Mazda MX-5 MkII (NB)

Mazda MX-5 MkII (NB)

Mazda MX-5 MkII — With MkIs scarce and prices high, MkII MX-5s look like great value for a similar car, if you buy with well-informed caution.


Words CHRIS HOPE

Photography ADAM SHORROCK/BAUER ARCHIVE


Buying Guide How to get yourself a mint Mazda MX-5 MkII while they’re still bargains

That the Mazda MX-5 has essentially replaced the MGB as the classic world’s go-to basic roadster isn’t news. However, as attention has turned to the Japanese classic, prices have risen sharply for the original, not least because their propensity to rot has reduced the number of survivors.

Thankfully, the MkII iteration – or NB in Mazda-speak – offers salvation. Mechanically it’s largely the same car, while Mazda’s commitment to maintaining the same sense of chassis balance and power-to-weight ratio means it offers the same fun ownership experience. However, it’s not without foibles, including some unique rust issues of its own, and some special editions are as sought-after as its predecessor. Buy carefully, avoid a money-pit, and enjoy one of the best unsung heroes of the Nineties sports-car world.


Which one to choose?

The NB-generation Mazda MX-5 was previewed in 1997 for a 1998 launch, with a focus on improved aerodynamics. Drag coefficient was down to 0.36Cd thanks to the use of flush-glazed rather than pop-up headlights. Wheel size increased, but mechanically the range was the same as its predecessor, with a choice of 1.6- and 1.8-litre twin-cam 16-valve fuel-injected engines feeding power to the rear wheels via a five-speed manual gearbox.

A 7500-example limited edition, the 10th Anniversary, was launched in 1999, featuring a six-speed manual gearbox, Torsen limited-slip differential, Sapphire Blue paint, two-tone leather/ Alcantara interior, and Nardi steering wheel. Each car features a numbered plaque on the driver’s-side front wing, and the owners’ package included two Seiko wristwatches and a diecast model of the car in a presentation box.

The 2001 facelift included a new centre console, more heavily-bolstered seats and sharper front-end styling treatment. New Sport model had 16-inch wheels hiding larger brakes, strut braces, Bilstein dampers, and the gearbox and differential from the 10th Anniversary.

Bodywork

The MX-5’s bodywork is coated with a zinc-rich primer but that doesn’t stop it from corroding, potentially quite badly. Once the rust starts, it will spread, which is why you need to check the most vulnerable areas very carefully. These include the sills, wheel arches, front valances and floorpans. Also check the chassis rails and jacking points, which may have been poorly patched up in the past to scrape the car through an MoT test. There’s a crumple zone on either side of the car, between the front of the subframe and the crossmember that runs across the front of the car. The box section rots from the inside out, resulting in MoT failure; the only solution is to cut out the metal and replace it, which costs around £600 to tackle both sides.

Also check that the boot lid isn’t damaged or distorted by being slammed onto an over-filled boot in a bid to squeeze everything in. Once the skin is creased or dimpled it’s tricky to repair so a used replacement is usually the only effective fix. Vinyl hoods are well made but time can take its toll, especially if the car has been stored outside and cleaned rarely, or put through a car wash. Unlike its predecessor, the MkII has a glass rear window. Expect to pay £500 to fit a new hood; alternatively, you can have a mohair one fitted for £650.

Interior

The interior trim tends to last well but the driver’s seat bolster can wear; the car’s low seating position means that it’s hard to get in and out without brushing hard against the seat. Decent used parts aren’t hard to find and there are lots of aftermarket seats available, too. The electrics are generally reliable but it’s not unusual for aftermarket stereos and alarms to be spliced into the system, which can cause all sorts of problems that are time-consuming to pinpoint and fix. Also check that the electric windows work properly.

Suspension

A lowered ride height is popular, but can spoil the dynamics. Fresh dampers will sharpen up a wellused car. Or you can fit Gaz Gold Pro coilovers; once set up the ride is transformed, inspiring much more confidence in the handling.

The MkII had 14- or 15-inch alloy wheels at launch, but it’s easy to fit the 16- or 17-inch wheels from the facelift models. Go too big, though, and you risk ruining the ride. Fit high-quality tyres and get the alignment checked professionally.

Engine and Gearbox

A properly maintained MX-5 engine will run quite happily for 200,000 miles or more. The key is to replace the oil and filter every 6000 miles having used a flushing oil first; Mazda recommends that this is done every 9000 miles. Infrequent oil changes or insufficient lubrication will ultimately lead to bore wear, which requires an engine re-build. With these priced at around £1700 (including all new Mazda original-equipment parts), most owners fit a used engine instead, available for £500. A MkI engine can be fitted, with MkII ancillaries, if that’s all you can find. It makes sense to fit the MkI unit because they’re more durable as well as cheaper.

The engine block is cast iron but the cylinder head is made of aluminium alloy so it’s crucial that anti-freeze is replaced at correct service intervals to ensure its anti-corrosive additives are still effective. Let the engine idle for a few minutes once hot and see if it gets too warm; if the cooling system is full of debris the temperature gauge will soon start to climb. All MX-5 engines have a timing belt that should have been replaced within the past five years or 60,000 miles. It’s an easy do-it-yourlelf job or you can get a specialist to do the work for around £200. It’s not an interference engine so the pistons and valves won’t collide if the belt snaps, but it’s better to replace it before it breaks.

You can let the engine breathe more freely with an uprated induction system. One from K&N can release up to 5bhp, with improved throttle response and mid-range torque. A freer-flowing stainless exhaust will also help, and sound throatier. All MkIIs have a catalytic converter, which must be retained. Budget at least £300 for a set of pipes and the same again for a stainless manifold.

Most genuine UK cars came with a manual gearbox; an automatic was offered only from 2001, with a slightly detuned 1.8-litre engine. The five-speed manual’s gearchange should be slick and precise – if it has a sticky action it’s because the gearchange mechanism needs fresh oil – the six-speed unit doesn’t suffer from this issue but it’s notchier anyway. Mazda recommends EP90 but many owners believe that something rather thinner, such as 3-in-1, gives a much nicer action. Go up and down the gearbox on the test drive making sure changes are slick and smooth, paying particular attention to the change from second to third to make sure it doesn’t feel overly stiff, indicative of insufficient oiling. Lubricating the mechanism is a relatively easy DIY job.

Electrics

The MkII Mazda MX-5’s electrics are generally trouble-free, but the original headlights have poor output. Although polishing will brighten dull lenses, once the hardened coating is compromised they will quickly dull again. Cleaning tired earths and fitting Nightbreaker+ bulbs can help performance.

Brighter post-facelift headlights can be fitted to a pre-facelift car, but it’s not a straightforward swap because a different set of plugs need wiring in to accept the new units.

2001 Mazda MX-5 Jasper Conran Limited Edition – £3000

‘2001 MX5 MK2 Jasper Conran edition, this being the very last car numbered as 400 (of 400). Only three previous owners. The car is in a very good and largely original condition having been in my ownership for eight years. The original BBS wheels have been fully refurbished, a new mohair roof complete with heated screen fitted and both rear sills professionally replaced. The car is supplied with its original colour-matched hard top, which comes with a purpose-made heavy-duty storage bag and also has the original leather tonneau cover. The original mini CD player is still in the boot. Has covered 80,300 miles, with detailed service history and benefiting from 11 months MoT. All four tyres have good tread. Very recently fully cleaned and valeted, the car looks fabulous, drives superbly and is all ready for the new owner to enjoy. Cars like this don't come up for sale very often and this is the opportunity to purchase a very rare special edition MKII MX-5 in very good and original condition. These special edition cars are now very collectable and will only increase in value. We are located in North Wiltshire (near to Swindon).’

Look after the engine and it’s easily good for 200,000 miles, or more. Five-speed gearbox should be slick; six speeder more notchy.

Bodywork starts rusting in hidden places – check everywhere underneath. MkII did away with the pop-up headlights of its predecessor.

‘It’s essential that the engine coolant has been replaced at correct service intervals’

‘Mechanically the MkII is largely the same, so the ownership experience is just as much fun’

What to pay

ü You can find rusty 1.6is for under £1000. Usable examples start at £1250 for 1.6s.

ü Well-optioned 1.8is can be found for £2000. You’ll find a whole raft of special editions but no factory cars carry a premium apart from Sports and 10th Anniversaries.

ü A good unmodified 1.8 Sport costs up to £5750, perhaps more if it’s in good condition, low mileage and hasn’t been used on track days.

ü The best 10th Anniversaries make at least £7000, or more in excellent condition with all the extras attached.

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