For roadster lovers, Mazda’s Miata is (still) the answer

Cameron Neveu

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exited the U.S. market earlier in the decade, so for those in need of a two-seat, top-down experience, Alfa Romeo’s outdated Spider was it.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.

1995 Mazda Miata rear three quarter blur pan action
Cameron Neveu

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.

1995 Mazda Miata interior center console shifter
Chris Stark

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




Check out the Hagerty Media homepage so you don’t miss a single story, or better yet, bookmark it. To get our best stories delivered right to your inbox, subscribe to our newsletters.


This article first appeared in Hagerty Drivers Club magazine. Click here to subscribe and join the club.

Click below for more about
Read next Up next: At $720,000, this Ferrari 550 Barchetta Pininfarina is looking for its top


    ….remove the visor entirely and cut about an inch of foam out of the seat, or re foam with yoga mat material… works for me lol….. and yes you can move the seat further back with a little work…

    Give it another try. I’m 5′ 15″ and occasionally drive my gal’s sharp 2001 Miata. Admittedly a squeeze getting in and out, but they say stretching’s the single most important exercise. Once inside, with the seat all the way back, i look through the windshield. Twice i’ve seen guys taller than me; 6′ 5″ in both cases, asked them how they managed. They laughed, no problem they said.

    A previous girlfriend had a first generation Miata. My only problem was the pedals a mite small for size 13 feet. But that’s the same malady in a big Healey (A-H 3000) or XK-140 Jag.

    Try again with the seat all the way back and reclined as much as possible. Not many honest, affordable, minimalist genuine sports cars available these days.

    Hi Mike, there are ways. After market seat rails, foamectomy, different seats. Great little car.

    I have a 94, identical to this car except black with tan leather. A little over 200k, I don’t drive it much anymore but it’s raw and simple and direct and I’ll never have anything like it again so I’m keeping it: I bought it new. It’s also a pleasure to work on. I’m 6’0” and I feel like that’s the cutoff for driver height.

    6’2″ here in a ’96 and can confirm it’s not comfortable. Aftermarket seats are an easy fix for that issue though.

    My ’99 NB is a heavily facelifted version of the NA profiled here. I have a little more power, but no pop-up lights; I’m not sure I made the right choice. Mr. Neveu’s description largely mirrors my experience with my car, although my fair-weather-driven, 90k mile example has yet to show any signs of rust. It’s been so trouble free over the last 12 years that I almost feel guilty about how little maintenance I’ve had to do. I did have to replace the soft top, and feel that I should point out that it’s only expensive and difficult compared to a hardtop, which requires no maintenance. I’m hard-pressed to think of a convertible with a simpler folding top. Although far from my favorite job, I managed to get it done in a day with a helper (who had also never done a convertible top). Cost was about $600 for an OEM-quality piece (Robbins).

    As far as working on the car goes, it offers a wonderful mix of being new enough that the fuel and ignition systems are nearly maintenance free, but old enough that things are easily accessible and not overly complex. Remember that people manage to fit LS V8s into these things. The stock motor gives an impressive amount of room to work in the engine bay. For the powertrain I’ve done plugs, motor mounts, a shifter rebuild, alternator, fluids, and the radiator (it’s plastic and after about 20 years risks becoming brittle so I changed it as preventative maintenance). The latter is, without exaggeration, a 30 minute job including changing the coolant. The original shocks (if not the optional Bilsteins) and bump stops live a short life on these cars. Thankfully they’re cheap and easy to replace and the aftermarket abounds with good options. I put Flyin’ Miata springs and sway bars with Tokico shocks on mine.

    If you like to DRIVE a car, rather than drive a CAR, the Miata lets you flog it mercilessly without running too far afoul of traffic laws. It’s also a great track teacher, rotating and behaving much like a performance car and begging to be kept in the powerband on the far end of the tach, only at much lower speeds. Mine has shrugged off 4 hours of track driving in a day without skipping a beat, and then drove 100 miles home.

    Another fun aspect of these cars is that the online community is spectacular. Anything from info on meticulously maintaining your stock example, to turbocharging, to motor swaps and track prep are widely covered.

    I sought out a ’97 with the larger engine and dual airbags and it’s been a pleasure to own and drive. I even daylied it one summer. Compared to my ’79 Alfa Spider, there is no comparison on usability. I do miss the Spider’s soul, though. But not when I drive past my shop.

    For the money the C5 Convertible is everything the Miata has issues with. No rust and more room. It is light and powerful . Easy to maintain and for the most part very reliable. Just look at all the high mile models out there still in good shape at a very low price.

    I like the Miata but they are small and need some power. Also in my area rust problem even in ones only driven in summer.

    A Corvette comparison? Really?? The C5 is not even close. The Miata is much more “fun”. Of course you’re free to disagree.

    I had a ’93 with a 1.8L that developed the crankshaft keyway issue, although the claim was that it affected only the 1.6L engines. And Miata’s while not extremely fast, could always top 100 mph, not 80 mph as the article states.

    Yeah, that’s a really weird stat at the end of the article. Even the 1.6 cars were good for 110+; 1.8s should do 120+.

    I can state with authority that a 94 1.8 car will hit 125, at least according to the factory speedometer on stock tires, by which point you’re over 6000rpm in 5th.
    Also, the crankshaft nose keyway issue affected 90 and 91 models, 1.6 engine only. The 1.8 engine has a massive crankshaft nose key, I’ve changed the timing belt four times and it’s impossible to screw it up.
    IMO the worst thing you can do is lower the car and stiffen the suspension, the chassis is too flexible. Just better shocks and maybe cut off half a coil from the stock springs.

    Actually, cutting the springs is the worst thing you could do. The issue with the suspension in these cars is that there’s very little travel, the stock springs are soft, and the bump stops (which have a very high “spring” rate) play an active role over harder bumps and in hard cornering. Stiffer springs help keep the car off the bump stops. I’m lowered an inch and have twice the stock spring rate, which is widely considered the softest you want to go if lowered at all. Track cars will double or triple that spring rate again. Paired with good (expensive) dampers it actually gives a good ride because you’re making best use of the limited suspension travel before it bottoms out.

    A bit of stiffening on the noodley chassis sure doesn’t hurt. I have aftermarket frame rails and a butterfly brace under mine. The bonus with those is that they’ll protect the underbody when you inevitably rub against speed bumps and things and can also be used as a convenient jacking point.

    Totally agree about top speed, just takes a bit to get there!
    had a black 94 that I optioned out to an “M” spec at lower cost. Miss it SOOOO Much

    If your 93 had the original engine it would have been a 1.6. If it was indeed a 1.8 it was transplanted in which isn’t that uncommon. I’ve owned 4 NA’s over the years and would buy another one if the right one came along. The short nose crank issue was 90 and midway through 91. The biggest issue with them typically came about after a timing belt change as the crank bolt is very sensitive to torquing. Too much or not enough can lead to problems. Having owned a 90,91,96 and a 97 STO I’m pretty familiar with the differences between the 1.6 and 1.8. I actually prefer the 1.6 as it is smoother at higher rpm even though it isn’t as powerful. And they do sing at higher up on the tachometer. Most people who say they are too slow aren’t running them at the proper rpm. Keep them in the 4-5 K range in the twistys and they will dance with you just fine.

    Russ, I’m 77 now and have a 1993 NA Miata with 53K miles. All OEM. Bought it new and always been garaged. Just now putting it for sale ($10K) with Bay Area and Sacto Miata clubs. Can send pics and more info (bill of sale, window sticker) if interested. Walnut Creek, CA (near SF).

    I have an 06 NC Miata. It is a joy to drive. And like the article says, they are not fast cars. This is good. While I dearly miss my Jaguar E-types that I sold when I got married and can no longer afford to purchase one, I no longer am up over 110 MPH when passing someone. Holding it below 80 is fine. I don’t like the 6 speed tranny. The gear ratios are too tight and overdrive is not high enough. I generally shift 1-2-4-6. The engine still revs too high at 70 MPH in overdrive. Gas mileage is great! I have owned a MGA, MGB, and two Triumph TR4s. The Miata is the best “British” roadster I have ever owned.

    Thx, Jim for that….. ‘best “British” roadster I have ever owned’. Gave me a laugh. Oops, time to attend needs of my A-H 3000 (BN7). Weather’s nice – still, side windows would be nice.

    I own two Miatas, ‘90 and ‘95. Height limitation is dependent on body type. I’m 6’1” and nowhere close to having any issue. But, my height is more legs than torso.

    I have had two Miata’s, a ’95 NA, and ’04 NB. Absolutely the best cars I’ve ever owned. I especially like the NB. Just the right amount of refinement. My other sports cars are: ’56 Healey 100M, ’70MG Midget, 74 Jensen Healey. Quite primitive and require lot’s of attention particularly the J H. All are fun in different ways.

    I think what I love the most about this car is the simple 90’s interior. Clear readable gauges, simple ac controls, simple (and easily replaceable/upgraded) stereo. Those days seem to be gone.

    I have owned 6 Miatas since 1997.
    Currently, I have a bone stock 90 with 117 k on the clock. I bought it in 2017 and aside from normal maintenence, all I have done is add a new set of tires and new radiator.
    I bought it in Seattle, and it’s rust free. Currently, I live in Western Ohio. I keep it garaged and keep the winter driving to a minimum, and on dry salt free days Still runs like new and, of course, has the greatest 5 spd ever made.

    My 2008 is a GT. I have owned since new. I love the car and, have taken several coast to coast trips in it. At 5’10”, both cars fit me like a glove. The ’08 has always been garaged, so it has no rust.
    My one major complaint is the 6 speed. Ratios stink in OD, and it is easy to beat the synchro. My beat to death days driving Sports Cars ended back at about age 50. I’ve heard many other drivers complain about the 6 spd.

    With over 500,000 miles total driving on the Miatas, I really do enjoy the MX 5’s. I really do like them better than any other Sports Car I’ve owned.

    I always wanted a sports car and started with a 1976 MGB. It was a maintenance nightmare. I said many times that if the Japanese made a sport car I would buy it. Actually through the years I’ve bought three. Currently I have a 1994 R with 62k on the clock. Last spring I drove it over a thousand miles on Route 66. So much fun.

    I always wanted to own a roadster,last year a bought a new mx5 with the club package, I live in the country and take it on twisty road and it’s the most fun I’ve ever had in a sports car, I also own a C3 vet and it doesn’t come close,I’m 66 and makes me feel like 16,never stop driving!

    6’1” & I use fit, it’s about leg length getting in, the conv top frame at my head height meant being careful, with the hardtop on or top down it was non issue….
    Every generation Miata carrys the same dna but the NA is the lightest and most pure. As I aged now just received my 2nd RF, different again but still makes me want to take it out and drive.
    Miata’s not about power, it’s about a car that communicates, responds, just a great drivers car, you wear a Miata.
    BTW, non interference engine, really bulletproof, gearbox awesome, brakes feel great, light, nimble, they can be reliable daily drivers. There is a reason spec Miata is such a popular race class, so many SM racers have Porsches and other pricy street cars but the Miata is …..always the answer…
    Not for everyone?….that’s fine…..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *