Mazda MX-5 Generations: We drive every generation, from NA to ND

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I never had posters of the Mazda MX-5 on my bedroom walls as a kid. I had a Ferrari F40, Lamborghini Diablo, and McLaren F1, but no MX-5. Somehow, though, without supercar looks or performance, this humble little Japanese convertible has captured the hearts of many across the world.

So why are we talking about the Mazda MX-5 today, some 15 months after the latest fourth-generation ND MX-5 launched? Well, for the very first time, Mazda Australia has managed to dust off and gather up its own in-house ‘Heritage Collection’ of MX-5s, bringing them together for a brief on-track event. And we’ve been handed the keys… Reason enough, in our book.

All four generations are here, NA to ND, spanning 27 years of the two-seater sports car. As a bonus, apart from getting to sample road-going versions of the NA, NB, NC and ND Mazda MX-5, we also get a chance to lap the 1.6-kilometre flat track at Wodonga TAFE’s Logic Campus in a competition-spec Global Mazda MX-5 Cup car.

But, first…

Five MX-5 Fun Facts

  • Since making its global debut at the 1989 Chicago motor show, 462,000 MX-5s have been sold in North America, 320,000 across Europe, 180,000 in Japan, and 19,000 in Australia.
  • According to Mazda Australia, 6123 NA MX-5s, 5037 NB MX-5s, and 5761 NC MX-5s, have been sold in Australia.
  • Despite being up 11kW and 20Nm on the 85kW/130Nm 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine initially used to power the first-generation NA, the 96kW/150Nm 1.5-litre four-cylinder SKYACTIV-G engine in the current ND is the smallest-capacity engine ever offered in an MX-5.
  • To date, 2.0-litre variants of the ND MX-5 make up the majority of those sold in Australia, accounting for 73 per cent of all sales.
  • With production tipping over the one million-mark in April 2016, the Mazda MX-5 well and truly holds the title of being the world’s best-selling, two-seat convertible sports car.

NA: 1989-97

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Weighing in at a sprightly 940kg, and measuring 3975mm long and 1675mm wide, the NA Mazda MX-5 was light and simple. And light and simple meant fun.

Initially launched locally with an 85kW/130Nm 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine, the five-speed manual-only NA claimed 0-100km/h in 8.8 seconds.

Originally priced from $29,990 (before on-road costs), the NA MX-5 received a mid-life update in 1994 that saw power steering, a CD player, and a power antenna all introduced, as well as the option of a four-speed automatic transmission.

Capping off the update was an upgrade from the previous 1.6-litre engine to a 98kW/155Nm 1.8-litre four-cylinder replacement.

NB: 1998-2005

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Ten years after the first-generation NA broke onto the world stage at the 1989 Chicago motor show, the second-generation NB Mazda MX-5 was unveiled at the 1997 Tokyo motor show.

Generally regarded as a positive follow-up to the original, the NB was bigger. Not only 110kg heavier (at 1050kg), but also 20mm longer and 5mm wider than the NA, with wider tracks front and rear. Its 2265mm wheelbase was identical to the first-generation car, though, there were other changes.

Outputs from the 1.8-litre engine were up, with power and torque rising 8kW and 10Nm, respectively, to 106kW and 165Nm.

Standard equipment, too, had increased, with a glass rear window with a demister added, along with 15-inch alloy wheels – up from the NA’s standard 14-inch items. A clip-in hard-top was also made optionally available.

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On sale in Australia since 1998, the second-generation NB launched locally priced from $39,800 (before on-road costs), before the 10th Anniversary Edition arrived in 1999, bringing with it a change from a five- to a six-speed manual transmission, the first-time addition of anti-lock brakes (ABS), and a price increase of $7120.

This was followed a year later by the launch of the upgraded 1.8-litre S-VT (sequential valve timing) engine, bumping up power and torque to 113kW and 181Nm, respectively.

Answering the call of local fans crying out for a gutsier MX-5, in 2002 Mazda Australia released the turbocharged MX-5 SP.

Priced from $55,540 (before on-road costs), and still based on the current-at-the-time NB MX-5, only 100 SPs were built, with its locally-developed turbocharger upgrade upping outputs to 157kW of power and 289Nm of torque.

NC: 2005-15

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Over its lifecycle, the NB proved a significant step up in performance from the original NA. And while it remained relatively simple at its core, it was still more refined than the first-generation MX-5. But not quite as refined as the third-generation NC MX-5.

Taking over from the NB in 2005, the NC MX-5 launched locally, priced from $41,860 (before on-road costs).

Growing again, both proportionally and in weight, the NC – measuring 4020mm long, 1720mm wide, and weighing in at 1105kg – became the biggest MX-5 built to date.

Luckily, thanks to a 2.0-litre S-VT four-cylinder powerplant under the bonnet, outputs were up too. Though short of the turbo-assisted 1.8-litre in the NB SP models, the NC’s 118kW of power and 188Nm of torque marked a peak for naturally-aspirated MX-5s.

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Several modern features made their MX-5 debut on the NC too, most notably cruise control, a limited-slip rear differential (manual models only), and the option of a six-speed automatic transmission (instead of the previous four-speed unit).

At the 2014 New York motor show, Mazda unveiled the MX-5 25th Anniversary Edition, before the model launched locally four months later.

Priced from $48,380 (before on-road costs), the 25th Anniversary Edition featured a raft of special touches including unique 25th Anniversary badging with serial numbers, chrome exhaust tips, a strut tower brace, and black-painted A-pillars, door mirrors, and retractable power roof. The model also debuted Mazda’s Soul Red metallic paint and, in manual guise anyway, was fitted with Bilstein shock absorbers and drilled aluminium sports pedals.

Limited to 40 cars in Australia – 24 manuals and 16 automatics – each car came with a complimentary limited edition MX-5-branded his and hers Tourneau commemorative watch set. Fancy.

Arguably the MX-5 least like the light and carefree original, however, the heavier, softer NC had some mixed feedback. And while it was ‘nice’, and easily more ‘mature’, it perhaps wasn’t quite as much fun as those that had come before it.

ND: 2015-

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Enter the latest Mazda MX-5, the all-new fourth-generation ND.

At 1009kg, the ND is the lightest MX-5 since the original NA. Measuring 3915mm long and 1730mm wide, it’s actually also the shortest MX-5 ever built, while at the same time, being the widest.

Launched locally in August 2015 priced from $31,990, the ND debuted two firsts for the model: electronic power-assisted steering; and the choice of two engines.

Available in two trim levels – an entry-level Roadster and a top-spec Roadster GT – buyers could not only opt for either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission, but also a 96kW/150Nm 1.5-litre four-cylinder or a 118kW/200Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder.

A near-on perfect blend of the original MX-5’s size and weight, with modern trimmings and genuine polish, the fourth-generation ND was a welcome return to form for the world’s best-selling, two-seat convertible sports car. And, most importantly, it ensured the Mazda MX-5 was properly fun again.

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In all, CarAdvice had the unique opportunity to sample a very special group of Mazda MX-5s lovingly restored and cared for by lead heritage vehicle technician John Robinson, and the entire Heritage Collection team at Mazda Australia – including the 250,000th NA MX-5 ever built, the 56th NB SP sold in Australia, and number six of 40 25th Anniversary Edition models sold locally.

Quickly jumping from NA to NB to NC and ND is a brilliant way to see first-hand just how this one classic model has evolved over its 27 years.

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Size, weight, specifications, and engines may have all changed over time, but all four generations are distinctively special in their own way.

And while my personal favourite is, and will likely always be, the first-generation NA, however the Mazda MX-5 evolves in future, based on its current legacy, it’s sure to always put smiles on faces.

Click on the Photos tab for more Mazda MX-5 images, including selected images by David Zalstein.

MORE: MX-5 Old v New Comparison – NA v ND

MORE: MX-5 1.5-litre v 2.0-litre Track Comparison

MORE: MX-5 news, reviews, pricing and specifications

MORE: Mazda news, reviews, pricing and specifications

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