Car profiles

For roadster lovers, Mazda’s MX-5 is (still) the answer

by Chris Stark
2 June 2023 3 min read
For roadster lovers, Mazda’s MX-5 is (still) the answer
Photos: Cameron Neveu

Editor’s note: This article was originally published by our colleagues at Hagerty US. We’ve adapted it where necessary to be relevant to UK-market models.

By the late ’80s, the traditional roadster had become an endangered species. MG, Triumph, and Fiat exited the market earlier in the decade, so for those in need of a two-seat, top-down experience, Alfa Romeo’s outdated Spider was it. Enter the first-generation Mazda MX-5 (chassis code “NA”). It debuted at the 1989 Chicago Auto Show with smart styling reminiscent of the Lotus Elan, featuring a double-wishbone suspension, Japanese reliability, and a low price. It was a smash hit, and Mazda moved over 45,000 of them in the first year of production.

Mazda made a few changes during the NA MX-5’s eight-year life span. Early cars came with a 1.6-litre four-cylinder outputting 114 horsepower. For 1994, the MX-5 gained a more powerful 1.8-litre engine, as well as a detuned 90bhp 1.6 as an entry-level model. Throughout the NA’s production run, Mazda offered several special editions with exclusive paint and features and unique interiors – 1991’s Limited Edition and the turbocharged BBR Turbo and Le Mans, the bright yellow California in 1992, and others like the Gleneagles, Merlot, and Harvard, to name just a few of those that followed.

These editions tend to command a premium over standard models (especially the incredibly rare Le Mans, built to celebrate the marque’s 1991 victory). Japanese imports contributed many more unique models to the market over the years, from the British racing green V-Spec to the racy RS-Limited, and often have higher specifications than UK cars, including air conditioning and limited-slip differentials.

The MX-5 was never a fast car, but neither were its British and Italian forebears. You’ll lose a drag race to anything this side of a Vauxhall Corsa, but you won’t care, as the MX-5 offers a level of interactivity that is hard to find in most modern cars. It doesn’t take long to get intimately familiar with the pinpoint shifter atop MX-5’s five-speed gearbox, and keeping the engine in its happy place above 3500rpm is a joy. The pedal placement, too, allows for easy heel-toe downshifts.

Mazda MX-5

It’s a manic little thing, with steering that constantly badgers you about every minute change of road surface and just how much stick the skinny tyres have left. The standard suspension is compliant and not overly stiff, but you will feel every pothole and expansion joint. A Mercedes SL this is not. However, an NA MX-5 is a willing dance partner when the road gets twisty.

The reliability of a MX-5 makes ownership trivial compared with keeping a fussy British roadster. Hagerty content manager Joe DeMatio owns this US-market ’95 Miata, and it has seen over 200,000 miles with minimal upkeep. The cars are not without their problems, however. Early 1.6-litre engines can have issues with the crankshaft keyway. The convertible top drains can get clogged and cause the sills in front of the rear wheel arches to rust. Other areas, such as the front wings, are liable to succumb to the tin worm, as Mazda had not figured out rust protection yet. Replacing the convertible top is an expensive, time-consuming process, so if you cannot find an NA MX-5 with a working top, budget accordingly.

Mazda MX-5 dials

More than 400,000 NA MX-5s were sold worldwide, so they – and their parts – are easy to find. And one of the best aspects of MX-5 ownership is the community that has formed around these cars. Any issue, maintenance procedure, or modification has been well documented online and thus MX-5 are shade-tree-mechanic friendly. Any upgrade you can imagine is available for the NA MX-5, from V8 swaps to off-road lift kits. DeMatio’s example is equipped with BBS wheels, originally offered on the ’95 M Edition in the US. If you’re looking at a modified example, inspect the workmanship closely and familiarise yourself with trusted aftermarket parts sources, because many of these cars have been used, abused, and poorly customised.

For those who want the classic roadster experience without the dubious reliability and build quality of roadsters of yore, a first-generation MX-5 is tough to beat.

1990 Mazda MX-5

Engine: 1.6-litre DOHC inline-4
Power: 114bhp @ 6500rpm
Torque: 100lb ft @ 5500 rpm
Weight: 955kg
0–62 mph: 8.8sec
Top speed 121mph
Price when new: £14,250
Hagerty value (condition 4 ‘Fair’ to condition 1 ‘Concours’): £2500–£10,200

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