30 years ago, Mazda introduced one of the most iconic roadsters to the world. It’s one of the most enjoyable, reliable sports cars for topless motoring. And it’s an unstoppable legend on the amatuer racing circuit. Zoom zoom!
From 16 year olds to 60+, we all know that Miata is always the answer. They look great slammed, and heck, I even dig the safari builds on them! But which of the 4 generations is your ideal car? Is it the first generation with those pop-up headlights? The NB that’s a touch more modern and a slightly better daily? The third generation, which is both bigger and peppier than its older siblings? Or the ND with that pretty trick power retractable hard top?
Everyone at one point in their life should own a Miata. So, I’m going to dig into all four generations with you and let you know what I like about each. And by the end of this article, you’ll know exactly which version is the ideal one for you!
First Generation (NA Miata)
When the little two-door, rear-wheel drive Mazda sports car debuted in 1989, it was a force to be reckoned with. This first generation, known by their chassis codes as the NA, was like no other drop-top sports car available on the market at the time. It looked like an old British roadster, but had the reliability of a Toyota. Plus, one of the most distinct features of any car ever, the good old pop-up headlights.
It was a simple recipe that made you want to just get in and drive! For the first few years your only option was a 1.6-liter four-banger that made 116 horsepower. Now, that doesn’t sound like a lot, because it isn’t, but the Miata is a momentum car, and weighing in at roughly 2,100 pounds, it doesn’t take a whole lot to get this thing moving. That said, if you want to try a 0 to 60 run, expect it to take you more than 8 seconds.
Now, in 1994, Mazda decided it needed some more oomph, and upgraded to a 1.8-liter four-cylinder powerplant, which brought 131 horsepower to the party. Enthusiasts will refer to the 1994 and later cars the NA8’s because of the 1.8-liter while the 1990-93 Miatas with the 1.6-liter engines are the NA6’s. Realistically, the driving difference between the NA6 and NA8 isn’t huge, so it really comes down to finding one that’s in good condition, within your budget, and without rust!
There are two transmission options: automatic and a 5-speed manual. And although I think the car can be fun with either transmission, if you want to squeeze the most out of one, get one with the manual! It’s a 5-speed manual, and even stock they produce confident, crisp throws.
Since there weren’t many options to choose from when buying an NA Miata new, one thing I’d look for on the used market is the limited slip differential. The NA6’s had a viscous limited slip that would rarely make it past 60,000. On the other hand, the NA8’s had a Torsen limited slip differential which was much more reliable.
Now, the NA Miata I would buy? Well, since we’re talking about an almost 30 year old sports car, the first thing I would look for is condition! On AutoTempest, prices for these vary. On the most expensive side would have to be the M Edition, which was built from 1994 to 1997. They only made about 3,000 of these each year, so they’re pretty collectible, and you get some super light BBS wheels, seats with adjustable headrests, and a Torsen limited slip differential with a 4.10 gear ratio.
How much do you need to budget for an NA miata? You can get an NA Miata starting at under $4,000 and going all the way up to almost $20,000! If you want to see how Miata prices are trending over the past couple of years, click here!
So, who should buy an NA Miata? If you’re looking for a long-lasting sporty ride that’s easy to maintain and easily customizable, an NA6 or NA8 is a great choice! Plus, it’s an added bonus that they’re going up in value! Just try to start with the cleanest example you can!
But before you try on that NA shoe to see if it fits, there are three other generations that are competing for you as a driver. And since there’s a saying, “the NA is a better Miata, but the NB is a better car”, the choice is going to be harder than you might expect.
Second Generation (NB Miata)
A quick glance at this thing and I swear you see a shortened convertible version of an RX-7. Yeah, the NB is a refresh of the NA. It weighed in at 2,299 pounds, and under the hood, there was a 1.8-liter engine with a little more power, now totaling 140 horses. And, as you could probably tell, the pop-up headlights were gone, but I think the rear end on the NB is much better looking than the NA, so maybe that’ll offset the lack of pop-ups for you.
For 1999, a special 10-year-anniversary Miata came out with some Bilstein shocks, a front strut tower bar, and an optional 6-speed manual. But as much fun as that sounds, some consider the best NB to be the 2001 and later, known as the NB2 because it got a refresh.
On the outside, the NB2 got a small facelift with projector headlights. And under the hood, it got Variable Valve Timing (also known as VVT) on the intake cam, which added some horsepower. And the new engine could be mated to a highly desirable 6-speed manual transmission. It just made the car that much more daily drivable.
And, of these NB2’s, there was one that came with a little turbski. For 2 years, 2004 and 2005, you could get a Mazdaspeed Miata with 178 horsepower ready for a good time!
If you’re trying to decide between an NA and an NB, it really comes down to price and condition of what is available. You really can’t go wrong with either, as long as you find one in good condition at a reasonable price. But, if you’re like me, that Mazdaspeed sounds pretty sick!
So, let me throw a wrench into all of this, because the most underrated Miata was the NC MX-5, which started hitting the streets in 2006, and can be had for the same price as a solid NA or NB.
Third Generation (NC Miata)
If you’re looking for something a bit more modern than the NA or NB that won’t break the bank, the third generation MX-5 is an excellent buy. While some complained that it went a bit soft, the NC MX-5 is still an absolute joy to drive.
Back in 2006, when the NC first showed up, it was the only major redesign of the car. The NA and NB are built on the same chassis. Any change is initially seen as “bad” in the community, so this large change was seen as “very bad”. But it may have gotten a bad reputation for no good reason.
The NC is bigger and heavier than the NA and NB, and it looks even bigger than it is. It does have more luxuries, which is considered by enthusiasts to be a negative because of the added weight. It uses drive-by-wire (electronic throttle) rather than a cable like the older cars. It’s a little taller, a little wider, a little heavier, which are all less “Miata-y”. But, there’s actually a ton to like about the 3rd generation. This generation introduced a Power Retractable Hard Top (PRHT) variant that features a folding mechanism that does not interfere with trunk space.
Now, at this point, you might be saying, “sure, the NC could be a good option compared to the NA or NB, but what about the ND, one of the most critically acclaimed cars of the decade?” The ND is a better car. I’ll say that now. But part of what that means is that the values of NC’s went down precipitously after the ND came out. Early NC’s have dropped well into the four digit range for a good one. I would argue that this makes them the best value among the Miatas available.
Fourth Generation (ND Miata)
The fourth generation Miata, or the ND, started out in 2016, and this generation is good. In fact, it won World Car of the Year. The early versions of the ND Miata come equipped with Mazda’s SKYACTIV 2.0-liter inline 4-cylinder engine. From 2016–2018, the engine was rated at 155 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. The performance figures may seem small by today’s standards, but you have to remember that the Miata is a very light car, weighing a little over 2,300 pounds right out of the box. With a combined EPA rating of 29 mpg, the MX-5 isn’t very thirsty, either.
The Miata sends its power to the ground through one of two transmission choices. A slick shifting 6-speed manual is standard equipment for the purists, while an optional 6-speed automatic is available for those who are alright with giving their left foot a rest.
An updated model was introduced in 2018 and is visually identical to the pre-update model. It has been designated as series ND2 due to an engine upgrade to 135 kW (181 horsepower) and several other improvements around the car. The ND generation introduced a Retractable Fastback (RF) variant that features a rigid roof and buttresses that give the silhouette a more coupé-like appearance than the soft-top convertible.
If you want something a bit nicer with a little more power at baseline, the ND is for you. Daily driver? Absolutely ND. I’ve only driven a 124, but it’s far-and-away better than an NA or NB. But it’s more expensive. Early ND Miatas have started to drop in price, so your ticket to fun behind the wheel may be closer than you think.
There are 3 trims. The Sport trim is the base model of the MX-5 range, available only as a soft-top. If you want a simple little roadster, this is the car for you. The Club trim is aimed at the hardcore enthusiast. The Club model adds a few more bells and whistles, such as an upgraded Bose audio system and 17-inch wheels. The Grand Touring is the top of the line within the Miata hierarchy. The Grand Touring is the MX-5 that focuses on creature comforts, such as heated leather seats.
Fun fact: in 2000, the Guinness Book of World Records declared the MX-5 the best-selling two-seat sports car in history!
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