Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. The Mazda MX-5, you will recall, hit the ground running, so instantly iconic that it seems weird now to think that there was a time when it didn’t exist.
It turned out to be, over its four generations (so far), the ultimate real-world enthusiast’s car and the biggest-selling two-seat sports car of all time. Oh, yes, of course, there were other dainty drop-top two-seaters that came before it and some that came after it, but this delightfully simple and properly screwed-together roadster delivered a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive answer to more than a million people’s prayers.
You see, if you want affordable fun, the iconic MX-5 has always delivered in spades. The Mk1 car (the NA) was an analogue delight, the Mk2 (NB) a practical uptick, the Mk3 (NC) more refined and the latest Mk4 (ND) a dainty peach.
The answer to the question of which one to buy is probably that you really need one of each. However, presuming the budget allows only one, we would start by discounting the first two generations, because they’re now well stricken in years, so to find a good one means shopping very carefully. We would dismiss the Mk4, too, as a nouveau venu. That leaves us with the Mk3, and that’s good, because this is a car that’s definitely still a sound purchase and starting to look like really good value.
Launched in 2005, it was larger and heavier (by around 100kg) than the Mk2, but it offered more comfort and refinement. It was more powerful, too. Under the bonnet, you could choose between a 125bhp 1.8-litre or 158bhp 2.0-litre in-line four, the latter with variable valve timing and a limited-slip differential.
A slick five-speed gearbox was standard on both, but track down a 2.0-litre in Sport trim and it will have a six-speed ’box, as well as 17in alloy wheels, stiffer suspension, traction control and heated leather seats.
Unlike the previous MX-5s, this model was available in two different guises: the traditional soft-top roadster and a Coupé Cabriolet, which came with an electrically powered folding hard top that gave the refinement of a coupé but allowed you to get the wind in your hair at the touch of a button.
For most, the 1.8-litre model will be fast enough out on the open road, and slightly cheaper to run. However, if you want to make the most of the MX-5’s agile chassis, the 2.0-litre is a blast.
But straight-line speed isn’t what the MX-5 is about. What you will get for your modest outlay is what remains one of the best-driving cars available, regardless of budget. Both hard- and soft-top models are wonderfully agile. The steering is precise, while the chassis offers fluid handling with bags of grip. The ride is comfortable and controlled over broken surfaces, too, especially in the coupé, which has slightly softer suspension settings.
The range was facelifted in 2009, when it gained a revvier 2.0-litre engine and tweaks to the suspension, front and rear bumpers, door mirrors and some enhanced cabin trim. SE replaced the old entry-level trim, while Sport Tech superseded Sport.
A further facelift in 2013 brought changes to the front grille and lights and styling changes to the wheels, as well as such luxuries as sat-nav and standard-fit climate control.
Mazda MX-5 2005-2015 common problems
Engine: The engine is mostly bulletproof, but it’s vital to keep the oil level at its correct level, so check that first. Look for oil smoke and listen for any strange noises emanating from the crankshaft. Older, higher-mileage cars can suffer broken wires in the coil-on-plugs. It has a timing chain, not a belt, but the tensioner can fail.
Bodywork: MX-5s do rust, so go over it with a fine-toothed comb. Check under the bonnet, as well as the boot and chassis areas. Make sure the panel gaps all line up and watch for any overspray on bumpers. Check the clips securing the plastic panel beneath the wipers. They can channel water into the interior. Likewise, ensure the hood drain holes are clear and feel for damp carpets. Check the roof operation on early coupés.
Interior: Watch for warning lights staying on, especially DSC (dynamic stability control), caused by battery disconnection.
Transmission: Expect the action on five-speed and six-speed gearboxes to be stiff from cold but to loosen up. Listen for any suspicious noises from the rear diff.Suspension and brakes: Check the dampers. Listen for knocking from the front and rear anti-roll bar drop links, which last around 40,000 miles. Brake hard to check for pulling, because the calipers are prone to seizing.
Roof problems: Whether you’re looking at a roadster or a Coupé Cabriolet, check the roof-folding mechanism and ensure that there are no signs of leaks, tears or damage. The Coupé Cabriolet’s roof can stick half-open, because of faulty position sensors. Careless owners can leave the roof down in poor weather, so check for damp patches and water marks on seats and carpets.
Interior: Some owners complain of a strange buzzing noise from near the gearlever when the car is accelerating. Mazda says it’s nothing to worry about.Wheels and tyres: The wheels can be incorrectly aligned, so check for any signs of uneven tyre wear.
In this used Mazda MX-5 buying guide, we’ll tell you how much fun it is to drive, how practical it is, and how much it’ll cost you to run. And, of course, whether a Toyota GT86, Subaru BRZ and BMW Z4, makes the better choice.
By John Evans