstakingly tuned exhaust system sounded nice and throaty, and that perfect shifter and rear-drive athleticism made it the darling of critics and consumers alike. Plus, the manual folding top couldn't have been easier to operate. Even today, there are still plenty of first-gen Miatas for sale, at bargain prices and with many more years of service to offer.
The "NB" Miata (1999-2005) basically kept the NA's 1.8-liter four, bumping output slightly to 140 horses. Speed still wasn't the Miata's thing. But fixed headlights and swoopier styling gave it a more contemporary look, and the overhauled interior offered additional luxuries, including a Bose stereo. Like the original, the NB Miata is widely available on the pre-owned market at very appealing prices.
But the one I want is the Mazdaspeed Miata, which was sold for 2004-'05 only with a 178-hp turbo four that finally gave the car a proper sense of urgency. Man, what a motor! It's night and day compared to the regular one, and there's hardly any turbo lag, which is amazing given how long ago they designed it. Don't tell Mazda, but the Mazdaspeed Miata is actually a better car than the third-gen model, which was never offered in Mazdaspeed trim.
The current Miata is about to be supplanted by the new 2016 model, but it's had a solid run. Blessed with a new 2.0-liter four making up to 167 hp (you'll want the version introduced in 2009, with its higher redline and sportier performance), the "NC" Miata was the first to offer genuinely respectable acceleration in base form. It was also bigger and heavier, but not by too much, and thankfully it retained the car's traditional handling excellence despite deviating from the script with a different suspension design.
An unconventional offering was the "PRHT" retractable-hardtop version, which added just 70 pounds to the curb weight but still seemed like overkill, in my opinion, for an elemental little roadster. Overall, the NC Miata was a cute and capable update to the Miata line, but if you ask me, it didn't really move the needle, especially compared to the NB Mazdaspeed Miata.
Hopefully, that's where the all-new 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata comes in. We don't know much about its specifications yet, although the word's out that it'll have a more fuel-efficient 2.0-liter four. But we do know what it looks like, and whoo boy, that styling's definitely moving the needle for me. You wouldn't call this new Miata "cute." It's more like a cross between a Honda S2000 and a BMW Z3, and that goes for the sleek, high-quality interior, too. In case it's not clear, that's high praise.
To me, the 2016 Mazda Miata looks like a real, no-apologies sports car; it's the first one I've actually longed for just based on appearances. I also like that it's going to be about 300 pounds lighter, which hopefully means it'll be the quickest base Miata yet. Now, will they finally do another Mazdaspeed Miata after more than a decade? I hope so. But meanwhile, the 2016 Miata looks like a pretty satisfying consolation prize. One thing's for certain: Mazda's best-selling roadster won't stop being a Crucial Car anytime soon.