Review and road test of the Mazda MX-5 (1991 - 1998)
BY JONATHAN CROUCH
The British may have invented affordable open-topped sports cars but it was the Japanese who popularised them in the modern era. It was an era started by just one car - the Mazda MX-5.
Designed by an American, its shape shamelessly mimics that of an old Sixties Lotus Elan and still looks good today alongside much more modern competition. Demand is huge for this affordable little ragtop on the used market, so prices stay high. Still, as an extra car for fun, you can hardly beat it.
First Generation MX-5 - 1990-1998: (1.6i Convertible/ 1.8i Convertible [Sport])
In the late Eighties, European car makers said that there was no demand for affordable open-topped sports cars; we had GTi hot hatches instead. Mazda thought differently. But while the competition talked about bringing the concept back to reality, only the company from Hiroshima actually got on and did it.
The result, launched in the UK in 1990, was the MX-5 Miata (though the Miata name was not used here). It was a car conceived, designed and built by enthusiasts.
To say that the car has been successful is probably the understatement of the year. Close to half a million are on the roads world-wide and even in rainy Britain, annual sales are higher than ever.
Originally, the car was offered in just one form, with 1.6-litre power. In 1994, however, a more potent 1.8-litre version was added to the line-up, offered in standard and plusher S variants. Various special editions - including the SE, Gleneagles, Monaco, Merlot, Harvard, Monza and California were offered. In April 1998, the range was replaced by an all-new second generation version.
What You Get
The MX-5 could not be described as a technically advanced car, though major changes to the suspension and safety specification did take place in the 1994 upgrade.
Rather, it's a 1990s version of the traditional MG. Like the car from Abingdon, it has rear wheel drive in preference to a modern front-drive system. And there are cute, bubbly looks which seem to remind the enthusiast press of a latter-day Lotus Elan.
Chrome bezels surround the instruments, while the Minilite alloy wheels are direct copies of an old British design. On paper, it sounds all very sensible, if rather unimaginative. On the road, the result is the return of a long-forgotten quality to budget motoring; the driving experience.
What to Look For
There are a lot of first generation 'grey imports' about - these are cars imported used from Japan and, unless you can read Kanji characters, the service history is hard to determine. Check these cars very carefully for evidence of 'clocking'. Imports were factory-badged as Miatas and have high stop lights and squared-off rear number plate housings (Japanese number plates aren't as wide as ours). Most have air conditioning and you may be offered automatic transmission, too. You should also find an aftermarket rear fog lamp as, strictly speaking, this is required for a UK MoT. Some imports also have weird and wonderful add-ons such as aftermarket alloy wheels, steering wheels and gear knobs and unusual stereos.
Very little goes wrong with the MX-5 or Miata - unlike most 'traditional' sports cars. As with any such vehicle, you need to be on the lookout for examples that have been thrashed, or cars with botched bodywork repairs or suspect service history. There are many Mazda MX-5 specialists who will be happy to weed out rogue examples for you. On imports, watch for Japanese-market stereos with a different FM band from anywhere else in the world. You can get these to work in the UK with a converter in the aerial cable but the digital display will show the wrong frequency.
(approx based on a 1994 MX-5 1.8i ex Vat) A clutch assembly is around £160 and an exhaust main silencer about £150. Allow a budget of £300 for a catalyst, for an exchange alternator about £225 and for a starter motor about £135.
A door mirror is about £75, windscreens just under £115, tail lamps just over £50, headlamps about £45 and servicing between £50 and £300 depending on mileage.
On the Road
For a start, the MX-5 sounds right. You wouldn't recognise the little 1.6 or 1.8-litre engines from the similar units used in Mazda 323s. The fat round tailpipe plays what one correspondent described as 'a jazzy tune that misses no cliche'.
At low revs, the tone resembles that of Alfa's glorious boxer four. Further on, you might imagine it to be a Porsche or Jaguar powerplant, were you to be able to hear the music without seeing the car. Either way, it's the kind of engine note that makes you want to rev the engine if only for the hell of it.
The shape seduces you too, round and compact, distinctive and cheeky. Position yourself behind the three-spoke wheel and the narrow cockpit feels almost tailor-made to suit your frame. The pedals are well-spaced and ideally positioned for heel and toeing and the seats supportive and comfortable.
With the ragtop up, the little Mazda feels something like a small tent on wheels. Better to risk the elements and pack the roof away, a surprisingly painless operation. Simply remove two clips under the sun visors and flick the single-layer vinyl back behind the seats.
In the end though, there's no one quality that endears you to the MX-5. Rather, it's the sum of its parts and little features. Like the small eyeball vents; the chromed Ferrari-like outer door handles and the drilled accelerator pedal.
A blast. This car has that feel good factor - and you can enjoy yourself knowing that depreciation levels are legendarily low. Go on; make space in the garage.
Mazda MX-5 (1991 - 1998) review by JONATHAN CROUCH