The MX-5's first generation, the NA, sold over 400,000 units from May 1989 to 1997 – with a 1.6 L (98 cu in) inline-four engine to 1993, a 1.8 L (110 cu in) engine thereafter (with a de-tuned 1.6 as a budget option in some markets) – recognizable by its pop-up headlights. The second generation (NB) was introduced in 1999 with a slight increase in engine power; it can be recognized by the fixed headlights and the glass rear window, although first generation owners may opt for the glass window design when replacing the original top. The third generation (NC) was introduced in 2006 with a 2.0 L (120 cu in) engine and slightly larger body size, with a Power Retractable Hard Top variant added in 2007. The fourth generation (ND) was introduced in 2015 with a new 2.0 L (120 cu in) SKYACTIV-G engine and a body size similar to the first generation model, with a Retractable Fastback (RF) variant added later that year.
Launched at a time when production of small roadsters had almost come to an end, the Alfa Romeo Spider was the only comparable volume model in production at the time of the MX-5's launch. Just a decade earlier, a host of similar models — notably the MG B, Triumph TR7, Triumph Spitfire, and Fiat Spider — had been available.
The body is a conventional, but light, unibody construction, with (detachable) front and rear subframes. The MX-5 also incorporates a longitudinal truss, marketed as the Powerplant Frame (PPF), providing a rigid connection between the engine and differential, minimizing flex and contributing to responsive handling. Some MX-5s feature limited slip differentials and anti-lock braking system. Traction control is an option available on NC models. All models weighed approximately one tonne.
With an approximate 50:50 front/rear weight balance, the car has nearly neutral handling. Inducing oversteer is easy and very controllable, thus making the MX-5 a popular choice for amateur and stock racing,including, in the US, the Sports Car Club of America's Solo2 autocross and Spec Miata race series, and in the UK, the 5Club Racing championship. Raddatz and Otten won the AASA Australian Endurance Championship in 2011.
The MX-5 has won awards including Wheels Magazine 's Car of the Year for 1989, 2005 and 2016;Sports Car International's "best sports car of the 1990s" and "ten best sports cars of all time"; 2005–2006 Car of the Year Japan; and 2005 Australian Car of the Year. The Miata has also made Car and Driver magazine's annual 10 Best list 17 times. In their December 2009 issue, Grassroots Motorsports magazine named the Miata as the most important sports car built during the previous 25 years.
In 2009, English automotive critic Jeremy Clarkson wrote:
The fact is that if you want a sports car, the MX-5 is perfect. Nothing on the road will give you better value. Nothing will give you so much fun. The only reason I’m giving it five stars is because I can’t give it fourteen.