There’s been a Mazda Miata in my mom’s garage for as long as I can remember. She’s a car enthusiast—not the kind who knows every obscure car ever, but the kind who wants to drive and wants to drive a manual transmission. So, when a 2017 Mazda Miata RF wound up at my house, it was a table-turning of sorts.
Mom, the owner of the white 2008 Miata you see all over this post, has some type of freaky Miata radar. I got the car a day early, and she somehow found her way into my driveway before the person dropping it off had even left. I heard a loud wail from outside, and went to the front door.
“Alanis! Alanis!” she said, walking around the outside of it because not even I had signed for the keys yet. “I am selling my house. Right now. I’m buying this car.”
(Full disclosure: Mazda wanted us to drive the new Miata RF so badly, again, that it delivered one my driveway last month. The neighbors were noticeably freaked out that the new, suspiciously college-aged young kids on the block had a small sports car in their driveway so soon after buying a house. They probably think we got it repoed.)
The first Miata mom had was a 1996—black on black, with a five-speed manual and a soft top.
But that coveted first-gen of hers deteriorated with age. Things kept breaking, the engine couldn’t handle the Texas heat like it used to and it started costing more to regularly repair than it was worth. So she bought a used 2008 Miata in British White with a six-speed manual transmission.
Those are the cars I learned to drive on, and mom still has her 2008 Miata. Since that car belongs to the most recent Miata generation, and I got a 2017, I finally had the chance to conduct a casual Generation Gap comparison.
The Miata, or the MX-5, is Mazda’s lightweight, light-budget roadster that sends power to the rear wheels and is divine in almost every way. I mean, unless it’s an automatic, but we can debate that another time.
Despite the Miata having been born nearly 30 years ago in 1989, Mazda somehow has never ruined its perfect formula for the car. The newest of the car’s four generations, the ND Mazda Miata, has the same light, agile nature on the road as mom’s first-generation 1996 NA Miata, as does her third-generation 2008 NC Miata.
If you closed your eyes and wore some padded gloves as to not feel the different shifter textures, you’d have a hard time telling the three apart. That’s rare.
The NA ran from 1989 through 1997 and offered a five-speed manual option. It had the lovable pop-up headlights and the smiling face that lets everyone know: Hey, be happy, a Miata’s here!
The NB came along after, introduced in 1997 at the Tokyo Motor Show. The new generation tossed the pop-up headlights out and threw a sixth gear into the mix later in its life cycle, with some cosmetic changes and improved aerodynamics as well. The NB stayed in production until 2005.
Mazda made the NC bigger, roomier, more cutesy and more practical for daily use. While you still had to essentially straddle the ground to get into the car, things were a lot more comfortable once you did.
The ND, smaller than an NC yet with almost the exact weight of a 1994 NA Miata, took the Miata from adorable to angry animal. But the surprises didn’t stop at its aggressive styling—the 2017 lineup added the Miata RF, with a power-retracting hard top that added a little bit of weight and a whole lot of beauty to the car.
Jumping from one generation of Miata to the next isn’t supposed to manifest some wild, new driving revelation. Making a new Miata is about preserving (near) perfection while improving livability and safety, not changing the recipe.
As far as handling goes, the two feel virtually the same. Lightweight, smooth and able to turn on a droplet—much smaller than a dime, because it’s a Miata. The road handling was a breeze and the car adapted to any dips or turns so smoothly that it made you smile, just like its Mazda grille.
But, as mom’s NA did, the ND had its own quirks that made it unique. With just over 4,000 miles on it, the clutch was short and snappy. Compared to the loose, weathered feeling of mom’s 2008 version, with a much longer range on the clutch and a more laid-back shift, this new clutch wanted to pop in, shift gears and pop right back out. It didn’t want to waste any time.
The shifting itself felt so clean, robotic and exact. Mom didn’t buy her NC or her NA Miatas new, so both had made plenty of gear shifts on record by the time I got in. The NC, with far more years and almost 38,000 miles on it when she bought the car, has far looser shifting than the ND—like the clutch situation.
Shifting in the ND was so refined that it almost felt empowering, like “Yeah, I am driving this masterpiece of a cheap(ish) car. How’s your day going? Not as well as mine.”
The gear that you’re in also shows up on the dash, just like in the MX-5 Cup car in my iRacing driving simulator. It was a nice touch, but won’t help anyone trying to learn how to drive a manual—it always took a couple of seconds after I let the clutch out for the gear to show up, so if you go into the wrong gear, you’ll feel it before you see it.
Having a gear indicator shining up at me was a little weird at times, because I realized just how high of a gear the car wanted to be in. Every time that car even grazed 1,900 RPM, little arrows in the gear display would encourage me to upshift. Nag.
The ND Miata’s electric steering also felt touchier than the NC’s hydraulic rack, but it wasn’t a huge, huge difference in road feel. Like the feel of the clutch and the shifting, it was probably due more to the car having fewer miles on it.
Despite its hard roof, there was a lot of ride noise happening in the ND. That felt out of place given how solid the roof seemed. Kristen Lee drove a different Miata RF and made the same observation, so it wasn’t particular to just one car.
Looks, Practicality And Features
The current and previous Miatas feel similar on the road, but they’re impossible to mix up from the outside. The ND Miata snaps a lot more necks in traffic.
The first thing I noticed when I got into the ND was that there was almost no visibility out of the back window. (Actually, the first thing I noticed was how weird a push-to-start button was in a manual. But I’m a peasant, so ignore me.)
After looking around, I realized the visibility issues weren’t just out of the back. The pillars were thicker than the Texas heat with that car’s top down in August, and the rearview mirrors were miniature.
While I thought I might have been too critical at first—after all, it is a tiny car—it didn’t take long to see how much the visibility impacted driving. I, being a fan of routine, like to look over my shoulder before switching lanes. That doesn’t change when I’m in cars with blind-spot warnings, because I don’t trust an orange light with mine or my car’s safety.
But when I turned to look over my shoulder in the ND Miata, I got a face full of graphite pillar. It was all I could see, top down or up.
The only good thing from that is the car’s power to break the wind when you’re driving with the top down. The soft-top NC Miata doesn’t have a sheetmetal pillar once the top is down, meaning your hair—especially if you keep it long and forget to tie it back before getting in the car—is going to be an absolute bird’s nest that no brush or comb can solve by the time you get out.
That’s not really a problem in the ND, because your C pillar and back structure stay up even with the top down.
The A and C pillars are also at a sharp angle in the ND, which looks beautiful and sporty from the outside but, at least at first, feels like you’re being engulfed by that tar monster from Scooby-Doo! on the inside. Though they look roughly the same size, the angular nature of the ND when compared to the more upright soft-top NC made things really tight.
I got used to the claustrophobic nature of the design as my week with the car went on, and I’m sure it would quickly become an afterthought for someone who owned it. The new Miata does feel like it has a height cap, though—given my height and my fiancé’s height, I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone more than six feet tall. At just a couple of inches shorter than that and with the seat lowered as far as it would go, my fiancé’s head was barely under the roof.
But all of the claustrophobia disappeared almost immediately when I hit the button to put the top down.
I suddenly knew why this car costs more than $33,000. The retractable top was great from the outside, but from the inside—it was just plain majestic. I also got a good laugh when mom and I posed for photos in the two cars, me pressing my roof-retracting button and her having to heave a roof into the air to put it down.
The looks on the interior, while tight, were a huge step up from the NC. The NC’s lines were bubbly yet straight, while the ND interior flows with the kind of aggression you want out of a two-seater fun car. It’s a showpiece interior, with the minimalist qualities an enthusiast car should have—the basics, like a radio, some knobs and some air controls, not all of the technological junk automakers throw into cars these days that you’ll never find the time to learn how to use.
The ND does have an infotainment system, but it is not touch screen. Do not sit in a driveway and try to poke an inactive screen for 10 minutes. You will look stupid, and your neighbors will judge you. (A clarification: My boss and our readers say the new Miata is touch screen as well as controlled by a knob, but mine apparently did not work—at all. I truly did sit there for more than 10 minutes, eventually realizing there was a knob for that.)
Anyway, once you find out that the screen doesn’t respond to your touch and is instead controlled by a knob, it takes a while to get used to. By the end of my week with the car, I still had trouble navigating from the radio screen to the settings screen in order to change the display from day mode to night mode—the display was on auto, but never switched from day to night on its own.
The biggest concern with the infotainment system is that it isn’t integrated into the interior like most are. It looks like a giant tablet sticking out of the center of the car, which isn’t a bad thing until you park it in the sun for a bit.
Since the back of the screen sticks up, it gets absolutely cooked during the day, which usually isn’t healthy for any type of technology. That would terrify me as a buyer when considering longevity, and I’d prefer to have the option to fold it down.
Some of the materials used in the interior, like any other Miata, weren’t the best. Some looked good and felt kind of cheap, some looked good and felt good. The knobs were flimsy and plastic, as was the typical Miata sun visor, but that’s to be expected from a budget convertible.
You have to cut corners somewhere, and Mazda didn’t do it on the sound system. It includes speakers in the headrests, much like the original, just in case you wanted a more encompassing dose of your local FM radio station instead of enjoying the sounds from your zippy little engine.
Mazda moved the cupholders from in between seat bottoms to in between the seat backs in the ND Miata, which it should have happened decades ago. There’s nothing like being in a tight, two-seater car with a manual transmission and having the bozo you allowed in the passenger seat reach for their soda while you’re trying to shift.
The problem with Mazda’s new cupholders is that they’re loose and they don’t hold something as small as your average water bottle—that thing will fly forward as soon as you hit the brakes too hard, which makes the holders kind of useless a lot of the time. But, like, good try, Mazda?
Mazda did knock the door cupholders out, which takes the car’s already scarce beverage capacity from four to two. And, for a person who likes to have tea and water on road journeys with her man, two just wasn’t cutting it.
The ND, put simply, feels so sleek and cool to drive. It went full-on angry in appearance, but drives just as lightly and wonderfully as its predecessors. The feel of shifting in the ND and the gear display on the dash makes you want to drive straight to the track, and the retractable top never gets old.
Other than that, it’s nice to still feel like you’re driving a Miata with all of the extra flair the new generation adds. Just think, it was enough flair for my mom to scream that she was selling the house before she even sat in the car.
The space is a huge factor between the NC and the ND. With the ND being so short and compact that it even further restricts the height of people who should get in the car, things are tight. If the ND were just slightly more upright like the NC, it would probably feel a lot more comfortable and practical for people of any height.
That goes for storage space, too. Whereas the NC can handle a small trip to the grocery store, the ND was far too small to trust... I knew my stuff wouldn’t fit.
It’s also hard not to miss the cutesy face of the NC Miata, even though the ND has a great design. I like the looks of the ND better, I’m convinced, but I’ll always be fond of that ultra-huggable generation of the Miata.
Whether you think the new generation of the Miata is better really depends on what you want to use the car for.
If you’re into long, winding road trips with the top down, the soft-top NC still kind of rules. It feels roomier and more relaxed all around, and it has a few more nooks to put stuff in. Mom, for example, uses the space behind the driver’s seat for bags. That space doesn’t exist with the Miata RF.
If you want a car to zip around in and never to drive for distances more than an hour or two practically, the ND is the winner if you have the cash for a new Miata. But if you’re looking for something to drive for longer periods of time and you don’t want to plop down $34,000 for a two-seater, there are plenty of $10,000 to $15,000 used NC Miatas for sale that’ll offer just as much fun and plenty of modern-ish comforts. It’s a screaming bargain these days.
As for my mom’s feelings on the matter, I brought the ND over to her house one last time the night before I gave it back.
“Oh, no,” she said. “Why do you have to give it back? Do you think they’ll take mine instead?”
She sprawled a tape measure she keeps on her key ring over the ND’s hood when she thought I wasn’t looking, seeing how wide it was in comparison to hers, which barely fits in her garage with the gargantuan sedan of a 2015 Hyundai Genesis she has. She had to do the same with a different second car before she swapped her NA for the NC.
“What!” she said, only after I caught her doing it. “I thought you’d want to know the differences in width between the two, to use in your review.”
She never gave me the measurements.