Mazda MX-5 (NB)

BUYER’S GUIDE

Mazda MX-5 (NB) Review

As first-generation MX-5s get collectable and more expensive attention is turning to its successor as a source of cheap thrills…

What Is It?

After nine years on sale, the first-generation – or NA – MX-5 was in need of an update to stay relevant, its NB successor building on the same foundations with a modernised and more substantial feel. Out went the iconic pop-up lights, Mazda compensating for the less distinctive look with a stiffer shell for sharper handling, more luxurious interior for improved refinement and – on later versions – more powerful engines and a six-speed gearbox.

While it’s true the real MX-5 enthusiasts still covet the NA for its cuter looks and originality, the NB is just as fun to drive, considerably more civilised to live with and much more plentiful and affordable to buy.  

Corrosive Areas

Front chassis legs

Sills

Rear arches

Checklist

  • With the same basic engine, transmission, suspension and brakes the NB MX-5 shares the original’s reputation for mechanical simplicity, toughness and ease of maintenance, making it an attractive choice for the DIY enthusiast
  • The 1.6 and 1.8 engines are fundamentally the same as the previous version, though breathing was improved with a new 4-2-1 exhaust manifold and, on the 1.8, a variable-length intake system known as VICS
  • As with the Mk1 make sure you check the obvious things, like levels for coolant and oil, signs of emulsification in the latter on the inside of the oil filler cap and obvious leaks; cambelts need replacing every five years so factor this into your first service if there’s no evidence of it being done recently
  • The NB was significantly updated in 2001 with an obvious facelift – look for the triple-lens headlights, bigger air intake and foglights (or blanks) on the outer edges of the front bumper as the obvious signifiers; you may hear these cars referred to in some circles as NB2 or Mk2.5 cars
  • The post-2001 1.8 gained variable intake valve timing branded as S-VT and increasing power from 140PS (103kW) to 146PS (107kW), torque climbing from 162Nm (119lb ft) to 168Nm (124lb ft); while the six-speed gearbox only fractionally improved acceleration and top speed figures it means improved flexibility and high-speed refinement
  • Rust is the biggest killer of NB MX-5s, so should be top of your list of things to look out for; sills and rear wheelarches are common spots and many cars will have had some manner of repair or patching done here so check for the quality of the work and have a proper poke around, especially where the sills join the rear arches
  • Visible rust is one thing and an indicator of what may lurk deeper within, so, if possible, get the car on a ramp and remove the undertray for a good sense of whether the front chassis legs are sound or not – these are double skinned and can rust from the inside out so check thoroughly as rot can often be terminal
  • While it’s up on the ramp check the condition of the floorpan and sills; the powerframe linking the gearbox and differential, the subframes and the suspension arms will likely have surface rust on them but look carefully at inner wings, suspension mounts and for any damage to the chassis rails from speed bumps or poor jacking
  • Feel around the interior for wet carpets or other signs of a leaking roof or blocked drain holes

How does it drive?

One of the original MX-5’s literal weaknesses was its rather flexy body, the scuttle shake over bumpy surfaces detracting from its otherwise perfect handling. For the NB Mazda stuck with the same overall powertrain and structure (the dimensions are pretty much identical) but stiffened things up with some carefully targeted reinforcement in areas like the A-pillars, transmission tunnel, floorpan and sills.

It’s a little heavier like-for-like as a result, but only to the tune of 50kg or so. As such it maintains that delicate balance and sense of agility, but feels more substantial without the wobbles and rattles you sometimes get in the NA.

Post-2001 1.8s with the updated engine, variable valve timing and six-speed gearbox therefore feel a significant step on in capability, without corrupting the MX-5 character we all love. Bilstein dampers and a limited-slip diff on Sport models were another welcome addition for UK buyers.

 What’s good?

While the interior is actually fundamentally similar the NB is testament to what a difference a few squishy bits of interior trim and fancier switchgear can make to the overall ambience of a car. Little things like the glass rear screen on the hood (Mazda being Mazda the engineers achieved this AND a weight-saving over the previous arrangement) help with daily refinement and, as the car evolved, specifications got steadily more luxurious. Moving the spare wheel and battery from inside the boot to under it also helps practicality, and the sense of it being a more grown-up, higher-quality vehicle.

The revviness of that later 1.8 combined with the six-speed gearbox and limited-slip diff also make the NB feel a much more modern, grown-up proposition without messing with the MX-5’s natural playfulness.

For buyers the fact they’re younger and, perhaps, a tad less desirable than the NA means these second-generation cars are much more affordable to buy as well.

What’s bad?

Unfortunately not all of Mazda’s upgrades to the body were as welcome as others, the double-skinned front chassis legs turning out to become a notorious rust trap where terminal corrosion can take hold and wreak unseen havoc on an otherwise solid looking car.

This, and the existing problem areas like the sills and rear arches, mean many otherwise appealing NBs have been lost because the values are such it doesn’t make economic sense to repair them properly. And a lot of that is down to the fact that, best will in the world and for all the objective improvements, the NB will always live in the shadow of its cuter predecessor.

Which model to choose?

Given the earlier NBs are closer in spirit to the previous-generation MX-5 but lack some of the charm it can feel harder to make a case for them. In terms of engine while the 1.6 was more appealing in the previous car the small weight increase means the 1.8 is probably the more desirable option here. The more so when combined with the Bilstein dampers, limited-slip diff and six-speed gearbox combination seen in some limited editions like the Icon and 10th Anniversary, and then the post-2001 Sport model.

You can see where this is going and, for the clear ground it puts between itself and the first-gen MX-5, we’d probably hold out for a later 1.8i Sport with the variable valve timing if possible, though there are bargains to be had and if a genuinely rust-free example of a five-speed car or earlier version came into view we’d be seriously tempted. 

Specifications – Mazda MX-5 1.8i Sport (2001-2005)

Engine

1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol

Power

146PS (107kW) @ 7,000rpm

Torque

168Nm (124lb ft) @ 5,000rpm

Transmission

Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive

Kerb weight

1,100kg

0-62mph

8.4 seconds

Top speed

129mph

Production dates

1998-2005 (total production)

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Mazda MX-5 NA dynamic exterior

Mazda MX-5 (NA)

BUYER’S GUIDE

Mazda MX-5 (NA) Review

The car inspired by classic roadsters is now a bona-fide classic itself – here’s how to buy a good one…

What Is It?

In a nutshell? A loving homage to the classic two-seat roadster created by a multi-national team of car nuts at Mazda’s Californian design department that went on to become the world’s best-selling sportscar. There is, of course, more to the story of the Mazda MX-5 than this but the idea really did spring from a rough sketch on a blackboard. American motoring journalist Bob Hall put the proposal to Mazda R&D chief (and, later, overall boss) Kenichi Yamamoto for a simple, open-top sportscar capturing the spirit of the Austin Healeys, MGs, Alfa Romeo Spiders and similar classics they were all rocking round in at the time.

The team nailed the brief, the charming look penned by Tom Matano and his team faithfully capturing the essence of the cars that inspired it while also creating something distinct in itself. Three decades later that formula of affordability, modest performance, great handling and innocent wind-in-the-hair fun is as appealing as ever, the original now a classic in its own right. 

Corrosive Areas

Rear wheelarches

Inner and outer sills

Battery tray and boot floor

Checklist

  • Officially the Mk1 MX-5 is known as the NA to differentiate from later generations, though many also refer to it as the Mk1; JDM-market versions are technically Eunos Roadsters, not MX-5s but are fundamentally the same car with different badging
  • This branding will be the most obvious way to tell an MX-5 from a Eunos Roadster, other obvious signs being the square rear numberplate recess on JDM cars
  • 6 and 1.8-litre engines are fundamentally the same, though there are detail differences and the later European market 1.6s sold after 1994 have power restricted to 95PS (70kW)
  • Engines are generally considered tough and reliable when looked after properly; the usual checks are a sensible starting point so make sure coolant and oil levels are correct and there’s no ‘mayonnaise’ on the oil filler cap
  • Oil leaks at the back of the rocker cover are common and usually down to an easily replaced seal on the cam position sensor
  • Ask when the cambelt was last changed and if the owner doesn’t know or there’s no history to demonstrate it’s been done recently factor this into your bargaining – it’s not a big or expensive job, though
  • Check everywhere for rust but be especially vigilant around the sills and rear arches and use these as a reference for the rest of the car; most will have had repairs or patching at some point but check the quality of the work and whether it was a proper fix or just a bodge to get through an MoT
  • Blocked hood drains can rot the sills from the inside out – cheap brushes are available for keeping them clear and if ‘rodding’ results in gunge and a flood of water from the tubes the owner probably hasn’t been on top of this; also check for wet carpets and leaking hoods
  • There are plenty of bushings and pivots that can wear out on the suspension so beware clonks and rattles; geometry is adjustable and should be checked and adjusted to get the best out of the handling
  • Some JDM Eunos models had viscous limited-slip differentials – jack the car up and turn the rear wheel to see if both move in the same direction as a sign, though many will by now have worn out and become ‘open’ diffs; tougher Torsen diffs were fitted to some JDM special editions and are much coveted
  • Standard NA MX-5s ride very high and can look rather ungainly but many owners will already have fitted aftermarket springs and/or dampers to lower the car; there are endless options here but beware the temptation to go too stiff
  • The NA’s structure isn’t the most rigid so shudders and rattles over rough roads aren’t unusual (especially on non-standard suspension or bigger wheels) but serious looseness may hint at more serious structural issues
  • Brake calipers can seize through lack of use, especially the rears if the car has been left for long periods with the handbrake on – replacements are easy enough to source and fit but annoyingly expensive
  • Check the hood – NAs originally came with a zip-out plastic rear screen which can crack with age or improper folding while the vinyl wears out with time; aftermarket replacement hoods are fine and relatively affordable but consider the condition as part of your bargaining
  • NB/Mk2 hoods with the glass rear screen are a popular upgrade so don’t be surprised if you find a car with this fitted
  • Control cables for the ventilation system can snap so run the fan and cycle through the different settings to make sure you can vary the airflow as required as it’s a fiddly fix

How Does It Drive?

With its cute image, modest power and emphasis on handling rather than outright speed, the MX-5 has always battled against more macho types sneering at its supposed effeminate image. Thankfully they are now being drowned out by those appreciating the relevance of small size, lack of weight and fun at the wheel over ridiculous horsepower, irrelevant performance and status-based posing.

At around a tonne in weight, the NA MX-5 feels sprightly even with the 115PS (85kW) of the standard 1.6-litre engine, its appetite for revs and pairing a delightfully positive, short-shift manual gearbox more than making up for the modest performance stats.

Double wishbone suspension all round, perfect weight distribution, sharp steering and that natural rear-wheel-drive balance make the MX-5 huge fun. The fact you can literally drive it flat out across country and never trouble a speed limit is one of life’s great joys. Maybe the hairdressers were onto something all along…

What’s Good?

The deeper you delve into the NA MX-5 story the more you appreciate how obsessively engineered every last detail of this car was, the fact even the cam cover was designed to be aesthetically pleasing just one example.

The design is matched with timeless appeal as well, the ease with which you can throw back the roof and let rip meaning every drive can put a smile on your face. The European roadsters that so inspired the MX-5 had demonstrated this already, of course, but the combination with Japanese build quality and reliability were the icing on the cake.

It’s also a very simple car and easy for the DIY enthusiast to work on and fix, with a wide support network of accumulated knowledge, passionate owners and affordable parts supply. The scope for tuning, modifications and upgrades is also huge, and something many owners enjoy exploring.

What’s Bad?

While still considered a ‘modern’ interpretation of classic roadsters the oldest NA MX-5s are now over 30 years old themselves, this and the fact they were cheap for much of that period meaning time is rapidly catching up with them. They’re mechanically tough and cheap to keep running, but corrosion is now killing them off at a rate of knots. The fact they’re still not valuable enough to make expensive bodywork repairs financially viable means many have rotted away.

Those that haven’t may have survived this far with a succession of crude bodges to scrape through the MoT, but you can only keep deep-seated corrosion at bay for so long and the number of rust-free cars is rapidly diminishing. Modding is also a big part of MX-5 culture, but makes finding an original car in good condition even harder. There may still be plenty in the market, but finding the ones worth buying will take time, determination and perhaps more money than you’d bargained for.

Which Model To Chose?

There are effectively three engine choices with the NA MX-5, these being the original 115PS (85kW) 1.6, the later 1.8 and the post-1994 1.6 with its throttled-back 95PS (70kW) output. The situation is confused by the large number of Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) Eunos Roadsters on British roads, many of these sticking with the higher-output 1.6. Some of these were also four-speed automatics but the less said about them the better. While some prefer the ‘correct’ Mazda badging of the UK-market cars it’s probably best to be open-minded and buy on condition first, badge second given the Eunos version is pretty much identical.

Japanese cars were also sold in various desirable limited editions not seen here, with upgrades like Bilstein dampers, BBS wheels, limited-slip diffs and more. In terms of engine the 1.8 has a bit more torque and flexibility but the original 1.6 with its shorter gearing and revvier nature is often favoured on the basis it’s more fun to drive. And if tenths off your 0-62 time are a priority you’re probably not the target audience anyway.

Specifications – Mazda MX-5 (NA) 1.6 (pre-1994/JDM)

 

Engine

1.6-litre four-cylinder, petrol

Power

115PS (86kW) @ 6,500rpm

Torque

135Nm (100lb ft) @ 5,500rpm

Transmission

Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive

Kerb weight

955kg

0-62mph

8.8 seconds

Top speed

121mph

Production dates

1989-1997 (total production)

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