The Miata is still selling well decades after its introduction, even as other sports cars falter. What’s the secret to its success?
The Miata turns 35 this year, and it’s handling middle age quite well. Sales of Mazda’s petite roadster are still strong, despite the fact the current generation has been on the market for eight years with only mild tweaks. Its success is more impressive when you consider it comes amidst a buying public that has turned sour on impractical sports cars, convertibles, and manual transmissions — all core components of the Miata experience. I wondered: How has it stayed relevant for so long when the entire world should have turned against it?
Idly asking questions would only get me so far. I needed to experience the roadster in its purest form. I needed to discover what allowed such a simple machine to thrive for three-and-a-half-decades, as innumerable competitors came and went. So I found myself a 1993 Mazda Miata to drive, and somewhere in that 2,000-pound-and-change frame, I tried to find the secret to eternal popularity.
Britain Via Japan, With A Layover In SoCal
The Miata was born in circumstances that much resemble today. In the mid-80s, as Mazda developed the Miata, the cars that inspired it were dying off. Lotus’s beloved Elan vanished in the mid-70s, strangled by federal emissions and safety laws. Affordable sports car manufacturers Triumph (whose Spitfire was, supposedly, the muse for the Miata) and MG both shuttered their doors in ‘81. Fiat, and the sporting drop-top 124 Spider, disappeared from U.S. markets in ‘85. Americans, once blessed with a glut of affordable European roadsters, now had virtually none.
Despite the grim market, Mazda forged ahead. Program manager Toshihiko Hirai set out an ambitious roadmap for Mazda’s inaugural sports roadster: It was to have perfectly balanced front/rear weight distribution, double-wishbone suspension on all four corners, and the engine as low to the ground and as far back in the chassis as the engineers could fit it.
This new sports car was to drive and look like a reincarnation of the British roadsters of the recent past — Mazda’s Southern California design office was tasked with making sure it was just as stylish as the classics that influenced it — but it needed to be vastly more reliable than those bygone models. It also needed to be affordable, lightweight, and above all, fun: Hirai insisted the new convertible have an easy-to-use cloth top that could be dropped without leaving the driver’s seat.
Mazda unveiled the fruit of these efforts, the NA Miata, in 1989. The production model possessed all of Hirai’s design requirements, an immense feat for a project so ambitious. It retailed at $13,800 — roughly an inflation-adjusted $35K today — and was an immediate smash hit. Over 51,000 were sold in the first full year of production. By the time the second generation rolled around in 1999, 215,364 NA Miatas had been let loose on American roads. Mazda had single-handedly saved the sports roadster from extinction.
The Original Formula
Three-and-a-half decades have done nothing to dull the original Miata’s shine. Its lightweight design, already rare in its day, feels unique in a modern market where two-ton crossovers dominate dealer lots. It was time for me to put down the history books, and understand directly how something so strange had become so popular.
Enter my test car, a Mariner Blue ‘93 Miata. It’s an early one, with the original, unaltered formula: Five-speed manual transmission, 1.6-liter inline-four with 116 horsepower, a cloth top, and a curb weight of just 2,160 pounds. This car has precisely no options on it — manual crank windows, no A/C, and no ABS — and a mere 67,000 miles on the odometer. The only modifications are an aftermarket head unit and a cell phone mount. It’s as close to driving a brand-new base model off the lot as you could find thirty-plus years later.
Three-and-a-half decades have done nothing to dull the original Miata’s shine.
In short, it is the perfect test vehicle. I would test it in the best environment I could find, the winding roads tracing the foothills of the Cascades. Unfortunately, I live in downtown Seattle, and it’s the dead of winter, so actually getting the full Miata experience would be a challenge.
Or so I thought.
Crank The Heat Darling, We’re Going Motoring
To be fair, it doesn’t take much to understand why automotive journalists adored the Miata from the get-go. Even in the constricting traffic of Seattle’s Capitol Hill, the 1.6 four-banger breathes easy to its 7,000-RPM redline and the light flywheel means it revs readily. The five-speed manual has a short throw with confident gating, and the clutch is communicative. The cabin is beautifully simple, with a pair of chrome-trimmed analog gauges in the cluster and no unnecessary adornment surrounding them. The entire interior — praised for clean and simple design when new — feels almost alien in a market where infotainment screen size is a selling point, and it’s refreshing.
The only downside is that for me — all 6-feet-1-inch of me — it’s a bit cramped with the roof up. It was only 40 degrees out the day I tested the Miata, but after a third of a mile of driving, I arrived at a red light, flipped the two tabs that hold the soft top in place, and flicked it over my shoulder anyway. Sure enough, the Miata is vastly better when its headroom is the atmosphere. With the top down and the world welcomed into the cockpit, I watched Mt. Rainier slowly peek out from the clouds in the distance as I darted around Lake Washington, set to a soundtrack of the 1.6’s induction noises resonating through the open air.
I didn’t feel so cold anymore.
I continued toward the twisting roads of the distant mountains outside of Seattle, but it didn’t take me long to realize I didn’t need to. The core appeal of the Miata was clear without leaving the city or driving through magazine-cover roads at ten-tenths. Here I was on suburban streets, having one of the most fun drives I’ve had in ages. The suspension is on the soft side for a performance car, but its balance means you can actively shift the weight around with throttle and brakes.
Combine that with the rev-happy motor and light chassis, and the Miata is a cinch to drive hard. I found myself flicking the Miata through hairpins, kicking the back end out with the throttle, revs filling the air as I blasted from stop sign to stop sign, all the while feeling like a complete hooligan… until I checked the speedo and realized I was doing all of thirty miles an hour.
This was supposed to be the boring part of my drive.
This Is All Supposed To Be Fun, Remember
The Miata has obviously changed since my Mariner Blue NA hit the streets. The newest generation has seen output bumped up to 181 horsepower and displacement increased to an even two liters; Apple CarPlay and lane-departure warnings are standard, as concessions to modernity. What is more remarkable, however, is what hasn’t changed.
Every Miata across all four generations has possessed all of the same key attributes that Hirai demanded of his engineers with the first design prototypes (with the exception of double wishbones at each corner; the NC and ND have an improved, more advanced multilink rear suspension setup). It’s remained around the same price point (today, a new Miata retails at $28,050). A cloth drop-top and a clutch pedal are still standard. The attributes that drove sales in 1990 are the same that drive sales today; most of the increase in Miata sales for 2023 came from the soft-top model, not the “more-refined” Miata RF.
The core appeal of the Miata was clear without leaving the city or driving through magazine-cover roads at ten-tenths.
The same things that made the first model a darling in ‘89 are still appealing in 2024. Namely, it’s fun, and it prioritizes having fun. Sure, a fixed-roof coupe might be stiffer and a dual-clutch offers quicker shift times, and both of those might be welcome when pushing to ten-tenths way out in the Cascades. Neither of those will improve my day as I putter around the lake, though. On the contrary, these advancements are going to make less-than-white-knuckle drives less engaging, despite the fact I spend much more of my time puttering around the lake rather than on the ragged edge of control. The Miata from its birth prioritized the visceral in the everyday — the wind in your hair, the blur of the trees overhead, the feel of the shifter in your hand — over technological advancement for speed and precision’s sake, and that ethos resonates more than ever in a screen-saturated future.
The Miata — and its enduring success — simply keeps succeeding because it’s remembered how to have fun. It was a rare mindset at its debut, and it’s a rare mindset today.
Gallery: 1993 Mazda Miata