Better yet, there are fewer cars that have managed to stay so true to their original form after 25 years on the market.
So, in light of the MX-5’s (neé Miata) Silver Jubilee, we took out a new one—in silver, at that—alongside an early example (chassis code: NA, followed by NB and the current NC) circa 1990, just the second year it was produced.
Fond memories of the original come rushing forth when you step into today’s example—are they accurate, or a utopian view of what the car was all about?
A little bigger, but you wouldn’t know from looking at it
Line the cars up nose-to-nose as we did, and while the family resemblance is uncanny, the fact that the new car is bigger in all directions is hardly evident. In fact, I dare say that owner David Charbonneau’s ’90 looks the more imposing of the two, what with its 15-inch Prime alloys and black hard-top (it has a soft top, too, something the new car doesn’t have if you opt for the power folding hard top).
Having said that, while I do miss some of the old car’s quirky details (the flip-up lights, for example), the new car looks the much more “styled” of the two. You can tell the old model really is little more than seats, an engine, four tires and a slab of metal to contain it all. Even the door handles look like afterthoughts.
The new car, with its fender flares, big wheels and creased rocker panels may as well be an Italian thoroughbred when compared to the original on the styling front.
Not much different from behind the wheel
It comes as little surprise that the newer car is a little bigger than the old one, but when your wheelbase is shorter than that of a Nissan Micra (as the MX-5’s is) you have to wonder how it can possibly be any tighter.
The NA is just a little more snug around the hips and shoulder-to-shoulder, but I think I’d have it no other way. Neither would the Miata’s engineers; legend has it that after an MG from the era was brought around Mazda HQ to serve as an inspiration for the company’s new roadster, they were tasked with making it work better, not necessarily more spacious.
That’s where the main differences end, however (well, that and the NC’s seats, which are much plumper than the old car’s). Just look at the gauge cluster, for example; other than being slightly brighter and using more modern fonts, the news car’s is aligned exactly as the old car’s was; your speedo and tach are front and centre, letting you concentrate on the most important aspects of driving a car like this.
What’s that, you say? The centre stacks are completely different? Well, allow me to retort.
Sure, the climate control sliders and plasticky buttons from the old car have been eschewed in favour of a more modern look, but certain elements still remain; the twin roundel vents atop the centre stack, for example. Or even how the hazard light button sits as a crown on the whole set-up. Even the fact that the MX-5’s head unit is older than what the rest of Mazda’s line-up uses is a step in bringing these two closer together.
Then there’s the way the fuel filler release is hidden from view; in the old car’s centre console, and in the new car’s lockable storage bin, between the seatbacks. Another element, another quirk that Mazda has kept in mind.
And you wouldn’t mistake the ‘14’s stubby gear lever (your link to six speeds in the new car, five in the old) for belonging to anything else than a Miata.
Time to push off, then
Spark the ignition, and the similarities are once again felt; both cars give you that similar off-beat warble through the tailpipes, kind of how a bulldog pup who thinks he’s tough might sound.
The Miata’s 1.6-litre four-cylinder grew to 1.8 litres for the second generation, then 2.0 for the third, with a corresponding power increase from 116 hp, to 142 and 167, currently. They’re not huge power jumps, but you do feel it in a car this light (Miata: 940 kg; MX-5: 1,125).
Surprising as it may seem considering the old car’s weight, the latest car’s power-to-weight ratio is about 10 percent better than the old car’s.
And when your car is this pure, this light and granular, you really can feel that small a difference, as the old car feels just a little more sluggish off the line. Yes, the years passed will play a part, but owner Charbonneau assures us that he takes every precaution to keep his car in tip-top shape.
I guess it stands to reason that the new car should feel faster, but part of me just felt like perhaps the Miata/MX-5 was the exception to the rule. It’s not slow, not at all, but as a lightweight sports car like this should do, it excels in the twisties.
It’s there, when you’re referring to the wonderfully precise shift lever, the well weighted clutch and direct steering, that the old car really comes into focus.
This 1990 model has power steering (it was an option back then), but its hydraulic set-up just feels that much more direct than does the setup on the current car.
Of course, when put up against more modern metal, the ’14 MX-5 feels better simply because it maintains a hydraulic set-up when others are going to electronic power steering, but you don’t quite get the precision you do with the older car.
Strange as it may seem, the same goes for the shift linkage; the MX-5’s remains one of the best in the biz, but our tester—just like every other example I’ve driven of this vintage—suffers from a startling imprecision in and around third gear. You won’t likely miss a shift, but it doesn’t quite suck into its slot like it should, and like the (much more broken in, obviously) example on Charbonneau’s car does.
As you continue to saw the wheel back and forth in either car, it becomes harder and harder to separate the two; the original machine, with its battery mounted in the trunk to better distribute weight, was such a finely-honed thing, and of such high quality, that it’s proven difficult to upset it. I wouldn’t say it ages like fine wine, but it has a startling staying power.
Again, it’s the quirkiness that does it for me with the old car; it was broad daylight during our drive, but I liked flipping on the headlights just to see them pop up in front of me. It’s just so deliciously retro that I did over and over again; yeah, the headlamp housings look too big for the car and yeah, aerodynamics be darned but really, I can’t be bothered. It’s too right to worry about that.
Then again, the view over the big flared fenders of the new car as you spear it down your favorite B-road has its own merit, and when you want to sit back and relax a little—perhaps on a long road trip down the coast—well, you can. There are more creature comforts, here, and a double wishbone/multi-link (with monotube dampers) front/rear suspension set-up that is a whole lot better at keeping you insulated from road imperfections around town. Even on new dampers, as Charbonneau’s car is, the creaks and rattles present bely the car’s vintage. It also makes it feel just a little less “as one” than the new car does.
Credit where it’s due
You have to hand it to Mazda for having the cajones to maintain the evolutionary attitude of the MX-5.
There is so much to like about this car, so much done right that even one of the earliest, purest examples doesn’t take anything away from it.
Of course, you also have to hand it to them for taking the concept of the iconic British roadster and making it work (both literally and figuratively) in the modern world. Further, they made it tight as a drum, so you can still take it over the exact same terrain as the new car and it hardly misses a beat.
Both cars are examples of automotive engineering at its finest, making it almost impossible to choose which you prefer.
Me? Allow me to disclaim: I am an automotive enthusiast, a classic car enthusiast and a student of vehicular evolution, but I would still have to opt for the new car. It’s as fun to drive as the old one, but it’s got just the right amount of a bells and whistles—from the power-folding hard-top to those cushy seats—to make it more realistic as a daily—or at least semi-daily—driver.
No easy call, though.
What about Dave?
“I can’t think of any other new car on the road that is anything like this,” Charbonneau said just after stepping out of the 2014 MX-5.
“But it does feel like more of a grand touring car than mine does.” Fitting, that; this particular ’14 does sport GT trim, “GT” being short for “Grand Touring.”
He should know; he bought his car after coming out of a classic MG in 1995. This was the kind of customer Mazda was going after with the Miata, and in the case of Dr. Charbonneau, at least, they succeeded.
“I was going to restore the MG, but with the Miata, they restored the British sports car, and it worked.”
Given the chance, though, would he replace his old car with the new one?
“If I was going to replace this car…” he pauses, wrinkled forehead, a look of slight consternation on his face. “I would buy an older Miata.”
I guess we’ll have to call it a draw, then.