posted on February 17th, 2017

The small-but-mighty MX-5 remains a favorite

In the old days, if you wanted a small, lightweight, and fun-to-drive two-seater convertible, you bought an MG, Triumph, or maybe an Alfa Romeo Spyder. As charming and fun to drive as these cars were, they quickly developed a reputation of being objects with which to occupy yourself in the garage, rather than a trustworthy means of transportation. To compound the problem, most of these models received minimal updates throughout their lifecycles, so by the early 80s an MG looked absolutely ancient compared to something like the cutting-edge MK1 GTI.

First-generation Mazda Miata (Image credit: Danny Lee)

Enter the Miata. Released in 1989 to instant critical acclaim, the cheerful little Mazda offered the the classic British roadster driving experience in an affordable, dependable package. A surprisingly low starting price of $14,000 was achieved by stripping the car of anything that wasn’t deemed absolutely necessary. Base models shipped without power steering, power windows, radio, or air conditioning and sat on unadorned steel wheels. All that remained were two seats, an optimistic 1.6L engine, and a snappy, close-ratio 5 speed manual, although a small variety of creature comforts could be added by selecting a Package “A,” “B,” or “C” car.

Second-generation Mazda Miata (Image credit: Josh Robbins)

Doing what a sequel should

After nearly 10 years on the market, the Miata no longer met pedestrian safety standards, and the second generation was introduced in 1998 featuring fixed headlights. The anti-sway bars, brakes, wheels, and tires all received significant upgrades, along with a modest bump in power, but Mazda knew better than to dramatically change its winning formula, and retained many of the parts from the first generation cars, mainly updating the nose, tail, and interior.

Third-generation Mazda Miata (Image credit: Jake Thiewes)

Maturity is just a phase

By 2006, many buyers of the original generation were getting on in years, and the car grew to accommodate them. Swelling significantly in size, the third generation was the first to offer downright decadent features like stability control and a power-folding hardtop.

Fourth-generation Mazda Miata (Image credit: Soyfan Bey)

Reverting to type

Some 25 years after its original introduction, in late 2014, the Miata was due for another major update. Many enthusiasts worried Mazda would continue the bloating trend started in 2006, but were delighted when Mazda pulled the sheet off the fourth generation to reveal a sleek, chiseled car designed around the core mantra of the first generation: light, affordable, dependable, efficient, and fun.

Exocet Miata kit (Image credit: Exocet)

Achieving cult status

It’s impossible to deny the success of the Miata in the motoring enthusiast world; they’ve managed to permeate nearly every facet of automotive culture thanks to their availability and affordability. It’s not terribly uncommon to find one with an LS1 borrowed from an old Camaro or Corvette shoved into it. Their running gear is a common starting point for several popular lightweight kit cars like the Westfield, Exocet, and Catfish. The Spec Miata racing league is one of the most popular amatuer racing series in the country. Join an online car community and ask for advice on what fun and affordable sports car you should buy, and you’re likely to hear the mantra “the answer is always Miata.” Attend a local car show and you’re all but guaranteed to see a few “stanced” examples with lovingly applied, quirky cosmetic customizations. Or, if speed is your thing, head to an autocross and watch them scamper from cone to cone.

Joey is a freelance writer who loves everything about interesting cars and the people who drive them. He can most often be found lying under an old car or playing with his golden retriever, Molly.