Why Nobody Has Caught the Mazda Miata, Even After 30 Years of Trying

Challengers have come and gone, but the MX-5 is still king of the sports car hill.

Mazda

To those of us who had seen the 1990 Mazda Miata at the Chicago Auto Show the previous year, we knew what was coming, but when the little car hit the showroom few knew what to make of it. Wasn’t the market for little roadsters dead? Didn’t people want bigger and faster?

Not necessarily, Mazda and the rest of the automotive world learned quickly. One Mazda dealer told me, “I don’t know what sells better than hotcakes, but that’s what’s happening here.” Available initially in red, white or blue, and lightly optioned, the Miata’s appeal came down to one joke at the expense of England.

“It’s like a British sports car that starts every time, and doesn’t leak oil!"

Mazda

Mazda Miata, Generation 1

Yes, well, it was. The Miata was a hit, and immediately other manufacturers decided they’d get a piece of the Miata’s action. They tried. They failed.

The Miata has stretched out its product cycle since day one. Gen 2 didn’t come until 1998; gen 3 was 2005, and generation 4 didn’t show up until 2015. Though sales have wavered, the Miata is still an important flagship for Mazda—the automaker will tell you that every Mazda 3 and Mazda 6 has a little Miata in there.

So what about those challengers?

Mercury

Mercury Capri

Mercury Capri: One of the earliest and most direct competitors was the 1991 Mercury Capri, a rather lumpy little car from Australia that did, at least, have a small rear seat, and a convertible top that stowed under a hatch. One person could lower it, but he or she had to walk around the car to get it done. The little Mazda four-cylinder purred, but was hardly sporting, and nor was the balky manual transmission. Mercury dealers had no more idea what to do with the Capri than they did the Merkur XR4Ti. Build quality was spotty, but I put 40,000 miles on one with no problems. Resale value then and now is dismal.  

Toyota MR2, Generations 1, 2 and 3. Three strikes and you're out. Toyota tried hard with three very different cars, all mid-engine. The first MR2 was a tiny two-seater, and it did and does have its fans, but it never really threatened the Miata. It actually preceded the Miata (as did a few other cars, like the Pontiac Fiero, that really wasn't in the running), and while it was a fun little car, it was polarizing.

Generation two was much more fun to drive, but it was a hardtop, with only a handful of roadsters made and mostly shipped to Europe, so it really didn't match the Miata's style. Generation three tried hard to, though: The first prototype was shown in 1997, and by the time it reached these shores, it was clear Toyota wanted to take on the Miata. The MR2 Spyder, with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder and available manual transmission, was the near-conventional convertible Toyota dealers thought they wanted.

Toyota

Toyota MR2, Generation 3

But the car never caught on, a big reason being one of the smallest trunks in all of the automotive world: 1.9 cubic feet, and due to the shape, even a small rollaboard suitcase wouldn't fit, front or rear. How this made it through the product people is a mystery. But while the third-gen car was fun to drive, again, it wasn't as much fun as a Miata.

Lotus Elan: Seldom has a car come and gone so quickly, with so little fanfare. The Lotus Elan M100, introduced about the same time as the Miata, was intended to be an affordable roadster, but with GM at the helm of the company, the price rose.

Lotus

Lotus Elan M100

It was actually a very pleasant little car, but there were two factors that were the kiss of death. Lotus loyalists turned their back on the Elan because A.) it looked too much like the unloved Mercury Capri, and B.) it had an Isuzu engine and transmission. A shame: It is a handsome machine, and there was nothing wrong at all with the Isuzu powertrain. A missed opportunity.

Honda

Honda S2000

Honda S2000: I include this because on paper, the S2000 was similar to the Miata, but S2000 owners would balk at that statement—it was much more a performance vehicle and was priced considerably higher. The S2000 was not in any way a failure after a few early bugs were worked out, but the average citizen could easily mistake one for a Miata. And S2000 owners are not average citizens. Resale value has always been good and is getting better.

We've weeded out a few possibilities, like the Honda del Sol at the bottom, and the BMW Z3 and Porsche Boxster at the top. The bottom line is that the Miata is one of the only cars made where every model year is good, from 1990 up. You can buy a runner for $2,000 or you can pay over $40,000 for a new one, but everywhere in between, there's a Miata in your price range, ready to be an economical daily driver, a weekend warrior at the autocross track, or a Sunday-afternoon-in-the-country car. 

"I want a fun car, but I can't spend a fortune. What should I get?" 

The answer is always Miata.

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