Future classic: Mazda Miata celebrates 25 years

Miata MX-5 (2010 model shown) is all about driving fun. (Photo: Mazda)
Miata MX-5 (2010 model shown) is all about driving fun. (Photo: Mazda)

When the Mazda MX-5 Miata was unveiled at the 1989 Chicago Auto Show, it was nothing less than a revelation. Finally, there was a little roadster to replace the beloved British and Italian sports cars of long ago. Think MG, Triumph, Alfa Romeo and all the rest.

But unlike those high-maintenance, low-reliability critters of the ’50s and ’60s, Miata was a modern vehicle that could be driven with some expectation of actually arriving, both at your destination and then back home. You didn’t have to be a mechanic to own a Miata, and you didn’t need to bring along a roll of tools or extra ignition points and spark plugs. Things didn’t break off and fall on the highway.

Miatas come at various levels of style and luxury. (Photo: Mazda)
Miatas come at various levels of style and luxury. (Photo: Mazda)

Of course, there are those masochists among us who love that sort of stuff. Me included. But that’s another story.

In this year of more big anniversaries (Mustang, Maserati, Beatles), Miata marks the 25th year since its debut during 2014. Miata is  in its third generation and still enjoys a high level of popularity, though the original rush of excitement has long since faded.

The quarter-century birthday party will likely be fairly muted, probably even less celebrated than last year’s 50th anniversary of the MGB. Remember that? Didn’t think so. To be fair, MGB was vying for attention against two major icons, Porsche 911 (also 50th) and Corvette (60th).

Upon arrival, Miata ignited a firestorm of enthusiasm for tiny roadsters – nearly 36,000 were sold during 1990 – with several other brands hurriedly attempting to strike the same spark. But Miata (known as just MX-5 in Europe and simply Roadster in Japan) has reigned supreme in its niche of modestly priced sports cars.

The original Miata resembled a Lotus Elan. (Photo: Mazda)
The original Miata resembled a Lotus Elan. (Photo: Mazda)

More than 920,000 have been sold worldwide and more than 300,000 delivered in the U.S., gaining the Mazda its own spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as the top-selling two-seat sports car of all time. The perky convertible still enjoys special popularity among women of all ages.

The original Miata was built through the 1997 model year (there was no 1998 version, for whatever reason). Its body somewhat resembled the Lotus Elan, with a 1.6-liter, 110-horsepower four-cylinder engine, later raised to 1.8 liters and 126 horsepower.

The second generation updated the styling cues and did away with the retractable headlights of the original, while horsepower went up to 140 from the revised 1.8-liter engine. A facelift came in 2001 to both the body and interior, engine power rose to 146 horsepower and the manual transmission went from five to six gears.

The happiest smile since the Austin Healey Bugeye Sprite. (Photo: Mazda)
The happiest smile since the Austin Healey Bugeye Sprite. (Photo: Mazda)

Miata received a major makeover for 2006, growing in scale with added space and refinement inside, a beefier 2-liter engine that currently makes 167 horsepower, and in 2007, an optional retractable hard top. Mazda dropped the Miata name in favor of just MX-5, but most folks still call it Miata nonetheless.

Each generation of Miata came in various stages of performance and luxury, and there were several special-edition models.

So, what are the chances of Miata becoming a bona fide collector car with rising values any time in the foreseeable future? Not so hot, really. The common run of MGs and Triumphs have never made much of an impact, and Miata will most likely follow suit. There are just too many of them, and as the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. Preserved versions of early Miatas do have their admirers.

Still, Miata earns its stripes as a classic in the true sense mainly because of its historic impact as a pure sports car that took the original formula and reinvented it for the modern world.

Miata repaved the way, and we’re all the better for it.

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