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Mazda reaches milestone with millionth Miata

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Mazda’s millionth MX-5 Miata, a Soul Red Club edition. Photos courtesy Mazda.

Whodathunk in the late Eighties that we were ready for a small, lightweight sports car of modest power – and impeccable road manners – when the Miata was introduced in the spring of 1989? Well, Mazda thunk it and here we are, some 27 years later, and on Friday, April 22, the company produced their one millionth example of the now-legendary roadster.

Through four generations-the latest debuting for 2016 to almost universally glowing reviews, the Miata has been the bright, shining light announcing that not only is the affordable sports car alive and well, it’s downright fantastic! Oh, and as reliable as an atomic watch. Officially known as the MX-5—the Miata moniker lives on only in North America these days—the little roadster retains its lightweight, sharp-handling ethos.

Mazda Miatas

All four generations of the MX-5 Miata, showing the car’s evolution in size.

You’re probably reading this page because you’re a fan of old cars. Obviously, we are, too. But we’re also fans of cars that are interesting and fun to drive, that involve the person behind the wheel, the sort of cars that make you always want to take the long, twisty, curving hilly road home. The Miata has always managed to be interesting behind the wheel, though engaging, rewarding and just plain fun are other words that come to mind. It’s nigh on impossible to drive a Miata of any generation without a grin appearing on one’s face.

We’ll try to keep the story of the Miata’s gestation and birth short, but the car’s mere existence -and success – in the modern automotive world remains unique. It starts with a fan of European and Japanese sports cars who wanted the best of both worlds.

Mazda NA Miata

The first generation MX-5, or NA in Miata-speak.

In the mid-Seventies, Bob Hall had a gig at a major U.S. automotive enthusiast publication. He also had a history of enjoying sports cars as his father had owned several European ones and Bob himself had a few hot Japanese cars at a time when imports were viewed as little more than transportation appliances. Bob even did the JDM treatment to his cars decades before that was even a thing.

During an interview with Kenichi Yamamoto, the Mazda engineer and executive responsible for perfecting (more or less) and bringing the rotary engine to market, Hall had the tables turned on him when Yamamoto asked Hall what sort of Mazda he would build. Hall enthusiastically responded by essentially describing the typical two-seat British roadster, which by then was hopelessly anachronistic and in need of a major update at that point. We all know what happened to the inexpensive British roadster by the end of the Seventies. But Hall’s response stuck with Yamamoto and when the latter became head of Mazda’s R&D, he hired Hall as a product planner at the company’s North American headquarters in California.

Mazda NA Miatas

Initially, the MX-5 Miata came in Mariner Blue, Crystal White or Classic Red only.

Yamamoto became Mazda president not long after and with his support, Hall helped develop the concept that became the MX-5 Miata. Mazda did internal studies based on varying concepts, essentially creating a competition between three teams that included a front-drive-based car (probably not too much different structurally than the Mazda-based, Australian-built Mercury Capri roadster from the early Nineties) and a mid-engined car, along with the one championed by Hall’s group with a front engine and rear-wheel drive. When the Mazda brass examined the three concepts, Hall’s concept got the greenlight. Final approval came early in 1986.

Mazda handed the project to Toshihiko Hirai, a long-time engineer with the company. Hirai was steadfast about keeping the project simple. Much smaller than most of their Japanese competition, Mazda knew they would have to keep the Miata on a relatively long lifecycle (the first generation, the NA, was on the market for eight model years, from 1990 through 1997), so the goal was to keep the design simple and timeless as well. Though various designers have been given credit for the Miata’s shape, which has indeed proven timeless, Mark Jordan, son of GM great Chuck Jordan, gets credit for the original’s Lotus Elan-like friendly face.

Mazda NB Miata

The MX-5 Miata’s second generation added a variety of colors and a six-speed manual transmission to the list of options.

While one group of engineers began developing a new 1.6-liter DOHC version of Mazda’s B engine with some go-fast bits like a lightened crankshaft and finned aluminum oil pan, others worked on the suspension and underpinnings that would define its driving dynamics. Though engineers first experimented with the RX-7’s solid axle, they ultimately developed a simple four-wheel independent suspension with A-arms and coil springs at all four corners and anti-roll bars at both ends. Disc brakes all around were part of the package and the decision to place the majority of the engine behind the front wheels also helped with handling and balance. A five-speed transmission with unique ratios for the Miata was standard, though a four-speed automatic was optional.

Other nods to simplicity in the original MX-5 included a convertible top that could be raised or lowered with one hand while still sitting in the seat. Even the optional hardtop took moments to install and remove, though it was best accomplished with two sets of hands. And weight-wise, at just a hair over 2,200 pounds when loaded with fuel and fun, it was truly the lightweight that Hall had envisioned years previous.

Mazda NA NB NC Miata

NA, NB (a Mazdaspeed MX-5, to be precise) and NC models at the car’s 25th anniversary celebration.

Mazda introduced the Miata at the Chicago Auto Show in the winter of 1989, promising to deliver it for under $14,000. When it began delivering cars in the late spring of 1989 with a base prices of just $13,800, customers and the press went nuts over it. Car and Driver’s article for their first road test included the following: “The return of the honest sports car…Perfect, that’s what the new Miata is…I’m buying one.” And not only did otherwise jaded automotive journalists by the car, but so did a ton of other people.

Enthusiasts simply couldn’t get enough of the lithe, lightweight car with the zingy engine, quick-shifting transmission, burbling exhaust and super communicative steering and road-friendly suspension. That first year, Mazda only offered the Miata in red, white or blue, but other colors followed. Special editions, of course, came later.

And so did updates. Mid-cycle that first-generation Miata, which we now call by Mazda’s internal designation, the NA, saw its 116-hp/100-lb.ft. 1.6-liter engine supplanted with a 1.8-liter in 1994, with power and torque both upped 10 percent. The second-gen car, the NB, debuted for 1999, at a base price of $20,150. Gone was the friendly face and popup headlamps, but power and torque got an additional bump, which helped offset an approximate 170-pound weight gain, and in 2001, a six-speed manual transmission became available in higher-trim models. A turbocharged Mazdapseed version making 180 hp and sporting a six-speed transmission was sold in limited quantities for 2004 and 2005.

Mazda NC Miata

The third generation car, in Club trim.

Mazda began delivering a third-generation Miata, the NC, in 2006, but with the Miata name initially missing in favor of abbreviating the car’s moniker to MX-5. Although Mazda didn’t call it Miata, just about everybody else did, so the Miata name returned in short order. With a base MSRP starting at $24,995, the car still offered great value in the marketplace and continued to sell well. However, weight was creeping up to a few pounds just below the 2,500 mark. Power from an all-new 2.0-liter engine was rated at 170 hp, nearly as much as the turbocharged engine in the short-lived Mazdaspeed NB version. Though a five-speed manual transmission was standard in base models, the six-speed remained available for mid-level and higher models. A model with a power-operated retractable hardtop was introduced not long after the softtop model debuted.

Mazda ND Miata

2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata, with an NA in the background.

And, of course, that most recent car, the ND, started hitting our shores in the second half of last year. Priced starting just over $25,000, which puts it squarely in the same price bracket as the 1990 model adjusted for inflation, the current car has a six-speed transmission standard and, more importantly a significant weight and size reduction from the NC. With a size on par with that of the original and tipping the scales at just over 2,300 pounds, it manages to more than make do with its 2.0-liter engine now making “just” 155 hp, turning in 0-60 MPH times that would have shamed some muscle cars and even the turbocharged NB Miata. Like the original 1990 Miata, the press and sports cars aficionados have been singing its praises.

Which brings us back to that original car. While Mazda has indeed produced its millionth Miata, collectors have already turned their attention to the first-gen cars. With some 400,000 or so produced for worldwide consumption, just over half, or 215,000, came to the United States for the 1990 through 1997 model years. With the simple Miata having proved so ruggedly reliable, many of those cars are still on the road, parts (OEM and aftermarket) are abundant and servicing doesn’t require learning any new art form, voodoo or any other spectacularly arcane skillset that a shadetree mechanic can’t handle.

Mazda Miata RF

The latest Miata is the RF, or Retractable Fastback.

People who have driven the cars can speak to their performance (see below), which remains fun. With fuel injection, ABS, disc brakes and air bags, the car has plenty of safety features. And, damn, if it doesn’t look as charming as hell. Those factors, plus the continuous production of the car, have begun sending collectors in search of the best examples in recent years. Though the first-gen NA cars were just used cars for many years, today the best examples are being scooped up by collectors. Take a look at Hagerty’s value chart here, but be warned: If you want to get in on the action, you had better start looking for that early Miata now, as you’re already not the first in line.

The Driving Experience

I had the opportunity to put roughly 1,000 miles on one of the first production Miatas. In the summer of 1989, Car and Driver magazine received a very early production-line car as part of a year-long test of the new Miata. The brain trust their rightly suspected that the car was going to be a huge hit. As luck would have it, I worked as an intern at their Ann Arbor, Michigan, editorial offices that summer.

As an intern, I was often pressed into the gopher role, as in “gofer this” and “gofer that.” We were given leeway with using the long-term test cars to take care of those errands. As a 20-year-old college student, I can tell you it was absolutely the best perk in a job that paid exactly zero dollars and cents, though I did get college credit. The Miata was one of the go-to favorites, though I will admit the Plymouth Laser turbo (Mitsubishi Eclipse with Plymouth badging) and its legit 140 MPH capabilities offered a whole other form of intern exploits on the road.

25 years of Mazda MX5

Mazda North America’s collection at the car’s 25th anniversary celebration.

The Miata was a revelation. It was comfortable, yet supportive. It’s ride was firm, yet not punishing. Its rev-happy 1.6-liter twin-cam engine made absolutely delicious sounds as you worked up through the rev range. While its mid-eight-second 0-60 MPH time would make it easy pickings for a modern minivan at the strip, you shouldn’t forget that today’s minivans and their near-300-hp engines might have made life trouble off the line for plenty of other sports cars of the era as well.

The beauty of the Miata, like the small British roadsters that inspired it, was that an average, ordinary enthusiast could wring it out and push it closer to its limits than just about any other sporting car on the road while still absolutely enjoying every second of it. Its handling proved remarkably neutral, its steering thoroughly communicative. We may look back askance at its seemingly tiny 185/60R14 tires, but they were plenty worthy of the 2,200-pound Miata.

Perhaps the most amazing sensation came in the simple flick of the wrist that was the only input needed to change gears. In the cozy Miata’s high-quality, somewhat minimalist cabin, that little shifter’s tiny movements fit perfectly.

It still seems hard to believe that a company well versed in making front-drive family cars, small pickups and rotary-engined GT cars could get so many things so right the first time out. Bravo, Bob Hall, Kenichi Yamamoto, Toshihiko Hirai, Leon Dixon and everyone else at Mazda that made this car happen. We didn’t even know we needed it and now the world has bought over a million of them. Bravo, indeed.