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Buying a Used Mazda MX-5 Miata: Everything You Need to Know

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author photo by Josh Sadlier September 2014

The Mazda MX-5 Miata has always had a split personality. On the one hand, it's a great convertible for all ages and stages, providing inexpensive fun in the sun along with excellent long-term reliability. On the other hand, it's a legend on the amateur racing circuit, revered by weekend track warriors for its superb balance and classic rear-wheel-drive dynamics. Whichever side you're on (or perhaps you can't decide), the Miata (new or used) is a valuable choice for car shoppers.

Speaking of new Miatas, there's an all-new model for 2016, but we don't know much about that one just yet. We are, however, very familiar with the first three generations of Mazda's iconic roadster. From the model featuring pop-up headlights that started it all to the outgoing third-generation model with its flared wheel arches and available power hardtop, we remember them all. Don't forget about the second-generation car either, which boasted a turbocharged MAZDASPEED version with the best Miata engine to date.

How do you know which Miata's right for you? Let's take a closer look at what each of the first three generations has to offer.

First Generation: NA (1990-1997)

Inspired by classic British roadsters such as the MG MGB and Triumph Spitfire but engineered to be as reliable as a Toyota Corolla, the original MX-5 Miata took the market by storm when it debuted in 1989 for the 1990 model year. Mazda really went out on a limb with this car, building it from scratch as a rear-wheel-drive roadster that shared few components with existing Mazda vehicles. The company's efforts were handsomely rewarded, as it quickly became clear that the Miata was a uniquely appealing proposition. No other drop-top sports car was as cheap to buy and maintain, and no other affordable car of any type was as much fun.

All first-gen Miatas were 2-seat roadsters with manually retractable fabric roofs. A color-matched hardtop was available from the factory but rarely specified. Today, you can expect to pay $800-$1,000 for a used hardtop, depending on condition. The standard transmission was a 5-speed manual with exceptionally precise throws. It was easily one of the best stick-shift vehicles ever built. Until 1994, it was hooked to a 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine that made just 116 horsepower and struggled to move the car with much authority. At least it sounded appropriately sporty, thanks to painstaking efforts by Mazda engineers in tuning the factory exhaust system.

For the 1994 model year, a 1.8-liter engine supplanted the 1.6, but output remained modest at 128 hp (133 hp for 1996-97), so the new motor only knocked a few tenths off the Miata's zero-to-60 time, taking it from about 9 seconds flat to the mid-8-second range -- that's with the manual, of course. Although a 4-speed automatic had joined the options list in 1991, it certainly didn't do the car any favors in terms of acceleration. Corners, not straights, were -- and are -- the Miata's natural habitat.

Also noteworthy is the braking system, which offered anti-lock technology (but only as an option) beginning in 1991, so if you want anti-lock brakes, make sure that they're present on the car you're considering or find someone who can check it out for you. Also, if you plan on putting in some track time, look for the optional limited-slip differential, which makes the MX-5 much more capable in hot corners.

Otherwise, NA Miata options were limited to knickknacks such as a wooden steering wheel and shift knob, power accessories, power steering and headrest speakers. The point was simply to get in and drive, ideally with the wind in your hair after retracting the amazingly user-friendly soft-top from the comfort of your seat. NA Miatas weren't fast, but they were definitely balanced with telepathic controls and an incredible degree of driver engagement. Should you buy one? Absolutely. They go for a song these days, and despite their advancing age, well-maintained examples should be good for many more years of low-maintenance motoring.

Second Generation: NB (1999-2005)

After taking a year off, the Miata returned in second-gen guise with fixed headlights, a glass rear window and a more stylish (albeit slightly more cramped) interior with nicer materials. The sequel didn't initially solve the power problem under the hood, as the 1.8-liter engine mostly carried over, yielding an even 140 hp. 0-to-60 miles per hour now required roughly 8 seconds with the 5-speed manual -- faster, but hardly fast. The NB also largely retained the first-generation model's dimensions and chassis, adopting a few tweaks to the latter which made the car feel even more stable in the bends. Meanwhile, the introduction of an optional 6-speed manual helped make the most of the engine's narrow powerband.

This Miata had additional creature comforts too, including standard power steering and an available Bose sound system. For driving enthusiasts, though, the big news was the arrival of the MAZDASPEED Miata for the 2004-05 model years. Blessed with a turbocharged 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine capable of 178 hp and sub-7-second sprints to 60 mph, the MAZDASPEED finally provided the serious sports-car kick that many Miata fans had always wanted. A 6-speed manual was the sole transmission offered, and a slew of performance modifications came standard, including 17-inch wheels, a limited-slip differential and a sport suspension with a lower ride height.

If you're looking at NB Miatas, you really can't go wrong. The base engine changed slightly from 2001 onward, adding variable valve timing, but the difference is barely noticeable, so don't let it affect your decision. In other words, folks interested in the non-MAZDASPEED models are advised to consider the entire production run, making buying decisions based on condition and maintenance history rather than a specific range of years. As for the limited-production MAZDASPEED, plan on paying twice as much as you would for a regular Miata, but it's totally worth it. Even compared to the newer third-generation model, the MAZDASPEED is a highly desirable car, and it's likely to enjoy strong resale values well into the future.

Third Generation: NC (2006-2015)

Figuring that the original Miata's underpinnings had run their course after a decade and a half of service spanning two generations, Mazda started from scratch this time. Out went the previous double-wishbone suspension, replaced by a front-wishbone/rear-multilink setup, with standard anti-lock brakes thrown in for good measure. The stylists took a different tack too, adding flared fenders and a more assertive front end. Inside, the NC had more hard surfaces than its predecessors, but it was also more spacious, with a comparable options list augmented by new xenon headlights (and, later on, automatic climate control). For 2007, an optional power retractable hardtop (PRHT) debuted and provided unprecedented security and year-round drivability -- plus 70 pounds.

In the engine room, a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder took over, bringing a relatively robust 166 hp to the table. The sprint to 60 mph consumed about 7.5 seconds, a decently quick result but definitely not MAZDASPEED-quick. The base manual transmission continued to be a 5-speed, with a 6-speed available on certain trims. The old 4-speed automatic, meanwhile, was canned in favor of a modern 6-speed auto.

On the road, the third-gen Miata carried on the family tradition of sublime handling despite its moderately larger dimensions and heft. Fun fact: The famous Skip Barber Racing School has a fleet of NC Miatas, so you know this car has the goods. As usual, Mazda permits a bit more body roll than you might expect; this is so that the driver can feel the cornering forces rather than be isolated from them. Once you get used to that, the NC Miata is arguably the most fun that you can have anywhere near its modest price range.

If you're considering a third-gen Miata, keep the year 2009 in mind: That's when the engine received a handful of updates, expanding its redline to 7,200 rpm in the process. Output barely changed, moving up a tick to 167 hp, but acceleration feels much more lively, with a 0-to-60 time of 6.7 seconds. You still don't get the midrange rush of the MAZDASPEED, but it's never been this fun to drive a Miata.

In other respects, though, the NC Miata has remained pretty much the same for nearly a decade, so you can feel free to shop around until you find a nicely kept vehicle that fits your budget. Do try to drive a pre-2009 car and compare it to one from 2009 or later, though, just so you can see what we're talking about.

AutoTrader Says

We already know that the fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 Miata looks great and has a high-quality interior with an upscale vibe, but will it eclipse the MAZDASPEED Miata's standard-setting acceleration? We can't wait to find out. In the meantime, there are thousands of used Miatas on, and one of them just might have your name on it. Go test-drive one, and see what the best-selling roadster of all time is all about.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Buying a Used Mazda MX-5 Miata: Everything You Need to Know - Autotrader