We’re just one day away from the reveal of the all-new 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata. After republishing our reviews of the 1990 Mazda MX-5 Miata, the 1999 second-generation, and the 2006 third-generation car, we decided to see how far the roadster has come in 25 years.
“Twenty-four years ago, there was a young man looking through this windshield,” says deputy editor Joe DeMatio. We’re sitting in a cramped, damp 1991 Mazda Miata, fat summer raindrops loudly pelting the top.
Our deputy was a junior staffer when a Mariner Blue 1990 Mazda Miata—one of the first examples to hit our shores—arrived at Automobile Magazine headquarters. He drove the little roadster to the east coast and back, stereo blasting the whole way.
We’re not here to reminisce, though. We’re here for a comparison test. The competition? A 2014 Mazda Miata PRHT. As we near the introduction of the all-new 2016 Mazda Miata, we want to answer the question: which generation is better? DeMatio turns the long, slender key and the four-cylinder wheezes to life. Time to find out.
“It’s a Miata”
It’s hard to believe now, but people geeked out over the Miata when it debuted. Mark Schirmer, a former road test coordinator for this magazine and now a Ford PR man, recalls the near hysteria he inspired driving our Four Seasons Mazda Miata from Chicago. “I was nearly causing accidents on I-94. No one had seen anything like it.”
Of course, they had, which was exactly the point. Five years before Volkswagen sparked the retro craze with the Concept One, Mazda lovingly aped the looks of the 1960s Lotus Elan. Its curves and flowing lines contrasted with the angry looking wedges that had been de rigueur in sports car design for much of the 1970s and 1980s.
Like any retro design, the Miata’s has proved somewhat challenging to update. Cruising side-by-side, the old and new Miata look like father and son. The new one is sharper, tauter, and a bit more muscular but clearly draws from the same gene pool. “It’s a Miata,” shrugs road test editor Chris Nelson, who owns the silver ’91 we used for photos.
Meanwhile, the old Miata, though still a very common sight, is starting to look retro in its own right. The flip-up headlamps, chrome door handles, and fourteen-inch Minilite-style wheels all ooze a certain charm that the current car doesn’t quite recapture.
It’s all about the sun visors
When it comes to Miata interiors, the big question is, how do you like your sun visors? Folded and flimsy (first-gen) or plastic-y and nearly fixed in one position (third-gen)?
The point is that neither of these cars pays much attention to fussy details. The original, of course, fusses a lot less. You can strip the interior to bare metal in about a half hour with a Phillips screwdriver and a metric socket set.
It might be a little harder to take apart and put together the stitched mocha leather and padded center console on our well-equipped 2014 model. Yes, that added refinement costs more—our test car checks in at $32,285—but that’s actually not a whole lot more than a Miata cost in 1990. It started at $13,800, which is about $25,000 after inflation.
The third generation’s biggest innovation is its power-folding hard top. Don’t get us wrong, we still love the simplicity of chucking a soft top behind us, but 2014’s fast-folding hard top has virtually no drawbacks. Unlike hard tops in more expensive cars like the Mercedes-Benz SLK and BMW Z4, Mazda’s takes up no trunk room. “The hard top artfully layers modernity over tradition,” says DeMatio.
In some areas, though, that layer wears a little thin. “It’s a little disappointing that some of the things that make my Miata impractical for long trips, like poorly placed cup holders and a hot transmission tunnel, haven’t much improved on the current car,” says associate web editor Jake Holmes, who owns a 1997 Mazda Miata. And, as always, taller drivers complain about comfort.
It’s OK, turn the A/C on.
Some first-generation Miatas come with a button that reads, “A/C.” You should never press it. These cars are so slow that the parasitic drain of running an air conditioner on a hot summer day may be the difference between making it up a hill or getting rear-ended.
Not a problem in the 2014 Mazda Miata. Its 167-hp engine may be a bit weak by modern sports car standards, but the car is not, in fact, slow. Cruising alongside Nelson’s ’91, we actually have to concentrate on easing off the accelerator so as not to accidently blow him into the weeds.
The first-generation Mazda Miata makes up some ground in the handling department. These cars have hilariously little suspension travel—they basically ride on their bump stops. That engenders go-kart-flat cornering. The 2014 has a lot more suspension travel, which, combined with a stiffer structure, provides a comparably creamy ride. The tradeoff, though, is the new model has more body roll than we like in a sports car, something we’ve also noticed when comparing the MX-5 to the Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S.
But whom are we kidding? We love driving both of these cars. Both have perfect shifters (slightly slicker in the new car), eager throttle response (slightly quicker in the old one), pedals placed so perfectly that even the clumsiest driver could execute a perfect heel-to-toe downshift, and steering wheels that speak and listen to your hands.
OK, we’re not really going to name a winner here. For one thing, we could reasonably be accused of bias—four staffers and contributors own first-gen Miatas.
But as we drive the old and current Miata together, we do get a clear idea of where Mazda should go with the next one. The 2016 Mazda Miata needs a clean-sheet design that makes people stop and gawk, just like the first one. It should build on the refinement of the current car without losing the focus and energy of the old car. Most of all, we hope the next Miata preserves and distills the absolute joy we feel whenever we get behind the wheel of an old one. Because even though the Miata is no longer new—just as our deputy editor has a few more gray hairs than he did in 1990—the experience of driving top-down, engine howling, is forever youthful.
Oh, and fix those sun visors.
1991 Mazda MX-5 Miata Specifications
- Base Price: $14,200 (in 1990)
- Engine: 1.6-liter DOHC I-4
- Power: 116 hp @ 6500 rpm
- Torque: 100 lb-ft @ 5500 rpm
- Transmission: 5-speed manual
- Drive: Rear-wheel
- Length x Width x Height: 155.4 x 65.9 x 48.2 in
- Wheelbase: 89.2 in
- Curb Weight: 2189 lb
- Fuel Economy (1990 EPA testing): 25/30/27 mpg (city/highway/combined)
- Fuel Economy (revised testing): 22/28/24 mpg
2014 Mazda MX-5 Miata PRHT GT Specifications
- Base Price: $30,245
- Price as Tested: $32,285
- Engine: 2.0-liter DOHC I-4
- Power: 167 @ 7000 rpm
- Torque: 140 @ 5000rpm
- Transmission: 6-speed manual
- Drive: Rear-wheel
- Length x Width x Height: 157.3 x 67.7 x 49.4 in
- Wheelbase: 91.7 in
- Curb Weight: 2593 lb
- Fuel Economy: 21/28/24 mpg