From the November 2021 issue of Car and Driver.
The first-gen Mazda Miata—known as the NA to the cognoscenti—strikes an ideal balance between vintage feel and modern reliability, and collectors have taken notice. Light and eager, the Miata is blessed with near-perfect steering, a wrist-flick shifter, textbook handling, and an easy-to-drop top, all of which combine to turn a dull drive to the grocery store into a qualifying lap. Consider a Torsen limited-slip differential a must-have. Otherwise, it’s really a tossup between the 1.6- and 1.8-liter engines. The 1.8-liter is about a half-second quicker to 60, but the smaller engine is just a little bit smoother.
Early Miatas (1990–93) have a 116-hp 1.6-liter four that revs joyfully all the way to its 7000-rpm redline, which is good because the torque peak of 100 pound-feet is at 5500 rpm. All Miata engines are quite durable, and if the timing belt snaps, no damage occurs. But the so-called small-nose-crank engines from 1990–91 will kill themselves if the crank bolt isn’t installed just right. A 128-hp 1.8-liter arrived in 1994 with a taller final drive (4.10:1 to a 4.30) that reduces revs at highway speeds.
Aside from the potential issues with the small-nose-crank engines, the powertrain is robust and when unmolested will get to 200,000 miles with simple maintenance. Look for rust in the fenders, rocker panels, and doors. Parts, even body parts, are inexpensive and easy to find. Watch out for suspension and engine modifications, unless they’re what you want.
Just a few years ago, $7500 was enough to land a low-mileage cream puff, but prices are rising. Today $7500 buys a clean 100,000-mile car. Expect to pay a premium for rarer models such as the British Racing Green Special Edition from ’91, the ’92 Sunburst Yellow cars, the track-focused ’94–97 R-package cars, and M Editions. A $10,000 budget will net a nice 50,000-mile car, but spend just a couple grand more and the mileage drops drastically.
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