So after countless years of being bashed over the head with how amazing the Mazda Miata is, you’ve finally decided to take the plunge and see what the fuss is all about. You’ve got cash in hand, and ohhhhh baby you’re looking to spend it!
The only sticking point… in your justified excitement to buy into the answer (reference: the word “Miata” is unofficially an acronym for Miata Is Always The Answer) you forgot to do your research! With thirty years of uninterrupted production across four generations and countless options available, choosing the correct Miata for your specific needs can be quite daunting. For those of you who can’t tell the difference between an ND RF and a 10AE NB1, don’t worry. You’re among friends, and with God as my witness you’ll be so stuffed full of Miata minutiae that by the end of this post you may not even fit in one!
If it’s already snuggled it’s way into your heart, chances are the main draws to the little roadster aren’t new to you. Lightweight, flickable, incredible transmissions, cheap to buy, cheap to maintain, cheap to upgrade, unkillable machines that make up for surprisingly poor miles-per-gallon with a class-leading smiles-per-gallon.
At the most basic level the Miata can be separated into four distinct categories. 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generations, also known as NA, NB, NC, and ND respectively. There are further delineations within each generation that we’ll cover below. And a quick note from me… this guide is for the dabbler. Someone who enjoys a canyon drive, the occasional autox, cruising down the waterfront, modding, leaving it stock…. This is the everyman review. If you want a buying guide purely focused on track usage, or the best candidate for an LS swap, you’ll need to look elsewhere. This is all about maximizing enjoyment.
The first three years of Miata production. The 1.6 liter engine (where the NA6 name comes from) puts out significantly less power than the 1.8 that came in later years, and in addition has a well-known mode of failure in the ‘90 and ‘91 model year. While that particular problem was solved for the ‘92 and ‘93 Miata, aftermarket support is limited for the entire NA6 range with many vendors only offering parts for the 1.8. Chassis rigidity is almost non-existent, and even inexperienced drivers should be able to feel the flex. The differential has a history of grenading itself with stock power levels, and the brakes are adequate at best. Due to a poor design, even when stock , overheating is a well-known issue in warmer climates and for track use. On the plus side, the NA6 lineup can be configured to be the lightest weight factory Miata offered, and in addition has a gorgeous smooth dashboard, unmarred by the passenger airbag bump that would be added in ‘94.
All-in-all, I wouldn’t recommend an NA6 because of the issues above, coupled with the poor value proposition they offer with the rising prices of the last few years. The one exception would be if you truly wanted the purest roadster experience, reminiscent of the British classics. In that case, look for a stock example with a manual transmission, manual locks, manual windows, no AC, no power steering.
Mazda made major revisions to their NA Miata, and with the larger 1.8 liter engine it became known as the NA8. Now with more power, larger brakes, and significant chassis bracing, Mazda’s golden egg became the best possible version of itself. ‘94 and ‘95 are OBDI for those of you who are worried about testing. ‘94 was the last year with a working oil pressure gauge, from ‘95 onward there’s a mostly useless dummy unit that operates as an on-off switch. A torsion LSD is now available, and is found on most NA8 Miatas. You definitely want the torsion. Bigger brakes were added, and with a proper pad are now a great choice for stock power level track days, unlike the NA6 brakes. The 5-speed gearbox here is the best feeling gearbox Mazda has ever made, and is commonly swapped into the NBs as well.
The NA8 is the best Miata, whereas the ‘01-02 NB2 is the best overall car that’s been produced under the Miata name. Look for a lightly optioned NA8 with a torsion LSD, or an M-edition to get the torsion, and a large number of unique add-ons.
The first two years with the NB platform introduced a reworked cylinder head resulting in the best airflow out of all NA and NB applications, as well as sportier styling and the loss of pop-up headlights. The 6 speed Aisen unit was released as an option, to mixed reception. With the same 1st gear to final gear ratio as the in-house produced 5 speed, the new 6 speed transmission’s main “benefit” was much shorter shifts, instead of the highway gear that the majority of NA owners were hoping for. With a shifting feel that’s almost universally agreed to be worse than the orignal 5 speed, think wisely before deciding on a 6 speed. A ‘99 sport package was the fastest Miata offered from the manufacterer untill the MiataSpeedMiata came out. Amazingly, it could be optioned to within 100lbs of the original NA6 in their respective lightest configurations.
Just as the NA got a mid-cycle refresh, the NB did as well. Headlights were given a major upgrade with projector units, and VVT was added to the engine. From ‘03 forward the torsion LSD was dropped in favor of an inferior unit.
Mazda’s first and only turbocharged Miata. Cosmetically a vast upgrade over the already fantastic NB, the mechanical upgrades unfortunately left much to be desired. Major cooling issues, oil in the intake, a non-operational OEM water temp gauge, soft wheels, warped manifold leading to exhaust leaks, ECU is awful, gearing is incredibly short, revlimiter is set much lower than needed…. The list goes on. At the end of the day, the MSM was an amazing idea that got about 60% of the way there. There are numerous turbo-specific issues as well, and to get the MSM to a level where it can be driven somewhat hard reliably generally requires $3k-$4k in additional parts. Do that and you’ll have a fantastic car, but with the very steep cost of entry, you can be looking at a total of more than $15,000 for a well-sorted example. That money could be used to build a reliable turbo NB Miata that will absolutely blow the MSM out of the water in every metric besides resale value.
While looked down on by enthusiasts as a softer, more touring-oriented offering to grow the client-base, the NC does have a few saving graces.
(you almost feel bad for the BRZ…)
What to buy, depending on budget
$2000 and less
If it runs, stops, isn’t a pile of rust, and has a clean title congratulations! You’ll still find the occasional NA6 in this price range that meets the above criteria.
NA8 basketcases are also somewhat well-represented in this bracket and if you’re looking for a project car, you could do much worse.
Clean NA shells without running gear are another option.
NBs in this price bracket will have major crash damage, no running gear, branded titles, or more likely a combination of the three. NC and ND Miatas will not be found in the sub-$2000 range.
Expect to find NA6’s with high mileage (over 200,000) ranging from beat-to-shit to decent daily driver with a bit of work.
Branded title high mileage NA8’s that are mechanically sound will also be found here.Basket case M-edition Miatas make their way down to this level, and if the body is clean and the frame is sound, they can be a solid investment in a rare Miata. That said, expect them to be very high mileage with numerous issues to sort through to get a good, reliable daily driver.
Mechanically sound NB1’s with major paint and/or body issues.
This is where you’ll start to see the modified NA and NB Miatas, though at this level it’s almost entirely mods you don’t want. Think flimsy quick-release steering wheels, spike lug nuts, crown royal shift boots, cheap LED headlights, red anodized aluminum intakes, etc…
The more tired and ratty performance-oriented builds can be found at the top end of the range, usually on high mileage cars, either needing minor work and/or having a branded title. This is by far the best way to save money if you’re planning on building a faster Miata, but sorting through the chaff takes specific knowledge of the Miata aftermarket. General rule of thumb, anybody claiming power gains from exhaust or intake on their NA or NB Miata will know the same if not less than you do, and as such you shouldn’t trust their build. One of the easiest ways to tell if you’re getting a decent build spec when unfamiliar with the platform and common upgrade paths is by asking how much the wheels weigh (assuming they’re aftermarket). Because of the low relative cost to performance gain, 99% of the people who built their Miata with performance in mind will be running 15x7 or 15x8’s in this price bracket, with weights ranging from 10.5 to about 13 pounds. If they have aftermarket wheels and clearly have no idea what they weigh, you’re probably best looking elsewhere. Midrange suspension upgrades like Flyin’ Miata, Koni, and Bilstein will be seen in many of these builds. Rollbars also start to appear in this price range, as do catback exhausts.
Nice, stock NA6 daily drivers, in the 100k-200k mile range. Should be mechanically sound, and good cosmetically.
Nice NA8 daily drivers. This is the sweet spot for the NA8. you should be able to find a well-maintained example with a torsion LSD. More uncommon colors will become available at this price bracket. Sub-100k mile cars will be available, but I wouldn’t let the mileage sway you too much.
Solid daily driver M-edition NA8’s are common in this range. With unique seats, paint, interior colors, wheels, bracing, and suspension among other upgrades, These will be the best bang for your buck if you want an NA with good performance, and don’t plan on modding.
NB daily drivers. Especially at the top of this range, you should find very nice examples of the NB1 and NB2, in great shape mechanically and cosmetically. Mileage will be all over the map. Look for examples with the Sport Package to take advantage of the better components offered from the manufacturer.
This is also where you start seeing the “OEM frankenbuilds”, where enthusiasts add the best parts of multiple Miatas into one. An NA6 chassis with NA8 brakes and the NB2 VVT engine, for example. Depending on your level of mechanical inclination, this can be an incredible entry into the Miata world at an affordable price. For track junkies, this is by far the most common upgrade path, and can be scored second hand for just a fraction of a fraction of the cost it would take to do yourself.
You’ll see turbo builds that should be avoided. They will need significant time and money invested at this price to be a solid daily. A low-power supercharged build that won’t grenade itself immediately can be found here, but don’t expect more than a 50hp gain over stock.
Stance, and builds geared towards car shows in general can be found here. Think along the lines of the quick-release steering wheel and Crown Royal shift boot builds in the last bracket, but add deep dish wheels, suspension “upgrades” and stickers. Lots of stickers.
Absolute basketcase MazdaSpeedMiata. It will not be running. If it is running, you should be too as *spoiler alert!* your organs are about to be harvested. If you find a good example with a blown headgasket or similar, jump into it. These generally go for 2-3 as much when in good mechanical condition.
NA and NB engine swaps stopped midway often end up in this price bracket, along with a large pile of parts. Not recommended unless you’re especially ambitious and know your way around the Miata platform and aftermarket.
NC’s with branded titles and major damage can be found here. If you want a project and need a bit more comfort than the older generations can offer, this isn’t the worst way to go.
The nicer M-edition Miatas will generally be sitting in this price bracket. Look for stock examples with service histories and very good mechanical and cosmetic bills of health.
The NB 10AE special edition can be found here, in good condition with minor cosmetic issues and average miles.
Very high-quality naturally aspirated builds on the NA and NB platform can be found here quite often. Expect anywhere from $5k-$10k worth of parts designed and built by companies that have a vested interest in producing the absolute best, since their average clients will be putting their products to the test. This is a fantastic way to score a built Miata from someone who has intimate knowledge with the platform.
Nice supercharged NA6 and NA8 builds can be found here as well. Expect modest power gain and keep in mind that product support isn’t likely going to be great, as blowers have become much less common on this platform now that turbos are better in almost every regard. Many of the companies offering superchargers 10-15 years ago are no longer around, at least in the Miata community.
Nice budget turbo builds will be found here. Think Ebay component spec and MKTurbo on the low end, Begi and Flyin’ Miata on the higher end. Expect 200-250 hp at the wheels, and all accompanying mods for a solid daily driver. Do not expect to be able to track it reliably without further work in this price bracket.
Branded title, higher mileage MazdaSpeedMiata’s that would be good daily driver candidates can be found here.
Low mileage, very well preserved NA’s with full service records dominate this category. Sub 60,000 miles is common in this price bracket, and cosmetically most examples are very good to excellent. If money isn’t an issue, this is a good way to get a “fresh” NA to start a cleansheet build or leave stock and enjoy for years.
The NB 10AE Miata’s is this price bracket will be the best of the bunch, in cosmetically flawless conditon, with sub-100k miles and all the collectable trappings that came with the car from the factory.
Fairly well-sorted engine swaps begin to appear in this range. Expect to find Honda K-swaps, 302’s, and the rare J-series or LS swap. Transmissions at this level will generally be a stock 5 speed, 6 speed, BMW sourced manual, or ocassionaly a T5/T56. A certain level of mechanical aptitude would be recommended before considering this path.
Potential daily driver MazdaSpeedMiata’s can be found here, generally with minor modifications, average mileage and minor cosmetic and mechanical issues. Title should be clean.
The MazdaSpeedMiata’s that are cosmetically and mechanically sound, and have had all factory issues addressed with aftermarket parts. Either OEM+ or modified with high-quality parts, these will be the MSM’s that need nothing to reliably serve you for years to come.
On the rare occasion when they go up for sale, high-end turbo builds using the best components available for Miatas will usally be found in this price bracket. You won’t see any Garrett turbos here, instead you’ll be looking at either the Borg-warner 6258, or 6758 based on power goals. You can expect reliability to be significantly above that of Mazda’s own foray into turbocharging Miatas, and extended track use should not be a problem. Power will be in the 250-400hp range, boost lag will be almost non-existent. Look for top-end Miata-specific suspension like Xida or Fatcat coilovers, wheels ranging from 15x8 to 15x12 with appropriately sticky tires, and big brakes with floating calipers. Dyno graphs, lap times, and build threads are what you want to ask for here.
The well-sorted LSx builds by private parties are generally in this price bracket. Expect to see large part lists from either Flyin’ Miata or V8 Roadsters, or an owner with significant fabricating experience. At this price level everything should work, and the car should be fully buttoned up. Although much less common, LFX swaps, as well as more exotic japanese engines can be found here as well.
Racecars with a pedigree. Turbo builds like above, but kicked up a notch. Often times you’ll find development mules for the more well-known vendors in this price range. Think 400hp Borg-warner turbo build, with sequential transmission, GPS-enabled on-the-fly adjustable suspension, and custom one-of parts.
Showroof fresh NA Miatas with under 10k miles. Do not buy these. The owners should hold onto them until death as a fitting punishment for relegating one of the most enjoyable budget cars out there to an investment.
Secondhand sales from the well-known Miata shops. You’ll find V8 builds, high-power turbo street builds, and class-leading track builds. Look for a shop with a proven record at the track. All cars in this bracket should represent the top of their field, and be dead reliable.
Used ND Miata.
$30,000 and above
Turn-key builds offered by the likes of Supermiata, Trackspeed Engineering, V8 roadsters, Flyin’ Miata, etc. Both options and price will be near limitless.
A Brand new ND Miata!
Buy a 2001-2002 NB2 with the sport package, or a 94 NA8 with a torsion LSD and the R package, assuming you can find it. If money is no object, Buy a Mint NA6 Miata in Sunburst Yellow, send it off to V8 Roadsters and request an LS sleeper build.