Mazda MX-5: Buying guide

The Mazda MX-5 took the sports car market by storm, reinventing it completely for the 1990s. Read our buying guide to tell you everything you need to know before buying one…

Roof down, open roads, living the Mazda MX-5 dream

Roof down, open roads, living the Mazda MX-5 dream

► The full Mazda MX-5 NA (1990-1997) buying guide
► Everything you need to check for when buying a Mazda MX-5
Search Mazda MX-5s for sale on Classic Cars for Sale

It’s pretty easy to tell whether or not a given MX-5 is a good example – if it’s anything other than utterly spectacular on the road, then something is undoubtedly amiss.

Everything about the MX-5 is driver-focused, from the low-slung seat and position of the steering wheel, pedals and gear knob, to the simple dials, all-round visibility and even the noise it makes. Reputedly designed specifically to sound like a Lotus Elan, the NA’s 1.6-litre engine is probably the one to go for – it’s obviously less potent than the 1.8, but it’s a sweeter-revving unit that has enough grunt to be interesting (and unstick the rear end, should you so wish), but not so much as to put your licence under threat.

Early cars used a slender and good-looking Momo steering wheel that suits the razor-sharp handling perfectly. Anyone inured to modern sports cars, where all the communication is muffled by nanny electronics, will find any MX-5 a revelation – NA or NB, they offer about as binary a sports car driving experience as it’s possible to get from something designed in the 1980s.

The twin-cam engines rev enthusiastically, and you really can steer an MX-5 on the throttle – especially if the road is damp – even if such antics don’t come naturally to you. Breakaway is both predictable and progressive – no snap oversteer here – and gathering it all up requires only small inputs into the steering. Once you’ve got the hang of it, you’ll never look a damp roundabout in quite the same way again.

You have to be seriously ham of fist and lead of foot to really get an MX-5 properly crossed-up close to the limit, but the super-responsive takes a little getting used to. There’s no compromise on ride comfort – this is very much a car you can pedal for long distances without it becoming wearing. Many NAs have inherited later (and better) NB seats, too, which only add to its cruising credentials.

No luxury here - and all the better for it.

No luxury here - and all the better for it.

Mazda MX-5 (NA) buying guide

Bodywork and chassis

Check the sills, which on the NA should feature a stone-chip finish. Blocked drains will cause water inside – you’ll hear the sloshing back and forth during the test drive. Poke up the sill drains with a wire coat hanger to clear the blockage, but if left the rot starts from within. NAs are sensitive to wheel weight - standard rims are the best for handling. 

Get a good look underneath – rust attacks the front chassis rails where they meet the front subframe mounting points, the area around the rear lower arms and rear arches. Imports have less underseal so are vulnerable over time to increased corrosion. 


Engines are generally robust, but check for oil leaks from the cam cover and the camshaft sensor O-ring at the back of the cylinder head. A tappety noise at cold start-up is common, but should disappear after a couple of minutes. These engines are very sensitive to the grade of oil used – fully synthetic oil can eliminate the problem completely, whereas part-synthetic probably won’t – but if it persists, it could be that the hydraulic tappets are gummed.


Inside, check for slow operating electric windows, or windows that won’t drop fully. The former can usually be cured with a squirt of silicone, whereas the latter is commonly down to a simple broken cable retaining clip. Excessive transmission tunnel heat can be cured by replacing a rubber boot under the centre console. A sticking door lock keyhole can be eased with a squirt of penetrating fluid, but the sprung barrel protection flap inside the door is also known to break, creating a similar problem.

Pop-up headlamps have adjustable covers, so you can rectify the ‘sunken-pod’ look easily. Check for stone-chip damage which can cause the glass to fog up and the silver reflector to corrode, reducing lighting power. Sticking or ‘winking’ light pods can be lubricated but complete motor failure is rare. 

SHould you buy a Mazda MX-5? The CCfS verdict

The Mazda MX-5 is the MGB of the modern age – simple, plentiful, affordable, practical and brilliant to drive. It also has genuine daily driver potential. Look after yours and it will start first time, every time, whatever the weather. It has a decent boot, good cabin space and won’t break the bank at the pumps or in the garage. Small wonder that so many people have one tucked away in their garage for the odd weekend adventure, or sneaky early-morning drive before the rest of the family wakes up.

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The view most people will see of a rapidly-driven MX-5 on a B-road

The view most people will see of a rapidly-driven MX-5 on a B-road

Mazda MX-5 specs and details

  • Production 1989-1997

  • Engine capacity 1597cc

  • Cylinders 4-inline

  • Valvetrain DOHC, 16-valve

  • Maximum power 116bhp@6500rpm

  • Maximum torque 100lb ft@5500rpm

  • Maximum speed 117mph

  • 0-60mph 9.5sec

  • Fuel economy 30.6mpg

  • Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive

Mazda MX-5 clubs and specialists

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