Often overlooked and very underrated, this is the 3rd generation Mazda MX-5 Miata. AKA, the “NC Miata”. I can recommend it as the best sports car for almost anyone, yet it is arguably the least-loved in the Miata lineage.
To date, this is the longest running generation MX-5, from 2005-2015. It is often referred to as the red-headed stepchild of the group. It is ironically disliked more than the NE/NF platform, better known as the Fiata, the 124 Spider, whatever you call it. Despite the Fiat being “half Mazda”, it’s often hailed and praised. Granted, it does look good. But the NC Miata gets the least love of the bunch.
People claim it is a departure from the simplicity and bare bones mentality of the first Miatas. If you compare it to the original, this is true. But you have to remember the origin. The first Miata, compared to other cars of the era, was smaller, lightweight, and simple. It was an affordable way to enjoy ethos of the roadsters of old. Therefore, if you compare the 3rd generation to the other cars of its era, the same holds true. It’s still simplified and raw, but grew with the mandatory improvements to safety standards. A bigger power plant helped to keep the proper feel alongside the extra couple hundred pounds, and it actually holds a smaller/lighter footprint than the original Miata if you compare it to other cars on the road at its time.
During its 10 year run, the NC had 2 mid-generation updates. It’s subdivided commonly as NC1, NC2, and NC3. These were mostly visual aesthetic improvements, though a couple mechanical ones as well between NC1/NC2. I’ll touch on these in detail in the coming sections.
So sit down, grab a coffee, and enjoy this long term, in-depth review of the NC Miata. I’ve spent over 3 years and nearly 60,000 miles with the NC, across multiple iterations. I’ll share what I learned, what Mazda did well, and what could have been improved. This will integrate the usual Out of Spec rating system, though it scores very poorly with our ratings due to the nature of the modern categories. I also include a few other details and long-term considerations for your interest.
Out of Spec Score: 55/100
First, what is this?
This, specifically, is a 2012 Special Edition, the last year of “NC2”. Mazda tried something new with this model, a contrasting color option, with mirrors, roof, and roll hoops all black. They also included a new black gunmetal wheel variant of the Grand Touring wheel. It came with EVERYTHING as standard. This includes the sporty Suspension Package with Bilsteins and an LSD. It also features the Premium Package, with all the creature comforts of the maxed out Grand Touring model, such as auto-dimming HomeLink mirror, heated leather seats, AKE (Advanced Keyless Entry) and ignition, and HID headlights.
They only made 450 Special Editions in 2012, half in the new Crystal White Pearl you see here, and half in Velocity Red Mica. They sold like hot cakes, which proved there was indeed a market for the contrasting black color on roof, etc.
Because it was so successful, they created a new trim level with the NC3 in 2013, the “club”. Which replaced the previous touring model. It had the same contrasting black accents, a new club badge and stripe on the side, and had Suspension Package as standard. It was a bit bare bones otherwise, with no Grand Touring/Premium Package creature comforts. But that wasn’t the focus. It was meant to be a car someone could buy and then take immediately to a competitive driving event.
I heavily considered a club based on its appearance, but because it’s also my only car, my daily driver, I wanted creature comforts too. The 2012 Special Edition was the only way to get everything. Took me months to track one down, and I have no regrets. My wife and I purchased one way tickets, flew across the country, and drove it back. If you want a similar NC, with every possible option, look for a Grand Touring with Suspension and Premium Packages. Other than the black contrast color features, it’s essentially the same car underneath. Certain Special Editions had everything as well, such as the 2011. However, be sure to pay attention to your market. The 2012 Special Edition in Canada, for example, is much more bare-bones, little more than a base model Sport trim.
I guess you could say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder… but I personally love it. With an asterisk. I love the NC2 and NC3 facelifts. The NC1, in stock form, is a bit…tall. However, I’ve met people in the opposite camp, loving the NC1 styling. Then there’s what seems to be the majority of Miata enthusiasts, considering the NC as the ugly duckling.
Introduced with the NC was the all-new PRHT, or “power retractible hardtop” that was available beginning in 2007. It is quite a feat of engineering, and allows the full hardtop to perform an origami-style fold into a cavity behind the seats in a matter of 12 seconds. Because of the slightly larger roof, the trunk lid and rear quarter panels actually slope ever-so-slightly different than the soft-top NC, and thus those parts are not interchangeable. The folded roof doesn’t affect trunk space in any way, and actually leaves a large cavity when up that can be used as a second trunk.
I think the style is making a comeback. It’s curvy and muscular, not as sharp and angled as the ND. It’s, a bit “thiccc”, and I like it. Some people consider it the “Miata with a factory wide-body kit”, referring to the wheel well haunches. It fits the Mazda ethos of that era. You can see the similarities especially to the RX-8, which was somewhat co-developed with the NC platform. The NC is somewhat of a shrunken RX-8, using a lot of the same design in parts, trimmed down to accomplish some weight-shaving. Overall, it was polarizing at first, but has aged fairly well, and I’ll give it a 7 out of 10.
So let’s just say materials wasn’t the focus here. It’s not terrible, and it did improve with the 2009 facelift. But it is still noticeably a low priority. You’ll find lots of plastic, and even the leather bits are cheap-feeling with almost no padding beneath. I did add a few things to improve it, such as custom gauge faces, a new head unit with Apple CarPlay, and even a shift knob from the newer ND Miata.
But I find the lack of interior focus to be expected. It’s no BMW, Mercedes, etc. But nor does it cost near as much as the higher-end roadsters. It has a lot to offer, and it’s easy to make personal touches and/or improvements like I did. Things such as floor mats, sound dampening, gauge faces, stereo and any plethora of custom modifications can improve the quality and feel quite a bit. But from the factory, not very impressive. In its defense, the interior was never meant to be a fashion piece, as the main purpose of the car is to just enjoy driving. That being said, the ND interior is extremely nice, so they figured it out at some point. But for NC, 6 out of 10 interior score.
Mazda and Ford partnered to produce a 2.0L MZR inline-4 with 167hp, 140 lb ft of torque. Those are not big numbers, but it’s not a big car. Europe did get a smaller 1.8L variant, with noticeably less power, and I have heard it’s well worth it to spring for the 2.0. The engine is well-sorted, and sound good from the factory. They’re happy to be revved out, and the NC2 improved it further with forged internals. The 2,500 pound car is understandably a bit heavier and bigger than the original Miata, but the new power plants do make up the difference, providing an even better power-to-weight ratio. The MZR takes to modifications quite well, and if you somehow do blow an engine, it’s actually cheaper to upgrade to a 2.5L engine commonly found in other Mazda/Fords of the era. More on that later.
Since the beginning, the Sport (base) trim got a 5 speed manual which is very popular with track and autocross cars, as you can hit 60 mph in 2nd gear. But there was also a new 6 speed manual. NC2 got a redline bump due to the afore-mentioned forged internals, up to a 7,250 redline from the prior 6,750. The automatic kept the latter. This automatic, as usual, gets some hate. But is far better than the NA/NB 4 speed auto, now being a 6 speed automatic with paddle shifters. Mind you, these are not the proper paddles with one down, one up. Instead, they opted for rear paddles that shift up, and little thumb triggers above the steering wheel spokes that shift down. I was never a fan of that integration, but you can also use the shifter knob, knocked left into “Manual” mode, to shift up and down. Most people scoff at an auto Miata. But if you need or prefer one, it really is a good automatic. I found it extremely responsive, almost always choosing the gear I needed based on throttle response.
As for handling, the Miata ethos has always pridefully integrated a perfect 50/50 weight distribution…need I say more? Well yes, I should. Most Miatas struggle with the body roll, they ride quite well but there’s a reason most people recommend suspension or sway bars as a first modification. The excellent weight distribution does help for great driving dynamics regardless, with predictable rotation in tight corners. The first generations actually had the battery in the trunk to balance it, but NC moved the battery under the hood.
The NC1, as i mentioned before, was far worse in stock form, with the appearance often called a “4×4”. This was improved with NC2/3, especially with the new Bilstein suspension package. It is truly well-sorted from the factory, and the limited slip differential helps in many cases, including snow! I drive this rain or shine, snow, heat, curvy mountain roads, highways, dirt. It is setup from the factory excellently to handle all cases. As per most modifications, helping in one area can hurt in another. If you do put on stiffer springs or coils, it will corner better and then suffer on some rougher roads in ride comfort. But is this the car you buy for comfort? Performance score is a decent 7 out of 10, mostly due to feel more than paper specifications.
You might expect a lower score here, but I had to strike the balance between ranking this as opposed to cars in general or weekend sporty roadsters. The NC is arguably the most practical Miata, especially in PRHT form. The trunk is officially 5.3 cuFT (150L), plus the roof cavity if you have the PRHT and choose to use it as a “frunk”. If you don’t have the PRHT, the soft top features cubbies behind each seat. And unlike the ND, the NC also has a glove box along with the central storage cavity. It is rounded out with 4 actual cupholders, 2 per seat!
Gas mileage isn’t exactly high, but it’s much better than many “weekend toys” elsewhere. Mazda claims 21 city, 28 highway. I have actually achieved a real figure of low 30s on long road trips, but the cost of Premium fuel offsets any “savings”. The ND is a bit better in this regard with numbers into the mid-30s, but I found the interior to be incredibly impractical. All things considered, the NC is a glass half-full and gets a 5 out of 10.
Well, it’s a tiny 2-seater roadster. What’d you expect? That being said, it is the biggest Miata. It has the most interior room, most storage space, and it isn’t half bad for the passenger either. ND seats are more comfortable, especially ND2 seats from the Grand Touring, which are comfortable enough that I would make an office chair out of one if I could. But from a passenger standpoint, NC is fantastic, and legroom is as good as it gets, for a Miata at least.
Road trips are definitely feasible with the storage capability, and as aforementioned, the suspension and seats are fine from the factory. Thought I do encourage a few more stretch breaks than perhaps most vehicles. You do have a very low seating position which can affect your neck, back, and legs differently than a more upright standard position. It’s very fun, but not the most comfortable. That being said, I still enjoy taking it all around the USA, and a 5 out of 10 feels like a fair score.
I’d say when it was introduced in 2005, the technology was comparable. But the fact that it barely changed through 2015 was pretty sad. But, from the beginning, it could be had with 7 speaker 6-disc Bose stereo, heated seats, keyless ignition. Oh, but not push-button start. It was a really interesting system where you twist a “fake key” like you would a normal one, just without having to insert a key. I suppose it was a precursor to the push-button start. It’s quirky, but I do like it more than using a key.
As the years progressed, sports cars, cars in general, got more and more tech. The base models eventually got what previous high tier models got. That didn’t exactly happen with the Miata. The base model stayed almost unchanged. NC2 brought the 3.5mm jack, and higher trims could be had with auto-dimming mirror and Bluetooth, but only for phone calls. Why not Bluetooth music? I guess we’d have to ask Mazda. They also added an external temperature readout on the dash, thank goodness. But that’s about it. Granted, like many cars in the mid 2000s, it’s very easy to improve it and add better, more current tech. For example, a new head unit provided me with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Bluetooth. I also added a reverse camera and front/rear dash cameras. But not counting what I added, tech squeezes by with a 3 out of 10.
Connected Services 2/10
There is no app, no CarPlay, not even Bluetooth for your music. The only service I know of is the Sirius XM option on some later models, which also had Bluetooth that only supported the standard for phone calls and phonebook, but again, no music streaming. It’s very bare-bones, although easily remedied via an aftermarket head unit. Like many cars of the era, it’s easy to install one and it can give you Bluetooth, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and more. But as it stands from Mazda, even through the 2015 year, it’s an abysmal 2 out of 10.
Active Safety 2/10
Another low point! Initially, only the higher trims could get the traction control features like Dynamic Stability Control. It later became standard, but that’s about as safe as it gets. There are side airbags not seen in previous Miatas, but there is almost no modern active safety amenity to speak of, bringing in another 2 out of 10 on the board.
The value of the MX-5 Miata was always its strong point. Its inception was to bring a fun sports car to the masses, and well over a million sold to date proves its success. It has always been priced comparably to a mid-tier standard sedan, much less than most other weekend roadsters. When you add in the used market, the possibilities are endless. The NC currently sits anywhere from around $5,000 for a high mileage example needing a bit of TLC up to nearly $20,000 for a mint condition or tastefully modified low mileage specimen. They’ve actually been slightly rising over the past couple years. But it is a great value for the money no matter what your budget is, 8 out of 10 on the value score.
Editor’s Influence 10/10
My only perfect scored category to date probably requires some justification. I spent months upon months researching fun, affordable cars. It eventually culminated on the NC Miata, largely due to its proven reliability, fully retractible hardtop that doesn’t impede trunk space, ease of maintenance, and price point roughly half of a comparable ND Miata. I’ve enjoyed defending its honor among the haters, and it’s a car I hope to have through 500,000 or maybe even a million miles. I’m happier than I was during the “honeymoon” phase with the car, and I have no plans to replace it. I’d have to give a full 10 out of 10 for my influence, since bias is allowed.
Long Term Reliability
The NC is arguably the best Miata from a reliability standpoint. The only real “known problem” is the coolant expansion tank, which has been known to give out by cracking at the neck of the refill hole. If it does, your engine can go with it if not shut down immediately. So yes, that is a problem. But this is easily remedied by a new OEM tank or even one of the many aftermarket options. It isn’t necessarily a time-bomb, as my NC1 with 250,000 miles never had it replaced. Somehow, whether by dumb luck or otherwise, it was on the original coolant tank. But I hear it’s much better to play it safe.
I can speak to the NC reliability because my first one, as I mentioned, was the NC1 with 250,000 miles. That NC was also an automatic, and it had never had the transmission serviced, which should have been done every 100,000 miles. It still shifted like new! It never had any other issues either, and routine maintenance is quite simple. Miatas in general seem to be excellent vehicles to learn to maintain yourself. The NC is especially reliable, even with aftermarket adjustments. If you take care of them, they take care of you. When something does go wrong, it’s relatively easy to fix, much more so than many modern cars that are largely computer-monitored from every aspect.
The NC Miata is the heritage and homage to simpler times, a roadster to turn every drive into a fun adventure. It leaves behind the uncertainty of old mechanicals and questionable electronics, and simply drives when you need it. Some people want the unique adventure of an old roadster, like a Lotus Elan, Jaguar E-Type, or even the original Miata. They can often have the quirks and maintenance and lifestyle of a project car, which absolutely has its place. But if you want a reliable roadster built on the foundation of those legends, this is your cup of tea.