CHICAGO—I have to admit to some self-interest here. I’m planning to buy an older Mazda MX-5 Miata, so I’m interested in the ongoing and colorful history of this reliable Japanese sports car. Mazda has built an amazing 949,000 since the debut, right here in Chicago, in 1989. Did you know that the first cars weighed only 2,000 pounds, and did zero to 60 in 8.1 seconds? By the time the third generation rolled around in 2005, the MX-5 had gained 500 pounds, but with more power reached 60 in 6.7 seconds (as tested by Edmunds with a manual transmission). 

Ken Saward, Mazda's design manager, notes the Miata's curvy lines.

Ken Saward, Mazda's design manager, notes the Miata's curvy lines. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Mazda’s press conference was about the 2016 model, which will reach dealerships in mid-summer. It’s a “back to basics” car, said Rod McLaughlin, the MX-5’s vehicle line manager. “The car got larger and heavier, which meant more power and more features,” he said. “We’re reversing that trend now, reducing the weight by 300 pounds, making it shorter by 4.1 inches — taken out of the front and rear overhangs — and adding more head and legroom. I’m six-foot two, and I fit into the new car. It’s slightly wider, too. We were going for lightweight, affordable and fun to drive.”

Inside the 2016 Miata

Inside the 2016 Miata. Note right-hand drive: It's a Japanese spec car. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

The announcement in Chicago was that both BBS wheel and Brembo brake packages will be available for the Miata, plus a five-piece aero kit. There’s a carbon fiber luggage rack that “weighs less than two cups of Starbucks coffee.” I asked about a detachable hardtop, and McLaughlin said no decision has been made on that yet, nor has the company decided if it will make a retractable hardtop model.

The hardtop is a prized commodity on the early cars. Ken Saward, Mazda design manager, told me, “You almost have to buy a car to get the hardtop.”

On the new car, the two-liter Skyactiv engine, connected to a six-speed manual (ideally), produces 155 horsepower, with 148 foot pounds of torque. New Miatas are scarce on the ground right now; the white show car was a right-drive Japanese model, outfitted with the wheels, brakes and aero kit.

This is production #14, a 1990 Miata that was shown on the Chicago Auto Show stand in 1989.

This is production No. 14, a 1990 Miata that was shown on the Chicago Auto Show stand in 1989. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Parked next to the 2016 was an early blue car. I soon found out how early — it was production No. 14, and one of three cars on the Chicago stand back in 1989. One of the others was made into a race car, but the blue one appeared to have been used sparingly. It was mint, with just 8,667 miles on the odometer. In a just world, Mazda would lend it to me for a long-term test. The poor thing wants to get used.

The 1990 Miata heartens back to a simpler time, with its basic black interior, outfitted with an “infotainment system” consisting of a radio and cassette player. I don’t think you could get a rear camera or blind spot detection, but it did have airbags. The spec turned out just right for an American public starved for sports cars after the flameout, a decade earlier, of such British marquees as Triumph, MG and Sunbeam.

inside a 1990 Miata with a cassette player as infotainment

In 1990, "infotainment" meant a cassette player. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

The joke back then was that the Miata was a Lotus Elan that actually worked. But it wasn’t really a joke. They did work, which was a formula for nearly a million sales in 25 years. I intend to join their ranks, scoring a popular, unpretentious sports car with great parts availability and a very high fun quotient. Here's Jay Leno talking driving the Miata and talking about its history:

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

The Mazda MX-5 Miata: Then and now
Celebrating the all-new 2016 Miata at the Chicago Auto Show with the very first 1990 model.