Mazda MX-5: PH Heroes

Few sports cars are held in greater reverence than Mazda's best-selling MX-5. A true PH Hero, its sales success is undeniable (having sold 927,492 examples at the time of writing) and Mazda's masterful contemporary take on the classic roadster celebrates its 25th birthday this month.

Here's to the next 25 years!
Here's to the next 25 years!
Whether you know it best as the MX-5, Mazda Miata or Eunos Roadster, the model's lasting impact cannot have passed you buy. Launched at a time when the affordable sports car had virtually died (some even believed for ever) it had little direct competition. Unpretentious, the MX-5 appealed to everyone - from millionaires to mechanics - delivering a classic sports car driving experience without the classic sports car ownership experience. Spot-on first time around, Mazda has stuck with its successful formula for quarter of a century.

Mechanical reliability and a refreshing simplicity and affordability of maintenance have definitely assisted the model's long run in production, whilst durable engines and transmissions have made the MX-5 a popular base for modders and fettlers too. The functional cabin design hasn't aged in the same way that others have either and, whilst it may not be the answer to everything (don't believe everything you read on a T-shirt) fervently staunch denial would be needed to ignore its influence. The subsequent Porsche Boxster, Lotus Elise, BMW Z3, Honda S2000 and Mercedes SLK were premium realisations of just how profitable the basic formula could be.

Living the MX-5 dream
Living the MX-5 dream
Perhaps it was a sign of just how far the MX-5 had come when Alfa Romeo recently approached Mazda to pool expertise on the next generation Alfa Spider - arguably Europe's definitive small sports car. And with 26 different MX-5 products available in the PH shop - ranging from coffee mugs to hoodies - who are we to argue?

Happy birthday
The US market was Mazda's primary target when it launched its Hiroshima-built Mazda Miata at the Chicago Auto Show back in February 1989. Really a Californian design, the attention to detail was unrivalled for a mainstream production model. Famously, everything from the sound of the exhaust to the exact placement of the pedals was carefully planned and the decision to opt for a front-engined, rear-wheel drive layout (other formats were considered) ultimately proved a masterstroke. Two months later it went on sale in the US, whilst Japanese buyers had to wait until September 1989 for their Eunos Roadster and Europeans didn't get the MX-5 until February 1990.

Mk4 promises to evoke Mk1. We can't wait
Mk4 promises to evoke Mk1. We can't wait
Priced at a bargain £14,250 in the UK, press reaction in particular was overwhelmingly positive, and although performance from the 118bhp 1.6-litre twin-cam engine was far from potent, sales boomed. 1991 saw UK tuners Brodie Brittain Racing (BBR) permitted to produce an approved bolt-on £3,700 turbocharger conversion taking MX-5 performance into hot hatch territory, whilst in 1993 Mazda released its normally-aspirated 130hp 1.8-litre model. Meanwhile Lucky Japanese buyers were offered supercharged Mazdaspeed models.

By the time Mazda had launched its second-generation MX-5 in 1998 over 25,000 Mk1 (or NA) cars had been sold in the UK alone. And despite the loss of pop-up headlights and a slight increase in weight the next generation MX-5 did even better. Major revisions in 2001 (the so-called Mk2.5 MX-5 brought more power and a six-speed gearbox) certainly helped maintain the model's momentum, whilst numerous better-specced special editions (like the Sport, 10th Anniversary, California, Jasper Conran, Trilogy, Montana and Euphonic. Oh, and Arctic) provided the allure of individualisation. The result? 43,170 Mk2/NB UK MX-5 sales.

Best get in before the comments...
Best get in before the comments...
By now Japanese-import Eunos Roadsters were a common sight on UK roads, with many - but not all - offering better specs that their UK counterparts (things like leather trim, air-conditioning, a CD player and a limited-slip diff were usually reserved for Mazda's special editions in the UK) and the MX-5 tuning scene had ballooned. In Japan Mazda launched a 180hp turbocharged Mazdaspeed model.

The 2005-on Mk3 model grew in size once again, so Mazda dropped the 1.6-litre engine and added a new 160bhp 2.0 version instead, selling alongside the 1.8-litre mainstay. A Roadster Coupe followed in November 2006, with climate control and iPod connectivity standard on all models, whilst the popularity of the soft-top convertible showed little sign of diminishing. Facelifts followed in 2008 and 2013 along with many more official and unofficial special editions, including the 20th Anniversary Edition, Sport Black, Sport Tech Roadster Coupe, Kuro and the BBR GT270.

To date Mazda UK has sold 44,139 examples of its Mk3 MX-5, whilst the worldwide sales figure (for all three incarnations) of 927,492 is just incredible.

Well why have you stopped driving?
Well why have you stopped driving?
Light fantastic
A living legend it may be, but within the PH community not everyone feels the same way about the MX-5. Famously sceptical about the veneration heaped upon the little Mazda, Mr Harris did the decent thing and faced his demons by borrowing cameraman Neil's lightly tweaked NA to put his prejudice to the test.

For believers the styling, image, ownership experience and even the tuning potential are important elements in the enduring appeal. And in addition the MX-5 has always had an X-factor - it's not the fastest sports car but you and the car always intimately in tune - characterised (and mocked) with Mazda's 'Jinba Ittai' horse and rider as one catchphrase. Admittedly the steering isn't super-direct and the chassis isn't the stiffest either, yet the MX-5 is still truly engaging in spite of these minor imperfections - a characteristic shared with other PH Heroes like the classic turbocharged Subaru Impreza.

To compare it to more hardcore cars like the Elise, VX220 or even the Honda S2000 is to miss the point. The MX-5's key strengths are all to be found - in varying measure - in every generation of the car.

Trent family rather keen...
Trent family rather keen...
There's no need to tune your MX-5 either. Choose one of the many MX-5 editions possessing a limited-slip diff and uprated suspension and the out-of-the-box experience is brilliant. The NA MX-5 offered finer handling than anything else even close to its price on the road, whilst the short-throw gearbox in a NA or NB MX-5 has a mechanical simplicity and directness of communication normally only found in a single-seat racer. Being a soft-top simply adds to the sensory pleasure.

Sceptics may have a point with the Mk3 Roadster though. Whilst looking more contemporary it feels quite a bit heavier - which goes against the original design ethos - and has lost some of that original MX-5 magic. The Roadster Coupe? Even more so. Perhaps that X-factor is finally waning?

Cheap and cheerful
The MX-5 is surprisingly practical small convertible too: the boot is spacious, the engine easy to work on and earlier models are cheap to both buy and own. Off track you might return as much as 35mpg at the pumps, yet on track your MX-5 will deliver unrivalled dash for the cash. Prices for the earliest decent examples start at under £1,500, while track day 'disposables' like brake pads, oil, brake discs and replacement suspension components are relatively cheap.

... Harris took some convincing!
... Harris took some convincing!
And for those seeking greater power there are plenty of experienced tuning houses happy to help with a turbocharger or supercharger conversion. Blag a drive in both before making a decision ­though -the majority go the supercharged route which offers more linear power delivery. Of course some may feel this bastardises the original simple MX-5 concept, but who says concepts can be improved upon? Expect to spend anywhere from £1,500 to £4,000 for around 190-260hp and a sub-six-second 0-60 time.

Make sure that your MX-5 has a pristine service history though - with oil changes vital every 6,000 miles and a new cambelt every 60,000 miles - and watch out for accident damage, flat batteries, worn HT leads, rust (especially around the doors, sills and wheel arches) and steer clear of unloved examples. Clutches can last 80,000 miles or more, but soft-tops need regular fettling - check carefully for tears, missing studs or damaged rear windows

Optional air-con is actually most useful in winter, whilst a NA or NB 1.8i model offers the best drive, especially if fitted with a limited-slip diff - many UK S and Sport models, plus Jap import S-Spec and RS-Spec Eunos Roadsters possess one.

If recent rumours are to be believed Mazda's forthcoming Mk4 model should be lighter, stiffer, faster and better equipped than the current model, promising a welcome return of the MX-5's X-factor.

Want to share your MX-5 love? Link to the T-shirt here

MAZDA MX-5 1.6 (NA)
 1,598cc 4-cyl
Transmission: 5-speed manual (4-speed auto Japan only)
Power (hp): 118@6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 101@5,500rpm
0-60mph: 9.0sec
Top speed: 115mph
Weight: 955kg
On sale: 1989-1994
Price new (1990): £14,250
Price now: £350-£1,395

MAZDA MX-5 1.6 (NA)
 1,598cc 4-cyl
Transmission: 5-speed manual (4-speed auto Japan only)
Power (hp): 90@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 95@4,000rpm
0-60mph: 10.1sec
Top speed: 109mph
Weight: 965kg
On sale: 1995-1997
Price new (1996): £13,995
Price now: £1,400-£1,995

MAZDA MX-5 1.8 (NA)
 1,839cc 4-cyl
Transmission: 5-speed manual (4-speed auto Japan only)
Power (hp): 130@6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 112@5,000rpm
0-60mph: 8.2sec
Top speed: 122mph
Weight: 990kg
On sale: 1993-1997
Price new (1993): £15,495
Price now: £695-£2,150

MAZDA MX-5 1.6 (NB)
 1,598cc 4-cyl
Transmission: 5-speed manual (4-speed auto Japan only)
Power (hp): 110@6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 99@5,000rpm
0-60mph: 8.8sec
Top speed: 120mph
Weight: 1,015kg
On sale: 1998-2005
Price new (1998): £14,865
Price now: £2,000-£4,195

MAZDA MX-5 1.8 (NB)
 1,839cc 4-cyl
Transmission: 5 or 6-speed manual (4-speed auto Japan only)
Power (hp): 140@6,500rpm (145bhp from 2001)
Torque (lb ft): 119@4,500rpm
0-60mph: 7.8sec
Top speed: 127mph
Weight: 1025kg
On sale: 1998-2005
Price new (1998): £15,995
Price now: £2,295-£4,495

MAZDA MX-5 1.8 (NC)
1,798cc 4-cyl
Transmission: 5-speed manual (4-speed auto Japan only)
Power (hp): 126@6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft):123@4,500rpm
0-62mph: 9.4sec
Top speed: 122mph
Weight: 1,080kg (1,075kg from 2009)
On sale: 2005-2014
Price new (2005): £15,412
Price now: £4,195-£13,995

MAZDA MX-5 2.0 (NC)
 1,999cc 4-cyl
Transmission: 5 or 6-speed manual (4-speed auto Japan only)
Power (hp): 160@6,700rpm (160@7,000rpm from 2009)
Torque (lb ft): 139@5,000rpm
0-62mph: 7.9sec
Top speed: 130mph
Weight: 1,095kg (1,080kg to 1,100kg from 2009)
On sale:  2005-2014
Price new (2005): £16,412
Price now: £4,150-£18,995

Many thanks to the MX-5 Owners' Club for their help with this feature

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (165) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Agent Orange 21 Feb 2014

    I must be one of the few but I just don't get the high praise that is heaped upon the MX5.

    My mother has one, a MK 2.5 I think with the 1.8 engine. A couple of years ago I drove it for the weekend whilst she borrowed my estate. I'll admit it was quite fun at first but after 30 minutes I began to see the faults and by the end of the weekend I was more than happy to hand it back.

    It was fun through the bends but the moment you exited and put your foot down and nothing happened.

    My overriding feeling was it's just gutless and the engine noise is awful.

    My view is if you want a car like this do it properly and get a Caterham, Elise or VX220.

  • hornetrider 21 Feb 2014

    Agent Orange said:
    Do one, muppet. We don't like your sort round 'ere.

  • garrykiller 21 Feb 2014

    i miss my eunos everyday. i will buy another one eventually. lovely car.

  • Krikkit 21 Feb 2014

    Agent Orange said:
    My view is if you want a car like this do it properly and get a Caterham, Elise or VX220.
    You are welcome to your opinion, but suggesting alternatives that are at least 5x the price of a good NA/NB is a bit mad! tongue out

    What's the verdict PH'ers? Is a 1.6 NA fast enough these days to overtake without trouble, or is a 1.8 a wiser choice?

  • hornetrider 21 Feb 2014

    Krikkit said:
    What's the verdict PH'ers? Is a 1.6 NA fast enough these days to overtake without trouble, or is a 1.8 a wiser choice?
    None of them will overtake 'without trouble'. I've owned a 1.8 Mk1 and a 2.0 Mk3.5. Overtakes need planning a lot of the time - which of course is half the fun.

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