A short history of... the Mazda MX-5

Image of many MX-5s
A flock of MX-5s, yesterday
"No two-seater since has quite had the same impact, nor gained the same global following" Alex Robbins, Telegraph Cars
  • | by Daniel Bevis

Mazda’s cheeky little MX-5 has been with us for 26 years, if you can believe it. That makes it as old as Madonna's Like a Prayer, Daniel Radcliffe, and Honey I Shrunk the Kids.

And with the fresh new fourth-generation model trundling along the production line as we speak, we’re going to take a look at why you should ignore anyone who foolishly dismisses it as a ‘hairdresser’s car’. (As if that’s even a thing…)

Back in the late 1980s, the MX-5 tapped into a global desire for affordable roadster thrills that had traditionally been a bit of a gamble with the likes of the MGB, Triumph TR6 and Alfa Spider. These were fine-looking, able cars but all fiendishly unreliable.

Mazda effectively smooshed all of these old-school cars together, sketched out a profile that unashamedly borrowed from the 1960s Lotus Elan, and crammed in some dependable mechanicals. Thus, a legend was born.

This advert neatly anchors it to a time period that suddenly feels like a really long time ago...

Mark 1 – NA (1989-97)

Image of Mazda MX-5 NA

The NA MX-5 was a game-changer.

Its combination of eager performance and everyday usability, along with its cuteness and obvious aesthetic debt to the British roadsters of yore, proved to be a winning formula – Mazda shifted millions of them.

What’s most notable is the attention to detail – it wasn’t built down to a price, but was instead filled with the right ingredients to make it perfect.

What you get for your money is a perky twin-cam motor, rear-wheel drive, one of the greatest gearboxes the world has ever enjoyed, and a willing chassis that lets you steer it with your hips like you’re in a Caterham.

They’re almost supernaturally good fun. And, incredibly, you can still get a usable example for about a grand! Look out for rust in the sills though, and sticky rear calipers.

Also, don’t be afraid of Japanese import ‘Eunos’ models– they’re generally better equipped (although may be pricier to insure, check with your provider), and were built in the same factory. They’re just MX-5s with different badges. MX-5 and Eunos aren’t the only names to be aware of either – in the States it was called the Miata.

Image of Mazda MX-5 NA

“The Mazda MX-5 managed to go where no small sports car had gone before,” says Alex Robbins, consumer editor at Telegraph Cars. “Not only was it fun, but it was reliable too – and that blend of talents made sure it was an instant classic. No two-seater since has quite had the same impact, nor gained the same global following.”

Mark 2 – NB (1998-2005)

Image of Mazda MX-5 NB

The most obvious difference that arrived with the second-generation MX-5 was the move from pop-up headlights to fixed units. Pop-ups are obviously infinitely cooler, but pedestrian safety regulations just wouldn’t allow them to continue.

Some argue that the NB is less ‘pure’. But if your head’s turned by specs and data sheets, it has a lot going for it: the engine has a handful of extra horsepower, the brakes are significantly upgraded, and it’s slightly more aerodynamic too.

Image of Mazda MX-5 NB

The NB was facelifted in 2000, adding more supportive seats and a heap of mechanical gubbins

If you comb carefully through the classifieds, you really can get a lot of car for your money. They’re just as hilarious to drive as the NA. And we all fondly remember ‘Zoom Zoom’, right?

Mark 3 – NC (2005-15)

Image of Mazda MX-5 NC

The third-generation MX-5 was an entirely more modern proposition.

Its pumped-up wheel arches and broader footprint made it look a lot more grown-up, while such options as paddle-shift transmission and traction control pushed it into an evolving sector of sports car.

“The MX-5 Mk3 – and the more sharply-styled Mk3.5 – were both superb evolutions of the wonderfully pure design of the Mk1,” says Paul Cowland, presenter of the Discovery Channel’s Turbo Pickers. “Usually, manufacturers allow their keystone sports models to get larger, lardier and generally more lethargic as they evolve, but Mazda’s brilliance was their ability to add luxuries like the folding hard-top and paddle-shift, in order to attract more customers, while maintain a sharp focus on light weight, chassis-feel and just the right amount of grip. In terms of smiles-per-pound, these cars really are untouchable.”

It’s really been embraced by the tuner community too, even more so than its predecessors – check out what drifter Mad Mike’s been up to.

Image of Mazda MX-5 NC

A facelift in 2009 – that ‘Mk3.5’ that Paul referred to – improved interior space and updated the exterior styling, while an extra slug of horsepower and a few chassis tweaks also appeared.

Yet another facelift in 2013 reduced the overall weight, improved throttle response and braking, and introduced Active Bonnet for pedestrian safety  - a world away from the NA’s pointy pop-ups…

Mark 4 – ND (2015)

Image of Mazda MX-5 ND

So we come to the freshest MX-5, the ND.

And, as great as the NC was, this fourth-gen offering is seeking to right some perceived wrongs of the outgoing model: it’s lighter. It’s smaller. It’s improved performance by making it more efficient, rather than just stuffing a load more power in.

The 2.0-litre engine offers a relatively modest 155bhp, but the weight is down to just 998kg. That’s about  same as the NB, but with much better equipment and safety. How do they do this? Witchcraft, probably.

Image of Mazda MX-5 ND

They’ve managed to keep the cost down, too. When it was launched, the 115bhp NA MX-5 cost £14,249 – equivalent to £31,687 in today’s money. A quarter-century later and with vastly more standard equipment, the all-new ND costs £18,495.

The ND looks set to revolutionise the two-seater roadster market just like the NA did, you wait and see. Now, about bringing back those pop-up headlights...