Mazda MX-5 Old v New Comparison: First-generation NA v fourth-gen ND

Whether you're old enough to remember them or not, the 1980s were cool. Icons such as Madonna and Prince were at the height of their success and big hair wasn't just acceptable, it was wholeheartedly encouraged. But on February 10, 1989, something particularly special happened: the Mazda MX-5 made its global debut at the Chicago motor show, giving birth to one of the world's most successful nameplates ever.

The car that started it all was the first-generation NA Mazda MX-5. Launched locally in October 1989, the original MX-5 notched up 157 registrations by the end of its first month on sale. And the immaculate example pictured here, belonging to Nicholas Bodey from Victoria, is the 38th to have ever arrived.

Powered by a naturally aspirated 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine with double overhead camshafts, the 940kg first iteration of the classic rear-wheel-drive Japanese soft-top had 85kW of power at 6500rpm and 130Nm of torque at 5500rpm.

Available in Mariner Blue, Crystal White, and, of course, Classic Red, for the first five months, Silver Satin was added to the MX-5 palette in March 1990, followed by Neo Green in October of that year.

The NA MX-5 was a properly affordable sports car for its day, with prices starting from $29,990 – or more than $160k less than a year-equivalent 964 Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet.

It was petite too. Measuring 3955mm long, 1675mm wide, and 1235mm tall, the first-gen ‘Max 5’ rode on a 2265mm wheelbase.

And while early cars, such as Nick’s, came standard with a leather-wrapped steering wheel, power windows, four-wheel disc brakes (ventilated fronts, solid rears) and 14-inch alloy wheels, weight was kept to a minimum thanks to the use of an aluminium bonnet and the exclusion of power steering, anti-lock brakes (ABS) and airbags.

As we lap the Gippsland Car Club’s 1.3-kilometre Haunted Hills (Bryant Park) hillclimb circuit, in Nick’s NA MX-5, the 18-year-old tells us a bit about the car.

“It’s… a genuine Mazda MX-5, not a Eunos Roadster,” Nick says.

“So it wasn’t imported by anyone, it was brought over by Mazda.”

Despite owning such an automotive icon, Nick says he’d never really heard of the MX-5 before a car collector friend of his father recommended the model as a car more likely to appreciate in value than depreciate.

“The idea [of buying the car] was to have a two-seater car that I can drive on my Red Ps… it’s not too powerful, so I’m not going to get myself into too much trouble. And because it’s a 1989 model, I can put it on club registration if I’m not driving too much.”

Nick tells us some of his favourite aspects of the NA MX-5 are the unique pop-up headlights, its weighty but accurate steering and the reaction other people have to the smiley-faced little drop-top.

Since production of the NA ceased in October 1997, the Mazda MX-5 has evolved through several generations and gone on to sell over one million models worldwide, cementing its title as the world’s best-selling two-seater sports car.

And it was in early September 2014 – twenty-five years after the NA’s Chicago debut – that Mazda unveiled the fourth-generation ND MX-5 at simultaneous events in the US, Spain and Japan.

Eleven months later, the all-new convertible went on sale in Australia with an entry price of $31,990, making it not only $15,290 more affordable than the previous third-gen NC MX-5, but comfortably the most affordable MX-5 sold in Australia since the original.

With Mazda’s goal being to more closely reunite the MX-5 with the Jinba-ittai (horse and rider) spirit of the original, the all-new fourth-generation ND returned to being properly small and light.

How small and light? At 3915mm long, 1730mm wide, and weighing 1009kg, the newest MX-5 is 40mm shorter, 65mm wider and a mere 69kg heavier than the original. It has the same overall height too and its 2315mm wheelbase is only 50mm off the original.

What makes these figures even more impressive, is the fact Mazda has still been able to squeeze in a raft of modern-day must-haves, including LED headlights and tail-lights, cruise control, air conditioning, electrically-assisted power steering, 16-inch alloy wheels, a push-button start, and a six-speaker stereo with Bluetooth phone connectivity and audio streaming.

With the two cars sitting side-by-side, it’s also great to see some equipment mirrored, notably the leather-wrapped steering wheel, gear knob and manual handbrake, and the proper ‘soft’-top – not the folding hard-top used on the previous NC.

And while it may not be as obvious, the bonnet is again made of aluminium. Although for 2016, so is the boot lid, front fenders and front and rear bumper reinforcements.

Colour choices too have only grown by one since the NA, with the ND available in Soul Red, Ceramic (Silver), Crystal White Pearl, Jet Black, Meteor Grey and Blue Reflex.

Anti-lock brakes are another point of difference – still with ventilated discs up front and solid discs in the rear though – along with four airbags and 10mm wider, lower profile tyres.

The ND’s entry-level engine too, is the smallest capacity engine ever offered in an MX-5.

Although a larger-capacity 2.0-litre is available, with 118kW of power at 6000rpm and 200Nm of torque at 4600rpm, the base 1.5-litre four-pot brings 96kW at 7000rpm and 150Nm at 4800rpm to the party.

That’s 11kW and 20Nm more than Nick’s original 1.6-litre NA. And jumping into the driver’s seat, Nick reckons you can feel every bit of it.

“It’s a lot more powerful… But then again, the MX-5 isn’t all about the power. It’s about what you can do with what power you’ve got,” Nick says.

“The steering’s a lot different. You’ve sort of more got to follow through with every movement, whereas the NA is a lot smoother and [requires] less adjustment – it’ll follow through the corners like it’s on rails.

“[It] definitely still feels like an MX-5. It feels more refined than the original… but considering there’s 26-years difference between the two, it’s expected, obviously as a newer car, it’s going to feel a little bit different.”

As much as he likes the new ND though, after only a few laps, Nick says he wouldn’t trade it for his NA.

“…But, for a new MX-5, it definitely ticks all the boxes of the perfect cornering and the 50:50 weight ratio – so it’s still a great MX-5.”

With our MX-5 ‘expert’ having driven both cars, it was time for us to pinch Nick’s keys and slide into the NA for a few smile-inducing laps.

And smile-inducing it just what the NA Mazda MX-5 is.

It feels small and light. It changes direction well. And everything about the car is immediate, direct, and fun.

From the steering to the pedals to the seat of the pants, the NA MX-5 is a car bristling with feedback, letting the driver know exactly what’s happening all the time.

Without the aid of hydraulics or electrics, the steering is definitely heavier in the NA than in the ND, but it’s consistent, full of feel and loads up beautifully coming into and going through corners.

With 1989/1990 emissions being rather less stringent than today’s, the NA is noticeably louder than the ND. But with more engine and exhaust noise, it’s arguably more characterful than the ND too.

Twenty-six years on, the engine and gearbox still make a sensational combination.

The engine likes to be revved and enjoyed and the super-notchy short-throw ‘box is the same – there to be played with and relished, rather than ever feeling like a chore to have to use.

Despite the car’s age and lack of ABS, the brakes still feel positive under foot, even when negotiating Haunted Hills’ significant elevation changes.

For us, though, the icing on the cake really is that unique view over the bonnet. With those happy pop-up lights in their upright position, there’s simply no mistaking what car you’re behind the wheel of.

The NA Mazda MX-5 is not only an impressively complete car, it’s one that impeccably combines together all of its individual elements to make an incredibly fun car, and a car you just want to keep driving, quickly or not.

As a fan of the MX-5, it’s no surprise that Nick agrees with this sentiment.

But in a positive step for Mazda – and for die-hard MX-5 enthusiasts the world over – it’s clear from this Old v New comparison, that while several generations of MX-5 may have strayed somewhat from the original, the all-new fourth-generation ND Mazda MX-5 is a very welcome return to form for the lightweight, affordable little sports car, originally built for those who not only love cars, but love driving.

Note: CarAdvice would like to extend a huge thank you to Nicholas Bodey for his time, enthusiasm, patience and, of course, his stunning little 1989 NA Mazda MX-5.

Click on the Photos tab for more 1989 NA Mazda MX-5 and 2016 ND Mazda MX-5 images by Tom Fraser.
Videography by Igor Solomon. Editing by Mitchell Oke.

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