In the summer of 1989, Mazda launched a joyous little two-seater, the Miata. The market swooned.
And the broader zeitgeist was overwhelmed by a generational outpouring of affection for a tiny, lightweight car that recreated and reinvented the carefree British roadsters of an optimistic and rebuilding post-World War II world.
They and the small development team massaged the research and development rules inside Mazda, navigating the internal processes and politics of a small Japanese automaker with limited resources and a careful, conservative culture. The Miata was a gamble for a car company that was and remains one failed model away from an existential crisis.
(This is explains why Mazda is engaged in a deepening tie-up with Toyota Motor. Witness the latest announcement of a share-swap between Toyota and Mazda, along with plans for a new joint-venture plant in the U.S. Mazda, with limited resources, is also working with a very rich Toyota on hybrids and the general electrification of future models.)
Mazda’s history with rotary engines and Cosmos and the like suggest an interest in cars that are fun to drive, enjoyable and rewarding for the driver. But to say “Zoom-Zoom” has always been Mazda’s compass, its philosophy, the guide for everything ever done, is an exaggeration.
The truth is, the Miata jolted Mazda from top to bottom. The “Zoom-Zoom” tagline came after the Miata was launched. So it’s not historical, but a byproduct of the Miata. And that surely does impact everything Mazda does today.
The facts don’t diminish Mazda. Indeed, the latest Miata, the fourth-generation version now officially called the MX-5, is a lovely, beguiling gem. True, the MX-5 RF I tested with its $4,400 Sport Package is a more complex and more powerful car than the ’89 Miata, but the essence of the original is there.
What we didn’t’ have nearly three decades ago in the first Miata were the Brembo front brakes with their opposed piston design and unique rotors – brakes that in this car burst from the wheels visually with their bright red calipers, front AND rear. This MX-5 also came with 17-inch BBS forged alloy wheels. They are scary-looking with their dark finish.
And inside, the Recaro sport seats – heated, with Nappa leather and Alcantara trim – are rich and firm and delicious. Sadly, at $43,200, this fourth-generation MX-5 lists for more than twice the price of the original, the car we were happily aghast to see 28 years ago.
Of course it’s a delight to drive, and to look at, too.
The new MX-5 is a mix of elegance and sports-car raciness, one with a nose so low it seems to kiss the ground. The proportions are perfect, the stance wide and bold. Squinty little wedges form the LED headlamps. There are no lines on the car at all. Long nose, short rear deck, wheels that fill up the arches. Perfect and perfectly simple.
Affordable roadsters were invented by the British, refined by the Japanese and briefly resurrected by the Americans. But they are out of fashion today.
Where once showrooms were lined with the likes of the Honda S2000, Toyota MR2 Spyder, Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky, only the MX-5 (Miata) remains as a (somewhat) affordable and very real roadster.
I loved it then, in 1989, and love it still, though time has changed much in me and the MX-5 (Miata).
2017 Mazda MX-5 RF
Price as tested: $43,200. Freight and PDI: $1,795.
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder (155 horsepower/148 lb.-ft. of torque).
Drive: rear-wheel drive.
Transmission: six-speed manual.
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.9 city/7.1 hwy using premium fuel.
Comparables: Fiat 124 Spider.