Why you'd want one
The original MX-5 was a hard act to follow. It had to go because its pop-up lamps no longer passed pedestrian safety laws in the US, where it was called the Miata.
So Mazda made a virtue out of necessity by refining the design, making it a bit bigger (inside and out), a little more aerodynamic and noticeably more powerful. Its suspension was stiffened, the wheels and tyres grew – the MX-5 was moving with the times.
Officially called the NB but also known as Mk2 or Series 2, its ethos remained the same – front engine, rear drive, 50:50 weight distribution and double-wishbone/coil-spring suspension all round – a modern Lotus Elan.
Against tough opposition from the MGF, BMW Z3, Toyota MR2 and Fiat Barchetta, the Mazda held its own. "King of the heap is the MX-5, no question," wrote Autocar of the chassis, when testing the 1.8 for the first time. "We can’t hide our disappointment that the MX-5 has lost some of its visual sparkle," the review continued. "To drive, though, it’s better than ever."
Only the more expensive Lotus Elise beat it as a driver’s car, but with a lot less everyday practicality. In the UK, road tax may influence your choice: all MX-5s registered pre-March 2001 cost £245 a year to tax, whereas a later 1.6 is £280 and a 1.8 is £305.
There were plenty of special editions, too, which often don’t cost much more, so you can track down a far nicer-spec model for your money if you’re happy to shop around.
It’s really not worth buying a poor example, when you can pick up a 50,000-mile 1.8 with full service history for well under £2000. Later cars do command a premium, as do the more sought-after special editions such as the 10th Anniversary, while a hardtop generally adds £3-400 to the price.
Mileage, condition and service history affect values more than specification, though. Really low-mileage examples are dear, in fact, and anything under 100,000 will rack up the same again without major expenditure. The bargains are in the 75- to 100,000-mile bracket.
Bodywork (see image above for rot spots)
Corrosion is the Mazda’s biggest enemy and is always from the inside out: bad on the single-skin sills and doors, but worse on the multi-layer front chassis rails that are mostly hidden from view.
Put the wheels on full lock and peer into each wheelarch. If in doubt, insist on undertray removal and look for bulging in the surface that betrays rot between the layers inside. You must also inspect carefully for crash damage.
Lively and revvy, the Mazda engine needs servicing every 9000 miles and a cambelt change every five years or 54,000. Given regular servicing, it’ll easily pass 200,000 without overhaul. Look for oil and coolant leaks, including from core plugs, and any evidence of overheating that can blow the head gasket. A good used VVT unit is £250.
Damp can wreak havoc with electrics so confirm it all works, especially windows. Later, high-spec models have more items to test than earlier base models.
Gearchange (five- or six-speed) should be superlatively slick and precise: test all synchros. Worn or sticky linkages can affect things, but are easily rectified.
Suspension and brakes
Sharp handling is spoilt when bushes wear; cheap replacements don’t last long, either. Dampers also take a pounding, so budget to replace all if the car is wallowy.
Rear disc calipers (£110) and handbrake are prone to seizing, especially on cars that are rarely used in the winter. Inspect suspension arms for corrosion, too.
Hide was an extra-cost option except on special editions such as this. It and cloth wear on bolsters, but check everywhere for wear, damp stains and damage.
NB boasts a heated glass rear screen. See that hood opens/closes easily and seals well all round; look for tears, wear, water penetration – and a hood cover.
On the road
The NB MX-5 was class-leading for its taut structure and handling, but few drive as well today.
Replacing suspension bushes and shock absorbers helps, provided that the structure hasn’t been weakened by rust. If it has, the sensible move is to walk away and find a better one.
Modifications are all too common and many MX-5s have suffered wild use on track days: look at the tyres, the panel fit, signs of hastily fitted (or removed) roll-over bars and tape over headlights for evidence.
Alterations are not all bad: ‘our’ car has been lowered 30mm, the only downside being poor clearance over speed humps – and occasional track use does little harm. But more extreme upgrades and circuit use take their toll on running gear and structure – it’s safer to buy a relatively unmodified, gently used example.
Engines are long-lived, but watch for oil leaks, especially on 1.8s at the back of the head, where drips on the heater hoses will eventually cause them to fail. Running low on oil on pre-2001 cars can cause the engine to throw a rod. Rattly tappets will need re-shimming: contrary to what many guides will tell you, NB engines do not have hydraulic tappets!
Check the coolant: corrosion inhibitor is vital to prevent aluminium head damage, and resultant overheating. The four-speed auto option was rare; in 1.8 form, it did 0-60mph in 11 secs and 118mph flat out.
‘Chrome’ (polished alloy) wheels on 10th Anniversary models are prone to lacquer lift and corrosion (many were replaced under warranty, only to fail again). It’s hard to find anywhere that will refinish them to original standards.
What to pay
Show (late, low mileage/FSH) £5000
Typical upkeep prices
Front wing £146
Outer sill £95
Used front subframe £120
Warranted used five-speed gearbox £250
Full brake disc/pad set (not 1.8iS) £108
Shock absorber set £170
Hood: vinyl/mohair (fitted) £375/475
1997 Oct Preview of NB at Tokyo Motor Show
1998 Feb NB launched: 1.6 and 138bhp 1.8, with heated glass rear window, twin airbags, alarm
1999 10th Anniversary model: six-speed, Bilsteins, 15in polished wheels, Torsen diff; 7500 built
1999 May 500,000th MX-5 produced
2000 Jul Facelift: stiffer bodyshell, 6bhp more with VVT on 1.8, six-speed gearbox option on all 2002 211bhp SP turbo, offered only in the Australian market; 100 built
2003 Roadster Coupé fhc Japan-only, 179 built; Mazdaspeed Turbo Japan/USA/Australia, 178bhp, 0-60mph 6.2 secs, six-speed gearbox
2005 May NC Third generation MX-5 replaces NB
The owner's view
MX-5 Owners’ Club area co-ordinator Helen Wilkinson has driven more miles than most in her 10th Anniversary: “I originally sat in an MX-5 when I was thinking of changing my first car, an AX, for a Clio. I decided I had to own a Mazda, and bought this car in 2002.
"For much of its life it was my daily driver, so I racked up the mileage: it’s now 185,000. The alloys have been changed four times, it’s had several sill repairs and last year I spent £1200 on the chassis rails.
"It’s had sticking calipers, most of the panels have been resprayed, and the ABS sensors plus the rear brake line failed, but otherwise it’s only been servicing work. Even the exhaust is original.
"The Mazda just suits me, I expect that I’ll keep it for ever: I’ve always liked driving.”
A brave and effective effort, conventional springing replacing Hydragas on stiffened TF in 2002. Great value now, especially with the improved head gasket already fitted to most.
• Sold/no built 1995-2005/116,518 • Mpg 26-36 • 0-60mph 8.5 secs • Top speed 120mph • Price new £15,500-20,995 (’01) • Now £500-6000
Toyota MR2 W30
Mid-engined coupé became a roadster for Mk3. Light with great handling but minimal luggage space. Oil leak into pre-cat can blow engine, otherwise cheap, reliable and not rot-prone.
Sold/no built • 1999-2007/c75,000 • Mpg 27-40 • 0-60mph 7.5 secs • Top speed 126mph • Price new £17,980 (2001) • Now £750-5000
Mazda MX-5 Mk2: The Classic & Sports Car verdict
All but late, low-mileage MX-5s have reached the bottom of the depreciation cycle. Look for examples with full history and evidence of caring owners who have kept drain holes in sills and doors clear, and avoided too many mods. Hold out for the spec you want, buy wisely and you’ll have fantastic value sports-car motoring for many years to come.
• Sharp handling; good performance
• Great practicality
• Outstanding value
• Bombproof mechanicals, if well maintained
• Many have been thrashed and abused
• Alterations are common, not all desirable
• Concealed rot is writing off many examples, because of the cost of rectification
Sold/number built 1997-2005/299,228
Construction steel monocoque, aluminium bonnet
Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dual-overhead-cam 16-valve 1597/1839cc ‘four’, with multi-point fuel injection (2000-on 1.8iS, VVC)
Max power 108bhp @ 6500rpm to 146bhp @ 7000rpm
Max torque 99lb ft @ 5000rpm to 124lb ft @ 5000rpm
Transmission five/six-speed manual, or four-speed auto, driving rear wheels; opt limited-slip diff
Suspension independent f/r, by double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
Steering power-assisted rack and pinion, with 2.6 turns lock-to-lock
Brakes f/r discs, 255mm vented front, 251mm rear (2000-on 1.8iS, 269/276mm f/r), anti-lock on 1.8iS
Length 13ft 1/2in (3975mm)
Width 6ft 1in (1850mm)
Height 4ft (1225mm)
Wheelbase 7ft 5in (2265mm)
Weight 2209-2420lb (1004-1100kg) 0-60mph 8.9-7.8 secs
Top speed 122-126mph
Price new £14,995-17,495 (2001)
Insurance £165, based on a 30-year-old London-based driver with full no-claims bonus and a clean licence on a 2001 1.8iS as a second car, agreed value £3000, garaged overnight, 5000 limited mileage. Adrian Flux: 03301 231232.
Ones you can buy
We've got dozens of Mazda MX-5 Mk2s in our classifieds section. You can view them all here, or check out a few examples below:
Mazda MX-5 (1998) – £1000
High mileage, low price
Mazda MX-5 (1999) – £1000
Another low price, high-mileage model
Mazda MX-5 California (2000) – £1495
Limited-edition and good price