New & Used Mazda MX-5 Miata: In Depth
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The Mazda MX-5 Miata is a true sports car, and one of the more unlikely successes of the modern automotive era. Designed in the 1980s as an homage to the classic British roadster, the Miata offered up all the driving fun of those sports cars, but virtually none of the ownership pains.
This little Mazda has endured to this day, soon to enter its fourth generation, which remains true to the original small-roadster concept. The Miata's design and following have earned it a place in the automotive history books along such icons as the Mustang, Viper, Corvette, and M3.
The next Miata is scheduled to arrive for the 2016 model year. Details are coming out of Mazda gradually, but we now know that it will be equipped with a 2.0-liter engine that uses Mazda's efficient SkyActive architecture and has been tailored to a sports-car application. A 1.5-liter engine will be available in other markets but has been deemed too small for the U.S. The 2.0-liter will have less mass to move, with a target curb weight of 2,200 pounds. Mazda showed off the car in September 2014 at a Miata owners' rally at Laguna Seca and gave it an American auto show debut at the 2014 L.A. show, but did not offer many more details about the Americanized version.
In 2012, Mazda and Alfa Romeo announced that the new Miata platform would be shared with a new Alfa model. Plans have seemingly changed, since Alfa wants to keep all of its production within Italy, but Fiat Chrysler Automobiles now has plans to build a new Fiat-Abarth model on the Miata platform.
MORE: Read our 2015 Mazda MX-5 Miata review
With Japanese reliability and the personality of something like the legendary Lotus Elan (not to mention similar hideaway headlights in the first generation), the Miata was nothing short of a revolution when it first went on sale in the 1990 model year. A small, two-seat sports car, the Miata was an instant classic--and the epitome of the classic roadster, with a long hood and short cabin, a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout, and a design that kept it lean and simple, sometimes at the expense of some comfort.
Initially, the powertrain for the Miata was a 1.6-liter four-cylinder available with a choice of five-speed manual or automatic transmissions, growing slightly with each new generation. In 1993 the engine was enlarged to 1.8 liters, and in 1998 the second-generation car was introduced. The same 1.8-liter engine powered the second MX-5 Miata, though it gained a slight increase in power. The second-generation Miata offered a Mazdaspeed version in 2004 and 2005, which added a turbocharger to the 1.8-liter engine, increasing output from 130 horsepower to 178 horsepower.
The Miata's success inspired other automakers to rejoin the classic-sportscar segment. The BMW Z3, Porsche Boxster, and Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class arrived over the next decade. Those German models, though they started out with as more stripped-down machines, quickly went upmarket, with the BMW and Mercedes trading in four-cylinder engines for sixes. GM even got in on the act, with the short-lived Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky.
The MX-5's lasted so long, in part, because the formula hasn't changed. The latest generation of the MX-5 is larger and a bit heavier, but it remains one of the smallest, lightest cars on the market; it's the back-to-basics sports car in a market offering many heftier, high-tech roadsters and convertibles that are simply less nimble and less engaging to drive. Preferably with the top remaining down.
The third-generation car was introduced in 2005 for the 2006 model year. It again gained a larger engine, up to 2.0 liters and 160 horsepower standard (167 horsepower in 2009-2010 models), with a five- or six-speed manual transmission, or a six-speed automatic, though the engine is detuned to 158 horsepower when paired with the automatic. Six-speed manual models are available with a limited-slip differential.
While the Miata maintains a go-kart-like handling feel, with a low-to-the-road driving position that tends to exaggerate the feeling of speed without breaking the speed limit, the tight cabin can lend a feeling of vulnerability. There’s a lack of crash-test information on the Miata; since it sells in such low volumes, the national agencies choose not to go to the expense of testing this model.
True to its essence, the base cloth top isn’t power-operated, but it remains easy to open and close with a single hand. For the 2007 model year, however, a clever power-retractable hard top (PRHT) version of the Miata was introduced. Thanks to smart design, the hard top opens and closes quickly, preserves headroom, takes up no more trunk space than the cloth top, and creates a tight, quiet cabin environment that makes driving in cold weather considerably more civilized.
A MX-5 Miata Club trim was new for 2013. With a six-speed manual transmission and a stiffer suspension tune, it has a somewhat sharper driving feel. For the 2015 model year, Mazda effectively signed off on the current Miata with a special 25th Anniversary Edition.