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Pre-Owned Performance - Mazda Miata MX-5 1.6

Is the cult coupe as good as it's claimed to be?

By Michael Knowling
Photos by Julian Edgar and Michael Knowling

Click on pics to view larger images


This article was first published in 1998.

History

The Mazda MX-5 (Miata) burst on to the sporty car scene in the late-Eighties and gained immediate cult status. For the first time in many years, here was a wind-in-your-hair sporty car capable of hum-drum commuting - but also a joy to drive with its rear wheel drive configuration and tightly tied down chassis. Released in Australia in 1989, the 'five sat alongside the marque's RX-7 and FWD MX-6 Turbo (Capella).

Performance

Sporting basically a hatchback-spec engine, light weight (1045kg or 2300lb) is the key to the car's performance. Launching from zero to 60mph (97km/h) takes about 9.5 seconds and a run over the famous 1/4 mile takes 17.0 seconds. While performance isn't scintillating, the engine does rev quite freely towards its 7000rpm limit and with short first and second gears, creates an enjoyable charge up to the speed limit. And it's all even better with the top down...

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But whatever way you look at it, the little car isn't going to out-gun many other performance cars when the lights change. Our experience with the car left the impression it needs about another 40% more power...but then we're speed freaks!

Fuel usage isn't likely to cause owners financial woes, with an average of around 11 litres/100km (26mpg) under normal driving conditions.

Engine

The bantam weight sporty is propelled by a 1.6 litre DOHC 16 valve engine very similar to that fitted to the contemporary Mazda 323 (Familia). In the MX5 it spins a lighter flywheel and is packaged for the RWD chassis, with cosmetics being the only other major changes.

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The 1600 features Nippondenso multi-point EFI, a DOHC 16 valve alloy head and a compression ratio of 9.4:1. It produces a maximum of 86kW (116bhp) at 6500rpm, with torque peaking at 136Nm (100ft-lbs) with 5500 revs. With most of the engine's torque leaning towards the upper rpm level, it's the type of car that begs to be stirred along.

Power is transferred through a slick-shifting 5-speed manual which is quick and precise - sorry, no autos available.

Chassis

A relatively sophisticated suspension adorns the MX-5. At the front, upper and lower A arms are used along with coil springs, tubular shocks and an anti-roll bar. On paper, the rear suspension is identical to the front. Riding on fourteen inch alloy wheels shod with 185/60 tyres, the car hangs on well. For such a lightweight sports car it has a supple ride, though large speed-bumps do induce some crash-bang.

When pushed hard, the car has slight turn-in understeer which can easily be adjusted into controllable oversteer. The particular example we drove tended to jump and squirm at the rear under cornering loads, but perhaps this can be blamed on worn dampers.

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The MX-5 has direct rack and pinion steering which is great to chuck from left to right, but which loads up when executing tight, low speed corners. Its self-centring also varies with the amount of lock applied, giving a strange feeling when executing U-turns and the like.

Anti-lock brakes were never offered (perhaps as a gesture towards tradition) but the 236mm (9.3 inch) vented front discs and 231mm (9.1 inch) rear discs are up to the task of hauling the car down to a halt. They also possess a nice, communicative feel.

The cute CAD-designed body has a aero Cd of 0.38 with the roof up, and a 0.44 figure topless. All MX5s are open cars, with a detachable factory hard-top available.

Modifications

The first step in powering-up an MX-5 is to fit a quality high flow exhaust utilising an aftermarket cat converter and headers. This will give about 7% more urge. A high flow cold air intake with heat shielding on the cross-over pipe will boost power another 5%. Head porting won't achieve much as the head is quite good to begin with, but combined with a higher compression ratio and different cams, another 10-15% more power should be able to be released.

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The most serious upgrade comes with a turbo kit, available from most major aftermarket tuners including Monster Motorsport in California and Advanced Vehicle Operations in Australia. Buying a complete kit gives a matched turbo size, EFI software changes and generally ensures optimum performance and reliability. These kits, depending on boost level, produce up to 150kW (200hp).... Even V8 conversions are available, but we can't imagine that the car would still retain its balanced handling!

Buyers' Guide

Released in Australia in 1989, the 1.6 litre version ran through until 1996 when the 1.8 litre version of the car took over. No running changes were made to the 1.6 model during this time.

One of the strengths of the car is that very little goes wrong with it. Every Mazda service dealer that we've spoken to swore of their total reliability, without any cars even requiring a wheel bearing yet!

Due to their wide popularity, used prices haven't fallen dramatically. Expect to pay between A$17,000 for the average '89 model or up to A$29,000 for an top '96 (pre 1.8 litre) version. The hardtop option usually adds about A$1,000 to the purchase price. Prices when new varied from about A$30-40,000 over the seven year lifespan.

Niche Performance

The MX-5 is great for people after a quirky commuter or a car for Sunday mornings. Those seeking image status in the MX-5 will also be contented. But if you're after a car with straight-line grunt to match the handling, you'll need to pay some serious money for a power upgrade.

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Interior shoulder room is quite good for a two-seater convertible, enabling drivers to show off their skills to a companion. However, if you are very tall, make sure that you extensively test drive before you buy.

The chassis is equally well suited to being thrown around tight urban corners as it is to high speed sweepers taken at full throttle - truly a flexible performer.

The soft top is simple to raise and lower from the driver's seat, but fitting and removing the optional hard-top is a two person job.

Summary

Those chasing bulk straight line performance won't be lining up for this one, but the MX5 does offer good characteristics in every other department. A novice driver won't get bitten by its handling and an enthusiast will just love wringing its neck along that favourite stretch of road!

A good choice of car for the single person commuting to work every day and wanting a little excitement on weekends, or even as a second car to park in the family garage.

Thanks to Wayne Besanko of Powerchip for access to the car.
www.powerchip.com.au

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