Mazda MX-5

Carpedia

Jan 09th, 2020

Mazda MX-5

One of Mazda's most iconic cars almost never made it to the production phase. Its concept came at a time when roadsters were virtually non-existent due to new regulations in safety and emissions. Laws required convertibles and powerful roadsters to have detuned engines and equipped with extra crash protection. These restrictions somehow made the cars no longer fun to drive. 

During the late 1970s, Mazda was becoming popular in the United States with annual exports reaching about 170,000 cars consisting of a selection of cheap and practical cars together with fun but expensive cars like the RX-7. In a meeting in 1979 between Mazda’s head of research and development Kenichi Yamamoto and Motor Trend journalist Bob Hall, Yamamoto asked Hall what he thought Mazda should produce next. Bob Hall replied that it should be a fun and lightweight sports car more affordable than the RX-7 and inspired by the classic British sports cars of past decades.

In 1981, Mazda set up a research and development centre in California, and Yamamoto asked Hall to join Mazda. Officially, Hall was working on the B-series pickup trucks but worked on his idea of a sports car in his spare time. For several years, Hall would work on the sports car concept. One day, while driving to an event in Pebble Beach with a fellow Mazda employee Shigenori Fukuda, Hall asked what type of car should Mazda build next. To Bob Hall’s excitement, Fukuda replied - a lightweight sports car! Following this, an essay on "What is a Sports Car to an American?" reached Mazda's Japan headquarters. The paper summarised that Americans needed an affordable performance car that was fun to drive, with a feeling of going fast but not necessarily doing that.

This essay didn't accomplish anything right away. Meanwhile, a couple of engineers in Hiroshima decided to invite Kenichi Yamamoto to take a ride in a Triumph Spitfire on his way to a meeting in Tokyo. During this ride, which took the mountain roads, the idea of developing the MX-5 was conceived. A design competition for a new sports car was held with three teams, two teams based in Japan and the other was Hall's team in California under a new development programme called the "Offline, Go Go." Each group was assigned different layouts - front-engine front-wheel drive, mid-engine rear-wheel drive and front-engine rear-wheel drive - with the last one assigned to the California team. 

During the sketch competition, the Japanese team assigned with the front-engine front-wheel-drive layout came up with a design that was practical and cheap to build as it used technology currently already in production. The mid-engine rear-wheel-drive design was also favoured as this would compete with Toyota's MR2. Bob Hall's design thinking was a car that could be marketed for over ten years, as opposed to the average 4-to-6-year cycle of most Mazda models. Since Hall’s design approach needed to last, he opted for a convertible with a curved body design that was more typical of the old 1960s roadsters like the Lotus Elan. This design was deemed too old fashioned and, thus, lost in the competition.

Initially, the contest was supposed to eliminate the least liked design. However, in recognition of the effort done by the California team, all three designs were given the go-ahead to produce clay models of their concepts. Upon presentation of the clay models, the front-engine front-wheel drive was still the most viable option since the mid-engine rear-wheel-drive model was deemed to have fierce competition from the likes of the popular Toyota MR2 and the Pontiac Fiero. The real surprise of the contest was from the California team. The clay model of their sports coupe turned out to be very pleasing in three dimensional, and when Hall and Fukuda took the top off, this revealed that the design was actually a convertible. It won the competition, and the MX-5 Miata was born.

First Generation MX-5 Miata (NA), 1989-1997

The Miata on its release was a 2-seater sports coupe with a removable hardtop. The whole body was done in steel except for the bonnet, which was made of lightweight aluminium. It was called the Eunos Roadster in Japan since the Miata name sounded identical to a long-time Japanese company called Miyata that produced bicycles, motorcycles and cars.

To make the Miata look like a Mazda, design components were taken from the RX-7 like the pop-up headlights, the front air vent and the chin lights. The popularity of the Miata and Mazda's marketing catchword ("a look into the future") consequently gave rise to RX-7 adopting a few Miata design features in its third-generation release.

As initially envisioned, the Miata went into production as a front mid-engine rear-wheel drive with independent double-wishbone suspension in all four wheels. Ventilated disc brakes provided the stopping power at the front, with solid rotor disc brakes at the rear.

A 1.6L petrol B6ZE(RS) inline 4-cylinder DOHC (85 kW/ 137 Nm) supplied the power, transferred to the drive wheels through a 5-speed manual gearbox. In 1994, the engine was upgraded to a 1.8L BP-ZE I4 DOHC (98 kW/ 155 Nm) with an option of either a 4-speed automatic or a 5-speed manual gearbox.

During its introduction, base models were equipped with manual steering, steel wheels, and roll-up windows. They didn't come with stereo or air conditioning to keep the price low. Later, Mazda offered these features as standard equipment as the popularity of the Miata became evident.

Interior trims varied over the years but remained its no-frills character to adhere to its roadster heritage of simplicity and driving fun. As popularity increased and sales went beyond expectations, numerous special editions were released incorporating interior trim improvements, suspension upgrades, colour options and body kits which were also marketed as options later on.

Second Generation Mazda MX-5 (NB), 1998-2005

The second-generation MX-5 was unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show in October 1997, displaying styling cues from the RX-7. With the pop-up headlights no longer passing pedestrian safety tests, the new MX-5 now had fixed headlamps. Aerodynamics was improved, and the car's dimensions grew a bit but still retained its roadster feel and heritage.

The interior was updated, including the addition of a retractable wind deflector behind the seats. The rear window was now also made of glass with a built-in defogger. A four-wheel independent system still handled the suspension but with enlarged front and rear anti-roll bars. Anti-lock braking system (ABS) was offered as an option together with different wheel and tyre options available depending on the trim and market territory.

Some countries still offered the original 1.6L B6-ZE, but in Australia, the 1.8L BP-4W (106 kW/ 165 Nm) was the available engine from 1998 to 2001. From 2001 to 2005, the 1.8L BP-6D (113 kW/ 181 Nm) was added to the range. In 1999, a Limited Edition (10th Anniversary Model) equipped with a Torsen limited-slip differential, sports suspensions and special alloy wheels joined the lineup. 

In 2001, the MX-5 received a facelift that incorporated fog lamps, which were previously an option. Some interior elements were changed, and the rear turn light was restyled and received a clear lens instead of the old amber.

In 2004 in Japan, Mazda introduced the Mazdaspeed MX-5 Roadster turbo, a turbocharged version of the BP-4W. It produced 133 kW and 226 Nm and came equipped with a front-mounted intercooler. It could accelerate from standstill to 100 km/h in 6.7 seconds and had a top speed of 204 km/h.

Australia developed and marketed one of the most powerful production models, the MX-5 SP. The turbocharged 1.8L was capable of producing 157 kW at 6,800 rpm coupled to a 6-speed manual gearbox, but the production of these cars was limited to only 100 units as the price was considerably higher than the base cars.

Third Generation MX-5 (NC), 2005-2013

The NC was a completely new car, unlike the transition from the NA to the NB. Design of the third-generation Miata was lifted from the 2003 Mazda Ibuki concept car. The rear suspension was now changed to a multilink layout while still retaining the front wishbone setup adapted from the RX-8. The exterior design also incorporated fender bulges that gave this generation a wide-body look.

Base engines differed depending on location and included the 1.8L MZR L8-DE (93 kW/ 165 Nm), the 2.0L MZR (118 kW/ 188 Nm) and the 2.0L MZR (130 kW/ 190 Nm). Transmission options were the 6-speed auto with paddle shifter, 5-speed manual and the 6-speed manual gearbox.

In 2006, a Power Retractable Hard Top became available with a two-piece folding hardtop done in polycarbonate. The retractable hardtop added 36 kg to the overall weight of the car, slightly affecting performance.

A mid-cycle refresh was done in 2008 and featured interior and exterior design changes. More prominent front grille, new headlights, side skirts, rear bumper and taillights brought the MX-5 in line with the newer models offered by Mazda. Redesigned gauge clusters with darker features and upgraded interior components were incorporated.

Numerous special editions were also released worldwide, notable of which is the MX-5 20th Anniversary edition with special exterior styling package, chrome grille, door handles and headlight fascia. Also included are uniquely designed 17-inch alloy wheels and 20th Anniversary badges. The Japanese market was treated to the Mazda Roadster Black Tuned special edition in 2011. This edition had so many upgrades from the factory that it would easily become the most sought-after model in the future. 

Fourth Generation MX-5 (ND), 2014 to Present

Unveiled in September 2014, the fourth and current generation of the MX-5 is now lighter than its predecessor and incorporates the SkyActiv technologies seen in other Mazda models. The exterior design strayed from the old curvaceous body, now sporting a more aggressive look and in keeping with current trends. With its heritage and popularity, the new MX-5 is now head-to-head with other prestigious marques, yet maintaining a significantly lower price than its competition.

Two major versions are available, a 2-door convertible and the 2-door retractable fastback. These are available in different trim levels with 2 SkyActiv engines options available. The 1.5L SkyActiv-G (P5-VPS) rated at 96kW power and torque of 150 Nm. The 2.0L SkyActiv -G (PE-VPS) produces 118 kW of power and 188 Nof torque. These engines come coupled to either a 6-speed automatic or the 6-speed manual gearbox.

Standard and optional equipment encompasses almost all the latest technology developments in safety, convenience, connectivity and performance from Mazda. With the SkyActiv technologies, the 2.0L engine fuel efficiency is at about 9.0L/100km for both the automatic and manual gearbox.

In 2018, the 2.0L SkyActiv engine was further improved to produce 135 kW of power and 205 Nm of torque, with the designation changed to ND2. At this time, the interior also received upgrades in the form of a telescoping steering column, standard reverse camera, revised seat controls and other little improvements. In 2020, the interior received minor styling changes most notable of which is the burgundy Nappa leather upholstery which gives the MX-5 a more luxurious appeal.

The MX-5 Miata Heritage

Mazda took a risk when it first introduced the MX-5. There were only a couple of roadsters available during that time and none from a Japanese manufacturer. The Miata name comes from an old high German term that translates to "prize" or "reward". Mazda intended this from the very start - to build a high-performing roadster that would be rewarding and a delight to drive and one that would offer excellent value for hard-earned money.

Easily one of the best cars ever to come out of Mazda, it was named by Guinness as the best-selling two-seat sports car in history in 2000 with 531,890 units produced. Mazda broke that record again in April of 2016 when it rolled out the one-millionth MX-5.

This roadster made other car manufacturers realise that the market for 2-seater sports roadsters is both alive and popular. With the Mazda SkyActiv programme, we might yet see these roadsters powered by hybrids or pure electric in the future.

If you own an MX-5 and are looking to buy some replacement parts or accessories for it, please visit our website and browse our current listing of parts, or send us a car parts request. We'd be delighted to assist you.


Fred Cajulis