The Mazda MX-5, which is known as the Miata in North America and the Roadster in Japan, is history’s best-selling two-seat sports car. In fact, the 900,000th Miata was just produced, which Mazda touts as a “milestone.” But it’s a strictly numeric milestone, because there’s not really any competition, as far as I can tell. The Miata didn’t actually bust any records by passing 900,000. It blew past the second best-selling two-seater sports car in history, the MG MGB, back at 512,000. The MGB was produced from 1962 to 1980, and retains a fanatic following among vintage car nuts.
Built in Hiroshima (!), the MX-5 was first marketed in 1989 and has spent 20+ years on the market. The secret to its success? It may not be as glamorous as the Ferrari, but it starts at about $23,000 new. In fact, you can put your hands on a used one a few years old for like $16,000 to $18,000.
It has plenty of competitors, including the Honda S2000, the Nison 350Z, the Saturn Sky, the Pontiac Solstice, the Mitsubishi Eclipse, and the Audi TT, all of which are in roughly the same price range (well, the Audi costs a at least a few thousand more).
But the Miata has been around for 20 years, and has remained a strong seller the whole time because of its reported reliability. In maintenance terms, it’s like driving an economy car — but according to its devotees, it drives like a dream and has the “charm of an old British roadster,” which is clearly an allusion to the MGB and its predecessors. MG is a British manufacturer, formerly British Motor Cars and now known as British Leyland Motor Corporation.
People who know anything about old British cars will shudder and possibly twitch at the assertion that the Miata has the charm of an old British roadster. In the first place, in my experience the devotion to the MG and other British cars is very much like an addiction or a disease; the very suggestion that a Japanese-built car would equal the MG in “charm” is, to a devotee, like saying “Here, honey, why not just have some candy for your heroin habit?” “I know you’re a Type II diabetic, but why not wear a crystal around your neck instead of taking insulin?” — that sort of thing.
Which is not to say that the love of British sports cars is incurable — far from it. Old British sports cars may be hugely glamorous in that special way, but they’re also steampunkishly-hard to take care of. People love them and hate them; they demand your obsession like the world’s most beautiful and psychotic chainsaw-wielding dominatrix. Buy an ancient Triumph and you’ll fall in love with a beast sure to break your heart…every six weeks for the time you own it. Eventually, you may stash it in the garage like Edward Rochester’s wife in the attic, or wake up from the love affair and start getting into motorcycles.
But you won’t buy a Miata.
The Miata’s not hard to take care of, from what I hear. It may not have the wonky obsessive devotion of the kind of people who fall in love with old Triumphs — but hell, who has time for that nowadays? Everyone I know who’s ever owned a Miata has described it as a blast to drive and not especially practical, owing to the lack of a back seat. They’ve also taken pot-shots from everyone within and just out of earshot about their “mid-life crisis,” whether they were 25 or 60 when they bought it. But that’s pretty much guaranteed to anyone over the age of 20 who buys a sports car.
If, rejecting the Miata’s easy glamour, you find yourself dead-set on being a purist and going for a Ferrari, this 2006 Forbes Vehicle-of-the-Week article informs me that you can get a used Ferrari Mondial for somewhere between $15,000 and $30,000 — but you’ll likely have your hands full.
So…that’s it. The Miata. The best-selling two-seat sports car in history. Wow.