Bob Hall, the product planner for the original 1990 Mazda Miata, says the inspiration for the world's best-selling roadster was an English sports car such as a Triumph or an MGB – complete with leaking oil and smoke.
That is, Hall and the other key players in the creation of the Miata loved the concept, hated the sloppy and careless execution. A Mazda roadster that buyers would find affordable, engaging and easy to live with was at its essence utterly uncomplicated and definitely not overwhelming or overpowering, he says: "Less is more. Our car was kinda classic and simple."
Here we are, 25 years later, and it seems quite clear that the Miata ranks among the most important cars of the last quarter century. As Miata designer Tom Matano puts it, the Miata hit the streets and it was immediately a car that grabbed the public's attention.
"When you see it, you want to know what it is. The cabin is inviting. The start of the motor sounds exactly like you expected. It corners and by the end of the test drive you want to be a Miata owner. At the end of the night you have to go to the garage and say good night to the car," he says of the Miata as conceived and executed.
An important car is one that the public has a love affair with, one so deep and abiding the depth of the car reveals itself over time.
An important car is one that shakes up the marketplace, shattering pre-conceived notions about what is good and right and proper and profitable.
An important car is one the competition takes note of and tries to copy and make better, often with very mixed results.
An important car is… Well, as the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said of an obscenity, you'll know it when you see it.
The Miata, the best-selling roadster in history with more than a million sold, is one of the 10 most important cars of the last 25 years. We, of course, have nine more to offer. And they are all cars, not pickups or sport-utility vehicles. Just cars. Ten important cars. As soon as you see them, you'll know why.
The starting price for the original 1990 Miata in the summer of 1989 was $13,800, but frenzied buyers were paying thousands more to own a delightful little roadster that was joyous to drive and very reliable. The original had a 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine (116 hp, 100 lb-ft torque), 14-inch wheels, 2,116 lbs and did 0-60 MPH in 9.0 seconds. “If you were just looking at these stats, you would never guess that they represent the most enjoyable car to drive in the world (at the time),” says 2016 MX-5 product planner Rod McLaughlin. That car arrives next year. Today’s version, the third generation, starts at more than twice the 1989 price, but it’s still amazingly affordable – and the 2014 Miata is a recommended buy of Consumer Reports, with average predicted reliability.
Toyota launched its mass-market gasoline-electric hybrid in Japan in the late 1990s. It was daring and interesting and quirky, but not the ground-breaking Prius of 2004-2009. That version put the Prius on the global map and largely explain why Toyota has sold more than six million hybrids world wide (more than 100,000 in Canada. The Prius gave Toyota a “green” halo. Toyota’s competitors didn’t see the power of the green-driving movement led by the Prius and have been playing catch-up ever since.
Specifically, the 2001 re-launch under BMW ownership, though subsequent updates and generation changes should not be overlooked. Many scoffed at the idea of BMW from Bavaria reinventing Mini from Britain, and they were proved wrong. BMW has let Mini be Mini over the years and the results have been spectacular – global sales of 300,000-plus or twice the volume BMW hoped for when the brand was re-launched.
The 1996 version arrived and it was shockingly good. Engine, brakes, gearbox, handling – all brilliant. Porsche began work on the Boxster in the midst of soul-searching crisis that forced the venerable sports car maker to reinvent itself. The 911 of this period, notably the 1993 model, was terrific, but the mid-engine Boxster had older roots, all the way back the 1950s.
Starting in 1998, Ford decided to make the Focus a global compact car that buyers around the world could afford. For North Americans this car was the 200-2004 Focus and it was a revelation. This Focus came from the same company that gave us the Ford Tempo? Really. Ford sadly returned to dumbing down the Focus in North America until the 2012 car arrived. Today's third-generation Focus is a truly terrific car and now is the world’ best-selling nameplate with sales in the million range.
Out of the long history of BMW 3-Series cars, we’re singling out the 1999-2004 as the generation that turned the 3 into a truly global phenomenon. What an astonishingly good total package. Handsome and composed, this is the executive car that had BMW’s rivals desperately trying to match.
Volkswagen Golf GTI
We think VW’s pocket rocket was never better than the 2005 version. This car represented German performance engineering in an affordable and sensible compact car.
Chrysler LH cars
When these cars were launched in 1993, Chrysler was just emerging from yet another dance with the hangman. The LH line eventually spawned six vehicles: Chrysler Concorde, Eagle Vision, Dodge Intrepid, and Chrysler LHS, New Yorker, and 300M. They were all just a little bigger and a little more powerful than their immediate sedan rivals and that resonated with the buying public. The “cab-forward” design was mimicked to varying degrees by competitors.
We’ll focus on the 2005 version because it was a brilliant step forward for this luxury brand. Mercedes has since launched a newer version of the S, but this previous one set the stage for what was coming next not just in the S, but other Benz models, too. BMW would like the 7-Series to be as successful, Audi the same with the A8. But not yet.
Cadillac remains a work in progress, but in 2003, the rear-drive CTS took the brand to a place it hadn’t ever been before. The CTS was the first real embodiment of the Art & Science styling approach that you see in today’s evolved Cadillacs. With the CTS, GM made a commitment to creating products that arrived in recognition of what the Germans in particular have been doing with premium automobiles. The CTS showed that the decision-makers at GM understand the essentials of what’s needed at Cadillac. The challenge remains to execute a full product plan.