The Mazda Miata might hold the record for inverse relationships in the automotive world. It's difficult to think of a car more significant in the sports car pantheon that enjoys less respect from the masses. Often derided as a "chick car" by the clueless and insecure, the Miata is the only reason the two-seat roadster hasn't been consigned to the automotive fossil record, along with the dual-cowl phaeton and the landaulet.
Mazda has an interesting, almost narcoleptic history in the auto world. They'll do something utterly brilliant and then nod off for a decade or so-the original Cosmo coupe, the first- and third-gen RX-7, the Miata, etc. On the heels of its 1978 game changer, the RX-7, Mazda asked a group of automotive journalists what they should do next. The overwhelming response was a traditional roadster (unfortunately, there were more than a few votes for a rotary pickup truck as well).
Initially, there was disagreement among the development teams as to the architecture of the proposed new sports car. One group advocated mid-engine, another pushed for front wheel-drive, and the last came down on the side of traditional front-engine, rear-wheel drive. Thankfully, the final group won out and had the good sense to use perhaps the seminal example of that type of sports car as their inspiration-the Lotus Elan. Rumor has it the Mazda development team purchased several fine examples of the little Lotus for evaluation purposes.
Tom Matano, one of the Miata's designers, recalled later that on his team were former owners of a Triumph Spitfire, MG B, and Fiat spider in college days, all of whom remembered their cars fondly, "if only they had worked." Much like the 1991 revival of Triumph motorcycles in the hands of British entrepreneur John Bloor, absolute dependability was demanded of the new model-and delivered-making it suitable transportation for sports car lovers who actually expected to arrive at their destinations.
Styling reminiscent of the Elan
Certainly the styling of the first-generation, or NA, car was reminiscent of the Elan. The grille opening, pop-up headlights, and retro Minilite-style wheels all harked back to the Lotus, as did the 1.6-liter, twin-cam four. Where the two cars parted company in no uncertain terms were build quality, reliability, and comfort.
The Elan was fragile, finicky, and prone to shedding parts, where the Mazda was an inexpensively yet well-finished, nicely screwed-together and altogether robust package. The Miata's convertible top was the best one seen since the Fiat 124 spider. Undo two latches, throw it over your shoulder, and that's that. The heater was effective, and even the optional a/c was fully integrated and worked quite well.
The Miata moved much of the enthusiast community to near tears when it was introduced in the fall of 1989 for the 1990 model year. Few thought we would ever see a British roadster re-imagined as a competent and dependable yet utterly charming automobile.
Colors were originally limited to red, white, and blue, and several option packages included niceties like a/c, power windows, and headrest-mounted speakers. A nice removable hard top was offered, as was a slushbox, but mercifully, this proved unpopular. Few people were able to buy a 1990 Miata at anywhere near sticker price, as surging demand allowed dealers to tack on "ADP"-additional dealer profit.
Base cars came with steel wheels, no power windows or power steering, and no a/c. The A and B packages added the various niceties missing from the base car. Along the way, various other option packages and new colors were introduced, including the R-type with stiffer Bilstein suspension, and a limited edition in British Racing Green and tan leather. For 1994, the engine was enlarged to 1.8 liters, with modest gains in performance.
Early Miata drivers used the gearbox a lot
The original 120-hp, 1.6 -liter was enough to power the 2,200 pound car to 60 mph in about nine seconds. Without an abundance of low-end torque, early Miata drivers used the gearbox a lot. Happily, it was a great 5-speed with suitably short throws and a nice direct feeling that was a byproduct of its conventional layout. Handling was neutral, brakes were more than adequate, and the ratios were well-spaced enough to make the Miata a decent highway car and a 120-mph performer.
The wonderful thing about a used Miata is the fact that while it resembles a fragile British or Italian sports car, it has the same DNA as a Mazda 323 with 300,000 miles that some pimply faced kid is still using as a pizza delivery conveyance. With a modicum of care, Miatas are capable of high mileage and reliable long-term service. Things like power window switches and regulators can give trouble, timing belts should be changed every five years or 60,000 miles, and gearbox oil should be changed at the manufacturer's recommended intervals, along with coolant. Other than the usual woes of any 20-year old car, Miatas aren't particularly troublesome.
At around $3,500 for a decent first-year car, it's hard to fight the urge to add a Miata to a stable of credit card cars. Many of us often cite character as a reason to suffer with a vastly inferior Triumph Spitfire or MG Midget for the same money as a Miata. I simply don't buy it. There is no surfeit of character in a Miata, and the passage of time has certainly thinned the ranks of early cars. Naturally, there is little chance of collectibility or appreciation in the near term. But it's also unlikely that the cost of ownership of a Miata will ever render one seriously underwater. And as long as there are sunny days, there will be buyers.