Used car buying guide: Mazda MX-5 Mk1 (1989-1996)

Tyler Heatley

20 Oct 2021

This Japanese sports car might just be the easiest classic to live with.

+ Excellent reliability

+ Great fun to drive


Rising values

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Mazda MX-5 Mk1 (1989-1996): what’s good?

The Mazda MX-5 is one of those universally loved cars. Enthusiasts adore it for its nimble handling, while the wider population appreciate this drop-top’s dependability and relative value for money. The MX-5 endures today, but it all began with the Mk1 back in 1989, and now might be your last chance to snap one up before values of this Japanese classic rise too much.

Featuring ever-cool pop-up headlights and a clean design that has aged wonderfully, this sports car has transitioned into a classic with grace. Unlike many of its British rivals of the period, the MX-5 has proven pretty bulletproof in terms of reliability. Should parts be required, they also come in at respectable prices. As a classic car proposition, the MX-5 is one of the easiest to live with.

Drop the top while hitting some twisting country roads and it doesn’t take long to see why this car has the reputation for handling that it does. An agile chassis dances through the bends, feeling light and nimble. Weighty steering is bristling with feedback, and you’re further connected to the whole experience via one of the best manual gear shifts of all time. It’s not a fast car, but it’s huge fun to preserve momentum in and build a rhythm while kissing apexes.

The Mk1 MX-5 really is a joyous thing to drive, and a great ‘my first classic’ for anyone looking to join the club. Speaking of clubs, there’s a huge community of helpful MX-5 owners to assist with any issues that do arise.

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Mazda MX-5 Mk1 (1989-1996): what’s not so good?

If you’re serious about buying a MK1 MX-5, you’ll have already heard horror stories about rust. Sadly, they tend to be true. The first and second-generation Mazda MX-5s are particularly susceptible to the red rot along their sills. This is because of a drainage point that can be easily blocked by road muck, meaning that water is held within until it corrodes its way out. By the time it’s at the surface, it’s too late. The fix is some welding which can be costly, but prevention is better than the cure, so a car that has been stored under cover or with an owner who regularly cleans out the drainage points is highly preferable.

Mechanically speaking, these cars are incredibly strong, so don’t fear buying a well looked after high mileage example. However, take a closer look at the convertible roof and assess what condition it’s in. By this point, most cars have had a new one fitted, but the original vinyl roof material becomes brittle over time and shrinks – leaks are not fun. However, More durable Mohair alternatives can be had, or if you’re lucky, you can find a car with a removable hardtop. 

It’s harder and harder to find a clean unmodified UK example, with many being Eunos Roadster imports. There’s nothing wrong with the near-identical imports, but insurance may be more costly. Gone are the days of buying one of these cars for £800 with values of MK1 cars rising fast.

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Mazda MX-5 Mk1 (1989-1996): engines and trims?

There were two engines offered, a 1.6-litre engine or a larger 1.8-litre. The bigger engine offers a bit more power and torque but isn’t really any quicker due to weighing a little more. For many, the rev-happy 1.6 is the pick of the pair and it handles slightly better. Imports and UK cars built before catalytic converter regulations came into force produce slightly more power.

There was an automatic MX-5 available, but we’d strongly recommend sticking with the five-speed manual transmission. The stick-shift car has a wonderfully mechanical feel, like a rifle bolt, that remains one of the best on the road today.

Mazda is well known for its special edition MX-5s, and the Mk1 was no different. Countless trims offering leather, unique paint combinations, and other cosmetic tweaks were available. There were some interesting cars featuring limited-slip differentials, however, these were reserved for Japan and would need to be imported for UK use. 

Mazda MX-5 Mk1 (1989-1996): the alternatives

The Mazda MX-5 has a bit of a stronghold over the affordable sports car market thanks to its value for money, reliability, and fun factor. In that regard is doesn’t really have any direct competition. However, as values continue to rise, cars such as the mid-engined Toyota MR2 come into focus.

If you’re looking for ‘bangs for bucks’ on the used market, there’s also a host of hot hatchbacks that do offer greater performance and practicality. That said, there’s no alternative for a lightweight convertible sports car on a summer’s day. 

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Tyler Heatley

20 Oct 2021