Currently reading: History of the Mazda MX-5 - picture special
We look back at the iconic little sports car that brought open-top motoring to the masses
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5 mins read
25 June 2020

In February 1989 at the Chicago Auto Show, Mazda pulled the wraps off a lightweight, affordable sports car that would go on to be the biggest-selling two-seater convertible in history. The Mazda MX-5.

Standing for Mazda Experiment and project number 5, the MX-5 went through seven years of heavily critiqued design, engineering and testing before being given the production green light.

It eventually went on sale in the UK on 14 March 1990, priced at £14,249. That day was also when we published our full road test of the affable sports car. Powered by a 1.6-litre inline four cylinder engine putting out 114bhp at 6500rpm, enabling a 0-60mph dash in 9.1sec and topping out at 114mph, the MX-5 was never about searing pace, as Autocar wrote back in the day.

“If you’re expecting a Mazda MX-5 to set you alight, you’re in for a disappointment. But as with everything the MX-5 does, it’s not the result but the participation that puts a smile on your face.

“This is the two-seat roadster that car enthusiasts have been screaming for since the demise of the old Lotus Elan. It also has the two ingredients essential in any sports car powerplant: instant throttle response and an invigorating exhaust note.”

The real ace up the MX-5's sleeve proved to be its five-speed manual gearbox. “Rising no more than a couple of inches from the transmission tunnel, the well-weighted gear lever snaps through its tiny throws with millimetric precision,” we mused. Allied to pin-sharp handling and spectacular balance to flaunt its 950kg kerb weight, it allowed the driver plenty of mid-corner adjustability.

“The MX-5 is a total success. Mazda’s single-minded determination to provide fun has produced a car of the rarest quality. Above all else, it is its ability to involve the driver intimately in its every reaction and response that makes it a joy to drive. Few others, at any price, can offer so much.”

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Here is the fourth-gen Mazda MX-5 - the definitive small sports car

Fourth-generation MX-5 heads back to Mazda's roadster's roots, surpassing its predecessor in every area

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In 1997, the second-generation MX-5 arrived, sans pop-up headlights of the original – due to safety regulations – and with an extra 115kg of mass due to its sleeker look. The 1.6-litre unit was joined by a new 140bhp 1.8-litre motor to counteract the extra bulk, enabling 0-62mph in 7.8sec and a top speed of 130mph.

That model was a sales smash. Throughout its life, the second-generation received a facelift and more kit. The output of both the 1.6- and the 1.8-litre engines were boosted and buyers could enjoy a six-speed manual gearbox.

It would go on to develop even more of a reputation for rust in its later years than the car it replaced, but a handful of special editions and the same dynamic handling as its forebear would ensure many still see regular use on UK roads.

Seven years later, the third-generation Mazda MX-5 was unleashed at the 2005 Geneva motor show, having undergone a complete overhaul. Penned by Yasushi Nakamuta and overseen by Moray Callum (yes, Ian’s brother), it boasted a more aggressive look with flared wheel arches while still harking back to the original design. Suspension changed from a four-wheel double wishbone setup to a front wishbone/rear multilink setup.

The 1.6-litre lump was dropped in favour of an entry-level 1.8-litre motor, while the flagship 2.0-litre engine developed 158bhp and was now available with a six-speed manual gearbox. Good job too, as the third-generation MX-5 tipped the scales at more than 1100kg. A folding hard-top model, the Roadster Coupé was added to the line-up a year later, claiming a tiny increase in weight and a marked improvement in refinement.

In 2009, Mazda performed tweaks to make it sharper and improve the linearity of its steering. Power for the 2.0-litre motor was now up to 167bhp at 7200rpm. A final nip-and-tuck came in 2012 when the MX-5 gained a more aggressive front face, fresh 17-inch alloy wheels and a new ‘active bonnet’ to improve pedestrian safety. 

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The MX-5 would receive an all-new fourth-generation version in 2014, with Mazda's KODO design language influencing its look and shape. It arrived with a choice of 1.5 or 2.0-litre engines that both used Mazda's Skyactiv fuel-saving technology, and weighed around 100kg less than the car it replaced. A lower centre of gravity helped it recapture some of the dynamic flair many thought was missing from the third-generation car.

"There isn't a single area in which this new Mazda MX-5 fails to surpass its predecessor," Autocar said at the time. "It's shorter, lighter, more spacious and better laid out. It's sharper-looking but still disarming and distinctive. It's faster, more frugal and even more vibrant and engaging to drive."

A new RF (Retractable Fastback) model would join the line-up, opting for more of a targa-style approach than the NC-generation's folding hardtop, and it would get its own six-speed automatic gearbox. Soon after, in April 2016, Mazda would sell its one millionth MX-5, 27 years after the first car rolled off production lines.

No stranger to a special edition or two, Mazda would mark the MX-5's 30th anniversary with a limited-run model. The 30th Anniversary edition could only be had in Racing Orange, and included forged aluminium wheels, Recaro bucket seats, Bilstein suspension and Brembo front brakes - though power remained unchanged, as to give it any more would go against the philosophy of the model.

Throughout its life the Mazda MX-5 has built itself a huge fan base, thanks to its ease of use, affordability and low running costs. It's proven popular in many forms of motorsport, and even been subject to a host of aftermarket conversions - including V8 engine swaps and forced induction systems.

The latest MX-5 remains a true testament to the original, combining jaw-dropping looks with a low kerb weight and nimble driving style. As for the future? Mazda is reportedly considering its options, with a hybrid or even fully electric powertrain for its fifth generation.

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Comments
9

22 February 2014
Only wish Lotus had kept the original Elan alive and that they'd evolved the car like Mazda has done with the mx5. It's a shame lotus didn't target their roots when they went mad trying to develop their next generation of hyper expensive cars. A model under the elise like the mx5 would be ideal...wouldn't it?...

22 February 2014
History is littered with failed car companies that forgot their roots

25 February 2014
I have spent 21 enjoyable years with my Miatas, and hope to have many more. Currently putting a Ford Mustang GT V-8 into a 93'. A friends project that will be a lot of fun for him as he "drive(s) the piss out of it".

Looking forward to the next iteration of the MX-5. Back to its 'roots'?

18 March 2014
Why not use the 2.3 engine from the Mazda3 or Mazda6 and if you really crave more power use the MPS Turbo version with 260+ PS. You won't upset the handling by fitting a big V8 which is bound to be heavy compared to the alloy 4 cylinder unit. I am sure there must be a few damaged 3s, 6s or dare I say it...CX-7s...about by now for a cheap engine swap...! My CX-7 goes like stink and weighs nearly 2 tons, so the MX-5 would simply fly with only 1100kg to power....thats more than 230PS per ton!!! It may be a bit tight with the turbo, intercooler and all the pipework, but I'll bet someone has done it somewhere!!

25 February 2014
"Brought open top motoring BACK to the masses" would have been more accurate. Ten or so years previously, the UK had this sector pretty much sewn up, with the MGB, Spitfire and Midget all competing for our cash. But these cars saw hardly any development during their long lives (except the B, and then only for the worse), so it was hardly surprising that people stopped buying them.

So well done Mazda for spotting the opportunity, and producing the MX5. An exquisitely engineered car, and as so often, the first cars were the best.

25 February 2014
I loved my 2nd generation version. It never once had a failure of any kind in almost ten years of ownership and driving it over two continents.
Good memories of driving my son to nursery in it with the roof down! I wish them success with the new upcoming version.

24 August 2019

This is a car that transcends all my prejudices HVAC Installation & Replacement Service; what a truly, deeply magnificent piece of kit. Forget the Veyron, this is the seminal supercar. I love super cars.

MrJ

25 June 2020

I love the G3 version, the current model's styling is too fussy for me.

The retractable hardtop of the G3 is pretty good too, again better for me than the current model.

25 June 2020
They are great cars, just wish they didn't suffer so badly with rust, my na eunos has had a fair bit of welding, far more than my decade older 924 ever needed, but then it was galvanised.

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