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Used Mazda MX-5 review: 1990-2012

It's probably best to keep clear of MX-5s that have been used in lap dashes at race tracks or in rallies.

Not only becoming the biggest selling roadster of all time, but also nudging many other car makers into building open-top cars, something that had previously seemed to be impossible due to ever tightening safety regulations.

The Mazda sportscar is a delight to drive, with pin-sharp steering, excellent road grip, near-neutral balance and the ability to change direction mid corner at the merest hint through the wheel that it’s needed. Many owners love to take them for a quick blast along their favourite stretch of road on a sunny Sunday morn.

They usually drive with the top down of course, even if the weather is threatening. That’s because the soft-top only takes seconds to send down and pack up again. You can do it when stopped at a red light, though it does require you to have a supple body, because a fair bit of upper body twisting and shoulder strength is needed.

A folding hardtop roof made things much simpler when introduced in September 2006. It not only works neatly, but has added a minimum of weight to the car and takes little away from luggage carrying capacity. So popular did the folding hardtop become in Australia that imports of the soft-top slowed to a crawl and in the latest model, introduced in November 2012, the hardtop became the only unit offered in Australia. You may be able to get one on special order by speaking to your Mazda dealer.

The Mazda MX-5 was launched in Australia in October 1989 and remained almost unchanged in its body until March 1998, when a near-new car was introduced. The original model had pop-up lights, the latter one fixed units. At the same time, an increase in boot space made the MX-5 a more practical car, one that could be used as a daily driver by a couple.

A facelift in October 2000 saw the rounded grille replaced by what Mazda calls a five-point grille to bring it into line with the styling of the rest of the Mazda family. An all-new MX-5 arrived in October 2005. It was slightly larger than before, though weight rises were kept to a minimum.

Engine power isn't quite as impressive as the chassis dynamics; the original MX-5 only had 1.6 litres. That was lifted to 1.8 litres in November 1993 in a new engine that was slightly modified but, surprisingly, wasn’t as happy to rev as in its previous incarnation although torque was fattened out.

The 1998 model change kept the engine at the same size but gave it a little more punch, although still not quite enough. In October 2000, the engine received a new variable valve timing system to improve power and torque. Response was significantly improved with that latest engine but is still nothing to get excited about.

A 2.0-litre engine was introduced in the new 2005 model and is arguably the best yet. Changes to the 2.0-litre engine in 2009 and 2012 saw it able to rev to higher numbers, yet it was improved in the low down grunt department at the same time.

Anyway, half the fun of driving a little roadster like this is rowing it along on the gearbox, going for the right gear at the right time to make the best of the engine’s limited power. The gearchange on the original Mazda MX-5 is one of the sweetest units you will ever meet, with short positive changes that not only work well but feel great at the same time. So the relative lack of engine power is actually a bonus in the minds of some owners.

Earlier gearboxes were five-speed manual units. A six-speed was used in the 10th Anniversary limited edition of 1999, and became standard in the October 2000 model. The six-speed is a close-ratio unit, having a similar ratio in top gear in both boxes. To our way of thinking the six-speed isn't quite as pleasant in its feel as the latter five-speed, but it’s still an excellent unit.

An automatic transmission with six forward ratios became an option in 2005. Believe it or not, it's almost as nice to sit behind as a manual because of the very-sporty programming of its electronics. Good design and high build quality mean the MX-5 is reliable. It’s fairly easy for a good amateur mechanic to work on and spare parts are normally reasonably priced. The Mazda dealer network isn't huge but works effectively and we have heard of no real complaints about availability.

Insurance can be expensive, particularly for young and/or inexperienced drivers so it’s worth shopping around to get the best deal. As always, make sure you understand what you are getting for your premium dollar.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

In early models look for stitching that's worn or even broken in the soft-tops and for discolouration in the plastic rear window in early models. A glass rear window was used in the new model of 1998. Check under the carpets for dampness as the car may have been caught with its top down in the rain. It's best to ask the owner of the car for permission before pulling up the carpets.

It's probably best to keep clear of MX-5s that have been used in lap dashes at race tracks or in rallies. These can often be recognised by tyre scrubbing (if they haven't just been renewed to hide the fact) and by the fitment of a rollcage, fire extinguisher or extra instruments. Also look for heavy deposits of brake dust on the callipers and the inside of the wheels.

Check that the Mazda's engine starts easily, idles reasonably smoothly and doesn't blow smoke from the exhaust under hard acceleration. The gearbox should be light and positive in its change action and not baulk or crunch even on the fastest of changes. The third-second change is usually the first one to show up any troubles.

Look for crash damage that's been repaired, indeed it may be very wise to call in a professional if you are in any way suspicious.

CAR BUYING TIP

Beware the sports car that has actually been used as a car in sport - these are comparatively rare and may be in need of expensive repairs.

Pricing

Year Price From Price To
2012 $13,750 $22,880
2011 $12,430 $18,260
2010 $11,660 $17,160
2009 $10,670 $16,940
2008 $10,010 $15,950
2007 $8,580 $14,300
2006 $7,810 $13,420
2005 $6,050 $11,330
2004 $4,950 $9,570
2003 $4,290 $9,020
2002 $3,960 $8,360
2001 $3,960 $6,270
2000 $3,850 $6,270
1999 $3,850 $6,710
1998 $3,850 $6,270
1997 $4,180 $6,600
1996 $4,180 $6,600
1995 $4,180 $6,490
1994 $3,850 $5,940
1993 $3,190 $6,160
1992 $3,190 $5,610
1991 $3,190 $5,610
1990 $3,190 $5,610

View all Mazda MX-5 pricing and specifications

Pricing Guides

$4,400
Based on third party pricing data
Lowest Price
$3,190
Highest Price
$5,610

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
(base) 1.6L, ULP, 5 SP MAN $3,190 – 5,060 1990 Mazda MX-5 1990 (base) Pricing and Specs
Pricing Guide

$6,990

Lowest price, based on 15 car listings in the last 6 months

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