Cars

Can You Daily Drive Even an Old AF Mazda Miata?

A daily-driver doesn’t have to be a 3-row SUV or crossover. True, it’d be difficult for most to commute in a Morgan or Pur Sang Bugatti, although some do. But, if your life allows it, there are quite a few sporty cars that can serve as fun commuters, like the Lotus Elise and Honda S2000. Especially if you can’t afford a Porsche 911. But there’s one more car that consistently ranks high amongst driving enthusiasts: the Mazda MX-5 Miata.

1989 Mazda MX-5 Miata
1989 Mazda MX-5 Miata | Mazda

Having recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, the Mazda Miata has been updated and redesigned over the years. But through it all, it’s remained a reliable homage to the classic British roadster. It’s as the meme goes, “The answer is always Miata.” However, the earliest models are old enough to be considered classics. Does that mean you could still daily-drive them?

Mazda MX-5 Miata: NA vs. NB

Heavily inspired by classic Lotuses, the original Mazda MX-5 Miata debuted in 1989. The ‘NA’ name comes from the car’s production code.

The NA Miata originally came with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder, making 115 and 100 lb-ft. An automatic was available but most stuck with the standard 5-speed manual. Getting the manual was also the only way of getting the option of a limited-slip rear differential. But every NA featured fully-independent suspension and four-wheel disc brakes.

During the NA’s 1989-1998 run, Mazda produced several special editions, Jalopnik reports. And in 1993, the engine was replaced with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder, which produced 129 hp and 110 lb-ft. The 1993 update also added additional side-bracing, as well as dual airbags.

1999 Mazda MX-5 Miata 10AE
1999 Mazda MX-5 Miata 10AE | Matthew Skwarczek

Then, in 1999, Mazda unveiled the next-gen Miata, the NB. As Road & Track explains, the NB was essentially a further strengthened NA. The chassis was the same, albeit reinforced, with larger anti-roll bars and brakes. The engine was still a 1.8-liter four-cylinder, but now it made 140 hp and 116 lb-ft. Later changes bumped power to 152 hp.

2000 Mazda MX-5 Miata interior
2000 Mazda MX-5 Miata interior | Mazda

Although the NB lost the pop-up headlights, it gained some refinement. The rear window was now glass, with a defroster. Autotrader reports power steering was now standard, and some models—like the 10th Anniversary Edition I own—came with a Bose stereo. Weight had slightly increased, but the interior had nicer materials and was more comfortable. A 5-speed manual was standard, though a 6-speed was optional, and standard on some special editions (like my 10AE).

The NB also offered something no Mazda Miata had before or since: turbocharging. For the 2004 and 2005 model years, Mazda offered a Mazdaspeed MX-5, with a 178-hp 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, lowered sport suspension, 6-speed, and a limited-slip differential.

How the Mazda MX-5 Miata drives

Even when it was new, the NA wasn’t particularly fast. GearPatrol quotes a 0-60 time of about 9 seconds. And even with a 6-speed and slightly more power, my 10AE NB isn’t much quicker. 0-60 comes in about 8 seconds. But although it’s certainly possible to fit a Hellcat engine into a Miata, or, as R&T reports, GM’s LS V8, speed and power weren’t what made the MX-5 so beloved. The Mazda Miata was built for having fun when the road turned twisty.

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#30YearsOfMiata Story 27/30: Marco Kok. It all started for Marco Kok, when he laid eyes on a car unlike many others at the time. The sound of the rotary engine revving sealed the deal for him. Having always been interested in car culture, the FD RX-7 catapulted Marco into the next level of being a car and Mazda enthusiast. “I began watching videos of rotary-powered cars and found drifter “Mad Mike” and his four-rotary MX-5 Miata,” Marco said. “That day, I made the goal of getting an MX-5 one day.” While he was working and saving up money for an MX-5, he also was taking courses on computer programming in hopes that it could help him break into the automotive industry and potentially work at Mazda. Shortly after completing those computer programming courses, Marco purchased an Emerald Mica 1999 MX-5 Miata. Marco, now a system designer at Mazda’s Research and Development Center in Irvine, California, feels like he owes getting his job to his MX-5. “I can’t even begin to express the joy that I felt when I was hired,” Marco explained. “Now, I work for Mazda R&D and I put as much effort into building our future vehicles as I put into building my own MX-5. I feel that a portion of the reason I got my dream job at Mazda is because of my MX-5. It somehow opened a door for me. I will continue to enjoy my MX-5 for many years to come and I hope I can help build our vehicles in a way so that other people can have as much fun in them as I do with my own.”

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The Miata is basically Race Car Driving 101, only at legal, road-friendly speed. Mazda did everything it could to keep the weight balanced 50:50 front and rear. That’s why the battery’s in the trunk. The suspension gives some roll, but that’s intentional. The point is to let the driver know exactly how the car’s weight is shifting when you go around a corner.

That, with that perfect weight distribution, lets them dial in exactly how much throttle and steering is needed to keep the Miata planted. The steering’s hydraulic, and actively communicates the traction at the front tires, which means you’re never unsure what the car’s doing. And you can experience all of this while making the average left-hand turn.

1999 Mazda MX-5 Miata 10AE front
1999 Mazda MX-5 Miata 10AE front | Matthew Skwarczek

Finally, the Mazda Miata might be one of the easiest cars in which to learn how to drive a stick. I bought my NB partially for that reason. The clutch is very forgiving, with an easy-to-detect bite point. And because the Miata’s not terribly powerful, if you give it too much gas, there’s plenty of time to catch your mistake.

Storage and comfort

As a small, two-seat sports car, the Mazda Miata doesn’t have a ton of storage. In the cabin, there’s the door pockets, glovebox, passenger seat rear pocket, and armrest storage area. That armrest is also where the cupholders are. If you’re drinking anything bigger than a Starbucks tall coffee, shifting’s going to be awkward. And the convertible top means adults over 6’ will struggle to fit. Although, the simple solution is just to drop the top, which is light and easy enough to do on the move.

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Will it Costco? Oh yes #miata #roadsterlife

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The trunk also isn’t terribly big, although it does have a full-size spare inside. However, it’s definitely possible to do Costco runs with a Miata. If you’re a cyclist, know there are Miata-compatible bike racks. And dropping the convertible top means you can get very creative with how you carry cargo, such as tires.

Speaking of tires, there are quite a few winter tires available for the Mazda Miata. I’ve driven my NB through multiple Chicago and Detroit winters, and the car’s low weight means it’s very difficult to get completely stuck.

The bigger issue is that the Miata is fairly low. As in, my head is at a semi-truck driver’s ankle. But, although the suspension doesn’t have much travel, it’s actually fairly compliant. Unless you hit a pothole so deeply and sharply it bottoms out, the car isn’t uncomfortable. The seats are supportive, and I’ve done multi-hour road trips in the Miata without backache.

However, at highway speeds, there is noticeable wind noise. Having a 6-speed does lower the engine revs somewhat, but the four-cylinder isn’t exactly quiet. But Miata is fairly fuel-efficient: in mixed-driving, I regularly see about 25 mpg. Driving on the highway with the cruise control can stretch that into the low 30s.

Common problems and pricing

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#30YearsOfMiata Story 28/30: James Kilbourne. James Kilbourne still remembers how blown away he was when he saw the first early prototype of the MX-5 Miata. “I was kind of speechless really,” Kilbourne, a 37-year veteran of Mazda’s Research and Development Center. “It was like ‘oh my god, this thing's a home run.’” Kilbourne, who joined Mazda in 1982, was a key member of the advanced product planning and market research team for more than 15 years at Mazda’s R&D Center. During the development phase of the MX-5 Miata in the early-to-mid ‘80s, Kilbourne worked daily with figures such as Bob Hall, Tom Matano and other champions of a two-seater, Mazda roadster. They spent countless hours gathering data to convince Mazda leadership to move forward on producing the MX-5. Kilbourne’s role at Mazda would go on to evolve over his tenure. Kilbourne, now on his 37th year at Mazda, has spent the last 22 years working in accessory planning for vehicles but still reflects fondly on his memorable early years at Mazda. “It was just an amazing experience all along,” he explained. “You have these kind of mentors at the time that were just crazy-amazingly sharp and bright and very well-experienced. Obviously for me it was just like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ I was like a kid in the candy store to be hanging out with these people that were so talented. That was really cool.” Even back then, Kilbourne had a feeling that the MX-5 would go on to be a successful vehicle for Mazda. “During those times, I knew from the bottom of my heart that we had a hit product on our hands,” Kilbourne reminisced. “I’m thankful to have been a part of such a great experience.”

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The Mazda Miata is a fairly reliable car. It’s a Consumer Reports recommended car, and it’s won multiple Car and Driver 10Best awards. And R&T reports that, as the NA is now a classic, Mazda has begun making new replacement parts for it, and even a full factory restoration.

Beyond rust and the usual age-related degradation, which includes the convertible top, the NA’s biggest problem is a crankshaft issue that only affected 1990 and 1991 cars.

The NB had a few more issues. 1999 and 2000 models could suffer thrust-bearing failure, but that was resolved via a technical service bulletin. The original radiator’s end-tanks are plastic and can become brittle over time, but that’s not unusual in some cars. Some 2001 and early 2002 cars can also suffer clutch chatter, R&T reports, but the fix is just to replace the clutch, which you may have to anyway.

1990 Mazda MX-5 Miata
1990 Mazda MX-5 Miata | Bring a Trailer

However, none of these issues are deal-breakers. And because the Miata is so popular, there’s a lot of owner clubs, forums, and how-to guides on repairing and modifying the little sports car.

1990 Mazda MX-5 Miata interior
1990 Mazda MX-5 Miata interior | Bring a Trailer

Low-mileage examples aside, both NA and NB Miatas are fairly affordable. I paid $7000 for my 10AE NB a few years ago, and one with fewer miles sold on Bring a Trailer in January 2020 for just $7500. Mazdaspeed NBs, as well as special edition Miatas, are generally worth slightly more. However, it’s still possible to find one or the other for under $10,000.

You may prefer the simplicity and pop-ups of the NA or the extra refinement and solidity of the NB. But either way, age shouldn’t stop you from daily-driving a Mazda Miata.

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