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Mazda MX-5

Top Twenty Published: 10th May 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Mazda MX-5

Fast Facts

  • Best model: 1.8
  • Worst model: 88bhp 1.6
  • Budget buy: 1.6 (114bhp)
  • OK for unleaded?: Yes
  • Will it fit in the garage? (mm): L3948 x W1676
  • Spares situation: Excellent
  • DIY ease?: As good as any modern
  • Club support: Strong
  • Appreciating asset?: Original cars will be
  • Good buy or good-bye?: Best sports car buy around
Style has lasted fabulously for two decades and rust isn’t a real worry either unless the car has been badly neglected Style has lasted fabulously for two decades and rust isn’t a real worry either unless the car has been badly neglected
Clean, minimalist cabin has all you need; this is one of the many special editions which boasted a far more plush environment Clean, minimalist cabin has all you need; this is one of the many special editions which boasted a far more plush environment
MX-5 appealed to all sexes. Female ownership accounted for more than half of all sales but for all that the MX-5 isn’t regarded MX-5 appealed to all sexes. Female ownership accounted for more than half of all sales but for all that the MX-5 isn’t regarded
Watch out for special editions, some such as Merlot are pretty coveted – but don’t pay over the odds for the privilege! Watch out for special editions, some such as Merlot are pretty coveted – but don’t pay over the odds for the privilege!
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Mazda’s MX-5 is now 20 years old and one of the best sports cars ever made. It drives as well as a Lotus Elan for a fraction of the price!

Pros & Cons

Style, RWD handling, affordability, great aftermarket support
Overpriced special editions, less powerful than rivals

Launched in the UK at a time when hot hatches like the Ford Escort XR3i ruled the roost, the MX-5 seemed like a mad gamble by the Hiroshima-based company. Were the firm’s bosses British sports car enthusiasts with nothing better to do? Surely this was a loss-making project to rival the Triumph TR7 or Fiat X1-9? However, the little MX-5 had one magic ingredient that was arguably lacking in the last of the proper MGs and Triumphs to leave their production lines in the early 1980s – reliability. Just as crucially, the MX-5 was a serious sports car and arguably the embodiment of the much-loved Lotus Elan in looks and feel – the stark difference being that this is a car you can use without worry. Now 20 years old, the original cars are both plentiful and affordable. If you’ve never owned a sports car in your life but want to take the plunge, then the MX-5 is the one to have.


The birth of the MX-5 can be traced right back to 1983, when Mazda launched its unique Offl ine 55 project to encourage innovation within the company. One of the projects worked on was the LWS (light-weight sports car), which featured a steel backbone chassis and plastic bodywork. In 1986 Mazda started to get serious about production, with the innovative structure giving way to a conventional steel monocoque. The new Mazda experimental (MX) car was the fi fth in a series of ‘M’ concept cars, and in February 1989 the Mazda MX-5 debuted at the Chicago Motor Show. The car hit the UK market back in 1990 as the MX-5, while in the States it was known as the Miata and in Japan, the Eunos Roadster. The original 1.6-litre engine was availablewith a lively 114bhp, but emissions regulations reduced this over time and from 1995 the 1.6 was detuned to a paltry 88bhp. A 1.8-litre version arrived in 1993 with 128bhp, although in real world driving there’s little difference between this unit and the original 1.6 save for better low down pulling torque.

The original MX-5 remained refreshingly free from needless tinkering by designers, although the marketing men had a fi eld day with special editions – there were at least 30, ranging from the 1995 ‘GlenEagles’ and ‘Merlot’ and the bonkers 2000 ‘Jasper Conran’! Keep an eye out for the BBR 150bhp turbo edition from 1991 by Brodie Brittain Racing, fi tted with a Garrett T25 turbocharger. Rare though it is, the Le Mans turbo is also worth hunting out even though only 16 were made. Eunos cars are the grey imports of the MX-5 from Japan and these are usually sound cars with generous kit, including leather trim and automatic transmission options. There are some crucial differences, though. The European MX-5’s manual gearbox is as sweet a transmission as they come and other underpinnings also differ, so home-grown cars are more desirable.


The MX-5 is the closest thing you’ll get to the old Lotus Elan in terms of that classic feel. It handles beautifully, with precise steering and rifl e bolt gear selection. Avoid the detuned 88bhp 1.6, but all other variants are fi ne, while the 150bhp turbo is blisteringly quick. The beauty of the MX-5 lies in its usability. This is a serious sports car that can be used for the daily grind without complaint or costs. 25-35mpg is easily and maintenance is simple and minimal. The cockpit is snug and pleasingly leak-free with a simple, fast hood. Boot space isn’t anything to write home about, as the spare wheel eats up a lot of space, but there’s enough room for a weekend away. In short, the MX-5 is the perfect modern sports car.


Cheap 1990 MX-5s in good condition can still command as much as £2000, and while you regularly see them (especially the Eunos) for around a grand, you’re better off spending double that to ensure a sound example. To notch MX-5s aren’t worth more than £5000, which is excellent value for money and with so many around you can afford to be pretty choosy. Imported Eunos cars aren’t necessarily cheaper to run – parts and insurance are often pricier – and you can fi nd UK cars for a similar price, so it’s worth shopping around.

Make more of your MX-5

The easiest and most affordable way to squeeze out a bit more power and torque is to fi t a performance air fi lter such as a K&N. These simply replace the standard item in favourof mesh cone, which feeds more cold air into the engine and generally offers a power hike of anything from 3-10bhp. If it’s a more serious boost you’re after then a BBR turbo kit is the answer. An approved Mazda mod, the kit increases power from 114bhp to 150bhp and torque from 100lb ft to 154lb ft, although it does cost around £2500 once you’ve factored in VAT and fi tting.

If you fancy an extra-sporty edge then there’s always a short-throw gearchange kit. These are available at £95.49 from MX-5 parts – and can be easily fi tted within minutes. MX-5 Parts offers uprated clutches or you can opt for the ACT Advanced Clutch Systems stage one upgrade kit at a rather heftier £249.95.

The fi rst and foremost call of action is uprating the pads. There are numerous sporty sets available but an affordable and worthwhile option is EBC’s Greenstuff pads, which cost just £36.97. Most will fi nd a set of sporting pads more than adequate for road use, but for serious tuning or track use go for option of braidedhoses and drilled and/or grooved discs. A pair of EBC drilled and grooved discs costs £103.40, while professional Goodridge stainless steel braided hoses for a fi rmer brake pedal feel round it all off at £76.36 a set from

Suspension, wheels and tyres
Don’t lower an MX-5 like you would an MGB! A set of polyurethane bushes is the way forward, especially of the originals are clapped out anyway. A front set costs £84.94 while the rears are pricier at £179.97. Dampers are next and a good set of KYB gas shocks will complement the MX-5 nicely – they cost £69.95 each. Under no circumstances should you mess with the wheel size. The original 14” seven-spoke Minilite-style alloys were perfect and even Mazda got it wrong when it fi tted 7x15” wheels to special editions later on!

What To Look For

  • As reliable as the MX-5 is, you can’t buy one just because you like the colour. These cars are used hard, possibly on the track, and need to be checked over carefully.
  • Start with the bodywork. As it’s not unreasonable to expect some level of rust on older cars, which, despite the galvanised shell, can be serious. Check all the usual areas and in particular the door jambs, sills and front wheel arches, both due to blocked drain holes allowing water to collect and do its worst.
  • Look in particular at the section of sill where two panels overlap just under the rear of the doors. Bubbling here is a sign of corrosion that could eventually lead to MoT failure. As with the old soft-top MGs and Triumph Spitfi res, this could even lead to a car which adopts a banana shape as the sills sag and the doors become harder to close. But it’s rare on the Mazda.
  • Has the car been pranged? Check that components such as the pop-up headlamps work properly and quickly (if wonky, has it been front ended?). A computer data check to verify its history is a wise move.
  • Engines and transmissions are typically reliable as you’d expect from a Japanese-designed car, but the engines feature cambelts that need changing at specifi ed intervals, making a service history vital. A complete service with cambelt change should cost around £300 at your local independent, although happily on these engines it‘s a non-contact sport so serious damage to the unit is unlikely.
  • Being low to the ground, MX-5s often get missed by other cars, particularly in situations like the supermarket car park. So check carefully for signs of minor body knocks, plus it pays to inspect panel gaps as a sign of more serious damage at some stage.
  • Transmissions are robust even if used hard although the linkages require oiling to keep them slick. Clutches can take a pounding but no worse than on any classic and, being rear-wheel drive, it’s easy enough to rectify at home.
  • The suspension is orthodox and apart from normal wear and tear and it’s the same story for the brakes, although cases of corroded discs and calipers aren’t unknown. If the suspension has been re-bushed (especially poly-bushed) then it usually signals a hard life.
  • The largest and most expensive accessory for any MX-5 is a hardtop. If you want a hardtop for winter use it’s best to buy a car that already has one, otherwise you’ll have to pay upwards of £500 for a second-hand piece.
  • The hood is so swift and smooth to operate that power-assistance was never needed. Typical hood prices are under £200 for a pvc type.
  • The interior is pretty robust – if anything is going to show its age it’s the driver’s seat backrest, which may have worn away. A damp, musty smell indicates a leaky hood although the Mazda fares far better than any older rival in this respect.
  • Special editions are abound but don’t pay over the odds for one. Imported Eunos versions can be spotted by their square cut-out for the rear number plate, while UK cars have an oblong aperture. They can make good buys, but as with all imports there’s a question over the service history and certain parts are specifi c to them.
  • Talking of parts supply, in the UK it’s fl ourishing and will soon surpass established classics such as Triumph and MG. There’s also a massive club support worldwide and now even dedicated race series. What more could you ask for!

Three Of A Kind

Like the MX-5, BMW tried to create a traditional retro classic with the Z3 and it’s ideal for anybody who wants a ‘modern oldie’. Based upon the uninspiring 3 Series platform, the Z3 doesn’t perform as well as it looks, but there’s a wide engine choice to suit all pockets and it’s ultra civilised. Supply is plentiful and values are falling nicely, with the cheapest at around £4000.
Lotus Elan (M100)
Lotus Elan (M100)
Now, were not talking about the original Elan here but the 1990s front-wheel-drive alternative with Isuzu mechanicals. The result was an excellent sports car and one of the best modern offerings from Lotus – not least because they are durable. In SE Turbo form, they go like an old Elan Sprint too, and handles brilliantly. Avoid non-turbo models as they are hard to sell on.
Launched well after the MX-5, the MGF quickly became the UK’s best-seller. As modern as the MGB was antiquated, the mid-engined, gas suspended MG is a pleasing sportster with vivid pace and easy to use mid-ship handling. VVC models are stormers but automatic models are best avoided. Cheap with big aftermarket support but the dodgy K Series is a big worry.


If you want a proper sports car that looks and feels like a classic but without the old car hang ups, then there’s really no better buy than an MX-5. It boasts the looks and the feel of the old Elan but with modern day comfort, safety and reliability. Aftermarket support is huge, so owning one for years on end won’t prove a problem. It truly is hard to think of a better sports car for the money.

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