The Mazda MX-5 shook up an area of the market that had long been dormant, refreshing the baby sports car formula made popular in the 1960s.
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 moist – 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.
NBs are just as involving, because the more powerful engines offset the slight increase in weight. The larger cabin is obviously less immediate in feel, but this does open up valuable passenger space and the build quality takes a noticeable hike.
Mazda MX-5 (NA)
Power (bhp@rpm) 116bhp@6500rpm
Torque (lb ft@rpm) 100lb ft@5500rpm
Top speed 117mph
Gearbox 5-spd manual
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
BODYWORK & 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 lamps 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.
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 CCW staffers Dave, Mike, Greg and David have owned at least one each in recent years.