When you set out to rank every generation of a specific automobile, however, there’s always going to be a model that sits at the bottom of the ladder.
It’s not so much that any version of Mazda’s iconic roadster is a victim of its own shortcomings, but rather that in our estimation it pales somewhat when compared to the absolute best iteration of one of the purest representations of sheer driving joy every built.
With all that said, which generation of the Mazda MX-5 Miata stands out to us as the shining beacon of everything the car was meant to be, and which one has seen its glow dull just a little in contrast? Check out our take on the best versions of the Mazda Miata ever built, and let us know whether we got it right or wrong.
The first Miata was a tour de force interpretation of the classic British sports car concept, a vehicle just as notable for what it left on the table as for what it brought to the game. In an era when the Japanese sports car game was dominated by exotic technologies like four-wheel steering, twin-turbos, and even Mazda’s own rotary engine, the Miata went in the opposite direction.
Presenting itself as a simple, rev-happy four-cylinder roadster with an ultra-low curb weight (right around 2,100 lbs) and minimal complications between the driver and the asphalt below its 14-inch wheels, the MX-5 made a plus out of its modest 116 horsepower (later elevated to 128, then 133 when the 1.6-liter motor was punched out to 1.8-liters in 1995). It was responsive enough to keep the momentum-car moving at a brisk pace, yet never a threat to overpower either the rear wheels or the driver, and its supremely balanced chassis rewarded every input, no matter how minute.
All of the above, plus the NA Miata’s svelte shape (a lovely jelly bean with pop-up headlights), simple manual top, and inexpensive running costs set it well on its trajectory to being the best-selling two-seat convertible in history. It’s yet to have been equaled.
The third-generation Miata was brave enough to try to expand the roadster’s mission statement without losing sight of what had made it great to begin with. Somewhat larger, and a few hundred pounds heavier, than the sprightliest NA, the NC was still one of the least weighty sports cars on the market when it appeared in 2005. It continued the four-cylinder formula (now a 2.0-liter unit rated at 170 horsepower and 140 lb-ft of torque), and buyers could choose between a five- and six-speed manual gearbox. A refresh mid-way through the car’s production run would bump the redline by 500 rpm and boost its grin-factor.
The NC was significantly more comfortable and refined than the generation that preceded it and featured the availability of a power retractable hardtop. Whereas past versions of the Miata had required a lift-off design for anyone seeking four-season security, the NC’s built-in feature dragged new customers into the Mazda showroom, even if critics complained about the hundred pounds or so it added to the mix.
Most importantly, however, the NC drove exceptionally well. More insulated from the road than the NA of decades past, it was nevertheless a blast when pushed hard, and in an era where most of its rivals were at least 500 lbs heavier, it never came across as portly. It was the first time Mazda had strayed from the original simplicity-is-everything mantra that had guided the first MX-5, and it was a risk worth taking that did indeed change the character of the car, but not for the worse.
Why does the NB come in behind the NC on our ranking of every Mazda Miata generation? Whereas the third iteration of the roadster gave us something new, the second was more accurately described as an attempt to civilize certain aspects of the first, without alienating its core fan base. It was just as ‘good’ but not appreciably ‘better’ in terms of driving experience, and that keeps it from climbing higher.
Wider, and lacking the rad pop-up headlights of the NA, the NB’s cabin was more accommodating to taller drivers and its overall styling was more sleek than round. The 1.8-liter engine was retained, and power remained at 140 horses (143 by 2001) but a six-speed manual transmission was now in the mix and helped the car shame the NA in a straight line. A five-speed also remained on the order sheet.
Aside from the above, there wasn’t much about the NB that set it apart from the original Miata. A Mazdaspeed turbocharged model came online for 2004, but its 178 horses and 166 lb-ft of torque were matched with unusually aggressive gearing that conspired to keep the car feeling more frenetic than fantastic, and it never found a widespread following among MX-5 fans.
When the ND was launched as a 2016 model, Mazda went out of its way to compare it to the classic NA. In some ways the parallels were there: the car stepped down to 155 horsepower and cut major weight compared to the NC, which at its core is the same formula applied by the very first vehicle to wear the Miata badge.
What keeps the current version of the MX-5 at the bottom of our list is something that wasn’t even dreamed of when the NA first hit showrooms. Electric power steering has managed to deaden the feel for so many modern sports cars, and compared to the hydraulic – or even unassisted – setup available in early Miatas, the ND comes across as remarkably numb.
Still, there’s a lot to like about the ND Miata. Its suspension tuning remains top-notch and the car is a lot of fun to drive, especially once the revised 2019 engine’s 181 horsepower and 7,500 rpm redline injected substantial life into the chassis. The interior also offers far more modern infotainment and comfort options than any previous model. The RF model’s power retractable targa panel is a bit of a puzzler, but like the NC’s experimentation it at least tries to take the Miata concept in a different direction.
Mazda MX-5, Mazda Motor Corporation
World news – THAT – Generation Gap: Ranking each and every Mazda MX-5 Miata