Mazda MX-5 (1989-98) Buyers Guide

By: Cliff Chambers, Photography by: Ellen Dewar

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Mazda MX-5 (1989-98) Mazda MX-5 (1989-98) Mazda MX-5 (1989-98)
Mazda MX-5 (1989-98) Mazda MX-5 (1989-98) Mazda MX-5 (1989-98)
Mazda MX-5 (1989-98) Mazda MX-5 (1989-98) Mazda MX-5 (1989-98)
Mazda MX-5 (1989-98) interior Mazda MX-5 (1989-98) interior Mazda MX-5 (1989-98) interior
Mazda MX-5 (1989-98) Mazda MX-5 (1989-98) Mazda MX-5 (1989-98)
Mazda MX-5 (1989-98) Mazda MX-5 (1989-98) Mazda MX-5 (1989-98)

The convertible that reinvented the sports car still provides plenty of zoom, zoom, zoom

Mazda MX-5 (1989-98) Buyers Guide
Mazda MX-5 (1989-98)

 

Mazda MX-5 (1989-98)

Had the MX-5 started life with an octagonal 'MG' badge on its bonnet, the classic vehicle 'establishment' might have heaped praise on the modern-day antecedent to all that was once right and proper in the world of open-topped motoring.

But instead this car with its amazing chassis design and willing overhead-camshaft engine was a combined US/Japanese effort that rapidly became the biggest selling sports car of all time. And the self-appointed guardians of automotive desirability hated its guts.

The MX-5 - or Miata in America - is so competent that it ranks as the sports car equivalent of BMC's original Mini. No matter how hard other manufacturers have tried - and here we include Ford Australia's efforts with its Mazda-powered Capri and Lotus' Elise - no one in the 16 years since the two-seat Mazda's debut at the Chicago Auto Show has developed a superior design.

Simplicity has been crucial to the MX-5's success. Up front was Mazda's well-proven 1.6-litre engine with a double-overhead-camshaft, 16-valve cylinder head. Any visual resemblance to the under-bonnet look of a Lotus Elan was entirely intentional. The drivetrain could easily have seen power delivered via the front wheels as Lotus did with its rekindled Elan Turbo, but American demands for a rear-wheel drive won the day and ensured chassis balance that shaded even the original Elan.

The body was steel, sitting on a stumpy 2265mm wheelbase with double wishbone suspension at each corner. The interior was compact without being overly cramped and features included manual window winders and mirror adjustment.

Only during the past few years has Mazda bothered to exploit the competence of its chassis with a significant power upgrade. Even now with 121kW the Turbo version remains docile and eminently usable everyday transport. Cars with 1.6-litre engines released onto Australian roads in 1989 came with just 85kW of power and 0-100km/h taking 11.4 seconds. Not surprisingly, plenty of open-top Mazdas were out-gunned at the lights by grinning mums in Commodore wagons.

The comeuppance occurred, however, the moment a series of tight, bumpy bends made an appearance and allowed moderately skilled MX-5 drivers to show a rounded rump not only to those pesky family wagons but a lot of HSVs as well.

Sports car buyers greeted the MX-5 with extraordinary enthusiasm. At introduction in Australia the car was priced at $29,550, with air-conditioning and the very stylish hardtop extra. Similar money would buy a Honda CRX and the 100kW Ford Capri Turbo was $2000 cheaper.

Among the clatter of silverware being tossed at the little Mazda during its first months on the world market was our own Wheels magazine's 'Car of the Year' award - editor Phil Scott telegraphing his vote following a pre-release road test with the words, "Mazda has built the best value-for-money sports car in 20 years."

Mazda was swift to capitalize on demand for its beautiful new baby. A year after the base model's release came a Limited Edition version in Neo Green with tan leather trim, a comprehensive sound system with headrest-mounted speakers and an $8000 price premium. A year later there was a Malibu Gold version and in 1993 an increase in engine capacity to 1.8 litres. The larger engine boosted power to 98kW but its most significant advance was a 25Nm torque increase.

ON THE ROAD

"My MX-5 comes from a multi-car household but it's the one that's going to be first out of the garage if I just want to blow away some cobwebs," is Ross Kroger's summation of his 'Limited Edition' MX-5.

"I've owned a lot of cars and this one is simply the most fun, least expensive to run of them all," he said.

"This car is almost 15 years old, it's done 74,000kms and you can take it out on a twisty piece of road, drive it flat out without breaking the speed limit and wind up with a big smile on your face. There is just nothing else in the world that will do the same job for the price of an MX-5."

If you are very tall or carrying an excess of girth, the MX-5 might not be the car for you. If streaking away from the burger bar in a flurry of rubber is important then an early model isn't going to be your go either but that is just about the sum total of MX-5 ownership downsides.

Active owner's clubs located all around the nation underline the enjoyment that the MX-5's affordability provides when given their head in the confines of a race circuit or hillclimb course.

Cars with minimal modifications will lap a power circuit like Sydney's Eastern Creek in less than two minutes and achieve 'g' loadings in slow bends to match those delivered by all-wheel driven turbos.

Weekend warrior duties apart, the 1.6-litre MX-5 ranks among the most endearing and usable sports cars ever made. 'Oneness of horse and rider' is the Japlish interpretation of engineer Toshihiko Hirai's mantra when leading the MX-5 design team.

The original car had no power steering and doesn't need it. The specification sheet says it takes 3.3 turns lock-to-lock but try telling that to an MX-5 driver who has just sliced through a series of bends with barely half a turn of the tiller in either direction.

Balance of steering and throttle is the key. Inspired suspension design coupled to rear-wheel drive contributes mightily to the car's responsiveness and its ability to counter the effect of mid-bend bumps.

Brakes are ventilated at the front but the slim 60 Series tyres fitted to early cars are nothing special and it really is the combination of outstanding weight distribution and the suspension that does the business.

Torque peaks at an extraordinarily high 5500rpm and, even at that point, manages just 130Nm against the 184Nm delivered at 3000rpm by a local Capri Turbo. Just as well then that the MX-5 gearlever is among the most enjoyable and precise shifters ever fitted to a motor vehicle, because attempts to accelerate from less than 3500rpm will be met with apathy. The fuel tank holds 45 litres and even hard-driven cars will better 11L/100km.

BUYER'S CHECKLIST

Body & Chassis

No MX-5 purchase should be finalised without an underside inspection and that usually demands access to a hoist. Contact with speed bumps and other 'calming devices' can scrape or crush low-slung components leading to rust and deterioration. The exhaust is particularly vulnerable. The structure is very strong and some cars that have been quite heavily damaged have been repaired so check the door gaps for symmetry and the boot for water entry. The headlamps should raise and lower within a second of being activated.

Engine & Transmission

Two problems afflict MX-5 mechanicals - abuse by owners attempting to extract more performance than exists and cars that lie dormant awaiting the occasional Sunday drive. Even low kilometre cars can suffer oil leaks - usually minor and from around the cam covers - but major loss from the front crank seal is costly to rectify. Early models that haven't yet reached 100,000kms should have their camshaft drive belts replaced as a precaution. Ensure that the electric cooling fans operate once the engine is warm. Clutch life depends largely on use/abuse. They will last 100,000kms if treated gently. Clutch slave cylinders are less durable and are often the reason for difficult gear selection when the car is stationary.

Suspension & Brakes

Shock absorbers bear the brunt of enthusiastic use and usually last less then 40,000 kilometres. Leaks from the power steering rack (where fitted) are difficult to spot with the plastic engine under-tray in place. Low profile tyres destroy ride quality and owners caution against wringing the last few millimetres out of the front treads, as worn tyres have a noticeable effect on response.

Interior & Electrical

Out-of-sight roof material on cars with hardtops can deteriorate rapidly. When choosing a hardtop car, check that the soft-top rises and lowers easily and isn't displaying deterioration. Also ensure the clamps that secure the folded top are still fitted. Installing the rear window with the roof erected can damage the zipper. Trim fitted to early cars isn't especially durable, so look carefully for cracks, torn leather and damaged plastic.

 

SPECIFICATIONS

MAZDA MX-5, 1989-98

 

NUMBER PRODUCED: 430,000 (1989-98)

BODY: Unitary steel two-seat roadster

ENGINE: In-line four-cylinder (1.6 or 1.8-litre) with double-overhead-camshafts, 16-valves and fuel injection

TRANSMISSION: Five-speed manual (four-speed automatic optional from 1993)

POWER & TORQUE: 85kW @ 6500rpm, 130Nm @ 5500rpm (1.6-litre)

PERFORMANCE: 0-100km/h - 11.4sec, 0-400 metres - 17.5sec (1.6-litre)

SUSPENSION: Front - upper
& lower wishbones with coil springs, telescopic shock absorbers,
anti-roll bar. Rear - upper & lower wishbones with coil springs, telescopic shock absorbers, anti-roll bar

BRAKES: Disc/disc, power assisted

WHEELS & TYRES: 5.5JJ x 14 alloy, P185/60/14 radial

CLUB: MX-5 Clubs throughout Australia.

Website: www.mx5.com.au

 

*****

More reviews:

> Past Blast: Mazda MX-5 review by John Bowe here

> Road test: Mazda MX-5 review here

> Our cars: Mazda MX-5 track car review here

 

Search used:

>> Search for a used Mazda here

 

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