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Mazda MX-5

Mazda MX-5 Published: 17th Jun 2019 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Mazda MX-5
Mazda MX-5
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Why not own a...? Mazda MX-5

Thirty years young it’s difficult to imagine life without Mazda’s MX-5, the living legend of today which reinvented the affordable sports car market. Hailed as ‘The new MGB’ because it’s an utterly conventional old school sports car, proving that you don’t need a complex mid-engine design to make a serious sportster that appeals to enthusiasts and ordinary motorists alike. No wonder it’s the World’s best selling sports car.

Better still, four generations and three decades on, the MX-5 has, by and large, retained its simple fun-filled character while being kept bang up to date at the same time. Are we looking at the next Morgan? The question is, why haven’t you considered one yet as here’s something for everyone of all ages and tastes to suit all budgets – from under £1000 – and they are MG easy to own.

Model choice

Unveiled in 1989 and still going strong, the World’s best selling sportster ensures massive choice – it simply boils down to what you want from your MX-5. In classic terms, the Mk1 (NA) stands head and shoulder above the other three iterations chiefly due to its similarity to the Elan, right down to its pop up headlamps and retro styled interior and engine appearance. No unexpectedly, it looks fantastic in British Racing Green, as well as the reds, whites and vivid blues seen on so many British sportsters from the decade of flower power. Look closer and there are several delicate touches – those alloys on the first cars look very like the traditional Minilite.

The second generation (NB model) replaced it in spring ’98, using 40 per cent of the outgoing MX-5 but with a new swooping look, losing those enclosed headlamps (due to US legislation) but gaining a meaner appearance care of wider tyres plus a far more refined and spacious interior. The Mk2 also saw a bigger engine option with up to 143bhp in the form of the delightful 1.8i Sport. A facelift in 2001 saw what’s known as the Mk2.5 and this is seen as the version to have even though they are strangely more rust-prone than earlier cars.

Mk3 ushered in the biggest change in 15 years and with it came a shift in emphasis. Now based upon the platform of the larger (rotary-powered) RX-8 the MX-5, while still a great sports car, was further aimed at non enthusiasts, heightened by the addition of a powered solid roof option called the Roadster, most sumptuous cabin yet and the option of automatic. The current Mk4 range saw a welcome return to the car’s core values. Basically, the newer the car the more classical it feels but the compensations are modern conveniences and lower running costs.

Aside from the normal UK cars you have the choice of right-hand drive ‘Grey Imports’ sourced from their homeland. These were at their most prevalent during the Mk1’s production run and distinguished by their square rear number plate plinth and Eunos badging. They can make good buys, but as with all imports there’s a question over the service history and certain parts are specific to them.

In almost all respects the Eunos is very similar to the UK car but there are some important differences, mostly better trim and extra equipment like air con, wood/leather cabin and sporty seats. It’s worth hunting down high-spec limited editions like the V-Special, RS and SR-Limited. Mazda’s race/ tuning wing Mazdaspeed also offered a bolt-on supercharger taking power up to 170-180bhp, plus there was an auto option never sold in the UK.

There are some significant differences, though to bear in mind. Apart from the fact that the cars needed special testing to be allowed in the UK, ‘grey’ MX-5s can use thinner glass, smaller brakes while the rust-proofing isn’t quite as comprehensive but as they have been around in the UK for so many years these issues will probably have sorted by now.

The number of special editions exceed the car’s years in production! As a consequence you have to size up each car and speak to an expert (club or specialist) to know what you are getting – and their worth. Most are of novelty and interest value only but some, such as the Le Mans and anniversary editions, command much higher prices.

Behind the wheel

It’s easy to grasp the mass appeal of the MX-5. On the one hand, it’s a superb serious old school sports car in the Elan mould yet on the other it’s as usable and reliable as a Golf. Here was a perfectly researched sports car where Mazda looked at the whole 60’s scene back in the early 1980s (after buying several original Elans, Spitfires, etc) to see what made them all tick – before improving the concept yet retaining the essence. 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.

It’s become a classic cliché to say the MX-5 is an Elan clone but much of this is true. Perhaps it lacks the ultimate thoroughbred feel of Chapman’s finest, but the vast majority of drivers wouldn’t notice this (probably because they’d never driven the Lotus-ed) and, besides, would gladly trade ten-tenths involvement for everyday usability, durability and reliability the Lotus always lacked.

This is is what makes the MX-5 such a hit – a classic which can be used as a daily driver with impunity because it’s highly usable and pleasing in all weathers bristling with modern conveniences, rep-mobile reliability, a great fast-acting hood (there’s also a powered fibreglass-topped option on the Mk3), good luggage capacity and fine driving manners when called upon which do not demand racing-driver techniques and skill. Small wonder many enthusiasts run MX-5s as simply second runabout classics.

It goes without saying that the early cars are the least refined, but they’re also by far the purest from behind the wheel. The driving position’s spot on – you sit straight, facing forward over a vertical steering wheel (Nardi in many special editions). The 1.6 and 1.8-litre engines aren’t exactly bursting with power – expect 114bhp from the ‘normal’ 1.6 and 131bhp from the 1.8 – but is ample although the base 1.6 of the mid 1990s can feel tardy as it has less than 90bhp.

The MX-5’s click-click gearchange is one of the many highlights of the driving experience. The Mazda’s 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 the Mazda wants a bit more watching (especially the Mk1) as the rear end can become a bit lively as many drivers have discovered…

The Mk2 is even more fun because there’s more power – over 140bhp and limited slip differential to contain the stern but, at the same time, it’s also more refined. In some ways, the Mk3 pandered too much for the non enthusiast. Now sharing the platform with the RX-8 mild criticism started to surface but this was quickly corrected and the new 1.8 and 2-litre engines give welcome more power and on some models six-speed transmissions. The latest fourth generation went back to basics and as a consequence sees the MX-5 as fit as ever at 30.

Buying Tips

Body & Chassis

Even though the MX-5’s panels are galvanised, major (or at least significant) corrosion tends to be a problem.. The key areas to check include the sills, wheelarches, sill end plates, front and rear jacking points, floor rails and the chassis rails too. Also be on the lookout for low-quality patching of corrosion; putting this right can be more costly than just doing the job correctly in the first place. Also check the front wheelarches, which can bubble, and bear in mind that early cars can suffer from corroded door jambs, because the kick plates originally fitted allow water to collect underneath. The newer Mk2 is even more rust prone; sills valances, arches, and jacking points and chassis rails are the main worries along with box sections at the front (crumple zone). These rot out and a fail point with MOT testers so crawl under and have a check.

Engine

Engines rack up 200,000+ miles; Mazda recommended maintenance every 9000 miles or annually. Because the cylinder head is alloy, the antifreeze level should have been maintained to prevent internal corrosion. The earliest engines, which are the most sought after, are also the ones most likely to give problems. The water pump wears out, so listen for knocking.

Some early cars suffered from a worn crankshaft pulley woodruff key. Most cars are sorted by now, but check anyway. An oil weep is normal, but if excessive the culprit is the cam sensor’s O-ring, at the rear of the engine; it’s an easy fix however.

Running gear

It’s superb gearchange that, over time, can get sticky if the linkages aren’t lubricated, so go up and down through the box on a test drive and make sure all’s well – pay particular attention to the change between second and third gears. Propshaft u/j fail. Mk3s sport six-speeds that are inherently notchy. Consult an MX-5 club as many owners use a lube much lighter than EP90 suggested.

Rear callipers seizing is common on all models. On the Mk2 there were different systems with Sports having a superior design. Broken springs not unknown either; pot hole damage usually but’s an easy point to ascertain.

Mk3 Faults

Much of main checkpoints equally apply to Mk3s – including rot – but due to their newness it should be minor and mostly cosmetic although the car seems prone to windscreen carrying. The 2.0 differs from the 1.8 as it has variable valve timing but all are robust units if a little heavy on oil consumption and check that the dash’s idiot lights illuminate and extinguish when they should. Transmissions can be noisy it’s claimed and watch for a limited slip diff which has run low on oil. The six-speed auto (Powershift) has no known faults but check it all the same.

Here’s six of the best reasons to buy one

  • Super easy to own
  • A real sports car to drive
  • Massive choice
  • Usable and reliable
  • Club and specialist support
  • Affordable racing championship


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