Ever had one of those annoying multiple choice questions that asks you to choose the most right answer? That's the Mazda Miata. Any Miata is good, but which one is the most good? We humbly suggest nirvana on a budget is quickest found behind the wheel of the second generation MX-5.
The first Miata is purest to the British roadster ideal, without the attendant breakdowns. The third generation car is the heaviest and most powerful, but these are not the kind of descriptors you want your Miata to have. The newest machine is simply excellent, but it's not cheap.
Thus, the NB-chassis MX-5 hits the Goldilocks ideal. Cheap, quick, and reliable – how often do you get to pick all three?
What to look for:
The NB arrived in 1998 (as a 1999 model) with a host of improvements over the aging NA platform. The structure was stiffened and the pop-up headlights were gone. The resulting car was a lot less cutesy, a little like a shortened, convertible version of the RX-7 twin-turbo. A new head with variable intake timing was bolted onto the venerable 1.8L engine, making a sprightly 140hp possible. Curb weight was a feathery 2350lbs.
It was time to party like it was 1999. Mazda released a special tenth anniversary edition right out of the gate, which had a blue top, blue seats, a blue steering wheel, and a blue shifter boot, and blue paint called Sapphire Blue, and basically, it was that Eiffel 65 song you haven't thought about in five years which is now stuck in your head. Sorry.
Far more importantly, the 10th anniversary edition Miata came with a few mechanical upgrades – Bilstein shocks, a front strut tower bar – and a six-speed manual transmission. The six-speed became a regular option for the Miata in the 2001 model year, and is obviously desirable.
However, note that the five-speed is just fine, and actually is geared slightly higher for less raucous highway cruising. You can also get the anniversary-edition's Bilsteins and other mechanical improvements with the optional sport package – look for grey or yellow shocks.
The other main mechanical option to be sought out is the Torsen limited slip differential. You want a limited slip in your Miata, of course, because you are reading a publication called Road & Track, and not Cat Fancy. Even if the Miata you're considering didn't come from the factory with an LSD, it's likely that one may have been swapped in – check for fins on the rear differential. Later cars (2003+) use a Tochigi-Fugi limited-slip instead of the Torsen. While the Torsen is slightly better in hard cornering, both are better than an open diff.
Mazda's sales were up by the end of the decade, so there was a little more money to invest in their two-seater flagship car. Along with styling updates, the later car saw some engine improvements with proper variable valve timing and a tubular-design header. The optional sport package also became enhanced with larger brakes, 16" alloys and some mild stiffening to the chassis. The seatbacks in these later cars are also higher, and better for taller drivers.
Further special editions followed in 2002, with added niceties from Nardi and Enkei. Titanium Grey and Blazing Yellow are immediate indications that you're looking at a special edition model. Polished alloy wheels are another clue – the car equivalent of frosted tips.
There was also an extremely limited run of SCCA-special club sport cars in 2003. This is probably the NB holy grail, a super-light machine without air-conditioning, power-steering, and no stereo. When Porsche makes a car like this, they charge you more. Mazda charged less – just $19,995 — but they restricted production to 25 soft-top models and 25 hard-tops.
Of course, the special edition Miata to get everyone all hot and bothered is the Mazdaspeed. A small light-pressure turbo cranked power up to 178hp, and it came with countless other niceties including 17" forged alloys from Racing Hart.
Nowadays, the Mazdaspeed is very desirable. Back then, it sat around on dealer lots, a victim of the pricetag and the so-so hp rating. The first cars, launched in 2004, were mostly Velocity Red; the availability of later cars was restricted by a factory fire in 2005. Total production numbers were 4000 for 2004 and 1428 for 2005.
The 'Speed is not a particularly fast car in stock trim, but it's a good starting place to build a mild turbocharged Miata without having to source an entire kit. Problem is, everyone who has one seems to know what it is, and the prices are much higher than regular Miatas. And, because Mazda used a non-VVT head and lowered the redline to 6500rpm, there are limits on making big power. Unless you can wrangle a deal, you might be better building a lesser NB into a Flyin' Miata monster.
In the last two years of production, 16" wheels became standard Miata fare, and the six-speed's rear end gearing changed from 4.10 to 3.90. Revs on the highway increased, while autocross times maybe dropped a tenth or two.
What to avoid:
Ordinarily, there are very few issues with the NB. Just as the first Miata promised, this is British-style open-topped motoring without British-style sobbing by the roadside into an open bonnet. Mostly.
Known problems include thrust-bearing failure in a few 1999-2000 models, which can be diagnosed by listening for a rattle with the clutch depressed, or when revving the engine. There was a service bulletin issued for the fault, but it's likely that any car you're considering has already suffered from the issue and been repaired, being more than a decade old.
Clutch chatter is also an annoyance in 2001 and some 2002 models, with the only fix being a clutch replacement. You might as well throw a lower-mass flywheel on there while you're in there.
Other than that, most NBs have lived a pampered life and are relatively free from cosmetic issues. If you live on the East Coast, rust is certainly something to watch for, but often these cars are fair-weather machines only. All the standard warnings apply as if you were buying a Corolla or a Civic: watch for oil leaks, corrosion, regular maintenance, and evidence of bodged accident repair.
There are a few things to note with the cooling system, which is relatively weak. The plastic end-tanks on the radiator can be brittle if they're original. If you spot coolant oozing, it's likely they're just about to fail; budget for an all-aluminum replacement. Additionally, fake grilles or bulky driving lights mounted in the mouth can cut down on airflow, and cause overheating in hot climates.
Really, it's not so much problems with the car that need to be avoided, as certain kinds of owners. If for instance, the Miata you're looking at has stretched tires and camber like a drift car, just leave it be. I know, I know: it's in pain, and you want to rescue it, poor thing. It's already too late. Turn off the Sarah McLachlan soundtrack and walk away.
Also, if the NB under consideration is wearing enough tire shine and Turtle Wax to look like the whole thing's been dunked in olive oil, don't be fooled. The Miata is a car that appeals to everyone, and some of those people have a very relaxed attitude towards scheduled maintenance of the greasy bits. Better to buy the car with the chipped paint and binder of service history.
A note on modifications:
While the NB didn't sell in the same numbers as the first-gen Miata, Mazda did move plenty of them off the lot. NBs saw the milestones of the 500,000th Miata and the 750,000th Miata. The former was picked out by the Japanese team, and is a high-content model the color of a Werther's Original. The latter was picked by the American side, and is a red Mazdaspeed version. USA! USA!
Anyway, with so many cars on the road and competing in everything from autocross to hillclimbs, the Miata is nearly a '32 Ford in terms of breadth and depth of modification. Turbocharger kits are common, as a supercharger packages. Shops like Flyin' Miata regularly swap V8s in to make a sort of Pacific Rim version of the Shelby Cobra. Suspension and braking modifications are almost too common to list.
It is equally possible to find and purchase a completely factory-spec model, probably owned by someone who owns a tweed cap. It is also possible to pick up a mostly-finished turbo project from a haggard-looking dude in a Blipshift shirt who just found out his fiancée is pregnant. With triplets.
Which is best? Obviously purchasing a car that's closest to what your eventual plan and budget is for your finished driver. Where forced induction is concerned, it's far cheaper to buy someone else's build, and then tweak and tune it for reliability and longevity.
Having said that, all the NB needs to be wonderful is... nothing, really. Buy a good set of tires and brake pads, and spend the dollars you would shell out on swaybars and a coilover kit on a few extra HPDE days. Bolt on the upgrades once you're already used to shaving seconds off a lap – if your Miata is a bit roly-poly at first, that'll just help you feel and understand the weight transfer better.
Alternatively, call up Flying Miata and have them drop an LS in there right from the get-go. Why not? It's a Miata, not a multiple choice question: write in whatever answer you choose.
Almost every locale has its own Miata club. If you're looking for cruising and car shows, check out to find the one closest to you. is a good resource for checking out different kinds of modifications – if you want to see what a new set of rims might look like on your car, chances are there's a picture of it in the galleries.
An even better idea would be to just your local autocross or HPDE group and jump on their mailing list. There are always at least a couple of NB owners in any gaggle of gearheads, and it's possible to pick up a very nice example of a track-prepped car when somebody graduates to a Corvette or a shifter kart or a Radical. It's also the best place to keep tabs on events where you'll actually be able to use your Miata the way it was intended.