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Mazda MX-5 Miata Generations: Through The Years

For three decades, the Mazda MX-5 Miata has delighted owners, confounded critics, all the while continuing to earn rave reviews from the motoring media. Here are some of the reasons why.

An American Designed JDM

Despite being a car manufactured in Japan and influenced by then-fading classic British sports cars, the legacy of the Mazda Miata actually began in California. It started with a seed of an idea from Bob Hall; a former Motor Trend magazine editor turned product planner at Mazda. An enthusiast of British sports cars and Japanese culture, he first learned the language by watching Japanese films and by reading manga (graphic novels) with a dictionary at his side. Several trips to Japan further polished his verbal skills.

Mazda MX-5 Miata generations - insidemazda.co.uk
Mazda MX-5 Miata generations - insidemazda.co.uk

Because of his ability to communicate in Japanese, he began a relationship with Kenichi Yamamoto, Mazda’s head of R&D, while visiting Japan as a journalist. Over a few years, Hall pitched his idea for Mazda to construct a modern version of the classic British sports car. When Hall joined Mazda as a product planner, Yamamoto (now Mazda’s president) suggested Hall start work on his sports car concept. The result was the 1990 Mazda Miata.

First Generation Mazda Miata NA (1990-1997)

Mazda MX-5 Miata concept drawing - insidemazda.co.uk
Mazda MX-5 Miata concept drawing - insidemazda.co.uk
  • Hall’s concept would be further developed by US and Japanese designers and engineers, as well as with input from an English design firm. The first concepts were Ferrari-inspired, though the final shape was more reminiscent of the 1962-1975 Lotus Elan.
  • Hall’s original concept was to be constructed out of bits and pieces from the Mazda parts catalog. Instead, much of the NA Miata was original. The four-wheel independent suspension system (a first for Mazda) was unique to the Miata. The only large components shared with other models were a modified M526 five-speed transmission from the Mazda 929 sedan and a 115 horsepower 1.6 L DOHC version of the venerable B-series engine.
  • The light (2160 lb.) Miata was assembled in an unusual manner. While the body itself was of unibody construction, the entire driveline, including engine, transmission, and front and rear suspension, can be removed from under the car, the front and rear connected via a rigid longitudinal brace.
1990 Mazda MX-5 Miata - mazdausa.com

1990 Mazda MX-5 Miata  – mazdausa.com  |  Shop Mazda MX-5 Miata on Carsforsale.com

  • The Mazda Miata was unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show on February 10, 1989, with a sticker price of $14,000. Dealers started selling Miata convertibles in May of that year. Sales for the calendar years of 1989 and 1990 were the highest the Miata would reach to this date, with a combined total of over 65,000 finding new homes in the US alone.
  • There were many special-edition Miata models produced during its 30+ year run. We have space for only a few.
  • In 1991, a run of 3,997 Special Edition trim models were sold, most easily recognized by its BRG (British Racing Green) exterior and tan leather interior. The 1991 Special Edition included several creature-comfort upgrades.
  • A total of 1,500 Limited Edition trimmed Miata convertibles in black only were available in the 1993 model year, which featured a red leather interior, sport suspension, front and rear spoilers, air conditioning, headrest speakers and 14-inch BBS-looking wheels.
  • A refresh of the first-generation MX-5 for the 1994 model year included a more powerful 129 horsepower 1.8 L BP-ZE engine and dual airbags housed in a redesigned dashboard.
  • The body shell was substantially braced to meet new side-impact standards; one element is the brace is mounted transversely between the seatbelt towers inside the car. There was also additional bracing within the front and rear subframes.
  • One of the most highly sought-after NA Miatas is one of the 1,841 1995 R-Package cars. While never officially a special edition, the R-package included an upgraded Torsen limited-slip differential, stiffer springs and sway bars, Bilstein shock absorbers, front air dam, and rear spoiler. It was also not available were power steering, an automatic transmission, or leather seats. Air conditioning was optional.

Second Generation Mazda Miata NB (1999-2005)

2000 Mazda MX-5 Miata - carsforsale.com
2000 Mazda MX-5 Miata - carsforsale.com
  • The redesigned NB Miata was constructed using the same separate driveline and bodywork method as the NA Miata. Many parts of the interior and body were different; most notable are the fixed headlights.
  • The primary reason the NB Miata lost the first-generation’s iconic pop-up headlights is as they no longer passed pedestrian safety regulations. They were replaced by fixed units that saved over 12 lbs.
  • The NB grew slightly in width compared to the earlier model and was somewhat more aerodynamic than the original, with a drag coefficient of Cd=0.36. Other improvements included a glass rear window on the convertible with a retractable wind deflector behind the seats.
  • The most significant changes were under the hood. The NB Miata was powered by the larger 1.8 L DOHC BP-4W engine with several improvements, including a better flowing cylinder head, solid rather than hydraulic lifters, and an improved ignition system. A turbocharged 178 horsepower Mazdaspeed edition was offered in 2004 and 2005.
2005 Mazda MazdaSpeed MX-5 - mazdausa.com

2005 Mazda MazdaSpeed MX-5 – mazdausa.com  |  Shop MazdaSpeed MX-5 on Carsforsale.com

Author’s Note: Is it Miata or MX-5?

While it’s always been sold in the US as the MX-5 Miata, the Miata name was used by Mazda primarily for NA and NB models. With the third generation NC, Mazda switched over to using the MX-5 name more prominently in its marketing for reasons unstated but easily imaginable. We’ll follow that convention and will refer to MX-5 for NC through NF models.

Third Generation Mazda MX-5 NC (2006-2015)

2014 Mazda MX-5 Miata - mazdausa.com
2014 Mazda MX-5 Miata - mazdausa.com
  • Sales weren’t as strong as Mazda had hoped for the NB Miata, so the third generation NC required more significant changes than between the NA and NB. Moray Callum, the brother of famed Aston Martin and Jaguar designer Ian Callum, was hired to design the new Miata’s exterior. Cullum returned the NC shape closer to the original, beloved NA with its more rounded shape, more pronounced fender wells and hood bulge.
  • As with previous generations of the MX-5 Miata, the NC chassis is comprised of front and rear subframe assemblies with the transmission now connected to the differential casing via a new Z-shaped aluminum power plant frame (PPF).
  • Larger in every dimension, the NC MX-5 was powered by a more modern MZR 2.0 L DOHC four-cylinder engine that produced 170 horsepower, almost as much as the NB’s turbocharged engine.
  • Added for the first time with NC models was the new MX-5 Miata Power Retractable Hard Top, which gave the sports car an additional level of protection and class (typically reserved for more expensive convertibles, like the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes SLK).
  • In 2007, an MS-R (Motor Sport-Racing) package was offered for those desiring to compete in their cars. The package added a limited-slip differential, front shock tower brace, underbody chassis bracing, 17″ alloy wheels, Koni shock absorbers, racing-specific front and rear sway bars, higher-rate springs to provide a lower ride height and a rear lip spoiler.

Fourth Generation Mazda MX-5 ND (2016-Present)

2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF - mazdausa.com

2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF  – mazdausa.com  |  Shop new Mazda MX-5 Miata RF on Carsforsale.com

  • After the lukewarm reception to the ND MX-5, Mazda pulled out all the stops to deliver a car enthusiasts would wholeheartedly embrace. The new ND Miata recaptured the motoring spirit of the original NA as it was both edgier and more sophisticated in its design than past versions.
  • The fourth-generation MX-5 is four inches shorter and 220 lbs. lighter than its predecessor, putting the vehicle’s curb weight near that of the original NA.
  • The ND was initially powered by a 2.0 L direct injection, naturally aspirated engine rated at 155 horsepower; for 2019 onward, the engine has been upgraded to 181 horsepower with a redline raised to 7,500 rpm.
  • The 2019-2020 ND Miata is the quickest MX-5 yet, as it’s able to accelerate to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds.
  • Regardless of engine, ND MX-5 models are available with either a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed automatic.
  • On March 24, 2016, the MX-5 was awarded World Car of the Year (WCOTY) and the World Car Design of the Year at the New York Auto Show and received similar accolades worldwide.
  • Later in 2016, Miata announced a new MX-5 RF (Retractable Fastback) model with a power-retractable roof panel that neatly stowed underneath the rear pillars.
2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata 30th Anniversary Edition - mazdausa.com
2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata 30th Anniversary Edition - mazdausa.com
  • To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the MX-5, Mazda released a limited-edition ND. The MX-5 Miata 30th Anniversary Edition debuted at the 2019 Chicago Auto Show and was available only in Racing Orange with unique forged wheels and big brakes.
  • In 2018, Mazda USA began to offer restoration parts for early Miata models. There are currently over 1,100 components in stock and available for Miata owners.
2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata - mazdausa.com

2020 Mazda MX-5 Miata  – mazdausa.com  |  Shop new Mazda MX-5 Miata on Carsforsale.com

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in April 2016 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

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Art Michalik

Art Michalik brings a career full of experience in the automotive industry to his writing. He has guided marketing at two major tire companies, represented some of the biggest names in the automotive aftermarket at an ad agency, built the enthusiast social media presence at a major online retailer and even managed one of the most famous racing schools in the world.

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