There aren’t many cars like the Mazda Miata, and we don’t mean light, two-seat sports cars, even if their scarcity is indeed glaring these days. We’re talking about something even rarer — a machine that transcends the realm of car nerds speaking in chassis codes and enters the mainstream consciousness. Like Corvette or Beetle, Miata is a household name that even non-car people will know. It holds a very special place in motoring history, one that makes its three decades worthy of celebration.
Each year, the MX-5 faithful gather at the famed Laguna Seca Raceway for the Miata Reunion. 2019 marked the 30th anniversary of the Mazda sports car’s debut in 1989, and earlier this year Mazda released a 30th Anniversary Edition to mark the occasion. When Mazda offered us the chance to drive one from Los Angeles to Monterey for the big shindig, we couldn’t say no.
The quickest and most common way to cover the 300-something miles from LA to Laguna Seca is by interstate. But where’s the fun in that? We were in a Miata, and it was built for the twisties. Luckily, our small caravan of journalists, photographers, and Mazda staffers had been given a backroads route planned by none other than the great Dave Coleman, former editor-in-chief of Sport Compact Car and now engineer at Mazda North America.
“I used to date a girl that lived in the Bay Area,” Dave told us. “So every other week I was driving between LA and San Fran, and I learned all the great back roads in between.” He was right. There are some truly fantastic bands of asphalt packed with elevation changes and switchbacks cris-crossing the San Joaquin Valley, starting with CA-33 near Ojai. And with most normie travelers sticking to I-5 or the 101, we encountered little traffic and even fewer (as in zero) cops.
This is the natural habitat of the Miata. There are few cars on the market today that feel as happy to be running through these undulating curves. The Miata exhibits a naturalness unmatched by modern machinery, and while many of its core controls like steering and throttle are very much by-wire, somehow the wizards at Mazda have made them feel mostly analog.
The steering wheel won’t quite match the weight and feedback of an NA’s (which is an absolute masterpiece), but it’s better than that of nearly any other new car on the market, including its closest rival, the Subaru BRZ/Toyota 86. There isn’t another electronic steering system that feels as good until you get to the Porsche 911, but that uses loads of whiz-bang tech like rear axle steering and active dampers and costs $100,000 more.
On the other hand, one key characteristic that very much maintains the traditions of the NA is the suspension. Most modern sports cars, aforementioned BRZ and 911 included, corner pretty flat. That’s largely considered a good thing, and an ideal that engineers have chased since the beginning of time.
Miatas have always had a bit of playful body roll purposefully baked in. The important thing, though, is that the roll doesn’t equal any less grip. Also, it’s not just along the longitudinal axis; the ND’s is a diagonal motion that goes from corner to farthest corner.
It can feel a bit disconcerting at first if you’ve just jumped in from a stiffly sprung sports car, but once you get used to it it just seems organic. It mimics the way your neck carries around your head (and the balance-sensing vestibular system within it). You don’t even feel like you’re piloting a hard core sports car until you climb back into a regular car and realize it corners like a Carnival cruise ship.
By taking the back roads, it took us an extra three hours or so reach Monterey. It was worth the drive, though. In a long list of amazing things about the Miata, here’s yet another: after 30 years, it has somehow managed to maintain the spirit and essence of the original. Even the widely derided NC is still a bigger blast than 95 percent of the cars advertised as “fun to drive.”
Four consecutive generations of purity is no small feat. Think back on other best-selling sports car icons. The Mustang, Corvette, and Z have each had their missteps and dilutions. Mazda, on the other hand, has tenaciously resisted the urge to beef up, tone down, or cross over the Miata.
As such, the car has legions of devoted fans. The Miata Reunion is part car show, part vendor showcase, but mostly a track day. Yep, the little runabout enjoyed by everyone from your tattooed vaping nephew to your canyon carving buddy to your cool middle-aged aunt is also a wonderful track machine. As Mazda often says, Miata is the most raced nameplate in America.
Throughout event, waves of Miata owners flooded Laguna Seca for some precious track time on the renowned circuit. Though not immensely powerful, even with the ND’s mid-generational horsepower bump from 155 to 181, it’s a great car for honing your skills. There’s satisfaction to be had in exiting from the proper cornering line. It’s the ultimate “Slow Car Fast” car.
Miata owners came from far and wide, filling the infield with NA, NB, NC, and ND generations. A vast diversity in styles could be found as well, from track machines to stance sleds to rolling canvases of the Miata’s incredible aftermarket support. With over a million sold, there’s a Miata for everybody.
Mazda has released countless of special edition Miatas over the years, some from the very cool — with exclusive colors or goodies like BBS wheels or a 6-speed transmission — to ones that aren’t terribly special. Seriously, the number of special editions is fast approaching Mustang-level quantities, but there are enough fanatics that time and time again these limited runs are promptly snapped up.
Case in point: at the Reunion, dozens of fellow 30th Anniversary Editions seared our eyeballs with Racing Orange, a color said to be inspired by the sunrise at the track. Mazda made only 3,000 of them globally and initially just 500 were destined to the US. As rough estimate, maybe 10 percent of them were present, an impressive number.
In all honesty, while the exclusive 17-inch Rays are nice, you’d have to be a huge fan of the Miata (or the color orange) to order a 30th Anniversary Edition. The one we drove stickered at $38,515, or $6,000 above an RF Club. And yet, the car promptly sold out in four hours, prompting Mazda to increase the US allocation to 643. What other Japanese car on the market today can inspire that kind of zeal?
Thanks to its popularity, affordability, and tuneability, the Miata has spawned a cottage industry of aftermarket parts. For instance, we were stoked to meet the couple behind Revlimiter, who makes custom horn buttons, gauge backings, and other assorted Miata bits.
Ironically, the most disappointing aspect of the weekend came from Mazda itself. The Miata Reunion isn’t run by the company, but by a group of dedicated enthusiasts. Mazda brought out a small display of its Chicago Auto Show cars and the fixed-head NA concept, which are always a treat to see. However, an empty booth with no company representatives on hand seemed like a token effort.
We understand that as a small company, Mazda is stretched thin, and on top of that 2019 has been a down sales year (proof that the best product does not always equal the best profits). As Mazda tries to expand sales they will have to reach beyond the core group of enthusiasts who are already sold, but any company would do well to remember that enthusiasts comprise the strongest influencers and brand advocates a company could ask for.
Still, at the end of the day Mazda deserves points for continuing to pour money and time and manpower into actually building cars for enthusiasts. These days, that’s more than what many automakers are willing to do. In fact, if the future is going to be filled with autonomous cars, the multitude of Miatas in the world today is the best insurance that the art of motoring will not be lost to the generations of tomorrow.
Because we had obligations, we took the more direct route of US-101 for our return to LA. On the highway, the ND’s true nature doesn’t get a chance to shine. The ND is a sublime car to swing around the bends, and we missed the vibrant personality that appears on a winding two-lane. Sure, the back roads trip takes an extra three hours or so, but in a Miata you won’t mind it at all.