Mazda MX-5. Four generations of fun.
Is there a best, or is there a worst?
Mazda succeeded in their two-seater where those before them had failed. The enthusiasm in the late ’80s was warm, and by the mid-’90s a cult following was beginning to swell. Since 1989 there have been four generations of the benchmark for small two-seater roadsters. But which one is best?
I feel a little guilty surveying the options. Each has its own charm, any owner would believe there’s is best and fortunately, the community is cordial and in joint agreement that no matter which one you own, you can’t go wrong. Sadly for me, the first and second generation causes a glaring problem. Size. Both are a tight fit, anyone over six foot should have a sit in one before they start looking to make sure they fit comfortably. If you’re over six foot four you can pretty much write off a first and second generation, depending on your proportions. The third and fourth generations are more accepting of longer frames but don’t expect a Mercedes S-Class level of breathing space.
With the MX-5 being the best-selling roadster in the world with over a million sold there are plenty to choose from but early ones are creeping up in price. Europe and the USA were the biggest markets, branded Miata in the States, but Europe has outsold fans across the pond in almost every year since the early 2000s.
Jumping up to the present day you can choose from a hardtop or soft top, an option that was first offered in the third generation. Purists may want a manual canvas roof but the tin-top makes a strong argument for itself, especially if you don’t have a garage or live in a city with street parking.
Handling is the Mazda’s strength, but the gear shift and pedal position can’t be overlooked. A manual is the only option on early cars and unless you really have an issue with self-shifting, it should be the only option you consider on ones that were offered with paddles. Pedal spacing can be a problem with small roadsters, spaced too far apart leaves no space to rest your left leg, too tight and it's easy to trip over the brake pedal on acceleration or clipping the clutch when braking. The first and second suffer a little but Mazda’s attention to detail means that even their tight footwells are well designed, useful when you take on some twisty roads and reach for another gear without worrying about accidentally catching the brake pedal as you depress the clutch.
There’s a joy to early cars that feel decidedly mechanical, sadly the 2020 model has fallen into the trap of disconnecting the driver from the road that so many cars suffer to keep up with emissions legislation.
There is a sweet spot that appears when taking the mk3 for a spin. Particularly the facelifted smiling face of a Mk3.5. The 1.8 gives five ratios, enough power to feel quick but stay away from license losing territory. The gearshift is pleasing, slotting home every time with a direct feel that doesn’t feel as intimidating but avoids feeling too rubbery. The 2.0 is for those that want a little extra, with six gears to choose from and a slightly roartier engine note. Handling on both is sublime if you want to learn how to drive fast or enjoy a spirited drive, without constantly needing to back off the throttle to keep the speed down. You can really wring it out, and best of all it seems to be never need a break, Something earlier cars appreciate after a spirited run. The smaller wheels ride better on some of the cheese grater roads that the UK government has decided acceptable to leave with little maintenance, but the larger wheels on the 2.0 will ride just fine most of the time with the occasional rutted road the only time you would have to back off and take it steady.
Anyone worried that the purity of the MX-5 has been lost in fourth-generation shouldn’t
The second generation would be the last choice unless you really don’t want to go as old school as the early 90’s MK1. The ride is fine and the power acceptable, but now it feels caught between two eras. That of the original, where old school mechanics rule and the MK3/4 where more creature comforts and electronic assistance have learnt to live with the aspects that needed to remain mechanical. There is also a slight lean to the ride, having driven dozens I’m willing to put my neck on the line and say this was a design flaw rather than the result of worn components. The first generation leans more but it fits the character of the car better. Aftermarket tuners have come to the rescue and there are plenty of options for those that would like to add more chassis rigidity. The options go from an upgrade single component to dial in a touch less flex all the way up to a full race car. For this reason, none of the MX-5’s can be overlooked unless you have an absolute aversion to modifying a standard car. A note to buyers is don’t worry too much if a car that you are looking at has modifications. As long as they are from established retailers or tuners, you’ll find they were upgrades you may well have done yourself. Similar to the MINI community, there are established players to look out for, and a few subtle upgrades from these names should be seen as a bonus unless you really want the factory feel. This isn’t to say you should keep your eyes wide open, some will have poor modifications, thorough paperwork and established names should set your mind at rest. Ones that have been lowered with some eBay springs are best avoided.
Mazda has run several special additions, some noteworthy ones being the Le Mans edition of the MK1, and a BBR Turbo model for those wanting a more potent punch. The MK2 kept that theme with a very limited run of Roadster Turbos in 2004. The 20th Anniversary of the MK3 in 2010 is a nice catch if you can find one, pearl paintwork and vinyl stickers standing it out from the crowd. BBR was back with the MK3, offering a GT270 in 2014, this was a 268 horsepower ultimate version of the MX5 that packed in an array of upgrades that BBR offer in the aftermarket. The car was relentless and more than anyone but the most power-crazed will need. In the MK4 there has been several special editions. Icon and 30th-anniversary models are worth considering. The 30th anniversary is available in a loud orange colour only and comes with upgraded Brembo brakes among other upgrades. Sales have steadily slowed in the 4th generation of the MX5, which has meant lots of ‘special editions’, don’t worry they still shift enough to keep the MX-5 worst making, but the drop in sales figures means Mazda is having to throw more short-run versions out to tempt buyers into showrooms.
Anyone worried that the purity of the MX-5 has been lost in fourth-generation shouldn’t, if you want a modern car but love the little roadster it is still a fantastic drive, Mazda being one of the few manufacturers unwilling to compromise on their 'redlines' when it comes to brand and model identity, Driving the newest one reminds you why they have mastered the market, but also gives a telling feeling that this is a car that will be harder and harder to master in the future. It only takes a couple of minutes of roof-down driving, slotting in gears, and pushing on toward a country lane to remind yourself why you should own one, sadly few sign on the dotted line.
The pick of the bunch has to be the MK3 for me, but whichever one you go for you are unlikely to be disappointed. Having worked at Mazda I’ve seen MX-5’s with over 200,000 miles running without a problem and even stripped out racers seem to stand up to a beating.
A well-kept one will rarely give owners a headache and their relative affordability means they offer realistic ownership costs to those using them as a second car. You can drive one all year round, although having experienced running a demonstrator in the coldest winter months with snow and ice on the road, you may want to have a second car for the worst weather.