When I enter new social circles I quickly get labeled “a car guy”, that’s to be expected when cars are the subject I can most naturally carry on a conversation about. One question that always comes up is “So… what’s your favorite car?”. People usually expect an answer including something expensive and exotic like a Ferrari 488, Porsche 911, or something a few zeros out of reach of the average adult. When I say the funnest car I’ve owned was, and possibly my favorite car is, a Mazda Miata and that mine cost less than $3,000, I often get blank stares, or an exclamation like, “A Miata?.... Are you serious?”. And you know what? I am serious, I’m freaking… dead… serious…
To the uninitiated or the unknowing, Miatas (or MX-5’s as they’re now known) are cute, totally avoidable grandma cars, and it’s hard to imagine a real car enthusiast envying the pint-sized 4-wheeled people pouch. Miata’s and their drivers are often misunderstood, when driving my own 1992 red Miata people often went out of their way to let me know what they thought, “Dude, that’s so gay” or “Cute car, queer boy” were often thrown out from obnoxiously lifted pickup trucks. As if being gay were an insult and these strangers were personally offended by my choice of car. One extreme example of the ridiculous stereotypes associated with the Miata comes from Carstereotypes.com, “You are probably wondering the same thing as us…who in the world buys these cars? The answer is: not many people, but the few that do purchase this car are usually females or gay men. Have you ever seen a guy driving a Miata? Me too, I parked his car for him and his boyfriend when I used to work as a valet at a hotel in San Diego.” The author of this post didn’t have the gaul to post their name, but I can already tell we wouldn’t get along. These stereotypes are wide-spread, and I’m really not sure how anyone who’s not a fan of a Miata can call themselves a car person. Some people like to go fast in short bursts, and that’s OK I guess. But people who really enjoy driving cars love the Miata. As a former and aspiring Miata owner, and as someone who neither identifies as female nor gay, I’d like to recast some light on this commonly misunderstood car.
So, what’s so great about the Miata?
Automotive enthusiasts know the Miata is a gem of driving purity. The basic formula of simple mechanics, light weight, driver-focused dynamics, and rear-wheel drive are a winning combination. A simple Google search of “Best cars for autocross” reveals that the Miata is at the top of, or at least on, every list of top recommendations. Do you want to know what the most popular club racing class in America is? Any guesses? Yeah, it’s the Spec Miata class. When I attended a regional SCCA event at Laguna Seca this summer there were over 40 Spec Miatas, far more than any other class. A google search for “best car for getting into track days” also shines light on the Miata. Autotrader.com lists the Miata at the top of their list for the best track cars for beginners, and the miata was on every list I found. Further, it doesn’t take much to ake a miata worthy for a track day, all you’ll really need is a roll bar or a hard top and maybe some performance brake pads.
The Miata burst onto the scene in late 1989 as a 1990 model, it was a game changer for the global sports car market. In Car and Driver’s first ever review of a Miata they exclaimed, ”if the new Mazda MX-5 Miata were any more talented and tempting, buying one would be illegal… The Miata has clearly been created by and for enthusiasts.” Jean Jennings wrote in Automobile magazine, “If there's any car that perfectly captures the Automobile Magazine way of looking at things, it's the Mazda MX-5 Miata. It's a machine that prioritizes feel over statistics, the romance of the road over marketing clinics. And it's never boring.”
The Miata brought back the nostalgia and effortless fun of 1960s roadsters like the Triumph Spitfire and Lotus Elan, but added a heaping dose of reliability, refinement, and sturdy build quality. Using the proven engine from the 323 GTX, while removing the turbo, rotating the engine for a rear-wheel drive layout, adding the sturdy but engaging transmission from the 929 executive sedan, providing double wishbone suspension at all four corners (which even the Rx-7 didn’t have at the time) and creating an all-new chassis weighing in at only 2,200 pounds Mazda had created a dependable bundle of veritable joy, and it even came with a smiley face. With a 0-60 time of 9.3 seconds the car wasn’t exactly a rocket despite its low weight, but remember, a v6 Camaro managed only an 8.9 second 0-60, and a Z-28 took about 6.5 seconds to accomplish the task. Neither was as fun, engaging, or reliable as the Miata.
Since 1990 the Miata has been in Car and Driver’s annual 10 Best car list 18 times, despite the rules changing almost every year. Car and Driver stated, “To a greater extent than nearly anything else on the road today, the MX-5 exists purely for the pursuit of driving pleasure. The Miata seems to disappear as you drive. With the top down, the boundary between inside and outside blurs. The reactions to steering and pedal inputs are almost supernaturally well calibrated; nothing is lost in translation between the driver's requests and the car's responses... There is no other car this side of a Porsche Boxster as unfettered or as well balanced.” That’s high praise for any car.
The Miata was such a sensation in the 90s that by the year 2000 the Miata, having sold over 500,000 tiny roadsters, had become the best selling roadster in the world, of all time. As the Miata settled into its niche Mazda continued to sell the car and produced the 1,000,000th example in April 2016. Through four generations the car has remained true, more true than any other car, to its core principles of being light, engaging and fun. The 4th generation even managed to be smaller and lighter than the 3rd generation, remaining a mere 42 pounds heavier than the 1990 version. This is a major feat considering the accrual of three additional airbags (not light), meeting crash-test standards, gaining larger brakes, and moving from 14” wheels to 16” ones (with optional 17’s). Do you know of any other car that has shrunk recently? All in the name of driving purity and balance. Oh, and remember that 9.3 0-60 time of the original NA Miata? The current 2020 version performs that task in a properly quick 5.7 seconds. That’s not far off of what used to be supercar territory. A 1990 Ferrari TestaRossa took 5.3 seconds to do the task. Does this sound like a car that product planners built to target your grandma? I think not.
If you’re not satisfied with a stock car, building a seriously quick Miata is easy to do with the abundance of affordable aftermarket parts on the market. One of my favorite examples is where Mat Watson of AutoExpress built a 1998 Miata for $6,200 (including the price of the car) that was competitive around a road course with a new-at-the-time 2014 Porsche Boxster, that car had an MSRP of over $60,000. Mat’s Mk2 Miata definitely wasn’t as sexy as the Porsche, but boy was he having fun in it. Because early Miata’s used essentially the same engine as the 323 turbo, albeit without the turbo, the hold up to the added pressure from forced induction rather well. California drivers should be excited to know that Flying Miata has CARB certified turbo kits for every year of Miata, making it easy to nearly double the car’s power output.
Another great thing about Miatas is that no matter which generation you buy, because the car has always been built for driving purity and engagement, you’re guaranteed to have a blast. Each generation has their own, slightly different character, but all are just as fun to drive. And, because there are so many of them, affordable used examples are easy to find.
Now that I’ve got you thinking about Miatas here are some things to look out for in your next purchase. I’m not going to say you should always buy a manual transmission for every car, but for cars this caliber of slow, it helps. Also look for a limited slip differential, not every Miata or MX-5 has one and there are guides to help you know which cars have them if you’re curious Oh, and no automatic transmissioned Miata has one, so that’s just another reason to avoid those. Generally the higher the model the more performance you’ll get, not just gadgets. Some models will have better brakes or Bilstein suspension, like the Club Sports, so it pays to do a little research first if you plan on racing your happy bean.
Hard tops are great but not necessary as the soft top is easy to put up and down with one hand at stop lights, though I would recommend getting a soft top with a glass rear window. Watch out for the stitching around the rear window, this can tear with frequent use and the extra weight of the glass. And, because these are also popular with grandmas, I have heard of people finding stupendously well-maintained, low-mileage specimens from elderly women.
Some car people like building wicked fast cars, some like beautiful cars, some don’t really know anything about cars but for some reason they enjoy them. I like driving and I like feeling connected to the car and the road. From my experience, driving a slow car fast is more engaging than driving a fast car slow. The Miata happens to not be just a slow car, but it’s superbly balanced, rear wheel drive, has fantastic steering feel, and is a blast to drive. Does feeling like you’re in a go-kart race everywhere you go sound fun? Then the Miata is your car. And if that doesn’t sound fun to you, then you can leave this rad little roadster to the homosexuals, grandmas, and those of us who love pure driving experiences.