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A spotter's guide to the Mazda MX-5

A spotter's guide to the Mazda MX-5

About the author

Chris Pollitt is an award-winning automotive word-wrangler, editor of the website Not 2 Grand and a keen collector of crappy old cars.

There are few cars as iconic as the Mazda MX-5. It was a car that seemed to come out of a segment that was dead, and as such, it didn’t seem like it would be a sure-fire success.

Happily though, the MX-5 wasn’t a car thrown together to try and cash in on basic concept. It was engineered to within an inch of its life, with a view to being as perfect as possible. 

Strangely, the inspiration behind the MX-5 doesn’t hark from Japan. It actually comes from cars here in the UK. The Japanese engineers looked at our MGs, Triumphs and Austins of old and in them, saw an opportunity to build a car that was pure and engaging.

As such, it should come as no surprise to learn that the MX-5, while inspired by those previously mentioned models, actually takes the majority of its driving style from the legendary Lotus Elan.

But why not? The Elan was a formidable force in motoring handling. Just imagine that, but with Japanese engineering behind it. Not that you have to imagine it, not with four generations of MX-5 to choose from. 

The first-generation NA

The first-generation NA

Built from 1989 to 1997

The original MX-5 was arguably the most cheeky. Its little face with those big, round pop-up lights gave it a charm that almost every car in the late-eighties/early-nineties was lacking. It looked fun. Though looks weren’t everything.

The small, cheap two-seater sports car was a niche in decline, so Mazda had to work hard to make the MX-5 a hit.

As such, the 1.6 and 1.8 engines offered the perfect mix of peppy pace and everyday reliability, while the chassis with near 50/50 weight distribution made even the most ham-fisted driver feel like a racing god. It was light, it was direct and it was always willing to put a smile on your face. 

As we mentioned earlier, the pop-up headlights are the main identifier. The ‘smiling’ grille up front with marker lights above at each corner help, too.

At the back, the taillights are oval in shape, and feature separate circular elements within them. You’ll also see a drive wearing a smile from ear to ear.

The second-generation NB

The second-generation NB

Built from 1998 to 2005

The NA-generation MX-5 set the trend and ignited a new passion for the simple, fun, two-seater sports car. It did very well, selling 400,000 units in its lifetime, which is impressive for a niche segment.

However, this success meant Mazda had to be vary careful so as to not spoil the essence of its newest baby. As such, it opted to give it a bit more power and to also change the look of the car without messing with the way it handled.

At first, this raised a small amount of controversy because Mazda did away with the po-up headlights. Happily though, the car-buying public and press soon agreed that the MX-5 was still as pure as ever. 

To spot a NB MX-5, you’re looking for the same basic shape as the NA. However, it’s slightly more sculpted, with a with spoiler/raised bootlid, round, wide front lights and a slightly more pronounced rear bumper.

Also, the rear window in the NB was glass over the NA’s plastic offering. 

The third-generation NC

The third-generation NC

Built from 2005 to 2015 

Mazda stepping things up for the third-generation NC and completely redesigned the car. This was a considered and careful redesign though, with Mazda being keen to maintain the Jinba ittai philosophy of the early cars. In case you’re wondering, that means oneness of horse and rider. 

Mazda wanted the NC to retain that close bond between driver and machine, in turn making the driver an integral part of the experience, not just the operator of computer-operated this and electronically controlled that.

Other changes included a new range of engines, this time starting with a 1.8 and moving up to a 2.0, along with the option of a six-speed manual transmission. 

To spot a NC, you need to look for the muscular, flared arches all around. Also, the bonnet features a central power bulge that radiated out from the centre of the lower windscreen.

Then, of course, there is the fact the MC was the first MX-5 to be offered, after 2006, with a retracting hard top – a dead giveaway! 

The fourth-generation ND

The fourth-generation ND

Built from 2015 to present

While most cars get fatter with age, the fourth-generation MX-5 has done the opposite. It’s 105mm shorter and a whopping 100kg lighter than the NC before it. This brings it back to being around one tonne, as per the original MX-5 of 1989.

This is also the first MX-5 to share the wealth, as it were. In a deal with Fiat, the two companies have shared the platform, which in the case of Fiat is known as the 124 Spyder – a car that has, thanks to Mazda’s engineering, become an important model in the Fiat line-up. 

To spot an ND, you’re looking for braver, more dramatic lines and as a result, an angrier ‘face’. Gone is the cuteness of the NA.

Wide arches housing bigger alloy wheels also give the game away, while the rear lights with circular inner elements and sharp additions slicing into the side of the car also serve as bold identifiers.