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 1990 powered by a 1.6-litre inline four cylinder engine putting out 85kW at 6500rpm, enabling a 0-100km/h dash in 9.1sec and topping out at 184km/h, the MX-5 was never about searing pace, as Automotive Daily’s exclusive partner 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.”
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 105kW 1.8-litre motor to counteract the extra bulk, enabling 0-100km/h in 7.8sec and a top speed of 210km/h.
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.
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 118kW 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 Coupe 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 125kW 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.
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,” Automotive Daily’s exclusive partner 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.