If you’re having a problem choosing a modestly priced track car for some street driving and weekend enjoyment, or just a car to turn into a full-blown track monster, look no further. We’re going to soften the blow and make the process a little easier.
This segment is dedicated to helping the average consumer choose a good starter track car to get their feet wet in the world of autocross and road racing. Every month we will bring you a reasonably priced car under $10,000 that would be easy to maintain, modify, and learn with. We will also show you the pros, cons, problem areas, great beginner mods, and input from shops that specialize in building these kinds of vehicles.
For our inaugural article, what better car is there to focus on than the Mazda MX-5 Miata? It’s light, easy to maintain, reliable, peppy, and there are a plethora of manufacturers that make parts to help this car become a true track performer. Follow along as we explain why the NA and NB Miatas (first and second generation) are great cars to begin your autocross/road racing experience with.
The Miata’s Inspiration
Bob Hall is technically the “biological father” of the Miata, but he didn’t actually work for Mazda when his ideas came into the picture. Hall is best known as a member of the development team who produced the Mazda MX-5 Miata, but was brought onto the team after his first initial ideas were heard by Kenichi Yamamoto, head of Mazda’s R&D at the time, in Hiroshima on one of his journalism pilgrimages for Autoweek Magazine – he had no formal engineering qualifications, but Mazda loved his vision. Inspiration for the Miata came from select 1960’s-era British sports cars, such as the Lotus Elan and MG B. Mazda bought a Lotus Elan to evaluate and see what exactly they were up against. Then they bought another one when their first one broke.
The Miata’s development team was focused on Mazda’s mantra of “Jinba Ittai” driving experience, or “oneness between car and driver”, and creating a distinct appeal to one’s senses. Balance and precision are what the layout and design are based off of. This is why the powertrain the car was given focused on smooth, linear acceleration rather than raw power. The NA/NB Miata is a great beginner track car because it has a low price tag, it’s reliable, and it is relatively easy to modify given all of the parts that are available for it, not to mention it’s really light and nimble.
The Miata was also named the best-selling two-seater sports car by Guiness World Records after production reached 531,890 units in May of 2000 – as of February 2014, Mazda had sold north of 900,000. If you’re wondering, MX-5 stands for Mazda Experimental Vehicle #5.
The Different Generations
A Coming of Age
With NA and NB Miatas’ prices decreasing steadily because of the latest NC Miata being on the market, keep an eye out for NC Miatas getting cheaper. With the recent introduction of the ND Miata, the NC should see a significant price drop, as there will be a newer, more desirable model on the market. The NC Miata has a larger 2.0-liter engine and can be purchased with your choice of a 5-speed manual, 6-speed automatic, or a 6-speed manual transmission.
The weight difference from an NA Miata is roughly 400 pounds and roughly 200 pounds heavier than an NB – not bad, considering it has a substantial power and displacement increase! Some NC Miatas we found had a price range of $9,700-$14,758 – we definitely think those prices will drop when the ND becomes available to consumers.
A Mazdaspeed MX-5 Miata was introduced in 2004 and lasted through the 2005 model year. It came with a 1.8-liter turbocharged engine that put out a stout 180 hp at the crank and was mated to a 6-speed transmission, but the production was limited to 1,428 because of a fire at the production facility. The only available colors for the car in the U.S. were Lava Orange Mica and Black Mica, so that makes them a little easier to spot should you come across one, although they might not be within the $10,000 price range.
The 1.8-liter DOHC inline-four engine received some changes for the NB including upping the compression ratio from 9.0:1 to 9.5:1 by adding slightly domed pistons, the intake cam was refined and incorporated solid lifters, intake runners in the head were straightened, and the intake manifold was mounted higher up. The seats in the NB were revised, featuring more side bolstering, the brakes were larger in the front and rear, additional chassis stiffening was added, as well as Bilstein shock absorbers. All models of the NB generation were available with either a 4-speed automatic, 5-speed manual, or 6-speed manual transmission
Naturally, the NA is easily distinguished by its flip-up headlights, as to where the NB is easily distinguished by the fixed headlights (some later models came with projectors) and the glass rear window, although first generation owners often opt for the glass rear window when replacing the top or convert to a hard-top.
Generally speaking, the MX-5 Miata is a bulletproof little machine, but when purchasing a car that is 13-25 years of age, there are going to be some areas of the car that need some TLC. We talked with Emilio Cervantes of 949 Racing to get some insight on exactly what to look out for and what to upgrade once you purchase an MX-5 Miata and begin to track it. The first area to check on is the slave cylinder. “The way they sit in the car, they collect moisture and the first time you shift them hard you will push the cylinder further than it’s ever gone or has gone in a long time and it will cut the seal, leaving you with no clutch,” explained Cervantes. Being that it is a $15 replacement part on their website, it should be the first thing every new NA/NB Miata owner should install, according to Cervantes.
The next main area of weakness in the NA/NB cars is the cooling system. The radiator’s end tanks are plastic, and unless it’s been replaced before in the car’s lifetime, it’s going to crack while driving it hard at the first, if not the next couple of track days. “The radiators have a plastic tank that’s black and when it gets old, it fades and becomes more of a brown or light brown, almost a yellow color, and they crack. The first time they get a lot of system pressure in them on the track, they’ll crack and that’s bad,” Cervantes continued.
Generally, what the NA/NB Miatas need in terms of cooling is a nice, big aluminum radiator and a coolant re-route. The coolant re-route corrects the coolant flow’s path through the engine because it’s backwards, as it’s a front-drive engine. Mazda wanted the Miata to be a front, mid-engined car, so they shoved the engine against the firewall and got rid of the coolant outlet in the back of the engine. “A coolant re-route has a low-profile coolant outlet on the back of the head that corrects the coolant flow – that, in combination with a big, aluminum, 37-mm radiator will solve most people’s problems, and that’s, you know, 90% of the people that will go to the track,” explained Cervantes.
There have been reports of broken crankshafts by about 1-percent of NA Miata owners – the problem is confined to 1990 and early 1991 cars and according to Miata.net, a 1991 car with VIN 209447 or higher, is considered safe, but with a VIN of 209446 or lower, your crankshaft has a smaller diameter nose. Should you test drive a car with symptoms including a poor running engine, just be aware of this issue.
Another issue with some 1999 and 2000 is the thrust bearing failure – Mazda has a Technical Service Bulletin, or TSB, out for it and it can be seen here.
The last area of weakness, and this is for the 1.6-liter-powered NA from years 1989-1993, is the ring and pinion in the rear differential. “It had a smaller ring and pinion, a six-inch ring and pinion, and they’re fragile – they like to just blow up whenever they feel like it,” Cervantes added. “What we usually recommend, if you have the budget for it, is to replace it with the ring gear from the 1.8-liter engine, and oddly enough, the 1.8-liter has a seven-inch ring gear that is indestructible.” It would be a good idea to pick up a seven-inch ring gear just to have in your possession, just in case the six-inch ring gear decides to crap out on the track. A tow truck home isn’t the cheapest way to leave the track – it’s always a plus to be proactive.
As far as problem areas go, those are the only major areas to check. If the car seems pretty healthy when you purchase it, just check all fluids, wheel bearings, belts, etc., and it will treat you really well.
What Are Some Good Beginner Modifications?
Aside from talking to Cervantes from 949 Racing, we also talked to Racing Beat, who specializes in Mazda performance, as well as Flyin’ Miata, who specializes in Miata performance and engine swaps. Generally, the Miata in stock form is a really fun car, but for the person looking to regularly take their Miata to HPDE/autocross events, the Miata is that much more fun with a little pep in its step.
When we asked Cervantes what his recipe was for a beginner’s setup, he told us “the toe-in-the-water guys only need a matched set of sport tires on the factory wheels, a roll bar, and performance brake pads.” “There’s a real small percentage of people that will radically modify a Miata with forced induction, engine swap, aerodynamics, and wheels and tires – people talk about it on the forums all the time, but nobody actually does it.”
For the average person who wants to set up their Miata for weekend track use and street driving, Cervantes recommends a good set of coilovers, sway bars, suspension bushings, and adjustable sway bar end links.
We also asked Racing Beat’s Jim Langer about what a good setup would be for someone looking to get into HPDE/autocross events and he told us, “a set of performance tires, matching sway bars for the front and rear, an aluminum flywheel, a header, an air intake, and an exhaust” would be a great start for an NA to add a little bit of power to the 1.8-liter, as well as grip for the already nimble chassis. Racing Beat also has a page dedicated to the top five first beginner mods – check it out here.
Keith Tanner from Flyin’ Miata tells us to, “start by working on grip because the best bang for your buck is in suspension.” “Get some good springs and shocks on there and some good wheels and tires – that’s where you’ll get the best return on your investment,” Tanner explained. “Figure out what you’re going to build down the road, then take steps toward it.”
Safety is also a huge factor in modifying your Miata for the track – a roll bar is a great investment in keeping yourself safe, should anything happen out on the track. An aftermarket racing seat might also be needed depending on the height of the driver, because a tall driver might not clear the roll bar with a helmet on.
Organizations And Series
Spec Miata is a class of racecar used in SCCA, NASA, and MCSCC road racing events and is one of the most affordable Miata series to enter nationwide. Virtually anyone can purchase a Miata and start racing in the series because it provides the opportunity of a low-cost, entry-level class where limited modifications are allowed. Miatas of model years 1990-1993 with 1.6-liter engines, 1994-1997 with 1.8-liter engines, and 1999-2005 with 1.8-liter engines are all approved to race in all divisions of the SCCA; The class began racing in 2006.
As stated before, modifications in the class are very strict, hence the term “spec.” The class is intended to give drivers an equal shot by making their cars as identical as possible. The modifications that are allowed on the car all differ by region, so if you are interested in the series, be sure to check out the rules pertaining to your area.
Super Miata is a popular west coast racing series that is best described as safe, cheap, and fun. The series is put on by Speed Ventures and requires a competition license that you would need to obtain from Speed Ventures in order to be eligible to race in any of the events. There is also a strict list of safety rules and specifications that need to be met in order to race – some of those regulations include a minimum weight of 2300-pounds including the driver, a 6-point roll cage, full flame-retardant gear, a 5-speed manual transmission, etc. For all of the information on the series, check it out right here.
Miata Challenge is a neat time trial event that is held exclusively at Speed Ventures events – any Miata can participate and there are four classes for different levels of modifications. Standard HPDE (High Performance Driving Event) safety equipment is required, which includes a 4-point roll bar on model years 1990-1995, Snell SA2005 or newer approved helmet and a basic tech inspection. Being that it is held at Speed Ventures events, it is a west coast-centered series.
Another series to look into is SCCA’s Solo Series. Solo is essentially The SCCA’s name for their autocross events. There are over 1,200 Solo events across the country that take place in low-hazard areas, such as parking lots or inactive airports, in which traffic cones are set up to resemble a course, just like they would be at any other autocross event. Solo events test the driver’s skill and the car’s handling characteristics, which usually equates to a really fun day of driving.
Wherever you are, be sure to check any local Miata forums or websites to see if there are any HPDE/autocross events nearby to participate in!
With 25 years under its belt and over one million cars produced altogether, the Miata is a great little roadster with bare-bones thrills. With the NA and NB Miatas getting cheaper and cheaper, they are being utilized on racetracks, as well as parking lots for weekend fun all over the world. There are many series to enter the Miata in and a plethora of HPDE/autocross events over the course of the year; and, not to mention, a slew of parts readily available from many different manufacturers to perfectly suit one’s performance needs.
Some knock the Miata because they say it’s a “chick car” or something along those lines, but really, all you have to do is take it around some turns and you will be completely hooked – even with stock suspension and decent street tires, this car is a blast and we’re glad it’s still around kicking ass and taking names.