September 4, 2014 at 6:50 pm

Mazda unveils new Miata as top-selling two-seater turns 25

The new Mazda Motor Corp. MX-5 Miata sports car, officially known as the Roadster in Japan, is displayed at the vehicle's unveiling in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture, Japan, on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. (Akio Kon / Bloomberg)

Mazda Motor Corp. unveiled a new version of its iconic MX-5 Miata sports car for the first time in nine years, counting on the model to help sustain rising sales.

Mazda showed the car at an event Thursday to mark the Miata’s 25th anniversary in Japan, the U.S. and Spain. The fourth-generation model is the most compact so far and more than 220 pounds lighter than its predecessor, the company said in a statement. Sales will start globally next year.

Officially known as the Roadster in Japan and MX-5 elsewhere, the Miata became a hit after the first generation went on sale in 1989, rekindling interest in lightweight sports cars. In 2011, Guinness World Records declared it the best- selling two-seater sports car of all time. Mazda forecasts record profit this fiscal year and is counting on the new model to help boost sales that grew at the second-fastest pace among Japanese carmakers in 2013, when its market value tripled.

“The Roadster’s light weight and drivability are unrivaled,” Hiroshi Matsushita, a car critic and longtime member of the panel that gives out Japan’s annual Car of the Year award, said in a phone interview.

The car has a wider and lower body than the current version and features wide rear fenders. It will be fitted with Mazda’s SkyActiv technology that’s designed to cut fuel use while boosting engine output, according to the company.

A weaker yen and demand for new models including the Mazda 6 sedan and the CX-5 crossover have helped the Hiroshima-based carmaker post two straight years of profit after four consecutive net losses from 2009 to 2012.

Revenue for the year ended March jumped 22 percent, the most among Japanese carmakers after Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd.’s 26 percent gain. Mazda is projecting net income of 160 billion yen ($1.5 billion) in the year ending March 2015.

In February, Jay Leno, the U.S. television personality and car collector — who owns a red 1996 Miata — featured the car in a segment of his NBC show, “Jay Leno’s Garage.”

Even with the new Miata, which will be built in Hiroshima, the market for roadsters isn’t expected to recover to the levels seen before the 2008 global financial crisis anytime soon, according to IHS Automotive.

IHS projects U.S. deliveries of all roadsters may grow to about 77,000 cars annually by 2020 from 35,681 last year. That compares with a recent high of more than 124,000 deliveries in 2006, before the financial crisis and its aftermath sent annual U.S. sales plunging to fewer than 25,000 by 2011.

Sales of the Miata in the U.S., the model’s biggest market, declined last year to 5,780 cars from 6,305 in 2012, according to the company. The car’s total production volume exceeded 940,000 units as of July. The current generation of the vehicle was introduced in 2005.

As Mazda’s competitors have developed hybrid gasoline-electric and plug-in battery-powered vehicles, the company has focused on its SkyActiv cars, named for a suite of technology applications based on conventional diesel and gasoline engines, which include new automatic transmissions and lighter car frames.

The automaker opened a new plant in Mexico this year, producing Mazda 2 and Mazda 3 compact cars for North America, its biggest market. The factory will also produce vehicles for Toyota Motor Corp. from mid-2015.

Mazda will also produce a version based on the new Miata for Fiat SpA, the two carmakers said last year.