Emme Hall, a motoring journalist, enjoys off-roading and she also loves Buddy, her 2001 Mazda MX-5 Miata sports car.
Normally these two loves would have crossed, but not in the case of Mrs. Hall. The Miata (one of the two she owns) is happiest off the curb: it’s lifted to give the normally low-slung roadster 10 inches of ground clearance, and has a beefed-up radiator to cope with hot trail days, a skid plate to protect the fragile undercarriage, a row of rally lights, a skimpy bikini top for sun protection and huge 27-inch tires. Despite the stock 1.8-litre engine, which produces a modest 142 horsepower, it can and will get airborne.
Buddy has over 130,000 miles on it. Ms. Hall’s day-to-day work includes racing in events such as the Baja 1000 and Mint 400 (as well as the Rebelle and Gazelle rallies), then writing about the experience at outlets such as CNET Roadshow.
Taking Buddy off the beaten path, even if it results in broken axles, is what she does for fun. Ms. Hall, who lives in Yucca Valley, California, is part of a large group of auto industry people—executives, analysts, and journalists—who, after driving everything else, buy and enjoy Mazda Miatas.
The small cars combine affordability with smart engineering, reliability and driving pleasure, they say, even at low speeds. Miata values have also risen – especially for the first, so-called NA generation from the 1990 to 1998 model years – but barely in Porsche or Ferrari territory. Hagerty estimates that a fully restored 1990 Miata is worth $29,800.
“The best thing about Buddy is that he makes everyone laugh — they leave notes on him when I fill up,” said Ms. Hall, who also owns a 2004 178-hp (second-generation) Mazdaspeed Miata with a turbocharger.
“Miatas are simple, even the new ones,” she said. “There isn’t much that can interfere with your driving. I can wind my Miata just by going from one stoplight to another. Plus, they’re cheap – I don’t like to spend a lot of money on a car.”
McKeel Hagerty, CEO of old-timer insurer Hagerty, explains the call. “The Miata is the signature car in the recent evolution of the automotive world,” he said.
“Over a million have been built and you can track them or just cruise,” he added. “Miatas offer the best way to make vintage racing. They are incredibly reliable and they hold good value.”
Gregor Hembrough, the head of Polestar North America, chose a 2002 Miata as his daily commuter when he worked for Volvo in Gothenburg, Sweden, in the early 2000s.
“An MX-5 is not the obvious choice as a daily driver for someone living in Sweden,” acknowledged Mr. Hembrough. “For me, however, the appeal of a pure sports car was too strong to overcome. For the fall and winter, the car had heated seats, a limited-slip differential, a removable hardtop and studded snow tires.”
He added: “Before spring and summer, I’ve enjoyed countless long evenings with the roof down and the music up. It was a sad day when I returned to the US and the car went to a new home.”
Owners tend to drive their Miatas, rather than just admiring them as garage decorations. Mr Hembrough has traveled 19,000 miles on his property over three years.
To relax, Sam Abuelsamid, chief e-mobility analyst at Guidehouse Insights in Detroit, regularly pulls out his 1990 Miata—a very early model built in October 1989. “My dog, Rosie, loves to drive it,” said Mr. Abuelsamid. . “She’s tall enough to stick her head out.”
He added: “The Miata is the definitive example of why it can be more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow. Behind the wheel, the Miata is like an extension of my hands: I can explore its limits and not be so fast that I end up in jail.”
Mr Abuelsamid covers electric, autonomous and connected cars and he tests the latest models on the road. To relax, however, he goes old school, puts down the roof and drives to nowhere for a few hours.
Stephanie Brinley, America’s chief analyst in IHS Markit’s auto division, is on her second Miata in Troy, Michigan. To cope with the Michigan winters, she throws on winter tires — sometimes even when the sun is out, the roof is down.
“My first Miata was a 1998 that I cautiously bought with only 1,500 miles on the odometer,” said Ms. Brinley. “I was replacing an Acura Integra GS-R, which is a pretty sporty car, and I wanted something that would be just as fun, but still in a reasonable price range. After 15 years, I was tired of putting the hardtop on and off the Miata every year and bought a 2012 NC with the electrically retractable hardtop.”
“It remains the best bang for your buck,” she added. “The new Corvette is a beautiful machine, but it’s bigger and more expensive and not as good as the Miata to use as a regular car. I always smile when I drive my Miata, even after I’ve had it for years. It’s such a well-balanced little thing.”
Chris Nelson, a former editor-in-chief at Automobile Magazine who now edits Drool (for dog owners) and Iron & Air (about motorcycles), is an ex-Miata owner. But he made sure his divorce from Gracie, the 1991 silver car he inherited from his father, was as dramatic as possible.
“It was a nice car, with the speakers in the headrests that let me listen to books on tape, and I drove it for 15 years,” said Mr. Nelson, who lives in Long Beach, California. “I loved that car, but I did a lot with motorcycles and I needed a truck.
“After my father died, my mother had a hard time, so when she turned 60, I took her on a 2,000-mile road trip in the Miata around California, from Hermosa Beach up through Big Sur,” he continued. “Then I pulled the right front fender off and sent it to a jewelry maker – who made a bracelet and ring in memory of my mother. Then in 2018 I found another fender and sold the car.”
Mr Nelson said the key to the Miata is “simplicity – cars are so complicated now.”
“The NA embodied the Japanese design, with minimal obstructions to the lines of sight. In the Midwest, where I come from, they make fun of the Miata, but they just don’t understand what makes it so great.” While he was at Automobile, half a dozen other employees owned Miatas, he said.
Despite liking the car in bone stock form, Mr. Nelson that the ultimate iteration was a conversion with a small-block V-8 engine, such as a General Motors LS1. “That’s my dream car,” he said. “It’s the best to ride, and the bigger engine only upsets the weight balance a little bit.”
Perry Stern, formerly an editor at MSN Autos and now AutoNXT, decided he needed to own a Miata after attending the third-generation NC press release.
“In the end,” he said, “I convinced my wife that I needed something more economical than the 2004 Ford Explorer I was driving. I found a used 2006 Miata – NC’s first year – with only 47,000 miles in 2014.”
Mr. Stern, who lives in Sammamish, Washington, drives the car sparingly (it now stands at 58,700), but — you guessed it — “it still brings a smile every time I drive it,” he said. “Even when I’m not driving it, I get happy to look in the garage and see it there. I expect to own it until the day I die.”