Ah, don’t you just love progress? Without it, we wouldn’t be ordering pizza from a smartphone app or sending out our latest SnapTweetPosts. But does all this progress come at a cost? Indeed, as time goes by, we forget how life was like in the quaint old days before technology invaded our lives. This phenomenon is also existent in the auto industry, where cars today are laden down with a level of computer technology rivaling an F-10 fighter jet. While doodads and gizmos improve comfort and efficiency, something becomes lost in the process. The dearth of honest feedback and mechanical goodness has made many a car lose that certain intangible quality that separated it from the pack and made it something special. Thankfully, not all cars have fallen down this rabbit hole of technological overload. One of the best examples is the Mazda Miata, a car that has managed to retain its je ne sais quoi by staying true to its original mission of simple fun since its inception in May 1989. Its small size and light weight have always brought big smiles, and that is as true now as it was then.
The Miata was not produced on a whim by an overeager Mazda executive with his heart in his head. In fact, the development history of the little car goes back to the early 1980s, when then-Road and Track editor Bob Hall was recruited by the Mazda team to produce the perfect affordable sports car. As the project became more serious, it was given the internal designation “MX-5,” for Mazda experiment number five. Three different ideas were pitched, including a mid-engine hardtop in the vein of the Fiero, a front driver, and of course the classic rear driver with a front mounted engine, which won out over the other two concepts. When it finally debuted at the Chicago Auto Show on February 25th, 1989, the reaction was immensely positive, and people fell in love with the tiny two-seater. Early testers remarked at the attention the Miata got, and how people couldn’t believe it had a base price of only $13,800. With a base model rolling on steelies and lacking power windows, power locks, air conditioning, cruise control and power steering, the early Miata was a true throwback to the halcyon days of the 1960s roadster.
But how it drove! Weighing about a couple of cinder blocks over 2,000 pounds and coming in at a diminutive 155” long, the original “NA” Miata was as small and light as a Kentucky Derby jockey. Coupled with a chassis that was tuned for ultimate feedback and just the right level of body roll, the Miata provided a driving experience that many did not think was possible from only a 116 horsepower four cylinder. The engine boasted a seven grand redline and dual overhead cams, and the tach needle eagerly swept up the gauge face. In true sports car fashion, the car was initially offered in only a five-speed manual transmission, which had short, notchy throws that required little effort. It moved through the gears with deftness, and is often lauded as one of the great affordable gearboxes for its feedback and precision.
How does one follow up such a successful and timeless sports car? By retaining all the magic that made the first generation such a resounding success. Debuting in 1999, the second generation succeeded by doing just that, and ergo retained much of the same bones underneath while offering a revised interior and exterior design. This generation, known as “NB” by fans, is often considered the goldilocks of the Miata run – Not as primitive and uncompromising like the NA, but not as much of a lounge lizard and boulevard cruiser like the NC turned out to be. It is the perfect balance of fun and usability, and in your author’s opinion (After driving both NA and NB) is the best of the bunch. There are few cars you could drive every day and still have a smile on your face every time you get both in and out, and the Miata is one of them. If ever there was a car built in the last quarter century that begged you to take the long way home, it was the spunky little roadster from the Land of the Rising Sun.
The Miata has captivated enthusiasts everywhere with its simple premise – lightweight, small power, great chassis, and reliability to boot. As the years have gone by, competitors from a variety of marques have come and gone, but the little Mazda perseveres, with total sales of the two-seater now having crested one million units. For the price and availability, nothing can beat the simple, honest fun that it promises everyone who gets behind the wheel. As progress marches onward, cars are becoming just another appliance, with computers doing everything but choosing your radio station. In this sea of computerized anonymity, the Miata has stood out with its unabashed honesty and purity, eschewing many modern advances in the name of driving – true, honest-to-God, wind-in-your-hair driving pleasure.
As Robert Frost famously wrote, “I took the road less traveled… and it made all the difference.” The Miata has not only done the same, but it encourages you to do the same every time you turn the key. As that less-traveled route get twisty, you forget about that latest tweet or post, and the aura of the roadster overtakes you. Sometimes, maybe progress isn’t as great as we believe it to be.