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Mazda MX-5

Eastern Promise Published: 24th May 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Mazda MX-5

Fast Facts

  • Best model: 1.8
  • Worst model: Dodgy imports
  • Budget buy: Early 1.6 UK car
  • OK for unleaded?: Yes
  • Will it fit in the garage? (mm): L3948xW1676 mm
  • Spares situation: Superb
  • DIY ease?: Incredibly simple
  • Club support: Excellent
  • Appreciating asset?: Not quite, but values are rock bottom now
  • Good buy or good-bye?: Good buy
Simple cabin is comfy and has all that you need. Grey imports can have air con, special editions leather trim Simple cabin is comfy and has all that you need. Grey imports can have air con, special editions leather trim
Most cars have alloys; don’t go over wide on tyres Most cars have alloys; don’t go over wide on tyres
In time, standard not blinged models will be wanted In time, standard not blinged models will be wanted
Engine said to clone Lotus Ford one – but reliable! Engine said to clone Lotus Ford one – but reliable!
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The Mazda MX-5 causedn a sensation when launched in the UK 20 years ago, re-inventing the affordable sports car. Today it’s the ‘new’ MGB!

Pros & Cons

Bulletproof reliability, sweet handling, cheap to buy, own and run
Hairdresser image, performance only adequate, skittish in wet

Mazda brought the spirit of the classic British sports car back to life when it unveiled the MX-5 and it’s all thanks to an American motoring journalist! Bob Hall was a respected motor-noter who a love for classic British sports cars – and the ear of Mazda‘s md! When in 1979 Hall was asked what should Mazda do next, the scribe instantly suggested a low cost sportster of traditional design. Fast forward virtually a decade later and the Mazda MX-5 was unveiled to the World. A pretty but simple body, a modest but revvy twin-cam engine and unrivalled rear-wheel drive handling that never fails to create a smile proved an instant smash hit. There’s no denying that Mazda’s roadster is virtually a carbon copy of the Elan, but there’s no shame in emulating the fi nest driver’s car ever. The Japanese fi rm added one crucial element that pretty much every UK-built sports car lacked, though – infallible reliability. The baby roadster made it to the UK in 1990 and over 850,000 have been sold ever since – so the proof is very much in the pudding.


By the mid-1980s, the lightweight British sports car movement was pretty much extinct. People wanted performance carswith real power and targa tops, rather than cute lethargic little roadsters. Lotus had long since ditched the Elan and was concentrating on turbocharged versions of the Esprit, while the MG badge was confi ned to the likes of the Maestro and Montego. Typically, the Japanese had their fi nger on the button and caught us Brits napping. American motoring journalist Bob Hall joined Mazda in the early 1980s and highlighted the fact that the world was missing an old-fashioned but simple convertible like the English used to make. Top brass at the company cannily let Hall loose to research the idea. In 1983, the concept was given the thumbs up and labelled Offl ine 55, so work got underway in Mazda’s California and Tokyo sites. The American team came up with a traditional front-engine, rear-wheel drive layout labeled the Duo 101, which, despite some opposition from the Japanese, eventually made it through. In 1986 the project was fi nally approved for production under the name P729 and the MX-5 went on to make its debut at the 1989 Chicago Motor Show, arriving on these shores in January 1990. The fi rst and purest generation (the NA model) with its pop-up headlamps, remained in production until 1997. Changes to the car were generally few; a 150bhp Turbo conversion that was offi cially approved from ex saloon racer extraordinaire David Brodie for ‘93 was the main one – the rest were mostly cosmetic in the shape of special and limited editions that engulfed the range. Some models, such as the SE, Merlot, California, Gleneagles and Dakar are worth going for however. In many ways April 1995 was a dark day for MX-5 lovers, because that’s when the 1.6 was de-rated and degraded, kicking out just a paltry 88bhp. Sitting on plain steel wheels, it’s a model to avoid – unless cheap, of course! The second generation (NB model) joined the scene in spring ‘98, with a more refined and spacious interior, fi xed headlamps and extra grunt – up to 143bhp in the form of the delightful 1.8i Sport. Again special editions abound with the 10th Anniversary the most gifted of the lot. According to specialists, the MK2 is starting to overtake the MK1 sales-wise. The third series (NC) model arrived in 2005, by which time the MX-5 had grown considerably and featured larger 1.8 and 2.0-litre engines as opposed to the 1.6 and 1.8-litre offerings of previous versions, based upon the Mazda RX-8 platform. The current model underwent a mild facelift last year to give it back some bite, so the MX-5 is now more polished than ever.


Every MX-5 is a delightful thing to drive as they are a successful blend of modern and classic. It goes without saying that the early cars are the least refi ned, but they’re also by far the purest from behind the wheel. The steering is incredibly delicate and brimming with feedback. Unlike many classics that are often robbed of feel by a power steering system, the MX-5 is actually improved by it, so it’s well worth seeking out a car that has it. The 1.6 and 1.8-litre engines aren’t brimming with power – expect 114bhp from the ‘normal’ 1.6 and 131bhp from the 1.8. Neither will keep up with a modern hot hatch but they’re more than happy to reach for the redline, and the long travel throttle has scalpel sharp responses. The one to avoid is the base 1.6 which can feel tardy. The MX-5’s gearchange is one of the highlights of the driving experience – it’s short, fi rm and requires little more than a swift fl ick of the wrist to swap cogs. The design credo for the MX-5 was the Japanese phrase Jinba ittai, which roughly translates as ‘rider and horse as one’ – and that’s exactly what you get. The weight distribution is almost a perfect 50:50, so the handling is beautifully balanced. Wherever you point an MX-5, it will go, and let you know about every single alteration of the road surface while you’re at it, which is why it’s so much fun. In the wet it wants a bit more watching as the rear end can become a bit lively as many drivers have discovered.


Prices have pretty much bottomed out for the early models and even some of the older second generation cars, so it’s a terrifi c time to buy – but you’ll always get a bigger bargain in winter. The 1.6-litre UK car cost £14,295 when it arrived in showrooms in 1990, but a similarly aged model can be yours for around £1000 – and you’ll struggle to have more fun for this money. Bank on spending over £2000 for an early car in good condition with below average mileage, but only mint cars with minimal mileage should command anywhere near £5000. UK cars are generally worth slightly more than imported Eunos models, too. MkII values vary dramatically – earlier models can be found for well under £3000 but last-of theline 2005 cars are still hanging on to a chunk of their new value and good ones sell for up to £8000 at the right time of year. Don’t be fobbed off by special editions. There were a ridiculous number of limited run MX-5s, many of which had little more than a slightly different shade of paint or fancy alloy wheels. Granted, if you fi nd a BBR Turbo or Le Mans special model, then you should pay more, but don’t put up with sellers trying to squeeze more cash out of you just for a different colour or a snazzier set of wheels. As a rule, cars featuring better cabins may command a tad more.


The rule here is: less is more. There are plenty of worthy tune-ups for the MX-5 but the best ones are not obvious at fi rst sight. A good quality set of tyres should be your starting point (Fulda Carat Progressos suit the Mazda exceptionally well) as this will complement the handling. In the same vein, a set of performance brake pads like EBC Green Stuff items will sharpen up the brakes no end – but there’s not much point in going mad for racing discs and callipers. Do not, under any circumstances, mess with the ride height or the wheel size. The original 14-inch alloy wheels suit MkI MX-5s perfectly and even Mazda got it wrong when it fi tted 15-inch alloys to later models – steer clear of cars with silly aftermarket wheels, too. By far the best way to brush up the handling is to fi t a full set of polyurethane bushes, which allow the suspension to move more freely and improve the already brilliant steering. A set costs around £85 from online specialist A full alignment check is always worth investing in, too. If power’s your thing then the MX-5 might not be for you, but there is a BBR turbo conversion available that dramatically ups power and torque, but you’re looking at around £2500 for it bought and fi tted, which is seriously pricey and corrupts the originality of the car.

What To Look For

  • UK built MX-5s can suffer from rust around the sills. Inspect the rear corner of each sill towards the rear wheelarch as this is the most common rot spot. A little rust is easy to sort, but a lot could mean a big repair bill., not least the ‘repair kit’ costing £106.50) per side.
  • Bodged crash damage is common. The MX-5 isn’t a handful to drive as it’s not exactly dripping with power, but many unwary owners were caught out by the rear-wheel drive handling in the wet. Look for signs of overspray and matching shut lines.
  • Other areas to watch are the sills which cost almost £92 per side ( plus fi tting and spraying.
  • The good news is that the boot and bonnet are made from aluminium although watch for a reaction with the steel hinges etc.
  • The twin cam engines, that look just like the Lotus-Ford unit, are fantastically reliable and good for well over 200,000 miles with regular servicing. Check out all the fl uid levels and fi nd out when the last service was carried out – it should have been done either every year or every 9000 miles if the owner has gone by Mazda’s guidelines. Cars with big miles will need more attention to detail, though.
  • The MX-5’s alloy head needs the coolant to be kept in tip-top condition. Find out if it was changed during servicing and check the coolant reservoir to see what condition it’s in. If it looks brown-ish then steer clear.
  • Cam belts should be changed every fi ve years or 60,000 miles so fi nd out when it was last done. It isn’t the end of the world if the belt breaks though, as the valves and pistons won’t collide like other modern 16Vs.
  • Water pumps can wear out easily, so open the bonnet when the engine is running and listen for a knocking sound. As always, if it needs a new pump then it’s best to get the cam belt done at the same time.
  • Oil weeps aren’t uncommon but they’re far from big problems. The cam box seal is usually the culprit so check out the side of the box for any leaks. It’s a dead easy repair, though, and a new seal costs less than £20.
  • There’s a chance that the low-slung exhaust has been scraped along the black top at some point, so have a good peer underneath and check for damage. If the exhaust sounds rattly then the heat shields may have become loose, which isn’t a huge problem as they can simply be screwed back in again.
  • If the gearbox feels sticky then it may just need a little lubrication, so that’s nothing to be afraid of. If you can feel any excess heat coming into the cabin from around the gear lever then the rubber seal beneath the gear sleeve may have gone. Again, it’s nothing to worry about and is cheap to replace. Check the service history as the gearbox oil should be changed before 50,000 miles. Automatics are reliable but not very desirable to be honest.
  • The rest of the running gear is pretty robust and just requires the usual checks. As they are mostly hard driven don’t be surprised to fi nd tired dampers and suspension bushes.
  • The brakes cab be a bind – literally, especially the rears as callipers are prone to seizure and the only real fi x are new ones at £125 a go.
  • Original Minilite-style wheels best, not only for looks but because they suited ride and handling well; worth seeking a car with them.
  • They habit of collecting brake dust though, so it’s worth investing in a good alloy wheel cleaner like Wonder Wheels. A refurb will freshen things up a bit, too.
  • There’s not much room in the boot, so many owners try to shoehorn as much clobber in as possible and slam the lid down, which can create a dent. Chances are you’ll need a new boot lid if this is the case, so haggle accordingly.
  • Hoods are generally hard wearing, but it’s always best to check them out. Ask the seller if you can pour a small jug of water of the top of the car when the roof is up to look for any leaks.
  • It’s not uncommon for the rear screen to become scratched and go opaque over time. Careful owners will have unzipped the screen so that it lays fl at but this won’t be the case with every car. Refurb kits are available and they’re usually the best way to brush things up.
  • Inspect the side of the seats – in particular, the driver’s. Due to its low slung nature, the sides of the seats tend to fray when folks get in and out. It’s not a huge issue, but a haggling point.
  • Do the pop-up headlamps work? The same goes for electric windows if the car has them. MX-5s have fairly weak cable operated electric window systems and it’s not uncommon for the cables to fray and get chewed up by the motor. Motors themselves can also burn out and cost £115 to replace. A winder mechanism, sans motor, is around £70.
  • Other prices that may be of interest (from are: timing belt kit (£68), brake discs (£34), stainless exhaust (£185) and rear bumper (£260).

Three Of A Kind

Britain’s answer to the MX-5 was a formidable one. Launched in 1995, the MGF hit back with its handsome lines, fun handling and mid-rear layout. Chronic head gasket problems with the 1.6 and 1.8-litre K-Series engines let it down, though. Later TF features conventional suspension but some fi nd it too fi rm as a result but all are good value.
Toyota MR2
Toyota MR2
The Mazda’s closest rival in terms of performance and reliability arrived fi ve years earlier in 1984 with boxy lines, a mid-mounted engine and equally brilliant handling. It was succeeded by the sleek second generation model in 1989 with more power but less fun. Really it took the last generation models to get the MR2 back to its roots
BMW’s ‘MX-5’ is not dissimilar in style or nature and is equally classy. There’s a big range of engines to suit all tastes and pockets although the sub 2-litre versions aren’t exactly thrilling. Based on the early 1990s ‘Compact’ chassis the Z3 isn’t as sporty or precise as the Mazda but are good value, especially the hard core M models.


If you’ve always hankered after a classic British sports car but funds or maintenance worries have stood in your way then there really is no other alternative to the MX-5. It’s handsome, it doesn’t break down and it’s utterly wonderful to drive. With prices starting from only £1000, there really is no reason not to.

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