I've driven thirty thousand kilometers in the automotive scenery's most disputed roadster. The humble first-generation Mazda MX-5. #Review
Not much longer than two years ago I became the proud owner of a rather beat up and very red little roadster, with a roof that seemed to aspire to become a slice of swiss cheese, a set of cheap Chinese-made pizza slicer wheels that you’d expect to see in a distastefully modified econohatch and with headlights that stubbornly refused to go up.
Today, after a lot of time and money, my little gem sits on a set of period correct BBS RZ wheels, has a brand-new vinyl roof and both headlights will go up and down on command. Over the past years I’ve transformed the MX-5 from a neglected project to a decent example of it’s species. And throughout this transformation I had the blessing to experience the parts of MX-5 ownership that you won’t see in any five-minute YouTube review. I’ve had breakdowns, overheating issues, a plethora of reasons to be frustrated but also memorable ventures to the countryside, exciting track days and daily commutes. Through it all, I experienced every aspect of owning an MX-5 both good and bad.
So, what is it like to own an NA?
That depends on your character. If you’re willing to trade the amenities you may be accustomed to from owning modern cars for the little roadsters driving perks, you might be in for a treat. Otherwise, you’ll hate it.
The hard truth is although the NA was designed to be a sportscar for daily use, that design took place in the late 1980s and its age starts to show even in a well-equipped example such as mine. Yes, I do have power steering, electric windows and A/C, but the Mx-5 lacks terribly at sound insulation and ride comfort. On rough roads with the roof up the suspension’s movements are audible and every panel that is capable of rattling will do so whole-heartedly, leading to a very frustratingly loud experience, which makes commuting back home from work on a weary winter day awfully exhausting.
On the other hand, with the top down on any other day, the MX-5 is a charmer. The lack of a roof agitates your senses, as unlike most cars, you’re exposed and connected with the world around you. Every smell and sound in your surrounding environment including the car’s own transform the driving experience massively. Blasting down country roads in and out of second and third gear corners with the roof down on a warm spring day is driving nirvana as far as the MX-5 can go. The pops of the exhaust, the engine’s growl that becomes a scream when approaching the 7500rpm limiter and the light footed but grippy handling of the MX-5 make it an absolute pleasure to drive at moderately high speed on twisty roads.
The stock soft suspension is great at absorbing the imperfections of bumpy country roads without de-stabilizing the car and encourages the driver to test the cars limits in every corner. However, the Mx-5 is most comfortable being driven at 8/10 in stock form as the aforementioned softness allows for excessive roll at sharp corner entries that can upset the car’s balance when driven past its limits. As far as the inherent balance goes, on the road the Mx-5 tends to understeer at corner entry but it can easily be turned to oversteer either by trailbraking or by keeping your right foot planted.
Doing so will result in a pleasant dose of oversteer that is very easily adjusted. In the wet especially the little roadster is an exceptional learning car. Skinny tyres and responsive steering make the Mazda very easy to hold long slides with. Nevertheless, I have learned the hard way that being too enthusiastic when pressing the loud pedal will make you end up facing the wrong way on a roundabout.
On the aspects of daily use, the MX-5 is very easy to park and manoeuvre around town due to its dinky dimensions, great visibility, and light pedals and steering while the heater and A/C, although incomparable to modern cars, do a decent job of keeping you at the desired temperature. The fact that it’s a two-seater has not been a real problem for me yet, neither have I ever found the trunk to be too small for everyday life. And speaking of the two seats, it’s worth mentioning that although they are not great for keeping you in place around corners, they are more comfortable than expected.
Unfortunately, also due to its dinky dimensions, even in a bright red example such as mine, you must keep your eyes peeled for distracted commuters with two-ton SUVs that have failed to notice your presence. I’ve had to stomp on the brakes and change lanes with tyre-squealing speed a few times more than I would like due to some dim wit in a Nissan Qashqai or Peugeot 3008 that wasn’t paying attention. The MX-5’s complete lack of safety features does make you think twice before your every move on the road.
On the highway the Mx-5 is a rather loud car, with wind, engine and tyre noise invading the cabin making long trips tiring. Revving at 3900rpm at 75mph doesn’t exactly spell highway cruiser; so, if you need to drive long-distance daily, the Mx-5 is not the car for you. But the silver lining is that when driven at 60mph the little 1.6 returns good fuel mileage making highway driving economically feasible for those determined enough to daily their MX-5. But be warned, the wind and engine noise does make trips over an hour in length exhausting.
And since I touched on the topic of the infamous 1.6litre twincam little four-cylinder, as in any Miata review, one issue must be tackled: Power. Or better yet, the lack of it. Contrary to popular belief I don’t find the Mx-5 to be slow. Yes, the new NDs with 181 horsepower do seem rather tempting, but even with 115hp on tap the NA is not a slow car. The little engine carries the car with ease and when the 7200rpm redline is met with a swift shift to the next gear via the well-praised shifter the Mx-5 feels zippy. Indeed with a 0-60 time of about 8 seconds and an equally unimpressive 115mph top speed the Mx-5 is slow on paper, but in the real world it feels like it’s always on it’s toes eager to be driven to the fullest of it’s potential, and if you keep your foot down you’ll break the speed limit faster than you would think. (As long as you’re not going uphill).
As far as reliability goes, the MX-5s are known to be bulletproof little cars that are very simple and easy to work on. Used parts are plentiful and cheap, and it’s not that hard to find someone near you that buys beat up MX-5s and parts them out for a living. In theory then, keeping one running shouldn’t be a problem, but when you start to factor in age and abuse, it becomes obvious that a car that has been launched, raced and drifted by multiple drivers for the better part of three decades won’t be in a good mechanical condition. My car, as I mentioned at first was a bit of a project when I bought it, and it still is. I’ve replaced the clutch, various bushings, the rear diff (because I broke it doing a launch) ,two head gaskets and various other bits and bobs that amount to a considerable amount of money spent on a car that’s barely worth £3000. Yes, she’s now in great mechanical condition, but after all the love and care I’ve put into my car it’s still far from the perfection that I seek. The MX-5 is inherently a reliable 90’s Japanese car, but If you happen to be on the lookout to buy one, I highly recommend going for a rust-free, well looked after example. Just like Phill.
I must admit that after almost three years of ownership I’m starting to look into ways of making my roadster a bit more thrilling on a straight line by the brilliant means of forced induction, as when driving around town, trying to keep up with turbocharged modern traffic I begin to question the relevance of calling my 115hp Coca-Cola tin a sports car. Yet, every time I go for a spirited drive I forget all about it, because even after almost three years of ownership, I’m still very in love with it. The Mx-5, as is, is a very well-balanced fast-in-fast-out canyon craving machine that can easily outperform cars with double its horsepower when the road gets tough. Anyone expecting it to be a drag strip queen or a freeway stormer is missing the point of the Mx-5,
“slow car fast rather than fast car slow”
So, should you buy one?