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There’s no time like the present to buy a first-generation Mazda Miata

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1990 Mazda MX-5 Miata. Photo by Craig Fitzgerald.

The Mazda MX-5 Miata debuted to rave reviews at the 1989 Chicago Auto Show, and in the 30 years since, praise for the world’s most popular sports car hasn’t really dimmed. The first-generation models, dubbed “NA” in Miata-speak, were built from 1989-1997, and some would argue that they’re the purest distillation of the re-imagined roadster. From a price and availability perspective, there’s no better time than now to add one to your garage or driveway.

The 1990 model year Miata hit the U.S. market with a double overhead-camshaft, 16-valve, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine, rated at 116 horsepower and 100 pound-feet of torque. On paper, that didn’t exactly sound like a recipe for excitement, but light weight has always been part of the Miata’s recipe, and early cars tipped the scales at a featherweight (by modern standards) 2,182 pounds. From bumper to bumper, the NA Miata measured just 155.4 inches, with a wheelbase of 89.2 inches and an overall width of 65.9 inches. With a driver behind the wheel, Mazda claimed the MX-5 had a dead-even front-to-rear weight balance, contributing to the car’s soon-to-be legendary handling.

Early cars came exclusively with a five-speed manual transmission (complete with a revised shift linkage for short and crisp gear changes), and a lightweight driver could reportedly get the Miata from 0-60 mph in around 9.0 seconds, possibly a tick under. Later in its first model year, a four-speed automatic joined the mix, but Miatas so equipped were rated at just 105 hp, reducing both acceleration and the manual transmission version’s 116.8 mph top speed.

To reduce unspring weight, Mazda specified 14-inch wheels for the Miata and worked with tire supplier Bridgestone to create a lightweight 185/60R14 tire, the SF-325. A double-wishbone independent suspension was used in all four corners, and anti-roll bars were fitted in front and rear as well. To stiffen the chassis and improve throttle response, Mazda used an aluminum Power Plant Frame (PPF) that connected the transmission to the differential. Disc brakes were standard, with 9.3-inch rotors fitted up front and 9.1-inch rotors used in the rear; anti-lock brakes became an available option during the Miata’s second year on the market.

Chassis 017, the very first Mazda Miata race car. The model (though not this car) took it’s first SCCA Showroom Stock C championship in 1992. Photo by author.

At launch, the Mazda convertible was priced at $13,800, though high demand and low availability soon led to price gouging by dealers. Base prices rose by $500 in 1991 and again in 1992, but the Mazda remained an affordable and engaging option for those seeking a reliable sports car. As a daily driver, however, the Miata required owners to make sacrifices. The two-seat cabin was intimate, particularly for those accustomed to larger automobiles, and trunk space was limited to 3.6 cubic feet. NA Miatas had both battery and space-saver spare tire mounted in the trunk (opposite the driver for optimum weight distribution), which made packing for a long weekend away – or hauling a week’s worth of family groceries – something of a challenge. As a seasonal or weekend car, the Miata was close to ideal, particularly for those living in proximity to twisty roads.

In 1994, the 1.6-liter four-cylinder was replaced by a 1.8-liter four, and output rose to 128 hp and 110-lb.ft. of torque. Another infusion of horsepower came in 1996, when the 1.8-liter four received a rating of 133 hp, and in this tune, the 0-60 mph time (with a manual transmission car) dropped to 8.7 seconds, while top speed reached 118 mph. Limited-production M Edition cars arrived in 1994 as well, as did the enthusiast-focused R Package option (which included firmer springs, revised dampers, stiffer anti-roll bars and front/rear spoilers).

In total, Mazda sold 170,666 Miatas from 1990-93, plus another 58,295 (with the larger engine) from 1994-97. That’s a total pool of 228,961 Miatas to choose from, so finding one should be a simple matter of scanning the Hemmings Classifieds or scoping out local cars dealers for the color of one’s choice, right?

Your author’s old Miata, a 1993 model. Photo by author.

Except it’s no longer this simple to find a clean NA Miata. Time and depreciation have not been kind to the model, and in their most affordable days, many were altered by tuners in the name of more speed, improved handling, or simply the “right stance.” Cheap Miatas were frequently turned into racing cars, and the model is so popular for this purpose that the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) even has a dedicated Spec Miata class. Miatas driven year-round (or not properly maintained by owners) were particularly susceptible to the tin worm, with rusted fenders and rocker panels a common occurrence.

It’s still possible to find a clean NA Miata, but prices have definitely risen over the past few years. In 2017, a driver-quality 1990 Miata could be had for an average price of $3,800 according to the NADA Guide, or roughly $4,500 according to Hagerty. Today, that same 1990 Miata will set a buyer back $5,625 (NADA) or $6,900 (Hagerty).

Jump ahead to a 1994 model, the first year for the 1.8-liter four, and a driver quality car would have cost $3,825 (NADA) or $4,500 (Hagerty) in 2017, compared to $5,625 (NADA) or $6,800 (Hagerty) today.

As for the final year NA Miatas, 1997 base models sold for roughly $4,300 (NADA) or $4,750 (Hagerty) in 2017, compared to $6,350 (NADA) or $7,500 (Hagerty) today.

Special edition or M Edition cars command up to a 20-percent premium over base models, with R Package cars receiving a 15-percent bump. The resale market greatly prefers manual transmission cars, and automatic transmission Miatas sell for roughly 15-percent less than the prices referenced above.

As with any other used car, condition determines the value. Both the 1.6-liter and 1.8-liter engines used timing belts with a 60k service interval, but both engines are the non-interference type should a timing belt break on the road. Look for rust in the rocker panels, typically caused by a blocked top drain allowing moisture to accumulate inside the rockers, and try to avoid examples with evidence of rust or rust repair (or, at least, factor this into your price offer). Heavily modified cars typically command lower prices than stock examples (professional V-8 conversion from shops like Monster Miata excepted), so factor this into your shopping as well.

Aftermarket support for first-generation Miatas remains strong, and is superb resource for in-depth knowledge about the various years and models. Repair parts remain widely available, and even Mazda has begun reproducing and restocking NA Miata parts due to a steady worldwide demand.

Even with today’s higher prices, the first generation Miatas remain a sports car bargain, affordable to maintain and capable of running for several hundred thousand miles with proper upkeep. Want to search for one of your own? Here’s a link to the NA Mazda Miatas currently listed in the Hemmings Classifieds.