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Mazda MX5

Mazda MX5 Published: 8th Jan 2018 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Mazda MX5

Fast Facts

  • Best model: Early 1.6
  • Worst model: Later 1.6
  • Budget buy: 1.8-litre models
  • OK for unleaded?: Yes
  • Will it fit in the garage? (mm): 3975 x 1680mm (Mk2)
  • Spares situation: Excellent
  • Club support: Top-notch
  • Appreciating asset?: Mk1 yes – if good
  • Good buy or good-bye?: The default if not exclusive sports car
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Mazda’s ubiquitous retro sports car has all bases covered with its universal appeal. As much fun to drive as an Elan, as easy to own as an MGB, and more reliable than a Golf, all this default sports car lacks is exclusivity…

Over 25 years and more than a million sales, Mazda’s MX-5 can rightly be hailed as a success! An utterly conventional old school sports car, it proves that you don’t need a complex mid-engine design to make a serious sportster that appeals to enthusiasts and ordinary motorists alike. Perhaps, in retrospect, that’s one of the downsides of its popularity but with prices starting at £1000 – or less – there’s certainly a model to suit everybody, right up to brand new buys which, refreshingly, upholds the original design brief.

History

1990 MX-5 goes on sale in 114bhp 1.6-litre form (unit taken from the 323 hatchback). There are just six exterior colours and two optional extras; metallic silver paint and an optional hard top.

1991 An officially approved Brodie Britain Racing (BBR) turbocharger conversion becomes available, pushing power up to 150bhp and torque to 154lb ft. ABS is also standard on the BBR, while the many limited editions also start being released.

1991 Racing Green and Le Mans specials surface, the latter to mark Mazda winning the event that year with Johnny Herbert driving.

1992 The Special Edition complete with a tan interior and black paintwork but no mechanical changes is launched.

1993 Another Special Edition arrives, the SEII, with the same colour scheme as before but with even more titivations.

1994 At long last, a faster 1.8-litre engine replaces the previous 1.6-litre unit, with 130bhp on tap. There’s a standard car or a higher-spec 1.8iS edition. Safety side impact bars are fitted from this point on.

1995 A 1.6-litre car becomes available again, but now with just 88bhp. There are also a couple of further special editions released; California and Gleneagles.

1996 Even more special editions for this year, in the form of the Monaco and Merlot.

1997 You guessed it… yes even more limited editions. This year’s are the Monza, Dakar and Harvard.

1998 The final Mk1 limited edition is the Berkeley before a facelifted Mazda MX-5 goes on sale, dispensing with the Lotus-like pop-up headlamps of the original. The new model has an all-new bodyshell, a glass rear window, revised cabin and more power.

There’s 1.8i and higher-spec 1.8i S versions available, latter featuring power windows and mirrors plus alloy wheels.

1999 The Special Edition makes a return, with a 1.8-litre engine, green paint and a tan leather interior. There’s also a desired 10th Anniversary edition with blue paint and roof. The UK gets 600 copies.

2000 This year’s specials include the Isola and California, both with a 1.6-litre engine. The Icon and Jasper Conran meanwhile have a 1.8-litre powerplant.

2001 A facelift brings standard ABS, electric windows, central locking and a more prominent front bumper. The 1.8i S is replaced by the 1.8 Sport. These cars are known as the Mk2.5.

2002 The limited editions return with a vengeance. This year there are the Phoenix and Arizona with either a 1.6-litre engine or a 1.8-litre unit. There are also the Montana and Trilogy with the bigger powerplant only.

2003 The Angels and Nevada are this year’s specials in 1.6 or 1.8-litre forms; the Indiana gets a 1.8 engine only.

2004 There are yet more specials… the Euphonic and Arctic. Both come in 1.6 or the better 1.8-litre forms.

2005 Mk3 is launched in August with a more macho look and 1.8 and 2-litre power. It is also based upon the floorpan of the larger RX-8 which later on boasted a roofed Roadster but initially Mk3s were criticised for a duller driving experience, especially the steering, but soon rectified by Mazda.

Driving and press comments

Not everybody was so taken by this quintessentially British sports car from Japan. One famous Car columnist reckoned that if Mazda was so keen on showing us how to make a classic modern British roadster then it should have designed ill fitting doors, a leaky roof and even a dashboard button to deposit a shot of engine oil on the driveway…

Of course, the MX-5 was not like that at all. Here was a perfectly researched sports car where Mazda looked at the whole scene (and bought several original Elans) to see what made them tick – and improved it further. 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 uptime 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 tenth-tenths involvement for more usability, durability and reliability the Lotus always lacked.

Autocar’s first crack at the MX-5 (Miata) was in mid 1989 before the car became on the UK market and teased its readers by stating in the first two paragraphs, “The MX-5 deserves to become the new Elan” before adding, “Make no mistake the Mazda MX-5 is a real sports car – a latter day Elan… more than throwback to the ’60’s – finishing by a verdict that’s as true today as it was nearly 30 years ago: “With ’60s-style fun allied to ’80’s sophistication and reliability, the MX-5 looks a winner.”

When the first UK-spec cars landed here a few months later, Fast Lane was no less enthusiastic about this new icon: “Mazda has moved the goalposts with its new MX-5, unquestionably redolent of the ’60’s Elan. It is a long time since a major manufacturer produced such a car. It is the first time the Japanese have done so, and if the MX-5 proves to be a runaway success, as it currently threatens to do, we can be sure it won’t be the last”.

With the front-wheel drive Elan being launched around the same time, it was inevitable that comparisons between the two cars would be made, even though the Lotus was significantly more costly. Simon Arron drove both, concluding: “Climbing out of the Elan I was gobsmacked. It was quick, comfortable and handled well. At first, I even thought it was quite fun. Then I tried the MX-5, and in retrospect the Lotus seemed anaesthetic in comparison”.

When the MX-5 Mk2 arrived in 1998 it adorned the cover of the very last issue of Performance Car, pitted against the MGF and BMW Z3. The loss of its pop-up headlights was a shame for many, but chunkier sills and wider, lower-profile tyres improved the Mazda’s stance so it looked more purposeful.

Over several pages, the mag’s road testers explored every facet of each car but in the end it was the Mazda that took the spoils. The verdict came: “The MX-5 wins. Compared with the original, it’s a more mature car both in looks and attitude.”

What makes the MX-5 such a hit is that it is a classic that can be used as a daily driver with impunity because it’s a highly usable and pleasing all weather sportster that boasts modern conveniences, rep-mobile reliability, a great fast-acting hood (there’s also a powered fibreglasstopped option on the Mk3), good luggage capacity and fine driving manners when called upon which (apart from Mk1 skittishness in the wet) that do not demand racing-driver techniques and skill. Small wonder many enthusiasts run MX-5s as sensible dailies as well as second classics.

Which one for you? The Mk1 has the most classic appeal but the Mk2 is much better all rounder. Initially, Mk3s pandered more to non enthusiast and was slated for its ineptness but this was soon rectified with a chassis revise. Mazda learned its lesson – don’t mess with the mix.

The Sport Tech model, gains Bilstein suspension and a front strut brace which improves matters further – too much perhaps according to The Sunday Times which said: “The Sport Tech’s Bilstein dampers are probably a little firm for most tastes. The car picks out every imperfection on the road surface. The super-quick steering will surprise drivers from less sporty models” was the verdict.

Values and the marketplace

“A lot of these earlier models are now very rusty which is why you can pick one up from just £600. But such cars will need a lot of TLC in subsequent years which is why you’re better off spending between £2000 and £2500 on something that’s been looked after and which won’t need immediate expenditure.

“Those prices are for a Mk1; buy a Mk2 instead and you can get something decent for as little as £1800, although a Mk2 is more desirable which is why you’ll have to pay upwards of £2500 to secure something good, claims Chris Loader of The MX-5 Restorer (themx5restorer.co.uk) of in East Sussex.

“While a lot of Mk1 MX-5s are very tired, there are some cherished cars out there in superb condition. Track down a rust-free, low-mileage perfect Mk1 and you’ll pay anywhere between £3000 and £4500 for it. But some of the special editions can be worth even more – anything between £4500 and £6000. If you’re able to find a really superb Le Mans you could pay up to £10,000 for it.

“In terms of imports, I personally prefer the Eunos to the official UK-spec MX-5, as they’re always less rusty and better equipped. They all come with air-con and electric windows for example, and if you’re lucky there might be some JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) parts fitted”, he adds.

The Mk2 is significantly heavier than the Mk1, but it’s also noticeably more refined. As a result a bit of the agility and some of the feedback is lost, but their interiors also have a more modern feel than the Mk1. As a result, each derivative has its own followers; it’s worth sampling each so you can work out which you prefer. The Mk3 is the sweeter and smoother and can be bought for the price of the earlier cars as they are not classics yet.

Improvements

Some specialists agree with Loader; a good well set up standard MX-5 doesn’t require major modifications although that hasn’t stopped some tuners going from mild to wild, witness the recently launched Jaguar V6-engined Rocketeer!

Start with the basics. Any models will be vastly transformed by a four-wheel chassis geometry service. There’s 22 bushes worth replacing along with the dampers. The MX-5 Restorer recommends Gaz Gold Pro coil-overs. Says Chris: “Once set up the ride is completely transformed, inspiring much more confidence in the handling of the car”. Most MX-5 experts say don’t go mad with wider tyres as it spoils the car, as Mazda even found out with some special editions – ditto refrain from lowering it.

If you have a 1.6-litre variant and you want to drive it hard, a simple 1.8-litre brake upgrade will improve the stoppers. This uses the carriers from the 1.8-litre car; you can pick up the parts second-hand for around £100.

More power? Mk1 has adjustable timing which can be set to 14 degrees instead of 10 allowing freer-revving – costs nothing! While the 1.6-litre revs nicely, the 1.8 can feel as though it’s struggling to breathe but by swapping the exhaust manifold and system you can change all that. To get the best results, remove the standard induction system and fit an aftermarket kit which will greatly improve the Mk1 1.8 in particular.

All MX-5s come with cats. On imports these can be legally removed from cars on an F, G, H, J, K or L-plate. There’s a changeover period on L so if you have a late one the cat would be required for an MoT. Removing it allows the engine to breathe better, increasing power and making the engine more responsive plus saves on repair costs. MX5 Heaven has a range of heads and camshafts or you can turbocharge for up to 200bhp. The customising scene is huge – if you like that sort of thing and bling – and there also an extremely popular racing championships for race and even road going cars that you can drive to the track to race (and hopefully drive back home again-ed).

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; interrogate with a proper tester if in doubt. Transmission can be noisy and watch for a limited slip diff which has run low on oil. The six-speed auto (Powershift) has no known faults. Tuning principles are similar; again chassis alignment check produces the most beneficial gains for the least outlay.

H3>Others tucked away in the mx files

The MX-5 wasn’t the only Mazda to wear the MX badge as it was sandwiched by two almost forgotten coupés. The MX-3 (inset) was neat-looking sportshatch that, at one time, had the distinction of having the smallest capacity V6 in the World; a smooth if not exactly swift 1.8-litre. The MX-6 (pictured) was a delightful 2.5-litre V6 and a stylish fastback GT that also provided the basis of Ford’s Probe albeit a lot more tastefully done of almost BMW proportions. Both sell for relative pennies compared to the more popular MX-5

 

What To Look For

General

  • Don’t be put off by a grey import; to satisfy demand in the early days, many cars were imported from their homeland. The game is given away by the Eunos badging (which may have been swapped for MX-5 parts), along with a smaller number plate plinth in the bootlid. Despite reports to the contrary, these cars are built to the same standards as UK-market cars, and in many cases the Japanese-market editions are better equipped but the flip side is that they usually lack any service history.
  • Join the owners club as it’s a great outfit that offers oodles of advice and encouragement plus there’s a great social scene that includes motorsport, enthuses many of its members.
  • Although interiors are generally durable, check the driver’s seat, which wears down the side; it’s a natural consequence of the driver getting in and out. Aftermarket seats and decent standard used items aren’t hard to find, but it’s still a useful bargaining point all the same.
  • Also check the hood, which lasts reasonably well but can suffer if the car has been cleaned badly (especially in a car wash) or not at all. The rear screen tends to get scratched; before stowing it should be unzipped or it’ll get creased.
  • Also have a look at what state the zip is in; they often get broken by ham-fisted owners. Replacement hoods aren’t that expensive at £160 for a vinyl one; you can even get a mohair replacement complete with a glass rear screen for just £349–£526 fitted for a Mk2 (MX-r Restorer).
  • The electrics are generally reliable but requires special sized battery which are more expensive. Ensure that the pop-up headlamps are working properly; their motors sometimes stick. If you’re looking at a Eunos, ask if it has air conditioning; if it has, make sure it’s working as it should. Also check that the electric windows do their stuff, as the motors can burn out. They’re easy to replace; expect to pay £80 per side for replacement units.

Body & chassis

  • Earlier cars tend to survive better than later ones; according to expert Chris Loader, the least rusty MX-5s tend to be Eunos editions on a G- or H-plate.
  • Even though the MX-5’s panels are galvanised, major (or at least significant) corrosion tends to be a common problem. There’s also the spectre of poor crash repairs to deal with; having rear-wheel drive means it’s not unusual for an MX-5 to leave the road backwards in a fairly big way.
  • 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 problem was quickly fixed, and Mazda sorted most claims under warranty, but it’s worth removing the trim to check their state.
  • The boot is shallow, and some owners overfill it then slam down the bootlid, damaging it in the process. The bulge that results is obvious and not easy to remove and may require a new panel.
  • Newer Mk2 is still rust prone; sills valances, arches, sills 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 cam belt should also have been renewed within the last five years or 60,000 miles but if it breaks doesn’t wreck the head.
  • 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. A specialist will typically charge £120 to replace the pump, with a new belt usually £200.
  • 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 and even a specialist shouldn’t charge more than £50 to do the work.
  • All featured a catalytic converter. Corrosion of the system is also an issue, but aftermarket ones abound.
  • Any car with a BBR turbo conversion tends to get through exhausts more quickly than a standard car, because of the increased exhaust temperatures so it’s a good move if a stainless one is now fitted.

Running gear

  • Part of the MX-5’s charm is its ultra-sweet and beautifully direct gearchange. However, over time it 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.
  • All UK-supplied cars were fitted with a five-speed, but those built for the Japanese market (badged Eunos) were offered with a four-speed auto. If you really feel the need to take the slush-box route, there shouldn’t be any reliability issues.
  • Some Mk3s sport six-speeds that are inherently notchy. Consult an MX-5 club as many owners use a lube much lighter than EP90 goo suggested.
  • For a rear-wheel drive sportster, the suspension is surprisingly durable. Shock absorbers and springs should last 100,000 miles, although many will have fitted aftermarket parts well before that mileage has been racked up. Any car that’s needed fresh bushes well before this has probably been thrashed to within an inch of its life at every opportunity…
  • Rear callipers seizing is common on all models. On the Mk2 there were different systems with Sports having a superior design.
  • The Mazda doesn’t tend to get through tyres very quickly. However, many owners get rid of their car just as a new set of boots is due, so make sure there’s still plenty of tread on each corner.
  • Most (but not all) of early MX-5s were fitted with alloys. Whatever is fitted, check the state of the finish – especially if the original Mazda items are fitted. Over time these tend to suffer from pitting; reviving tired alloys is a straightforward job at around £35 per wheel. Beware of buying wide-wheeled models as it can spoil the suspension geometry.

Three Of A Kind

BMW Z3
BMW Z3
Not as fulfilling as a BMW should be and not as sporty as the MX-5s, but unless you drive the car on its door handles you’re not likely to notice any shortcomings with this roadster that’s as easy to run as 3 Series saloon. Choose from efficient fourcylinder engines and glorious straight sixes, including the rare and ultra-quick M Roadster. Fair value.
MGF/TF
MGF/TF
It’s amazing how much MG you can buy for £1000, but while these cars are great fun, you have to tread carefully. Corrosion tends not to be too much of an issue, but tired Hydragas suspension along with failed head gaskets on the F are both a common spectre. Best buy is a non-VVC manual car, as the CVT is nasty and the VVC engine goes out of tune.
Toyota MR2
Toyota MR2
With three generations to choose between – all eminently affordable – you’re spoiled for choice. All are mid-engined but it’s only the third-generation which is a true convertible – and it’s also the most impractical as there’s no boot space at all. But if you want a sports car that’ll just keep working and which is a blast to drive, then look no further.

Verdict

MX-5s, of any declination, have so much going for them, it’s no wonder that this Mazda is the world’s best selling sports car; an honour that’s unlikely to be beaten. You can argue that if you view a classic car as something that’s both individual and rare, marking you out as a true enthusiast, the MX-5 is hardly for you. That’s the only fault, as we see it, to this modern MGB and it sure wouldn’t put us off owning one.



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