Mazda throws a big birthday party for Miata

Mazda is heralding 25 years of the Miata at the New York auto show this week. Photo credit: DAVID PHILLIPS
UPDATED: 4/18/14 11:50 am ET - correction

Editor's note: An earlier version of this blog had the wrong given name for former Mazda executive George McCabe.

On paper, the MX-5 Miata probably shouldn’t be that important to Mazda.

Last year, the roadster accounted for just 2 percent of Mazda’s U.S. sales, with fewer than 6,000 units sold. Toyota sells more Camrys in a week. The market for sporty, two-seat cars is a shadow of what it once was since competitors have all but abandoned making the kind of affordable sporty cars that the Miata epitomizes.

But, Mazda is, well, different.

The company, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the MX-5 Miata with an historic display of the car at the New York auto show this week, is the only Japanese carmaker to have won Le Mans. Mazda stuck with rotary engines -- longer than anyone imagined -- until it killed the RX-8 in 2012. And it probably will keep making the Miata until the end of the universe.

That’s because the Miata is the definite guidepost for Mazda’s engineering philosophy.

Consider Mazda’s current crop of products such as the CX-5, Mazda3 and Mazda6. The precise and crisp short throws of the Miata’s manual transmission were benchmarked by Mazda engineers who developed the brand’s current line of Skyactiv gearboxes.

Mazda even put a manual transmission in the CX-5 crossover. That’s right. A manual transmission in a crossover, and it’s not lousy. The Mazda6 also has a manual gearbox.

Ask anyone who has driven one or read any of the reviews in enthusiast magazines about the redesigned Mazda3, and you’ll find almost universal agreement that the compact car is the best-driving entry in the segment.

When you look at the priority that a small company has placed on engineering cars and crossovers that are fun to drive -- even if it maybe means losing a few sales to less expensive competitors -- it’s hard to believe that the Miata has had anything less than a rather outsized influence on Mazda’s products.

Leafing through old copies of Automotive News for stories about the Miata when it went on sale 25 years ago, it was striking to come across this quote from a senior Mazda executive.

“We want to establish the Miata as a symbol of who we are as a company,” George McCabe, then group vice president of sales and marketing for Mazda Motor of America, said in June 1989.

“It is a product that completely exemplifies Mazda’s new design and engineering philosophy. It is sporty, lively, vibrant, sensitive and original.”

Since reducing financial and engineering ties to Ford Motor Co., Mazda has faced some tough times. It has reduced its work force in the United States and killed some sacred cows, namely the rotary-powered RX-8.

But the Miata will live on under a new partnership with Fiat, which is co-developing the next-generation model with Mazda.

Mazda is expected to reveal some details about the next Miata this week. Here’s hoping the car will be around for the next 25 years.

You can reach Ryan Beene at autonews@crain.com

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