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Used car buying guide: Mk2 Mazda MX-5

Autocar logo Autocar 18/02/2019 John Evans
a car driving on a mountain road: A cared-for Mk2 will deliver a rewarding drive © Autocar A cared-for Mk2 will deliver a rewarding drive

If the prospect of owning a good Mazda MX-5 Mk1 is fading as prices rise, how about a Mk2 one instead? True, it’s not as pretty and it has an even worse reputation for rust, but as the years roll by, it seems less bland, while a wire brush and lashings of Dinitrol anti-rust proofing should keep the worst of it at bay. 

If Volkswagen ever thought launching a new Golf was tough, launching a new MX-5 must have been harder still for Mazda’s dutiful executives, still reeling from the success of the original. Of course, it could never be a straight copy but, even so, the absence of the Mk1’s pop-up lights – a move forced on Mazda by US safety officials – was a blow. A bit like when BL was forced to replace the MG B’s traditional chrome bumpers with ugly rubber affairs. 

a car parked on the side of a road © Provided by Haymarket Media Group

Still, what else were you going to buy back in 1998, especially since word was that the car possessed the same sweet, rear-drive handling, delicate steering and crisp gearchange (plus some extra kit including a heated glass rear window) that had made the Mk1 such a winner? 

Twenty-one years later, these very qualities continue to attract second-hand buyers, especially now that prices for Mk2s begin from as little as £350 for runners with an MOT. In fact, they don’t really go any higher than £3500 for the best cars. In part, they’re held back by the Mk3, which kicks off at around £2250 but also by demand for clean Mk1s. You’ll easily pay £6000 for a good one of those. 

a car driving on a road © Provided by Haymarket Media Group

Condition and not age or specification or size of engine is key to valuing a Mk2. You’re just as likely to find a tatty but late-plate 2004 1.8i Sport for a few pounds as you are an early but bright 1998 1.6 for a few thousand. Those two engines are your lot. The 140bhp 1.8 Sport had a Torsen limited-slip differential and 15in alloy wheels. 

Cars dating from the facelift of 2001 are known as Mk2.5s. It was a mild affair, the biggest change being the headlights, which now had three bulb chambers. The front bumper also gained a couple of foglights, or mesh grilles if the trim level didn’t permit them. An automatic gearbox slipped onto the price list but missed the point and is rare today. The 1.8i S gained larger, 16in alloys. 

Being an MX-5, there are a few special editions to disentangle. Two that caught our eye were a 2001 Y-reg 1.8 Jasper Conran 1.8 with 75,000 miles, a new belt and a good service record for £1795, and a 2003 53-reg 1.8 Angels, inspired by the film Charlie’s Angels, with 79,000 miles for £2190. 

a close up of a car going down the road © Provided by Haymarket Media Group

However, standard, Sport or special edition, it doesn’t matter. Condition is king and until you’ve crawled around the car testing the sills with a magnet and lifting the carpets checking for damp, there’s no point getting excited about the specification. But by all means get excited about how it drives.

How to get one in your garage

An expert’s view 

Ashley Martin, The MX-5 Restorer: “I know Mk2 MX-5s inside out, literally so, due to the cavity rust issues afflicting them and Mk1s. We do a really thorough repair job on the cars. I own a Mk1 and a Mk2, both 1.8s, and love them. I’ve driven a few Mk3s but there’s something about the earlier cars. They just want you to have fun. There’s a huge and growing following for both, with the Mk1 still the most popular. The trouble with the Mk2 is that it’s not a question of if it will rust but when. They are cheap, though.” Buyer beware… 

a car parked on the side of a road © Provided by Haymarket Media Group

Engine: Cambelt should be changed at 60k miles. With luck, the water pump will have been changed at the same time. Check for oil leaks from the cam cover (not serious) and listen for misfires caused by the coil packs. (There are two.) HT leads routinely break down. 

Gearbox: On the overrun, a sound like marbles rattling in a tin is gear lash caused by the gearbox being misaligned when being refitted after, for example, clutch removal. Many garages don’t realise it has to be aligned. Later cars got a rubber damper. The later, six-speed gearchange is not as quick as the five-speed. Listen for failing propshaft joints (they’ll squeak), especially in reverse. 

a close up of a car © Provided by Haymarket Media Group

Suspension, steering and brakes: Check for uneven tyre wear, suggesting incorrect four-wheel geometry. All four should be set up independently of each other. Suspension bushes will look terrible but they rarely fail. Check for seized brake caliper pistons and springs broken by speed humps. 

Body: Regarding rust, later Mk2s fare worse than early ones. Rotting rear wheel arches are easy to spot but the sills, which rust from the inside out, will require much closer examination. Front chassis rails suffer badly. Unlike the Mk1’s, they’re a double-skinned box section for additional impact strength but this traps moisture and they corrode. Surface rust blights the underside, rear subframes and wishbones. Check for bonnet corrosion caused by stone-chipping. 

a close up of a car © Provided by Haymarket Media Group

Interior: Expect worn seats and collapsed armrests. Also worth knowing The first thing to do when you get your Mk2 home is brush and then rustproof the underside with something like Dinitrol. It’ll stop things like subframes becoming terminal. Then go online and find out where all the entry holes are and flood the cavities to delay rot from the inside out. 

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How much to spend 

£350-£1249: All ages and mileages and in running order but verging on the tatty, such as a 2003 1.6 with rotten sills for £1150. 

£1250-£1999: Huge choice of better-looking cars, many with full or near-full service histories but check for filler in places such as sills and wheel arches. 

£2000-£3500: More of the same, including a promising 2002/52 1.6 with 60k miles and an excellent Mazda service record for £2299. Also, a nice, one-owner, 1998 S 1.8 Sport with 22k miles and full Mazda service history for £3000.

One we found 

a car parked in the grass © Provided by Haymarket Media Group

Mazda MX-5 1.8 Sport, 1999/V, 64K miles, £1999: ‘Full service history!’ exclaims the ad before admitting that it has had 11 services… No worries. Your biggest concern will be body rot but this is an early Mk2 and these were better protected, so fingers crossed.

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