1999 Mazda Miata
1999 Mazda Miata. Photos: Mazda. Click image to enlarge

By Chris Chase

Not many cars become classics. Most cars and trucks are relegated to the history books as boring, ugly or pedestrian, with only a few distinctive models with the right looks and moves to gain and maintain a following even after production ends.

Fifteen years into its production run, the Mazda Miata is one of those rare cars that many say earned “instant classic” status the moment the first ones hit dealers in 1989 as 1990 models.

The Miata (known outside North America as the MX-5) was a modern car by all standards when it was introduced, but was inspired by the two-seat roadster formula created by European manufacturers like MG, Triumph and Alfa Romeo. And while those cars all had (and still have) a strong following among Canadian enthusiasts, their lacklustre reliability and hard-to-find parts and service made the Miata a great alternative for anyone wanting a roadster with good performance, stunning looks, a new-car warranty and Japanese reliability.

Currently, Mazda has everyone abuzz with its recent unveiling of the third generation Miata, which will go on sale later this year as a 2006 model. That makes this the perfect time to take a look back at what the first two generations of Miata have to offer used car buyers. In this case, objects in the rear view are certainly not larger than they appear!

When the first diminutive Miatas went on sale, they featured a 1.6-litre, DOHC four-cylinder sourced from the 323/Protege lineup. While its 116 horsepower seemed a little low, at least on paper, the engine had all the power it needed to move the Miata’s 965 kg with verve. A stiff structure, go-kart-like handling, rear-wheel-drive and a short-throw manual shifter completed the formula that made the Miata one of the most enjoyable and affordable cars on the market.

But even back in the early 1990s, before pickups and SUVs were the popular daily drivers that they are now, the Miata was a tiny car compared to the other vehicles sharing Canada’s roads. It was 3,948 mm long, 1,676 mm wide, 1,224 mm high and rode on a wheelbase of 2,266 mm. The Honda CRX and the Suzuki Swift/Chevrolet Sprint/Pontiac Firefly clones were just about the only other cars that matched the Miata’s tiny stature.

And there were few sporty cars that could match its value-for-money quotient. At $18,590, it was one of only three convertibles available in 1990 for less than $20,000. And considering that the other two were the drop-top versions of the Sprint and Firefly – each featuring a three-cylinder engine with a whopping 55 hp – it was safe to say the Miata was most fun you could get in a convertible for under 20 grand. (For the record, the 1990 VW Rabbit Cabrio, Ford Mustang and Chevy Camaro convertible all stickered for a shade over $20,000.)

1995 Mazda Miata
1995 Mazda Miata. Click image to enlarge

In 1994, the Miata got a new 1.8-litre, 128 hp engine, once again sourced from the Protege lineup. In 1996, power output went up again to 133. The second-generation Miata arrived in 1999, with yet more horsepower (140) and a new face. The first-generation’s pop-up headlights were gone, replaced with ovoid-shaped lights reminiscent of Mazda’s MX-3 Precidia. Weight was up slightly, to 1032 kg, but the car’s dimensions were still the same.

Mazda had planned to have this second-generation car on sale for the beginning of 1998, but its release was delayed and the cars were sold as 1999 models. Hence, there is no such thing as a 1998 Miata.

In 2001, horsepower went up again, and then came right back down. Mazda was forced to take back its initial claims of 155 for the 2001 model when engineers failed to take into account the effect of more restrictive North American emissions control requirements. The actual power figure was a less-impressive 142 hp. To prevent the fiasco from becoming a total disaster, Mazda launched a massive public relations campaign, offering to buy back the cars from owners with bruised egos. To those who opted to keep the cars, Mazda gave a few hundred dollars and free factory scheduled maintenance.

2000 Mazda Miata
2000 Mazda Miata. Click image to enlarge

For 2005, Mazda launched a Mazdaspeed version, with a turbocharged 1.8-litre engine making 178 horsepower.

The original Miata was quite a basic car in terms of amenities, although many common comfort and convenience features were options. It would require far too much space to list all of the standard and optional equipment and special edition packages available offered for the Miata over its 15-year lifespan so far, but there are several websites dedicated to the Miata where specific information on features can be found. The URLs for a few of these sites are listed at the end of this article.

Though it was designed for only two occupants, the Miata was good at mixing fun with practicality. Its small engines meant decent fuel economy: 1990 to 1993 models (powered by the 1.6-litre engine) used 9.7 L/100 km in the city cycle and 7.1 L/100 km on the highway.

The numbers were less impressive, however, for early 1.8-litre Miatas produced between 1994 and 1997. These cars used 12.3 L/100 km in the city and 10.1 L/100 km on the highway.

2004 Mazda Miata
2004 Mazda Miata. Click image to enlarge

Fuel economy improved again in 1999 with the introduction of the second-generation car. In 1999 and 2000, the Miata was rated at 9.7 L/100 km city and 7.4 L/100 km highway. Miatas produced in 2001 through 2005 burned fuel at a rate of 10.1 to 10.6 L/100 km in city driving, and 7.6 to 7.8 L/100 km on the highway. The 2005 MazdaSpeed’s turbocharged engine used a little more fuel: 11.5 L/100 km city and 8.4 L/100 km highway.

The Miata fared better in U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash tests than its small size would suggest. In 1990 through 1993, it earned three and four stars respectively for driver and passenger protection in frontal impact tests. No Miatas were tested in 1994 and 1995, but 1996 and 1997 models scored four and three stars respectively for frontal impact protection for driver and passenger protection. Miatas built in 2001 through 2005 did even better, earning four stars for driver protection and five for passenger protection in frontal impact tests.

The NHTSA didn’t test the Miata for side impact protection until 2001. It earned three stars for occupant protection in side impacts from 2001 through 2005.

Remember that Japanese-car reliability the Miata brought to the roadster market? Both Consumer Reports and J.D. Power and Associates agree that the Miata was built with quality control typical of Japanese automakers, and recommend it as an excellent choice as a used car.

That’s a good thing, because during its first 15 years in Canada, the Miata has stood alone in a class of one with a combination of quality and performance that no other small convertible has ever been able to match.

On-line resources:

www.miata.net – An extremely comprehensive website featuring very active forums and a wealth of technical information on first- and second-generation Miatas. Also features sections dedicated to the Miata aftermarket, Miata motorsports information, and much more.

www.mazdaclub.com – Claims to be the oldest and largest club dedicated to Mazda vehicles, but is lean on Miata-specific information.

www.mazdaworld.org – A forum for discussing all Mazda models, with a Miata-specific section.

www.triplezoom.com – Like Mazdaworld.com, a Mazda forum with a section dedicated to the Miata.

Recalls

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1993015 Units affected: 240

1990-1993: This recall is for the hardtop hoist accessory kit sold to persons with the hard top Miata. The plastic buckle which is a component part of the hoist may break after the hardtop has been hung in the garage, causing the hardtop to fall. This could result in personal injury. Correction: Plastic buckle will be replaced with a steel buckle.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1992083 Units affected: 1803

1990: These vehicles may not comply with CMVSS 1103 – exhaust emissions. Catalyst may fail due to vibration. Correction: Catalytic converters will be replaced on affected vehicles.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1991014 Units affected: 7825

1990: These vehicles do not comply with CMVSS 108 – lighting. When the turn signal is switched on, both DRLs are extinguished and the turn signal is activated. This mode of operation is contrary to the requirements of the standard. Subsection 16 and 19(b) (iii). Correction: DRL control unit will be replaced with one that will ensure that the system’s operation meets the standard.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2000030 Units affected: 490

1995: Certain vehicles are prone to airbag deployments in minor undercarriage impacts. Correction: Dealers will replace the SAS sensor units to reduce the possibility of unnecessary deployments in low speed undercarriage impacts.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2000060 Units affected: 1334

1999: On certain vehicles, the fuel filler non-return valve may stick causing “fuel spit back” when filling the fuel tank. Correction: Dealers will replace the non-return valve with a modified version.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1998067 Units affected: 460

1999: The fuel injector harness may contact the manifold at the EGR pipe due to variations in the length and routing of the injector harness. If the harness is damaged a short circuit may occur, blowing the fuse for the fuel injector, resulting in engine stalling. Correction: Injector harness will be rerouted or replaced if damaged.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2003047 Units affected: 14715

2001-2003: On certain vehicles, the front fog light bulb socket was installed improperly. If the vehicle continues to operate with this condition, the bulb socket and the wiring harness may separate from the fog light housing as a result of exposure to vehicle vibration. Should this occur, the bulb socket and the harness can drop inside the bumper and in the worst case, the heat generated can cause the bumper to burn. Correction: Dealer will re-install the bulb socket properly.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

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