Which generation of Miata is the best

30 years of the Mazda MX-5: a duel between generations

1.1 million units built and no end in sight: the Mazda MX-5 was introduced 30 years ago. Contrary to all forecasts, it became the best-selling roadster of all time. Especially the first two generations (internally called NA and NB) are increasingly becoming the focus of friends of the well-kept scrap metal. For the big birthday we were able to drive both the NA and the NB for comparison purposes.

The special model for the birthday:

But let's first take a look at the genesis of the Mazda MX-5: On the one hand, we have Bob Hall, a US motor journalist with excellent Japanese language skills. On the other hand, there is Kenichi Yamamato, who tamed the rotary engine and was promoted to head of development at Mazda until the end of the 1970s. In 1979, when the last English roadsters were dying, Hall described his dream car to Yamamoto: a small roadster with a front engine and rear-wheel drive, but much more reliable than the old British. After a test drive in a Triumph Spitfire, Yamamoto is convinced of the idea.

In the spring of 1984 the matter took a decisive turn: Yamamoto became President of Mazda and decided on the so-called "Off-Line Go-Go" program. What sounds strange to our ears has a serious background. "Go-Go" stands for the Japanese number 55, since all projects in this program had to have at least a 55 percent chance of being realized in order to continue.

The later MX-5 had that, but first important questions had to be clarified: Drive (everything to the front (FF), a mid-engine with rear-wheel drive (MR) or front-engine / rear-wheel drive? (FR)) and the design. A coupé for the FF and MR layout and a convertible for the FR layout were discussed. The US design team was responsible for the latter and prevailed against designs reminiscent of the Toyota MR2 and Pontiac Fiero. You can view the prototypes in the following picture gallery:

Photo gallery: Mazda MX-5 (NA) prototypes

The world premiere of the Mazda MX-5, also known as the Miata, took place relatively modestly at the Chicago Auto Show in early 1989. Sales of 5,000 vehicles per year were expected, but they quickly learned otherwise: Customers tore the little roadster from Mazda’s hands. In Germany, too, where the MX-5 did not come onto the market until 1990, there were gray imports and surcharges for resale.

30 years later, a Mazda MX-5 of the first generation (NA) stands in front of me: 3.97 meters long, 1.67 meters wide and only 1.23 meters high, plus a wheelbase of 2.26 meters. Not particularly good conditions to comfortably accommodate a tall guy like me (1.88 meters). But after a little threading, I'm not sitting too badly. The standard steering wheel without an airbag is a tad too big, but many fans have fitted a small steering wheel like in my test car, especially since there is no adjustment option. Also not atypical: the lowering and the individual aluminum rims. Can be done, does not have to be.

Also because there is not much cockpit in the MX-5 NA, it looks more airy inside than expected. However, my forehead is at the height of the window frame and the integrated headrests are a bit too low. While I'm grumbling: You shouldn't make too high demands on the plastics used in the dashboard. With the roof closed, however, the good headroom is astonishing.

But the MX-5 is about driving, not touching. To make it short: the NA drives great! Here a very direct steering, there the small gear lever with extremely short distances. In addition, a 50:50 weight distribution and a low center of gravity. In practice, you zap around the corner with the fact that it is a real pleasure. Before you have realized the curve, the MX-5 is already in. But despite all the cockiness, courtesy is the key. And what better way to signal "Please for you" than with the great pop-up headlights? Remember: a Mazda MX-5 is always socially acceptable. In every sense.

This also applies to the 1.6-liter petrol engine that was used at the beginning. Solid high-volume technology from the Mazda 323, spiced up with 16-valve technology, two overhead camshafts and an aluminum cylinder head. The unit delivers 115 hp, and 135 Newton meters are available at 5,500 revolutions. So speeds are the trump card, especially since the quietly running machine only then offers something in terms of sound. There were changes in 1994 and 1995: 131 hp from 1.9 liters and a base engine with 1.6 liters and 90 hp.

The next step took place at the beginning of 1998: the second generation (NB) got fixed headlights and a convertible top with a glass pane instead of plastic as in the NA. Critics complain that the NB is somewhat arbitrary, but optically it is a clever further development of the NA. This is shown by the dimensions: one centimeter more in width, that's it. In terms of weight, the NB added exactly 100 kilograms, but still weighs only 1.1 tons.

Here, too, the seat rehearsal: Due to the wider center console, the NB is a bit more cramped, but I fit in nicely. As in NA, only the seat can be adjusted lengthways; with traffic lights that are high up, I either have to stretch my head up or bend my head down. Plus points in the NB: The cockpit has a higher quality (there were special models with a wooden steering wheel and wooden gear knob), seats with adjustable headrests were added later and the trunk is less jagged. The rear view is excellent with NA and NB, nobody needs a parking beeper here.

Out on the road: In my case, under the nicely curved hood is a 1.9-liter engine with 140 (later 146) hp, the basic unit was a 1.6 with 110 hp. Apart from a slight starting weakness, the larger machine is powerful, with a maximum of 162 Newton meters at 4,500 revolutions. The NB also retains the jagged basic virtues of the NA, but with a little more comfort, while the NA appears a bit more puristic. While I'm on the subject: The chassis of the second MX-5 is certainly not cuddly soft, but with the factory 15-inch models it is quite well mannered.

What is the conclusion of the trip with NA and NB? Neither of them is clearly "better", if only because of their close relationship. Ultimately, the personal taste and the price decide: good Mazda MX-5 (NA) are around 10,000 euros, good NB cost half. Around 34,000 NA were once sold in Germany, and the NB even 51,000 vehicles.

Finally, let's ask Markus Frey from the Mazda dealer dynasty of the same name who built the Mazda Museum in Augsburg. He also admits that the decision between NA and NB is purely a matter of taste. There are enough spare parts at a fair price, as long as it is not a rare interior. And what about the rust that gnaws at the sills at the NA and rages even worse at the NB? In this regard, Frey advises always keeping the water drains free and looking for a well-maintained vehicle. Given the relatively low prices for the older MX-5s, that doesn't make you poor, I might add. And to be honest: only drive your MX-5 when it is dry. So the cult Mazda will remain indestructible for the next 30 years.

Image gallery: Mazda MX-5 NA vs. Mazda MX-5 NB