Serviceability Report: Mazda MX-5 MiataPosted 3/1/2007
By Craig Van Batenburg, AAM
I remember going to an auto show in Chicago many years ago with Deb - then my girlfriend and now my wife - and seeing this great little ragtop from Mazda. It had English styling, was simple and by the looks of it, the engineers had some fun with the suspension, frame and other pieces that make a car handle well. At that time it also had a bigger brother, the RX-7. That was February of 1989.
Mazda filled a gap in the marketplace left by MG in 1980. The last Fiat 124 Spider was sold in 1985 and the only four cylinder, front-engine classic two-seat roadster for sale in the United States in 1990 was the Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce. There sure was room for something better.
Introduced in July 1989 as a model year (MY) 1990 model, the Miata had a base price of $13,800. It was a sensation, but wasn't particularly fast. The 1990 Miata was a small car. With an 89.2-inch wheelbase and stretching out just 155.2 inches overall, the Miata was 16 inches shorter than Mazda's smallest sedan that year, the Protegˇ. The biggest advantage of the Miata's small size was its weight - just 2,116 pounds in base trim. Because light cars don't need big engines to achieve an entertaining power-to-weight ratio (look at the Honda Insight), the first Miata was powered by a 1.6-liter, dual-overhead cam, 16-valve, inline four-cylinder engine making 116 horsepower. Magazine tests had the car moving from 0 to 60 mph in just under nine seconds, and completing the quarter mile in 16.8 seconds at around 80 mph. That isn't slow, but hardly the sort of performance that would scare an Acura NSX.
Mazda sold 35,944 Miatas during the '90 MY in the United States. In 1994, a passenger-side airbag was added to go with the one already in the steering wheel. Mazda made up for some additional weight by upsizing the Miata's engine to 1.8 liters and 128 horsepower.
In 1996, small improvements were made that helped Mazda find another five horsepower in the 1.8-liter engine for a total of 133 hp. With a full redesign in the works, Mazda let the existing Miata glide through 1997 almost unchanged. Technically speaking, there weren't any MY '98 Miatas (look at www.identifix.com). With the conclusion of 1997 model production, the Miata lost its pop-up headlights that gave the car the bug-eyed look of an old Austin-Healey Sprite.
The '99 Miata actually went on sale in February 1998. While its body was more curvaceous and it used flush headlamps, it was still unmistakably a Miata. The 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine offered a full 140 horsepower and a six-speed transmission was added to the 10th-anniversary Miata. Now it could accelerate to 60 mph in 7.6 seconds. After eight years it was two seconds faster.
Nothing about the remarkable Miata is more noteworthy than its unceasing popularity. It remains what it has been since its introduction: the best-selling two-seater sports car in the world (per the Guinness Book of Records). Mazda has sold more than 300,000 Miatas in the United States alone, securing this lightweight roadster as a classic and not simply a passing fancy. Today, more than 700,000 Miatas have been sold around the world, and more than 500,000 are still running strong. It is a popular car with owners. But what about technicians?
We will compare a '97 Miata to an '07. The early model has a few problem areas such as plugged exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) ports in the intake manifold just behind the throttle body, transmission range switches are known to fail and catalytic converters don't last long. But other than that, this car is amazingly trouble free.
When Mazda did a redesign in 2006, it changed a lot but did it get easier to work on? I got under the hood of both, and here is what I saw: It is generally easy to service, as most four-cylinder engines are. Coil on plug (COP) is standard and an improvement. The fuel filter in 1997 was tough to get to as it is in-line and out of sight. The new Miata has moved the fuel filter where all new fuel filters eventually retire to - the insides of the fuel tank. The powertrain control module (PCM) went from under the dash near the steering column to behind the passenger seat, which may be an improvement. The 12-volt battery did escape from the trunk to a place more familiar - under the hood or "bonnet," as some people say.
I asked Omar Sherzai, a well-known and respected Mazda technician near Boston, "Is the '07 Miata easier to work on than the older one?" His reply: "It is so new I haven't had to do too much. It looks as good if not better than the previous model." Sherzai helped me understand some of the service issues. But as most of you know, once you figure out the tricks, it gets easier. I only wish that the engineers who hid the parts would have to find them 10 years later at five o'clock during a snowstorm.
Miata Ups - Quality is good; owners like their cars. Very few technical service bulletins (TSBs) on this car. Easy to service.
Miata Downs - Ford/Mazda new scan tool (IDS) takes time to get to know. Fuel filter is hidden away, data link connector (DLC) is covered and out of sight.
Overall rating: The new Miata (now known as the MX-5) is a good car to service. With a few exceptions, a steady diet of Miatas would not make you want to sell tools for a living.
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