For roadster lovers, Mazda’s Miata is (still) the answer
By the late ’80s, the traditional roadster had become an endangered species. MG, Triumph, and Fiat exited the U.S. market earlier in the decade, so for those in need of a two-seat, top-down experience, Alfa Romeo’s outdated Spider was it. Enter the first-generation Mazda Miata (chassis code “NA”). It debuted at the 1989 Chicago Auto Show with smart styling reminiscent of the Lotus Elan, featuring a double-wishbone suspension, Japanese reliability, and a low price. It was a smash hit, and Mazda moved over 50,000 of them in the first year of production.
Mazda made a few changes during the NA Miata’s eight-year life span. Early cars came with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder outputting 115 horsepower. For 1994, the Miata gained a more powerful 1.8-liter engine, dual airbags, and an optional Torsen limited-slip differential. Throughout the NA’s production run, Mazda offered several special editions with exclusive paint and unique interiors—’91 British Racing Green, ’92 Sunburst Yellow, ’93 Limited Edition. These editions tend to command a premium over standard models.
The Miata was never a fast car, but neither were its British and Italian forebears. You’ll lose a drag race to anything this side of a Geo Metro, but you won’t care, as the Miata offers a level of interactivity that is hard to find in most modern cars. It doesn’t take long to get intimately familiar with the pinpoint shifter atop Miata’s five-speed gearbox, and keeping the engine in its happy place above 3500 rpm is a joy. The pedal placement, too, allows for easy heel-toe downshifts.
It’s a manic little thing, with steering that constantly badgers you about every minute change of road surface and just how much stick the skinny tires have left. The stock suspension is compliant and not overly stiff, but you will feel every pothole and expansion joint. A Mercedes SL this is not. However, an NA Miata is a willing dance partner when the road gets twisty.
The reliability of a Miata makes ownership trivial compared with keeping a fussy British roadster. Hagerty content manager Joe DeMatio owns this ’95 Miata, and it has seen over 200,000 miles with minimal upkeep. The cars are not without their problems, however. Early 1.6-liter engines can have issues with the crankshaft keyway. The convertible top drains can get clogged and cause the sills in front of the rear wheel arches to rust. Other areas, such as the front fenders, are liable to succumb to the tin worm, as Mazda had not figured out rust protection yet. Replacing the convertible top is an expensive, time-consuming process, so if you cannot find an NA Miata with a working top, budget accordingly.
More than 215,000 NA Miatas were sold here, so they—and their parts—are easy to find. And one of the best aspects of Miata ownership is the community that has formed around these cars. Any issue, maintenance procedure, or modification has been well documented online and thus Miatas are shade-tree-mechanic friendly. Any upgrade you can imagine is available for the NA Miata, from V-8 swaps to off-road lift kits. DeMatio’s example is equipped with BBS wheels, originally offered on the ’95 M Edition. If you’re looking at a modified example, inspect the workmanship closely and familiarize yourself with trusted aftermarket parts sources, because many of these cars have been used, abused, and poorly customized.
For those who want the classic roadster experience without the dubious reliability and build quality of roadsters of yore, a first-generation Miata is tough to beat.
1995 Mazda Miata
Engine: 1.8-liter DOHC I-4
Power: 128 hp @ 6500 rpm
Torque: 110 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm
Weight: 2293 lb
0–60 mph: 8.8 sec
Top speed 80 mph
Price when new: $16,825
Hagerty #3-condition (Good) value: $8300–$12,200
This article first appeared in Hagerty Drivers Club magazine. Click here to subscribe and join the club.