Market Spotlight

The end of the cheap Miata is near

by Preston Lerner
7 December 2021 5 min read
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Photo by Mazda

When Vivian Topaz was 14, she told her father she wanted a Miata. He immediately vetoed the idea.

“He said, ‘You’re not getting a Miata. It’s a hairdresser’s car,’” she recalls, “I said, ‘No! It’s the cutest car ever.’ I found one in Ojai on a dirt lot. The guy wanted $700 for it. I’m like, ‘Oh, my god! Dad, we have to get that car!’”

The 1995 Miata had “horrible” paint, a failing water pump, and an improperly timed ignition. But Topaz and her father were able to drive it home. Three years later, she’s put 20,000 miles on the car, which now features a roll cage, new body panels, an upgraded suspension and bigger wheels and tires. 

“The Miata is the perfect first car,” she says. “It’s cheap, there are so many aftermarket applications for it, and I can work on it by myself.” Topaz, a certified welder, has only one complaint about the Miata. “Prices are going crazy,” she says. “You used to be able to get cars for 500 or 600 bucks. Now they’re $1500 or two grand.”

Granted, $2000 still sounds like an epic bargain, especially if you normally haunt Bring a Trailer auctions. But Miata prices are skyrocketing just as quickly as you move up the food chain. During the past year, for example, the Hagerty Price Guide shows that the value of a condition #2 (Excellent) 1992 Miata has risen from a tick under $15,500 to $18,300.

Of course, the Miata isn’t a complete outlier in the collectible-car world. The prices of Japanese sports cars in general have zoomed ever upward as the love affair with “youngtimer” models continues to flourish. But the Miata isn’t riding this wave so much as it’s helping propel it. Prices of 1990-97 Miatas have climbed by 130 percent during the past five years, according to Hagerty data—that’s nearly twice the national average. 

miata
Most NA Miata interiors are quite ragged these days, but more owners are spending money to restore them.

Cars become collectible for a variety of reasons. Scarcity, cachet, looks, performance, nostalgia, perversity, whatever. In the case of the Miata, the most important reason for its success is its fundamental goodness.

Introduced in 1989 as a 1990 model, the MX-5—as the car is sold elsewhere in the world – married the pluck and open-air panache of British roadsters with the build-quality and indestructibility of Japanese family sedans. It was an immediate hit with both car-buying consumers and car-reviewing journalists, and it’s never fallen out of favor. “Miata is always the answer” is such a long-running cliché that it’s become a post-ironic meme.

Although the Miata has gone through four iterations over the past 32 years, most people associate the nameplate with the original car, a cute-as-a-bug ragtop with flip-up headlights known internally as the NA. The second-generation NB (1999-2005) and third-gen NC (2006-15) moved progressively further away from the purity of the NA. The current ND, which debuted in 2016, makes a good-faith effort to return to the jinba ittai– horse and rider – concept baked into the first Miata. But the NA remains sui generis, a unicorn that defies replication.

Even as the world has changed, the first-gen MX-5 never went out of style. And it’s now finding a new audience with young buyers who see the car as an exemplar of an automotive world they were born too late to enjoy. According to Hagerty’s research, members of the Gen X cohort (born between 1965 and 1981) don’t have much interest in Miatas, period, maybe because they grew up with them, and familiarity breeds contempt. But millennials and Gen Zers have a yen for the NA. 

Larry Oka, who owns one of the largest and longest-running race-car rental businesses on the West Coast, focuses on first-gen Miatas and nothing but first-gen Miatas. Since he’s always looking for cars to transform into Spec Miatas or freshen up for resale, he keeps a close eye on the market, and he’s got a theory about why prices are climbing so inexorably.

“The high school kids are snatching them up because they’re fun cars with a stick shift. They’re also entry-level, and they’re fully depreciated,” he says. “They want something with an airbag for their parents, that gets 30 miles per gallon on regular gas and that’s easy to work on in their driveway.” In other words, an NA.

Generally speaking, younger buyers don’t have a lot of money to spend, which means they often start with beaters that they use as daily drivers. The idea of returning a car to stock form seems to be an alien notion to owners who’d rather invest in modifications that make their cars faster or lower or more comfortable.

Jack Heideman, a 25-year-old engineer, bought a ’91 for $1100 six years ago. “I was looking to get a cheap car to autocross,” he says. “My goal was to find a Miata for a thousand bucks. The alignment bolts were rusted solid into the bushings, so it turned into a nightmare.” Although Heideman modded the car extensively, he returned it to stock form before selling it last year. Most owners aren’t so fastidious. “Most of the cars I see now are hacked,” he says.

But NAs don’t appeal only to young consumers on tight budgets. Hagerty data also shows that they’re also popular with boomers and so-called pre-boomers. Older and with more disposable income, these buyers are willing to pay a premium for nicer cars that embody the qualities that made the Miata an instant classic when it debuted.

John Linney owned a right-hand drive MX-5 – which he thought of as a bulletproof Lotus Elan – while he was living in the United Kingdom in the 1990s. Now 62 and settled in California, he recently bought a 1991 model with 31,000 miles from the original owner. 

“It’s a perfectly balanced car,” he says. “It seems to run out of traction at the same time it runs out of power. But the lack of power is an attribute rather than a bug. The Miata is a car you can drive on the limit on public roads without risking life and limb. It’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow.”

Another selling point of the NA is dependability. Yes, most Miata projects can be tackled by a modestly accomplished shade-tree mechanic. But unless the car has been hot-rodded injudiciously or run into the ground, it shouldn’t require much in the way of DIY wrenching.

“I’ve driven three NAs over the Alcan Highway to Alaska from Raleigh, Kansas City and Sacramento, says Kevin Kastner, director of marketing and sales at Moss Motors, a major Miata aftermarket parts supplier. “There is no car that offers nearly as much fun, simplicity, and reliability.”

Fun, simplicity and reliability will always be part of the Miata recipe, but in terms of affordability, things are shifting. Alas, the days of first-gen bargains are receding in the rear-view mirror. Even on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, it’s rare to see anything under $2500, and most cars slot in between $5000 and $10,000. (The average condition #3, or "Good" condition value for an NA in the Hagerty Price Guide is $9,400.) But what’s really stunning, at least to people who’ve following watching this segment for a while, is the proliferation of high-end sales. The average condition #1 (Concours) value in the Hagerty Price Guide for an NA is a whopping $31,900.

“We have seen an increase in ‘restoration-style’ products for the NA,” says Keith Tanner, director of ecommerce and systems at Flyin' Miata, another big aftermarket parts company. “Still lots of pure performance stuff—people are more willing to pay $2000 for a suspension today than they were 20 years ago—but people are putting the money into them to fix them up instead of leaving them ratty.”

Which begs the question: Can prices keep rising, or has the spike been the product of the lockdown, social-media enthusiasm or what economists call irrational exuberance? It’s odd to think about a car built in such large numbers—more than 400,000 units from 1989 to 1997—graduating to collectible status. Then again, who doesn’t like the Miata? Even as automobiles powered by internal-combustion engines are being increasingly demonized, the spunky Japanese two-seater still has the power to put smiles on people’s faces. And you know what they say:

 Miata is always the answer.

Comments

  • Bill Thomas says:

    Terrific article. After lusting after a Miata for 30 years– ideally as a second car– I finally pulled the trigger this summer, settling on a clean 1999 NB after watching the prices of NA series Miata’s skyrocket. What a blast to drive, and so easy to work on. I should have bought one years ago!

  • Carlos Hendricks says:

    Right On!! I’ve owned my NA 1991 from 2001 and have never thought of parting with it; it’s everything this article describes and more; the more mods you add on is the more Miata junkie you’ll become; pure joy even on a daily commute to work. Love my Minis, love my Porsche and just the same, love my Miata. We are a huge family out there.
    Kudos to the great article.

  • Jeff Austin says:

    They will pry the keys to my ’92 Black and Tan from my cold, dead fingers. And even then, good luck!

  • Miatom says:

    I use my 2000 nb automatic for pizza delivery. Its the perfect car for it. There is no car i would rather drive for this job

  • LittleCarBigSky says:

    Ugh. I’ve owned my 1990 NA for over 20 years. (Paid around $4,500 at the time) Looks like it’s time to call Hagerty and up my coverage.

    • Don says:

      I have an all original 90 ,not sure if I want to repaint the red , normal road wear on the paint,runs like a clock, 5 speed is still a joy to work with,don,t know what the value is ,but Haggerty rep told me the value is rising quickly

  • Joni says:

    I bought my 1997 Miata black and white in 2015 and I love driving it. I gave her a new paint job, new top, clutch, brake’s and tiers. She was worth every penny.

  • Lenny A Willingham says:

    I absolutely love my 2016 Miata, bought from original owner with a little over 11,000 miles on it!! My first was a 1990 with the flip up headlights!! I bought it in 1997 for $5,000.00 and sold it in 2003 for the Same price!! I’m a Harley rider for most of my life but I can be IN THE WIND in my Miata with the top down and it’s safer with 4 wheels!! I’ll love it for years to come….it’s a blast!!!!

  • Kathleen says:

    Here, they are post-midlife crisis cars for rich geezers. The romance is gone.

  • Carl Benz says:

    I have a ND2 RF and it’s simply the best car I have ever owned. Great on gas, cheap to own and a blast to drive. Someone tried to buy it from me at a gas station ! No Sale .. it’s mine for a long long time

  • Ray says:

    I may need to up my Hagerty coverage. My black 95 is a bit of a garage queen. I had her painted almost 2yrs ago. At great expense I may add. But she’s glass perfect. Almost 140k, 1 family owned till me.

  • Stephen Abbate says:

    There nice if you don’t mind getting dusted by a mini van driven by the proverbial soccer mom.

    • Russ Boyett says:

      As to the remark re: getting dusted by a soccer mom in a minivan, I would be quite confident that if driving on a twisty back road with some tight corners and short sightlines that it wouldn’t take long for the minivan to no longer be visible in the rearview mirror. Miatas are not drag racers. Put them in their element and they can show their tailights to a number of higher powered vehicles. Not that I have ever participated in any such speed contests! :):):)

  • Scott McPherson says:

    I lived in Arkansas in 1989, ordered a Miata and received the first one to enter the state. A unique car that was good on paper and a blast to drive and own. So many times a car is either one or the other, the Miata is both. I have told this story many times. I drove the car back home from Branson to Little Rock through the Ozarks, which was a 4 hour drive. I got home made myself a sandwich and gulped down an ice tea and headed out for another drive before dark. It really is that much fun. I literally didn’t want the fun to end. Fast forward 30 years and I have owned 6 since that original 1990 in the beginning. I’ll own one for a couple years and feel guilty for having so much fun as it is a car I enjoy solo. Then I sell it and do without as long as I can. Nothing brings a smile to my face and others like this 4wheel little jewel.

  • Scott Landry says:

    After coveting one of these for the last few decades my wife and I finally got a ’90 Miata…the first year. This is also what introduced us to Hagerty.

    I can only amplify what has been written in the article. The car handles like a little British roadster while it maintains the reliability of a 90s Japanese car.

    To date we’ve only driven it for “occasions” but Lucy (her name, she’s red) has already given back to us MUCH more than we’ve asked for.

    She cost us $9,000 and we got her from a very nice couple from the Muskegon area who were the original owners. She’s in original condition and is in top shape. A new rag top (we got canvas instead of vinyl to add to the British feel) and she looks absolutely amazing going down the road.

    I do all the work on her and she’s very easy to maintain.

    I would recommend one to anyone that is interested in a classic car. They make great entry vehicles.

  • OldFordMan says:

    What do you expect? It is MAZDA quality! They engineer for the masses.

  • Mark Hunter says:

    The 1.6 and 1.8 lend themselves to being Turbo charged very well. Add some suspension upgrades with about 12 lbs of boost it will smoke a Boxster and keep up with most early 911’s . All for around 10K

  • Mike G. says:

    I bought my 1990 Miata in the summer, 31 years ago. I’d read about them and was in the market for a used something, as I had two teen aged drivers hogging our other two cars. Then one day I saw it sitting on a Mazda dealer’s lot with 4000 miles on it. On an impulse I drove in and took it for a ride. The rest, as they say, is history. After all these years, it’s still a hoot to drive, the styling has held up better than all the others, maintenance-wise it has cost next to nothing over the years, it looks almost brand new (~113,000 miles) and I’ve gotten to where I talk to it when out in the garage. And it’s still a hoot to drive… did I say that?

  • RobL says:

    More than a decade ago. Jay Leno wrote in Popular Mechanics that the NA Miata’s had reached the bottom, and the future collectability would raise the prices. I always liked the car and purchased a 1990 on E-Bay for $2500.00. A coat of 1970 Chrysler Sublime Green made the car visible. It’s been my summer daily driver ever since. It’s a rare northeast rust free garaged car. I have a growing list of suiters who are waiting for me to sell the car.

  • Scott Landry says:

    MiataMecca is a fantastic site for parts. Owner is very friendly and responsive.

  • Rosie says:

    Purchased my Miata in 1991. Best fun little car I have ever owned. Drove it for 12 years until I purchased another car and couldn’t part with it. It’s sitting in my garage and needs work and I’m excited to drive it again. People stop and ask if I would sell it but there is no way I will part with it because I know how much pleasure it will continue to bring me. I still remember those Sunday afternoons driving with the top down, the sun shining and wind blowing through my hair. It’s red with a license plate, “redrose”. Thinking about it brings me happiness!

  • Anne Mullen says:

    I took delivery of a 1990 white Miata on Halloween 1989. I drive it every day we’re here in Dallas, and if it’s over 55 degrees, the top is down. My dad sold fancy cars in Philadelphia, and he had a purple Aston Martin Shooting Brake. I figured if my formal, Philadelphia father could have a purple car, so could I, so my Miata has been purple for about 25 years. I’ve only got about 120,000 miles on it; it runs like a top, and has not had hardly any problems in its 32 years. As the guy said, they’ll have to pry the keys out of my old dead hands to keep me out of it.

  • Matt says:

    Be careful if you live in an area of the country with mandatory emissions inspections. After retiring from law enforcement I drove a shuttle for a local Mazda dealer. Plenty of people were showing up with cheaply purchased 20+ year old Miata’s with check engine lights on. They found out the necessary repairs and parts to get into compliance with the DOT we’re double or triple what they paid for their “fun” roadsters.

  • Caden A. says:

    In 1997, a Miata was a rare sight in my small Tennessee town. That year, I graduated high school and the 97 M Edition in Mica Green was the only car I wanted. Living in “truck country”, I never got that Miata as a high school graduation present. Almost 2 years ago, I finally found my like new/low milage 97 M. Although I paid premium price, I couldn’t be happier. This article confirms that the appreciation/desire for such a wonderful car is growing and I love it!

  • Russ Boyett says:

    I was a salesman at a Mazda dealership in Lewiston Idaho in 1989 and got to sell some of the first Miatas to come into the area. The first time I took one out to familiarize myself with it I was, as the saying goes, (Gobsmacked!) Since then, I’ve owned 4 NA’s –1996,1990,1991 and the 1997 STO that is sitting in my garage as we speak. It has less that 40,000 on the odometer and has a color matched hardtop. Given the condition and low miles I am having a real struggle even driving it as I watch cars like it sell for some really crazy numbers on BAT. It’s almost too nice to drive on a regular basis and I’m considering putting it up on the market and finding one that is more of a driver. I do my own maintenance and know the cars quite well so a project one would work well for me. This is probably the first car I’ve owned that transitioned from a nice driver to a real collector during my ownership. I’ve owned over 100 cars/trucks in my lifetime and I usually came out good when it came time to sell. I have never done a full on restoration, mostly just mechanical, cleanup and polish. I’ve always like to drive the vehicles I own and to be in this situation feels kind of unreal. Suggestions?

  • Ben says:

    It’s odd to think about a car built in such large numbers—more than 400,000 units from 1989 to 1997—graduating to collectible status.

    I used to think about this but then I remembered how many Mustangs they made and they’re considered collectibles. It’ll happen 🙂

  • Barry says:

    Just bought my 1990 last week, sight unseen, on the good word of a fellow I’ve never met. Didn’t I make the good choice to trust these guys. A beautiful one owner car, 38000kms, Seats like new under aftermarket seat covers. The roof however has a tear so it needs to go. It is however a bit tight for my tall frame.

  • James Knight says:

    I’ve had my 04 NB for a few years now. I bought it for just under 4k before the market blew up. Have not had a single unforeseen repair. I use it as a billboard to promote my charity giveaways and multiple times a month I get decent cash offers for it which I always laugh off.

  • ron says:

    I was very fortunate to find an original owner, full documentation, 50,000 km Canadian edition 1992 Sunburst a couple years back. I regretted selling the ’91 BRG I had a year before. When this car came up I scooped it. It’s the closest I’ve come yet out of my three NA’s to feeling like what it would have been like to buying a brand new one. I love my MGA and I love my NA. It is a true(to me) definition of what a sports car is. Two seats, manual box, light weight with and just enough power that it begs to be wrung out.

  • TOM GAGNIER says:

    Piling on… My 18 ND is a daily driver, 44k miles and a complete joy. Joined a club and got hooked as I added a 90 NA the following year. in March of 22, I added an 02 NB. Fair to now call it a “collection”. All are white, stick and pleasure filled. At 75 y/o I have given up motorcycles but each of these makes it easy to forget two wheels. Plug me into my selections on Pandora, top down of course and it’s as close to heaven as I care to get.

  • Terry Mayer says:

    I’m one of those unfortunate souls who has occasionally looked at Third-Gen Miata’s several times over the last few years, but never bought one. I knew they were decent deals, guess I just figured I could always snag one if I needed it. Not any more.

  • Christine says:

    1993 Mazda Miata, 19,362 miles, brilliant black with tan leather interior and tan top. For sale.
    It was my dad’s. He passed away and I inherited it. He was a miata enthusiast and meticulous about the care of his cars. Especially this one Garaged. Mint.

    • Wendell Montgomery says:

      My interest is piqued. Since 2010 a Mazda Protege’ then Mazda3 (my daily). Pics n more details please.

  • Jonathan says:

    I thought I had my heart set on an NB, because they are a bit more affordable than the NA, and a bit more powerful. But then a ’95 M Edition showed up on Craigslist, 43k miles, unmolested and in beautiful condition. It was love at first sight.

  • Ben says:

    I echo the many comments about a fun car. I was so fortunate to find a 2001 Special Edition BRG in the south with only 46,000 miles. It has spent its life as a garage queen and will continue to do so. My wife and I set out to make a short run last weekend and 200 miles later we returned home. During the drive, while stopped at a light, a fellow yelled out his window to us saying “that car is bad-ass!”. Yeah, my thoughts exactly.

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