Four generations of the Mazda MX-5.
Four generations of the Mazda MX-5. Mark Bean

VIDEO: Which generation of Mazda MX-5 is the best?

GENERATIONAL debates will never tire. Constantly we hear about the comparisons between old and new.

Sporting genres are constantly under the microscope... they were tougher on the paddock in the days of Wayne Bennett and Phil Gould but they couldn't match the finesse of Jonathan Thurston or athletic prowess of Billy Slater. And don't get the pundits on whether the junior version of Gary Ablett trumps that of his old man.

The battles over automotive opinion are no less passionate.

Every new car is launched among a fanfare of improved efficiency, performance, features and comfort. But doesn't necessarily escalate the modern above those from bygone eras.

Since first being revealed at the Chicago motor show in 1989, the Mazda MX-5 has been loved.

Almost single-handedly reviving the two-seater convertible genre, the Mazda MX-5's beautifully weighted feel, rear-wheel drive layout at an affordable price has offered some much-needed romance for those who love to drive. There have been four generations, and ahead of a new hardtop retractable roof derivative coming early in 2017, Mazda offered a rare opportunity to take a step back in time and sample the MX-5 through the ages.


The first Mazda MX-5, generation NA.
The first Mazda MX-5, generation NA. Mark Bean

Fine early days

Step inside in the NA version which started the dynasty and it's a fine beginning to the MX-5 relationship.

Back when two-speed wipers, remote boot lid opening and cassette players were on the features list, while air conditioning was optional, the little two-seater weighed just 940kg. But with prices starting from $29,990, it put the roadster back on the map for everyday buyers - it was akin to a MG Midget, Alfa Romeo Spider or a Lotus Elan, but the workingman's sportscar.

With the pop-up headlights it was a distinctive sight on the road, and while the 1.6-litre engine with maximum power of 85kW and 130Nm were meagre by V8 standards, the power to weight was the force behind its popularity.


Inside the Mazda MX-5 NA.
Inside the Mazda MX-5 NA. Mark Bean

Our spin in the NA highlighted the foundation from which the MX-5 was built. Former vehicle manager and now ambassador Nobuhiro Yamamoto said pivotal was to set hearts racing. That it does. While perhaps not quite as sprightly as when it first came from the factory, all the hallmarks were there from day one: beautifully controlled 50-50 weight distribution, rear-wheel drive along with the short and stubby shifts between cogs.


This NB Mazda MX-5 got some special attention via a factory-fitted turbocharger.
This NB Mazda MX-5 got some special attention via a factory-fitted turbocharger. Mark Bean

Generation next

Our move into the MX-5 NB literally came with a whoosh. Mazda souped-up 100 variants, bolting on a hefty turbo to hammer out 157kW and 280Nm.

That quickly ensured the extra 100kg this second generation gained on the iteration was erased with some serious poke. It becomes a genuine handful with the extra power, and ups the excitement ante.


Inside the Mazda MX-5 NB.
Inside the Mazda MX-5 NB. Mark Bean

Mid-throttle blips are rewarded with some wonderful waves of acceleration, yet the little roadster still manages to hang on with ease through our closes circuit esses while lighting up the straights with prowess.


The Mazda MX-5 ND derivative powered by a 2.0-litre petrol engine.
The Mazda MX-5 ND derivative powered by a 2.0-litre petrol engine. Mark Bean

Third time lucky

Modern progression is especially evident aboard the NC which arrived here in 2005.

Feeling remarkably stiffer through the chassis with brilliant turn-in feel, this model makes drivers of all levels look competent.

Aided by a longer wheelbase and limited slip differential on manual models, the parts which carried over from the previous model were the front guard and a round repeater indicator lamp.


Inside the Mazda MX-5 NC.
Inside the Mazda MX-5 NC. Mark Bean

While we loved the punchy turbo performance, confidence levels rise in spades in the NC. Outputs were 118kW/188Nm from the naturally aspirated 2.0-litre petrol engine...certainly not heart-stopping, but when pushing just 1167kg it makes for an enticing power-to-weight scenario.


The Mazda MX-5 ND derivative powered by a 1.5-litre petrol engine.
The Mazda MX-5 ND derivative powered by a 1.5-litre petrol engine. Mark Bean

Fab four

Accolades have been thrown at the fourth-generation ND since being launched in 2015.

Available with either a 1.5-litre or punchier 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, it reduced weight by 90kg and also boasts even greater stability. Under brakes if feels deft, changing direction is done with ballerina-like precision and there's a magnificent feeling of control through the wheel when sawing left and right.

Looking the most aggressive of the four generations the ND sits squat, has an impressive look of intent with an interior which also raises the bar in terms of functionality and looks.


Inside the Mazda MX-5 ND.
Inside the Mazda MX-5 ND. Mark Bean

The powertrain may not breath fire but there's still enough punch to challenge keen drivers. Pushing hard there was one occasion where the MX-5 came unstuck with a short spin - all driver error after a faultless performance from the roadster. Still, a worthwhile experience knowing it can bite if not treated with respect.

The lowdown

Roadster driving captures the senses. Across all generations the MX-5 speaks the same language.

Finding the best is like picking your favourite child... it all depends on how they are behaving at the time (come on parents, you know it's true).

There is something special about every generation. The notchy short shifts of the inaugural model, the turbo punch offered by the second generation, followed by the rigidity of the third iteration, combined with the turn-in ability and suspension tune of the latest.

But there can only be one winner and it's surprisingly not the most powerful. The latest ND powered by the 1.5-litre engine. Feeling light and engaging, it relies on driver skill to go quickly and responds accordingly. The six-speed manual is a joy to shift and is the epitome of everything the MX-5 stands for - fun, affordable, engaging open-top driving.


Four generations of the Mazda MX-5.
Four generations of the Mazda MX-5. Mark Bean

Key milestones

  • February 1989 - Original MX-5 debuts at Chicago Auto Show.
  • October 1997 - Second- generation MX-5 debuts at Tokyo Motor Show.
  • May 2000 - Recognised by Guinness World Records as the world's best-selling two-seater sports car (531,890 units).
  • January 2002 - Production reaches 600,000 units (Guinness World Record updated).
  • March 2005 - Third-generation MX-5 debuts at Geneva International Motor Show.
  • February 2011 - Production reaches 900,000 units.
  • September 2014 - Fourth- generation MX-5 debuts.
  • March 2016 - Mazda MX-5 RF debuts at New York International Auto Show.
  • April 2016 - One millionth MX-5 produced.

Vital statistics

Models: Mazda MX-5.

Years: NA 1989-1998; NB 1998-2005; NC 2005-2015; ND 2015-current.

Vehicles driven: NA - 1.6-litre four cylinder generating maximum power of 85kW @ 6500rpm and peak torque of 130Nm @ 5500rpm; NB - 1.8-litre four cylinder 106kW @ 6500rpm and 165Nm @ 4500rpm (turbo model 157kW @ 6800rpm and 280Nm @ 5000rpm); NC - 2.0-litre four-cylinder 118kW @ 6700rpm and 188Nm of power @ 5000rpm; ND - 1.5-litre four-cylinder 96kW @ 7000rpm and 150Nm @ 4800rpm, or a 2.0-litre four-cylinder 118kW @ 6000rpm and 200Nm @ 4600rpm.

Bottom line plus on roads: 1989 launch price $29,990, base price today $31,990.

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