Why tomorrow's sports cars will have mixed pedigree

The 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata.

DETROIT -- I’m at the North American International Auto Show sitting in the snug, black leather driver’s seat of the next-generation Mazda MX-5 Miata -- the top-selling, two-seat convertible sports car of all time.

First, I can tell you the MX-5 Miata looks better in the flesh than it does in pictures. The photos I’ve seen make the car look like one of those angry kitchen appliances former GM product czar Bob Lutz railed about 15 years ago. It is not. The face of the new car is a bit meaner than that of the old one, but still has a friendly look. The taillights are a lot like those of the new Jaguar F-Type.

The 2016 MX-5 Miata might even cost less than the 2015 version, which starts at $24,765, including shipping. Mazda says the car has been put on a diet. The heavy, fussy complex folding metal top is gone, returning the two-seater to its roots as a lightweight soft-top roadster.

Sizewise, the new MX-5 Miata is 3.2 inches shorter and 0.4 inch wider than the outgoing model, which should make it even more fun to drive.

None of that, however, assures success. In fact, another automaker, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, may hold the keys to the MX-5 Miata’s future.

Since the MX-5 Miata debuted in 1989, the market for budget sports cars has nearly evaporated. Global sales of the MX-5 Miata peaked in 1990 at 75,798 and have been slowly declining, with occasional spikes with model changes. In the United States, Mazda sold just 4,745 MX-5 Miatas in 2014, down from 5,780 in 2013.

BMW’s sales chief, Ian Robertson, recently delivered what sounded like last rites to the segment when he said:

“The sports car market is roughly half of what it used to be. Post-2008, it just collapsed. I’m not so sure it’ll ever fully recover.”

It would have been unthinkable even a few years ago that Mazda would share the MX-5 Miata with another company. After all, this is the car that lit a fire under Mazda a quarter century ago and helped change the company’s image. Zoom Zoom and all that. Late this year or early next, the 1 millionth MX-5 Miata likely will be produced.

But Mazda inked a deal with Fiat Chrysler to produce a Fiat Spider using the MX-5 Miata’s powertrain, suspension and other bits. The MX-5 Miata-based Spider will have a different grille and interior touches as well as other cosmetics.

Shared production may be the future of budget sports cars. The Toyota-Subaru deal that produced the Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ has worked well so far.

Fiat has 200 dealers in the United States and thousands more globally. If each Fiat dealer can sell an average of one Spider a month, perhaps the MX-5 Miata/Spider will live to see a next generation.

Budget sports cars nearly became extinct in North America in the early 1980s when MG, Triumph and several other brands folded. Fiat soldiered on with its Italian-made Spider until 1985 and the segment remained dormant until the Mazda MX-5 Miata arrived in 1989.

Today’s buyers, though, increasingly want utility along with sporty handling and snappy acceleration.

It could be the sports car of tomorrow won’t be an MX-5 Miata, but a go-anywhere vehicle such as the Jeep Wrangler and Range Rover Evoque.

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