In the entire history of the two-seater sports car, nothing comes close to the Mazda MX-5 in terms of popularity. Also known in other markets as the Miata or Eunos, it is by far the most successful vehicle of its type in the world, with total production well into seven figures. Thirty years after its global launch, we take a look at the history of one of Japan’s best-loved cars.
The man credited for dreaming up what became the MX-5 is Bob Hall, an American former journalist who grew up with a love of traditional British sports cars and could speak Japanese. Hall first suggested the idea of an inexpensive rear-wheel drive two-seater in the 1970s, and brought it up again when he got a job in Mazda’s US planning department in 1981. There was some opposition within the company, but the project was given the go-ahead in November 1983.
Although it wasn’t the cheapest or simplest option, Mazda opted for the front-engine, rear-wheel drive layout which had been almost completely abandoned by the motor industry for small cars. Low weight was also a priority. The MX-5 is sometimes said to have been based on the 1960s Lotus Elan, but Mazda insisted that it is not an imitation of anything, but “a purely Japanese car that was designed to have global appeal”.
The MX-5’s final design was approved in September 1987, and the car was unveiled at the 1989 Chicago Motor Show. It went on sale, first in North America and then in Japan, later that year, and was launched in European markets, including the UK, in 1990.
Total production reached 1,055,282 by the end of May 2018. Mazda UK reports that 131,801 MX-5s were sold in this country from the car’s launch here in 1990 to 31 December 2018.
The car was an immediate hit with the press and public. Its 1.6-litre engine wasn’t very powerful, with a maximum output of 115bhp (a slightly beefier 129bhp 1.8-litre unit arrived in 1994), but the handling balance was just about perfect and all the major controls (steering, accelerator, brakes, clutch and gearshift) were a delight to use.
The original MX-5 remained in production for eight years. Its successor was very similar, but had more power and fixed headlights rather than the previous retractable ones. The 2004 Mazdaspeed version was the only MX-5 so far to emerge from the factory with a turbocharged engine (whose 178bhp power output was the highest of any production MX-5 until very recently), though there have been many aftermarket turbo conversions.
In 2003, two years before production of the Mk2 MX-5 ended, Mazda gave a good idea of what its successor would look like by displaying the Ibuki concept car, which was built on a modified version of the rotary-engined RX-8 platform. Designed under the direction of Moray Callum (who spent five years at Mazda in between jobs at Ford), it was more radical than the production Mk3 but had very similar styling.
Technically quite different from the earlier cars, the Mk3 was the largest and heaviest MX-5 yet, and the first with the option of a two-litre engine. It was also the longest-lived version yet, with production lasting from 2005 to 2015. Jeremy Clarkson, who described the 2.0i Sport Tech version as “perfect”, give it five stars in his review in the Sunday Times, adding that this was only because he couldn’t give it 14.
The Roadster Coupe
All MX-5s until now had been convertibles, with folding fabric roofs. The Mk3 was available in this form too, but Mazda also produced the Roadster Coupe version, whose retractable roof was solid. This added weight, but since the roof did not need bracing cars, including one right above the occupants’ heads, the Roadster Coupe was the better choice for taller drivers.
The current MX-5 is significantly lighter than the Mk3 and has far more aggressive styling than any previous model. From its launch in 2014 it was available with 129bhp 1.5-litre and 158bhp two-litre engines. Unusually, many motoring journalists prefer the former. In 2016 the new model was placed first both overall and in the Design category of the World Car of the Year awards, and third in the European Car of the Year.
At the UK media presentation in 2015 Mazda was not in a position to say whether there would be an equivalent of the Mk3 Roadster Coupe, but it seemed safe to assume that there would. Sure enough, the RF (short for Retractable Fastback) was launched worldwide in late 2016, and in this country in March the following year.
Guinness World Records officially recognised the MX-5 as the world’s best-selling two-seater sports car in 2000, when production had reached 531,890 units. The one millionth car left the factory on 22 April 2016 and was exhibited in several parts of Japan the following month.
The Italian job 1: Fiat
Named after a sports car introduced in the 1960s, the Fiat 124 Spider is in most respects the same thing as the fourth-generation MX-5, though it has considerably different styling and uses Fiat’s 138bhp 1.4-litre MultiAir turbo petrol engine rather than either of the Mazda ones. Despite recent speculation to the contrary, Fiat says the car is still on sale in the UK.
The Italian job 2: Abarth
The Abarth 124 Spider, which is still on sale in this country, is the high-performance version of the Fiat. Its MultiAir engine produces 168bhp, more than any non-turbo version of the MX-5 produced before 2018. The mechanically similar Abarth 124 GT special edition (pictured), of which just 50 are available to UK customers, is the only one of the Italian cars with a solid roof.
The revised Mk4 MX-5 went on sale in September 2018. One of the changes was a series of modifications to the two-litre engine which enabled it to rev higher and produce more power. Its output of 181bhp is the highest yet for any production MX-5, including the turbocharged Mazdaspeed version introduced 14 years earlier.