The Mazda Miata is turning 25.
The peppy little roadster first took to the road in 1989 and has been in uninterrupted production ever since. Mazda just pulled the cover off the latest version for the 2016 model — and created a special 25th anniversary model for 2015.
That kind of staying power puts it in the same league as the Chevy Corvette, the Ford Mustang, and the Porsche 911.
But here’s the thing: From the get-go, the Miata has been tagged, unfairly or not, as a “chick car.”
And for over two decades, Mazda has been sensitive to this.
As a result, the Miata — now called the MX-5, a tweak to the name that in itself is evidence of Mazda’s sensitivity to the “chickness” of the vehicle — has gotten bigger and burlier over the years.
The first generation Miata weighed just over 2,000 pounds. The 2015 model tips the scales at just over 3,000 pounds!
The first-gen Miata had a 1.6-liter engine that made 115 horsepower, which is just nothing, really. The 2015 model has a 2.0-liter engine that generates 167 horsepower, which still isn’t that much, but it’s pushing around an additional 1,000 pounds!
Here’s what it looked like in the beginning, in British racing green, evoking its important genetic connection to the convertible English roadsters that inspired the Miata’s revival of top-down motoring:
And here’s what it looks like now:
In the interest of full disclosure, I should reveal that I owned a 1997 Miata — flip-up headlights and hand-crank windows — for a few years in Southern California and have never really been able to fully accept the later generations. If you were a fan of British (and Italian) roadsters and just wanted to see the genre perfected, as the Miata did — the top didn’t leak, the engine always started, the lights always worked, the brakes actually stopped the car — then there was no good reason to change anything about the car.
Admittedly, the car was adorable and hardly a zero-to-60 beast, and it came along at a time when big SUVs were very popular on America’s roads.
But if it was a chick car — and there’s really no point in denying that it kind of was — then the question Mazda should have asked itself wasn’t “How can we change that?” but “Should everyone who likes to drive be driving a chick car?”
Here’s the thing: While you can buy any of a number of high-horsepower, big-engine sports cars — and now even sport sedans and sport SUVs — the speed limit in the U.S. is in most places is still well under 100 mph, and besides, the last time I spotted a Ferrari, it was sitting behind me in bumper-to-bumper traffic, using a minuscule percentage of its 500-plus horsepower.
My ’97 Miata, meanwhile, was an unmitigated joy at 40 mph. In fact, there had never been a car that was as much fun at 40 mph as the first-gen Miata. The later generations are also fun at 40, but the earlier models had the Shock Of The New in ways that the later ones don’t. You could be tooling along with the top up and with a simple twist of the hand and flick of the wrist, the top was down and the sun and wind were streaming in and all was right with the world.
Additionally, 2,000 pounds plus a quick-shifting five-speed manual plus rear-wheel drive and a perfect 50-50 balance meant that 40 mph could easily feel like 100. There’s a lot to be said for a car that feels fast when it’s actually going slow.
And just for the record, it wasn’t impossible to push the first-gen Miata in the general direction of speed. You just had to redline the engine for every shift. That’s right: To take that little motor to its limits, you had to actually use the tachometer, an instrument that’s been relegated to dashboard decoration on almost all cars.
My technique was to rev it into the redline and then launch out of the upshifts by quickly getting right back on the throttle and starting all over again, five times in a row. I’d do this on the freeway heading north and west of L.A., then jump off on a canyon road and wind my way down to Highway 1 and cruise back to Santa Monica with the Pacific Ocean off my right shoulder.
This was driving as recreation. This was driving as automotive meditation. This was roadstering, in its purest form.
You can do this with newer Miatas — I mean, MX-5s — but it just isn’t the same with all that extra car wrapped around you. The sturdier stance might make you feel more, you know, manly. But the bottom line is that you aren’t having as much fun and you aren’t becoming one with the road.
This was obvious when the first-gen gave way to the second-gen, as Vicki Butler-Henderson capably demonstrated on the British motoring show “Fifth Gear”:
Richard Hammond did the same thing on the better-known “Top Gear” and came to slightly different conclusions:
The flip-up headlights went away, the two-seater welcomed a thicker and more sculpted body style, more distracting stuff entered the cockpit, and the Miata began its steady march away from chick-car-ness. But it didn’t make any difference in the end because the MX-5 — the fatter and more powerful edition — is still derided as a chick car, a girlie ride, a dollywagon.
A great example of fixing something that wasn’t only not broken — it was practically perfect.
OK, so Mazda had, and still has, perfectly good reasons for upgrading and enhancing the MX-5. Reasons related to safety and the overall auto market. Civics and Accords and Corollas and Camrys have all also gotten bigger as they have gotten safer and, ironically, sleeker:
And let’s not forget that the Miata is still with us. And it hasn’t traveled too terribly far from its roots.
I’m delighted it’s still around. It deserves to celebrate a very happy birthday. If I wanted to buy a sports car right now, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy an MX-5. And at about $US23,000, it still wouldn’t come close to breaking the bank (although the cost-to-thrills ratio with my ’97, picked up for $US6,000, would be hard to beat).
But I still think Mazda messed with perfection, at least partially because the chick-car label came along. To their credit, the 2016 MX-5 is a bit of a throwback to the original: lighter and, to my eye, more like a small, sharp knife with which to carve up curvy roads.
So maybe the carmaker has finally stopped worrying and learned to love what is for a lot of folks the true ultimate driving machine.
And a total chick car.
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