Emme Hall, an auto journalist, loves to go off-roading, and she also loves Buddy, her 2001 Mazda MX-5 Miata sports car.
Normally these two loves would be star-crossed, but not in Ms. Hall’s case. The Miata (one of two she owns) is happiest away from the pavement: 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 vulnerable undercarriage, a row of rally lights, a skimpy bikini top for sun protection and huge 27-inch tires. Despite the stock 1.8-liter engine, producing a modest 142 horsepower, it can and does get airborne.
Buddy has more than 130,000 miles on the odometer. Ms. Hall’s day job includes racing in events like the Baja 1000 and Mint 400 (as well as the Rebelle and Gazelle rallies), then writing about the experience in outlets like 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, Calif., is one of a large group of auto industry people — executives, analysts and journalists — who, having driven everything else, buy and enjoy Mazda Miatas.
The little cars combine affordability with clever engineering, dependability and driving fun, they say — even at low speeds. Miata values have been rising, too — especially for the first, so-called NA generation of the model years 1990 to 1998 — but hardly into Porsche or Ferrari territory. Hagerty estimates that a fully restored 1990 Miata is worth $29,800.
“The best part of Buddy is that he makes everyone smile — they leave notes on him when I go for gas,” said Ms. Hall, who also has a 178-horsepower 2004 NB (second-generation) Mazdaspeed Miata with a turbocharger.
“Miatas are simple, even the new ones,” she said. “There’s not a lot to interfere with your driving. I can wind my Miata out just going from one traffic light to another. Plus, they’re cheap — I don’t like spending a lot of money on a car.”
McKeel Hagerty, chief executive at the classic-car insurer Hagerty, explained the appeal. “The Miata is the signature car in the recent evolution of the car world,” he said.
“More than one million have been built, and you can track them or just cruise,” he added. “Miatas offer the best way into vintage racing. They’re incredibly reliable, and they hold value well.”
Gregor Hembrough, the head of Polestar North America, chose a 2002 Miata as daily transportation when he worked for Volvo in Goteborg, Sweden, in the early 2000s.
“An MX-5 isn’t the obvious choice as a daily driver for someone residing in Sweden,” Mr. Hembrough acknowledged. “However, for me, the lure of a pure sports car was too strong to overcome. For autumn and winter, the car had heated seats, a limited slip differential, a removable hardtop and studded snow tires.”
He added: “For spring and summer, I enjoyed countless long evenings with the top down and the music up. It was a sad day when I returned to the U.S. and the car went on to a new home.”
Owners tend to drive their Miatas, rather than merely admire them as garage ornaments. Mr. Hembrough put 19,000 miles on his over three years of ownership.
To relax, Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst for e-mobility at Guidehouse Insights in Detroit, regularly takes out his 1990 Miata — a very early model built in October 1989. “My dog, Rosie, likes riding in it,” Mr. Abuelsamid said. “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 at speeds that will get me thrown in jail.”
Mr. Abuelsamid covers electric, autonomous and connected cars, and he road-tests the latest models. To unwind, however, he goes old school, putting the top down and driving to nowhere in particular for a couple of hours.
Stephanie Brinley, principal analyst for the Americas in IHS Markit’s automotive division, is on her second Miata in Troy, Mich. To tackle Michigan winters, she throws snow tires on — even putting the top down sometimes if the sun is out.
“My first Miata was a 1998 I bought gently used with only 1,500 miles on the odometer,” Ms. Brinley said. “I was replacing an Acura Integra GS-R, which is a pretty sporty car, and I wanted something that would be just as much fun but still in a reasonable price range. After 15 years I got tired of having to take the Miata’s hardtop on and off every year, and bought a 2012 NC with the power retractable hardtop.”
“It remains the best bang for your buck,” she added. “The new Corvette is a wonderful machine, but it’s bigger and more expensive and not as good as the Miata to use as an everyday car. I always smile when I drive my Miata, even after owning it for years. It’s such a well-balanced little thing.”
Chris Nelson, a former senior editor 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 separation from Gracie, the silver 1991 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, Calif. “I loved that car, but I was doing a lot with motorcycles, and I needed a truck.
“After my father died, my mom was having 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 off the right front fender and sent it to a jewelry maker — who made a bracelet and a ring as remembrances for my mother. Then, in 2018, I found another fender and sold the car.”
Mr. Nelson said the key to the Miata “is the simplicity — cars are so complicated now.”
“The NA epitomized Japanese design, with minimal obstructions to the sightlines. In the Midwest, where I’m from, they make fun of the Miata, but they just don’t understand what makes it great.” While he was at Automobile, a half dozen other employees owned Miatas, he said.
Despite liking the car in bone-stock form, Mr. Nelson said the ultimate iteration was a conversion sporting a small-block V-8 engine, such as a General Motors LS1. “That’s my dream car,” he said. “It’s the best to drive, and the bigger engine upsets the weight balance only a little bit.”
Perry Stern, formerly an editor at MSN Autos and now at AutoNXT, decided he had to own a Miata after attending the press introduction of the third-generation NC.
“Ultimately,” he said, “I convinced my wife I needed something more fuel-efficient than the 2004 Ford Explorer I was driving. I found a used 2006 Miata — the first year of the NC — with only 47,000 miles in 2014.”
Mr. Stern, who lives in Sammamish, Wash., drives the car sparingly (it’s at 58,700 now), but — you guessed it — “it still brings a smile every time I take it out for a drive,” he said. “Even if I’m not driving it, it makes me happy to look in the garage and see it there. I expect to own it until the day I die.”