Is an MX-5 Miata a Good First Car? (5 Strengths + Drawbacks)
The Mazda MX-5 Miata is an excellent choice if you’re after an affordable sporty first car.
But it lacks the safety credentials that better first cars have.
5 Reasons the Mazda MX-5 Miata Is a Good First Car
#1 Adequately Powerful (But Not Too Fast)
Horsepower increased from one generation to the next, but the added grunt in the inline-four engine never upset the finely balanced chassis that makes the Miata enjoyable to drive.
The first-generation NA Miata began with 116 hp, while the fourth-generation ND Miata is the most powerful with 181 hp.
However, Miata’s featherweight construction means you can have a ton of fun without a mighty engine.
The Miata is pretty quick, but it’s nowhere near capable of landing a new driver in trouble.
#2 Impressive Fuel Economy for a Sports Car
The fourth-gen Miata with the manual transmission can return an impressive 29 mpg combined (26 city/34 highway).
It is one of the thriftiest entry-level sports cars.
|Fuel Econ. (manual)|
|Mazda Miata||29 mpg combined|
|VW Golf GTI||27 mpg combined|
|Subaru BRZ||24 mpg combined|
|Ford Mustang||24 mpg combined|
That said, premium fuel may be necessary depending on the model year.
#3 One of the Cheapest Cars to Insure for Teens
Sports and sporty cars are typically costly to insure for young drivers due to the combination of powerful engines and driving inexperience that leads to a higher likelihood of collisions.
However, Mazda’s strong reliability record and the MX-5’s affordable price make the Miata one of the less expensive sports cars to insure.
An MX-5 Miata costs around $4,291/year or $358/month for full coverage (see references below).
It is cheaper to insure than many sports cars and even the Toyota Corolla.
|Full Coverage for Teen Drivers|
Besides vehicle model and driver’s age, insurance premiums can vary significantly depending on the location.
The most expensive zip codes can be 2x to 3x the insurance cost of the cheapest, so take these figures only as a guide.
You should request quotes from multiple insurers for an accurate estimate.
#4 Relatively Inexpensive Upkeep
RepairPal estimated the Miata’s annual repair and maintenance cost at $429, slightly less than the $456 average for subcompact cars.
Most subcompact cars ride on the front-wheel-drive system, which tends to be less expensive to buy and maintain than the rear-wheel-drive setup.
This fact makes the sporty RWD Miata’s inexpensive maintenance even more impressive.
Elsewhere, CarEdge’s Least Expensive Cars to Maintain ranked the MX-5 Miata favorably in upkeep costs.
You can expect a brand-new Miata to have a 5-year total maintenance cost in the region of $1,500 (#35 out of 164 cars) and $5,700 (#31 out of 164 cars) at the full-decade mark.
Let’s see how the Miata compare to the cheapest, other sporty cars and one of the most expensive to maintain.
|5-yr Maint.||10-yr Maint.|
|VW Golf GTI||$1,539||$5,576|
|Mazda MX-5 Miata||$1,564||$5,761|
As far as sporty cars go, the Miata is as inexpensive to maintain as the VW Golf GTI and Hyundai Veloster.
Plus, it’s cheaper than the:
#5 Moderate Ride Comfort
Two-seat roadsters aren’t known for being comfortable, but the MX-5 Miata bucks that trend with a compliant enough suspension that makes the day-to-day ride tolerable.
But if a jittery ride concerns you, skip the Club version with its stiffer suspension setting.
Plus, getting comfortable inside most Miatas could be a struggle if you’re tall, especially with the top up.
Among the four generations, the NC Miata is probably the best fit for taller drivers.
MX-5 Miata Drawbacks You Should Note
Lightweight RWD Car
Performance cars aim to shed weight to improve the power to weight ratio and thus speed.
A rear-wheel-drive car accelerates faster than a similar-spec front-wheel-drive vehicle due to the transferred weight to the back wheels improving traction.
Combine the Miata’s featherweight construction with power delivered exclusively to the rear wheels, and spinning becomes an increased risk for inexperienced drivers in slippery conditions.
That said, it’s not a significant issue for drivers in regions that enjoy primarily sunny weather all year round.
Low Seating Position
Sharing the road with other larger vehicles in a small and low-slung Miata is a safety risk.
It is a tiny car that other drivers tend to miss when changing lanes or pulling out.
New drivers face this hazard mainly due to their inexperience in judging distances and the heightened risks of driving close to larger and taller vehicles.
Limited ground clearance
The MX-5 Miata has a ground clearance ranging from 4 inches to a little over 5 inches unladen, depending on the trim and model year.
Entering or exiting the car could be difficult for taller people.
Plus, you may need to clear speed bumps and humps slowly and at an angle to avoid scratching the car’s underside.
Thankfully, the short wheelbase helps.
Intrusive Cabin Noise
The Miata’s cabin remains noisy with the top up or down – a common issue with soft and hardtop convertibles.
Road and wind noise can get unbearably loud in highway drives, and test your will on long commutes.
The thinly insulated top, when up, slightly improves the situation.
Nevertheless, the noise level is acceptable when driving in the city at lower speeds.
No driver should expect a two-seat convertible to be a utilitarian machine, so the shortage of space in the Miata is hardly surprising.
The tiny trunk, no back seat, and limited cabin space mean you shouldn’t get a Miata expecting to haul much of anything.
Plus, a road trip for more than two is out of the question.
Getting in and out of a Miata with the top up is demanding, given its low-slung design.
A convertible is a car for the sunny weather.
Visibility is excellent with the top down and wind in your face.
But the view out of the Miata becomes more challenging with the top up as the windshield pillars are relatively thick and the side windows are small.
The rearward view is similarly limited with the high head restraints in a tiny cabin.
Which Miata Generation Is the Better First Car?
MX-5 Miatas have spanned more than three decades, covering four generations.
All Miatas have a supremely balanced chassis and are fun to drive.
- Fuel Economy: mpg city/highway/combined (base; manual).
- Fuel Type: (rec.) = recommended.
- Horsepower: base model.
- Reliability: /100; higher = fewer problems (JD Power).
|Model Year||Fuel Econ.||Fuel Type||Horsepower||Reliability|
|4th Gen: ND Miata|
|2022 Miata||26/34/29||Premium (rec.)||181 hp||NA|
|2021 Miata||26/34/29||Premium (rec.)||181 hp||NA|
|2020 Miata||26/34/29||Premium (rec.)||181 hp||NA|
|2019 Miata||26/34/29||Premium (rec.)||181 hp||77/100|
|2018 Miata||26/33/29||Premium (rec.)||155 hp||NA|
|2017 Miata||26/33/29||Premium (rec.)||155 hp||83/100|
|2016 Miata||27/34/30||Premium (rec.)||155 hp||84/100|
|3rd Gen: NC Miata|
|2015 Miata||22/28/25||Premium (rec.)||167 hp||79/100|
|2014 Miata||22/28/25||Premium (rec.)||167 hp||79/100|
|2013 Miata||22/28/25||Premium (rec.)||167 hp||80/100|
|2012 Miata||22/28/25||Premium (rec.)||167 hp||81/100|
|2011 Miata||22/28/25||Premium (rec.)||167 hp||81/100|
|2010 Miata||22/28/24||Premium||167 hp||83/100|
|2009 Miata||22/28/24||Premium||167 hp||NA|
|2008 Miata||22/27/24||Premium||166 hp||83/100|
|2007 Miata||22/27/24||Premium||166 hp||83/100|
|2006 Miata||22/27/24||Premium||170 hp||NA|
|2nd Gen: NB Miata|
|1999-2005 Miata||20/26/23||‘01-‘05 Premium ‘99-‘00 Regular||’01-‘05 142 hp ’99-‘00 140 hp||NA|
|1st Gen: NA Miata|
|1990-1997 Miata||20/26/22||Regular||’96-’97 133 hp ’94-’95 128 hp ’90-‘93 116 hp||NA|
The relative pluses and minuses between the MX-5 Miata generations:
|1st Gen Miata(NA)||Least powerful. Regular gas. Cheapest to buy.||Lightest (2,116 – 2,293 lbs). Lacks safety features. Very old, but relatively inexpensive upkeep.|
|2nd Gen Miata (NB)||Gained lbs (2,299 – 2,447). Regular gas (only 1999 and 2000 models).||Still lacks safety features. Premium gas required (2001-2005).|
|3rd Gen Miata (NC)||Heaviest (2,474 – 2,619 lbs). Good fuel economy. Improved ride comfort over NA and NB. Roomiest – better for tall drivers.||Premium gas required (2006-2010). Adequate safety features – airbags, ABS, EBA.|
|4th Gen Miata (ND)||Lightweight (2,332 – 2,403 lbs) and the most powerful. Significantly more fuel-efficient than previous generations. Latest in safety features.||Most expensive.|
Lightweight and high horsepower are a desirable combination for enthusiasts, but for a first car, heavier is generally safer.
NA Miatas are the least expensive of all four generations and are the obvious choice for shoppers hunting for the cheapest MX-5.
That said, NA Miatas aren’t ideal for a first car because they do not come with airbags or safety features found in newer generations.
Plus, they’re old but popular second cars with high mileage, so finding one in good condition will be challenging.
The second-gen NB Miata improved the NA’s power output, driving dynamics, and interior quality while remaining inexpensive.
Still, most NB Miatas do not have airbags and other safety aids, such as anti-lock brake system (ABS) and emergency braking assist (EBA), so they aren’t safe for teen drivers.
Overall, the third-gen NC Miata is probably the best Miata for your first car with a combination of modest pricing, moderate fuel economy, adequate safety features (incl. airbags), and heavier yet is abundantly fun to drive.
The fourth-gen ND Miata is an all-around excellent entry-level sports car, built like the NB but significantly more refined, and is the better and safer first car.
However, the high price tag pushes it out of many first car shoppers’ reach.
Does the Mazda MX-5 Miata Hold Value?
MX-5 Miatas hold value incredibly well, which has its benefit and drawback.
If buying new, you lose less when re-selling, provided you looked after it well.
But if you’re buying a used Miata, prices will remain relatively high compared to other used vehicles of similar age and specification.
On the upside, you know you’re getting an inexpensive, reliable vehicle to operate.
Brand-new Miatas depreciate the most in the first year (most cars do), but the depreciation rate slows and stabilizes in subsequent years.
The table below assumes a brand-new MX-5 Miata mid-trim Club that retails approx. $31,000.
|Vehicle Age||Depreciation||Value Lost||Resale Value|
Let’s see how the Miata’s low depreciation compares to that of the VW Golf GTI, Subaru WRX, Subaru BRZ, and other sedans.
|1-yr Depreciation||5-yr Depreciation||10-yr Depreciation|
|Mazda MX-5 Miata||15%||38%||55%|
|VW Golf GTI||23%||54%||77%|
The BMW 3-Series is a luxury sedan with high depreciation, while the Honda Civic holds value well for a compact sedan.
Their inclusion provides a clearer picture of the entry-level sports cars in value retention.
As most first car shoppers targeting a Miata won’t be buying new, any Miata is good value, as long as you skip the ones that spent less than a year on the road.
MX-5 Miata Compared with Other First Cars
The mixed credentials mean your first car research should extend beyond the Miata.
- Fuel Economy: mpg combined (manual).
- Maintenance Costs: per year avg. (RepairPal).
- Safety (IIHS): 1 (poor) to 4 (good); IIHS tests average.
- Safety (NHTSA): 1 (poor) to 5 (safest); NHTSA overall.
- excellent, good, average, poor.
|Horsepower||Fuel Econ.||Maint. Costs||Safety (IIHS)||Safety (NHTSA)||Visibility|
|Mazda Miata||116-181 hp||29||$429||NA||NA||Average|
|Subaru BRZ||205-228 hp||24||$672||3.8/4||NA||Good|
|VW Golf GTI||210-228 hp||27||$791||3.8/4||5/5||Good|
|Mazda 3 Turbo||227 hp||27 auto||$433+||4/4||5/5||Average|
|Honda Civic Si||197-205 hp||30||$368+||4/4||5/5||Good|
|Honda Civic||110-158 hp||33||$368||4/4||5/5||Good|
The Miata is a rear-wheel-drive vehicle and may not suit teen drivers living in snowy regions or wet climates.
In that case, the Volkswagen Golf GTI is the better deal with its front-wheel-drive system, even though the less-powerful regular VW Golf is more suitable as a first car.
The Mazda 3 Turbo is an excellent first choice for young drivers who desire more but manageable power delivered through an all-wheel-drive system.
Alternatively, the Honda Civic Si drives and handles well and has a four-door layout that suits your practical needs.
Your first car search isn’t complete until you test-drive a Honda Civic.
It’s arguably one of the best first cars with sharp handling, excellent fuel economy, and a thoroughly affordable ownership cost.
Plus, the Civic is a safe vehicle.