No car is perfect, but the first-generation Mazda MX-5 Miata comes close. There’s a reason pretty much every current Road & Track staffer owns or has owned one. For the money, it’s one of the most enjoyable cars on the planet, and a truly pure driving experience.
Thinking about buying an NA Miata of your own? Fantastic choice. Here’s how to pick the right one.
An Icon Is Born
In the late Eighties, Mazda set out to produce a sporty two-seat convertible aimed directly at the affordable performance segment. It had three initial designs: a front-engine front-wheel-drive car, a front-engine rear-wheel-drive car, and a mid-engine rear-wheel-drive car. In the end, executives chose the front-engine, rear-drive layout. The first production Miatas went on sale in 1989 as 1990 model-year cars after debuting at the Chicago Auto Show.
Early NA Miatas use a 1.6-liter naturally aspirated inline-four that produced 116 horsepower and 110 lb-ft of torque, mated to a five-speed manual transmission. With a manufacturer-quoted 0-60 time of 8.6 seconds, it’s not exactly quick—but that’s not the point. The car’s refreshingly light curb weight of around 2100 pounds combined with independent suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, and an expertly tuned weight distribution made the Miata the new standard for driving pleasure when it arrived at dealerships. It was a hit.
First-year cars initially came in just three colors: Classic red, Crystal white, and Mariner blue. Silver Stone metallic was added a few months into production. Base models came with steel wheels, manual steering, and no radio. Two option packages were available: an A package, which got you power steering, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, alloy wheels, and a stereo system, and a B package, which included everything in the A package plus cruise control, power windows, and speakers embedded into the headrests. A viscous limited-slip differential was available as an option. Red-painted cars could also be optioned with a removable hard top.
For the 1991 model year, Mazda added a four-speed automatic transmission and anti-lock brakes to the options list, while making the hardtop available on every color except silver. Also new for 1991 was the first special edition Miata, simply called the “Special Edition.” Painted in British Racing green and limited to 4000 units, it came standard with the B package, along with a tan interior, a compact disc player, an exclusive interior badge, as well as a Nardi wood shift knob and handbrake handle.
The next year, Mazda gave the Miata a rear window defroster for the hardtop, a remote trunk release, an additional rear underbody cross brace to help with rigidity, and two new available colors: Brilliant black and Sunburst yellow (for one year only). While it wasn’t a special edition, the ‘92 black Miata came highly optioned as standard, with things like alloy wheels, a stereo system, power windows, and power steering. Additionally, black Miata buyers could option a C package, which added things like cruise control, stainless steel door sills, a power antenna, headrest speakers, and a set of sweet BBS wheels.
Option packages were given a shakeup for 1993. The B package became the A package, while the B package became everything in the new A package plus cruise control, power windows, and a power antenna. The C package, which included everything with the B package plus a leather interior and a tan soft top—became available on every color except blue. Mazda also introduced another “Limited Edition” car, this time painted in black over a red leather interior. Limited Edition 1993 Miatas got Bilstein shocks, a Nardi shifter, and a body kit as standard. Just 1500 were sold in America.
The NA Miata saw its biggest changes for the 1994 model year. The engine’s displacement was bumped to 1.8 liters, giving it a total of 128 horsepower. Torque remained unchanged, at 110 lb-ft. The clutch, output shaft, and ring gear were enlarged to handle the extra thrust, while the final drive ratio was decreased from 4.30 to 4.10. Mazda also added two steel underbody support rods and a brace behind the rear seats, improving torsional rigidity by 10 percent. The wheels, brakes, and gas tank grew in size, while the dash was given a redesign. A new R package added things like a body kit, Bilstein shocks, aluminum wheels, and a Torsen-style limited-slip differential.
Mazda introduced the first M Edition Miata in 1994 which, in addition to all of the items found in the C package, came with things like a wooden shift knob and parking brake handle, special badges, polished wheels, and Montego Blue Mica paint. According to Miata.net, around 3000 examples were sold in the U.S.
Mazda revised its package system for the Miata in 1995, replacing the A, B, and C packages with a single “popular equipment package” that packed pretty much every optional item together. The M Edition got a major revision, with a new deep red paint called Merlot Mica, paired with standard 15-inch BBS basketweave wheels and everything in the popular equipment package. The 1996 model year saw a host of small interior cosmetic updates, as well as an increase to 133 horsepower and the addition of an OBDII system. The 1996 M Edition had Starlight Mica blue paint, Enkei 15-inch alloy wheels, a limited-slip differential, a wood shifter and handbrake handle, and a tan soft top.
The NA’s final model year, 1997, saw the introduction of a new Touring package, which included things like power steering, power windows, power mirrors, alloy wheels, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The ‘97 M Edition got a new paint called Marina Green Mica, paired with 15-inch polished alloy wheels. Also new for ‘97 was the Special Touring Option (STO) Limited Edition, which got Twilight blue paint, a lip spoiler, Enkei wheels, and special badging (though it lacked things like an LSD or cruise control).
So Which One Is Right for Me?
Which Miata works for you depends on what you plan to use it for. Most Miatas sold came nicely optioned from the factory, meaning the cars you’ll see for sale will probably have things like power windows, power steering, a stereo, and cruise control. If you’re just planning on cruising around, with the occasional back road jaunt, pretty much any Miata will do.
Plan on commuting in your NA? Bold choice, considering early variants are now 30 years old. But it’s perfectly doable, provided you’re able to stay within sight of tall trucks and SUVs on the road—we’d recommend finding one with all of the right power options and working air conditioning. And while the 116-horsepower 1.6-liter motor is suitable for modern traffic situations, you might feel a bit more comfortable having those extra few horses from the 1.8 to make quick highway maneuvers.
If you plan on doing any real performance driving (think autocross or track days) with your Miata, you should be a bit more selective. While any NA can probably handle a day out on track (provided it’s in good running condition), some variants are better suited than others. Try to find a car that has a limited-slip differential, and hasn’t fallen behind on maintenance (the last thing you want is a powertrain, suspension, or brake components giving out on track). Other things to keep in mind: Later Miatas received more bracing versus early cars, resulting in a slightly more rigid chassis. From the 1994 model year up, Miatas got bigger brakes and beefier clutches. Every M Edition, as well as most special edition models, got a limited-slip differential as standard. And since most track day organizers require you to have some sort of roll protection, keep an eye out for a Miata with a roll bar—preferably one made by Hard Dog or similar quality—already installed. It’ll save you a bunch of time and money.
If you’re more of a collector who wants to stand out amongst the Miata crowd, there are plenty of rare colors and limited-production models to choose from, some being more desirable than others. M Editions are the most obvious choice, as each year has its own specific color, wheel set, and specs. M Edition cars were produced in low numbers, and their long list of standard equipment means you really can’t go wrong. Just be prepared to spend $2000 – $3000 more versus a normal Miata on the used market.
Similarly, the 1991 British Racing Green Special Edition and the 1992 black-on-red Limited Edition demand an even higher premium thanks to their unique color combinations and low production numbers. And while the 1992 Sunburst Yellow Miata wasn’t a special edition, Mazda built just 1519 of them over one model year, so they remain highly sought after. Conversely, the 1997 Miata STO, despite being a special edition car, rarely demands a premium on the used market, thanks to few standard features and no worthwhile options. Over the years, it’s even earned the nickname “Stuff Taken Off” from the enthusiast community.
So What Sorts of Issues Should I Look Out For?
Despite being inspired by British roadsters, the Miata’s Japanese origins make it supremely reliable, and perfectly capable of getting you to work every day or lapping your local circuit. But like any old car, issues begin to show themselves over time.
The biggest thing to look out for on an NA Miata is rust. If you’re buying a car that’s spent time where snow falls, be sure to check the rocker panels, subframes, door bottoms, and frame rails for signs of crusty metal. It’s also worth peeling back the carpeting in the trunk to inspect the shock tower to see if any rust is developing from the inside. Rust is common on Miatas in snowbelt states, so we wouldn’t call it a dealbreaker as much as a good way to negotiate the price in your favor, should you spot some during your inspection. As long as it hasn’t spread too deeply, it can still be patched, sanded, or otherwise fixed.
Some first- and second-year Miatas suffered from defects in the crankshafts that could negatively affect timing, eventually grenading the motor. Most of those “short-nose crankshaft” engines have either been repaired or replaced by now, so it’s not as big of an issue as it once was (but it’s still something to watch out for). The plastic windows in the vinyl soft tops dry out over time, blurring transparency and developing cracks. Fortunately, it’s not too difficult to replace yourself with simple tools on a weekend. Also, it’s not uncommon to see an airbag light illuminated in the gauge cluster—it’s the result of a failed airbag control module. It sits under the dash, and costs around $100 to replace.
Because some Miatas are now over 30 years old, it’s worth inspecting more general maintenance items, like rubber hoses, suspension bushings, and electrical connections, as those can wear out and fail, causing headaches down the road. Thankfully, because Mazda built so many NAs, replacement parts remain cheap and easy to source.
What About the Community?
The Miata is the most popular sports car of all time, and as such, there’s no shortage of communities, groups, forums, and events across the country where you can meet with and talk with like-minded individuals with a deep passion and knowledge for the car.
Miata.net has pretty much all the information you could ever want when it comes to NA buying, maintenance, and frequently asked questions, while countless regional Miata clubs blanket the entire country, ensuring that no matter where you are, there’s always going to be another enthusiastic owner nearby.
In addition to the owner community, Mazda itself is deeply committed to driving the Miata fanbase forward, often hosting large-scale national events where owners from around the country come together to celebrate the car and its rich history.
Check out the rest of our buyer’s guides right here!
You Might Also Like