Forget the folderol about the Mazda MX-5 Miata being an MG that doesn’t leak oil. It stands on its own as a great sports car because it’s simply a blast to drive.
The fuse was lit in the early 1980s, at Mazda’s California design center, by auto-writer-turned-Mazda-product-planner Bob Hall and by stylist Mark Jordan, son of General Motors design director Chuck Jordan. Their idea for a classic front-engine rear-drive roadster beat Mazda-Japan’s proposal for a "new-age" front-drive or mid-engine car. Work proceeded as a joint California-Tokyo project, and the resulting Miata exploded onto the market as a 1990 model.
Significantly, it was not parts-bin engineered, but was executed as an original design, a two-seat convertible laid down according to the sporting gospel of simplicity and lightweight. True, the basic 1.6-liter twincam engine could be traced to Mazda’s 323 subcompact. But it was turned lengthwise, greatly reworked, and freed of its turbocharger.
The rest of the Mazda MX-5 Miata was fresh yet familiar, a timeless idea reinterpreted for our times.
Tidy in dimension and unsullied by geegaws, the body provided enough room for a couple of six footers and a night’s soft luggage. The independent suspension used coil springs and double wishbones all-around. There was a disc brake at each corner and rack-and-pinion steering. The structure was impressively rigid thanks to computer-aided design and an aluminum powertrain truss. The top lowered in one easy motion, the ride was firm but not harsh, and the exhaust note appropriately snarly.
You could order power steering and windows, a CD player and cruise control. But these weren’t needed to enjoy the car. The MX-5 Miata seemed to have achieved a rare blend of modest but fully usable power, accessible cornering limits, and all-around good cheer. Plus, it was leak-free, and Japanese-reliable, too.
An automatic transmission was available shortly after launch, and anti-lock brakes were options for ’91. The engine grew to 1.8 liters and 128 hp for ’94, and to 133 hp for ’95. There was the club-racer R package and various luxury M editions, and base prices over the years went from under $14,000 to over $18,000. But nothing altered the Mazda MX-5 Miata’s character. It remains a communique from sports-car heaven.