Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Second Thoughts: Mazdaspeed NB Miata vs NC MX-5.

(Warning: Unless you are really into cars, and Miatas in particular, you probably don't want to bother reading this un-asked-for and excessively long post.)

When I began researching sports cars, I settled on the Miata pretty quickly. It is essentially the cheapest sports car1 you can buy,2 and it's the lightest one you can get without ponying up the dough for a Lotus Elise or Exige.

I eliminated the first-generation Miata (1990-1997), called the NA,3 due to age and the finicky retractable headlights. I also dismissed the third-gen (2006+) model, called the NC, because I didn't like the styling or the larger size and I wasn't sure I wanted to spend the additional money on one. This process of elimination caused me to only really research the second-gen, or NB, Miata (1999-20054) and eventually lead me to the Mazdaspeed model, which is, in my opinion, the most desirable of the NBs.

Since the time I bought Mia, my 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata, the styling of the NCs has grown on me, and I've discovered that, though they are larger than the NBs, they are actually lighter than the MSM, as long as the NCs in question are not equipped with the power retractable hard top. Thus, I'm now reconsidering my purchase, and, after drivnig Rich's 2006 Grand Touring---thanks, Rich, I've formed some opinions. In this post, I will review the advantages, as I see them, of the MSM over the NC and vice versa.

Advantages of the Mazdaspeed NB
  • Lower price. Certainly, buying an older car saved me money, even compared to an NC with similar mileage. The price advantage isn't as great as you might think, though; because just over 5000 MSMs were made, they are holding their value rather well.
  • More attractive exterior styling. I still like the styling of the face-lifted NBs (2001-2005) better than the current model. The high beltline of the NC, a direct result of European pedestrian-safety regulations is the major aesthetic fault of the NC.
  • More attractive interior styling. The NB's interior is functional and attractive. The NC's isn't terrible, but the extensive use of "piano black," a high-gloss black much darker than the matte "black" plastic out of which the rest of the dash and wheel are made, is too flashy for me.
  • Smaller overall size. The NB is about 2 inches shorter, 1.5 inches narrower, and half an inch lower than the NC. Since I prefer my sports cars to be small and agile, this smaller size is an advantage.
  • Greater power and torque. The MSM offers 178 bhp and 166 lb-ft; NC puts out 166 bhp and 140 lb-ft. Even with the NC's lower weight, the MSM still has an advantage in terms of power-to-weight and torque-to-weight ratios.
  • Better outward visibility. The high beltline of NC not only corrupts the car's appearance, it also makes it more difficult to see out of, especially to the front. The situation is exacerbated by the third-gen's lower seat height. It's hard to know where the front bumper of the car is. The 2008 models have a height adjustment on the driver's seat. I'm not really bothered by this issue, even though I'm quite short; I like to sit low to reduce the height of the center of gravity.
  • Better aftermarket support. Because the NB is mechanically nearly the same as the NA, and those 2 models were made (and popular) for 15 years, there is a huge number of aftermarket parts available through numerous retailers, including Flyin' Miata and Goodwin Racing. Aftermarket support for the NC is growing, but there's not nearly as much, and Goodwin seems to be one of the few retailers with a good selection.
  • Better stock suspension setup. The MSM comes with Bilstien dampers and stiffer-than-usual springs, which give the car a firm, sure-footed, but comfortable ride. This setup also lowers the car by 10 mm, reducing the center of gravity and making the car more attractive. The NC, though it has a more sophisticated suspension, comes from the factory with very soft springs and a ride height that is about an inch and a half too high. This setup leads to excessive body roll and unsightly wheel-fender gaps.
Advantages of the NC
  • Lower age. Even the oldest NC is almost a year and a half younger than my car. Thus, you'd expect fewer failures at any time during ownership of the car.
  • Lower weight. The MSM, with it's turbo, intercooler, associated plumbing, 6-speed transmission, 17x7 wheels, fog lights, and power accessories, weighs 2530 pounds. The NC, without the PRHT,5 can range from 2445 to 2500 pounds. For an apples-to-apples comparison, we should use the weight of the Touring trim level, which includes a 6-speed tranny, 17-inch wheels, fog lights, and the same power accessories; that's 2500 pounds. I admit that the 30-pound difference is barely 1% of the weight of the car, but the point is that the NC is no heavier than the MSM, despite being a larger vehicle.
  • Lower moment of inertia. The massive components of the NC are moved closer to the center of the car. Most notably, the engine is pushed back several inches so that its center of gravity is well behind the front axle, making the latest MX-5 technically a mid-engined car, much like the C5 and C6 Corvettes. In fact, when you open the hood, you can see that the rearmost third of the engine is still hidden under the windshield. Additionally, the fuel tank is pushed a few inches forward. Although both cars have a weight distribution of essentially 50-50 (with a driver in place), the centralized mass of the NC gives it superior handling potential.
  • Longer wheelbase and wider track. The NC is 2 inches longer than the NB, but its wheelbase is 2.5 inches longer. That gives the NC improved high-speed stability and the cost of worsened low-speed maneuverability. The same argument holds for the wider track of the NC. Yes, I realize this point is exactly counter to the one I made about smaller overall dimensions above. Sue me.
  • More extensive use of aluminum. The NB has an aluminum hood and engine head to save weight; the rest of the car is traditional steel construction. The NC, by contrast, sports and aluminum engine block, trunk and suspension arms. You might think that I've already accounted for all the additional aluminum in the NC when I compared the weights of the cars, but Al has merits other than reduced weight, principally corrosion resistance. The only rust I have on Mia is on the lower control arms. If I owned an NC, there wouldn't be any.
  • More advanced chassis and suspension. The NC rides on a shortened version of the RX-8's chassis, which is much stiffer than the NA/NB chassis. Stiffness is even more important in a convertible's chassis than in that of a fixed-roof car. The NC is also sprung by the RX-8's suspension, which is more advanced and robust than the NA/NB. The first 2 generations featured double wishbones at both ends; the NC has double wishbones at the front, but a multi-link setup in the rear. Thus, the NC's suspension has more potential, though, as I mentioned above, not all of that potential is realized when the car rolls out of the factory. Fortunately, aftermarket dampers and springs (and anti-roll bars) are not too expensive. Additionally, the NC's suspension was designed to handle 16- and 17-inch wheels, unlike the suspension on the MSM, which was designed in for the 1990 Miata and intended for 14-inch wheels, but which has been pushed to handle 17-inchers.
  • 5-Lug Hubs. Because the NC's chassis and suspension are modified from those of the RX-8, the NC shares that car's 5-lug hubs. I don't think that 5 lugs are inherently superior to 4 for small cars like the Miata, but there are many more light-weight wheels available in the 5-lug configuration, if you are interested in 16x7 and wider or 17x7 and wider sizes.
  • Naturally aspirated, larger engine. The engine in the NC is naturally, or normally, aspirated, which means you don't have to wait for the turbo to spool up or deal with sudden boost on-set around 3500 RPM. Although the NC is slightly less powerful than the MSM, it gets that power through careful tuning and larger size. There's no replacement for displacement, as some say. Thus, the NC's power delivery is much smoother than the MSM's.
  • Better position for reverse gear. In the MSM, reverse is selected by putting the stick into the rightmost lower position. Since the gears are all placed close together in real space, it's easy for someone new to the car to try to put it into R instead of sixth. The counter-rotating gears prevent the driver from actually doing it, but they do grind when this move is attempted, no doubt producing metal shavings. The shavings may damage the tranny before being collected by the magnetic drain plug. In the NC, reverse gear is located in the leftmost upper position, to the left of first. Additionally, to engage reverse, the driver must press the stick toward the ground a few millimeters before moving left of first and second. These 2 changes make inadvertent shifts to R while moving very unlikely.
  • Superior fit and finish. The NC is just better made than the NB. This difference is most apparent in the interior, but is also evident in the engine bay.
  • Cleverer top design. The NC's top is a Z-fold design that stows a position that is not only more attractive and more secure, but also presents the upper, outer surface to the sun. As a result, not boot is needed to prevent UV damage to the underside of the top, as on the NA/NB. One downside to this design is that there is now no "parcel shelf" behind the occupants for storing small items, but I've never used that space anyway.
  • Roomier interior. The NC offers its occupants a bit more room. This feature isn't terribly important to me, since Alison and I are both small people, but it would come in handy if we ever need to carry any larger folks---say, Nick---around.
So, what conclusions do I draw from this comparison? Well, if I were to make this purchase over again, I'd probably get an NC. I might even be willing to pay the premium for a new car so that I could perform the engine break-in correctly, and be certain all the maintenance was handled properly. I think I'd get the Touring trim level, in Sunlight Silver Metallic or Galaxy Gray Mica, with the soft top, of course. I'd spring for the rear lip spoiler, but I'm not sure whether I'd get the suspension package or just go for aftermarket dampers, springs, anti-roll bars, and limited-slip differential.

I'm not planning to sell Mia anytime soon, though. She's a great little car. Of course, the Miata is scheduled for a mid-generation facelift for model year 2010. The front facia, headlights, and the tail lights will certainly be updated, but it's not yet clear if the interior will be refreshed as well. It's also not clear if any mechanical improvements will be made. I'd love to see the car with a stiffer, lower suspension and direct injection, though I doubt that will happen. Depending on how this facelift turns out, and our financial situation, I could be re-shopping in calendar year 2010 or so.

1 I define a sports car as a 2-seater with rear- or all-wheel drive. Other people may use other definitions for this term, which would then include some cheaper sporty cars such as the base Ford Mustang (4 seats, RWD), the Mini Cooper S (4 seats, FWD, and super-or turbocharged, depending on the generation), or even the CRX (2 seats, FWD).

2 For 2006 and newer cars, you can find or configure a Pontiac Solstice that is cheaper than a similar MX-5, but, given all the problems these cars are having, its additional 300 or 400 pounds, and the tiny trunk which is filled entirely by the top, I was certainly not going to purchase one of those.

3 These codes are Mazda's internal designations for the models, and appear as the fourth and fifth characters in each car's VIN.

4 There was no 1998 Miata. Production of the 1997s ran long, and the 1999s were introduced early to cover the 1998 calendar year.

5 The PRHT adds 77 pounds and surprisingly large number of moving parts to the car.


  1. Hmm. Great article. This is exactly the dilemma that I am currently going through.

  2. After my recent HPDE experience, I'm beginning to second-guess my second-guessing; the MSM performed admirably.

    You might be interested in these posts, too:



    Speaking of new MX-5s, I'm excited about Mazda's multi-pronged plan to reduce fuel consumption in all its cars in the nex-gen MX-5, in 2012 probably, will have direct injection and weigh about 2250 pounds.

  3. Oh, here's info on Mazda's plans:


  4. Anonymous6:15 PM

    I am certainly late to this party still I want to address one issue mentioned. The location of the reverse gear.

    The location of reverse on the NB is really a none issue. Putting the car in reverse by mistake or rather trying to never happens. I think there is a safety build into the box requiring it is in neutral for it to enter reverse. I'd say you are more in risk of mistiming a shift during fun driving i.e. releasing the clutch slightly to fast or similar.

  5. Anonymous6:03 AM

    Thank you for posting this. I'm in the market for a roadster and after deciding that the S2000 is a little too harsh for my needs, I'm considering buying a '99 NB, '04 MSM, or a '06 NC. Though I already knew most of facts and specification mentioned here, it's interesting to read an MSM owner's perspective on the NC.

  6. You're welcome. I'm glad my opinions were of use to you. I sound a little down on the MSM in this post, but I still think it's a very enjoyable car. I just bought an NA for track use, so I'm clearly not too averse to the pre-NC Miatas. (The NA and NB share many parts, and many more are interchangeable between the two.)

  7. MotorheadLarry6:28 PM

    Well worth reading. I'm sure I'm not alone in welcoming your thoughts on squeezing more HP out of a Miata. That's my dilemma - buy an MSM or spend some $ on my 2000 NB. Thanks!

  8. Hi, I know this was posted years ago, but I'm currently in the same position and would like to know your current thoughts on the MSM vs a new 2013 MX-5 Miata Club. I've read through this post and countless others probably 3-4 times now, and still can't decide which one to get.

  9. The 2013 Club is identical to my 2009 Touring, with the exception of the front bumper cover, fabric top, some coloring, and DSC (required on all 2012+ cars). So that means I've essentially owned the two cars you are considering. They each have their advantages and disadvantages.

    The MSM has a little more power and responds better to simple power upgrades like intake and exhaust. On the other hand, the power delivery in the MSM is somewhat annoying and makes it more difficult to drive smoothly.

    The NC is a more modern vehicle, and everything about it is better engineered and built. The NC is actually lighter than the MSM, and the unibody is much stiffer, and the torque curve is much flatter. The major disadvantage of the NC is that the stock suspension is inexcusably high and soft. Even the NCs with the stiffest stock suspension, the 2009 cars with the suspension package, are far too soft and high in my opinion. Fortunately, the handling of the car can be transformed for 600 to 800 dollars spent of new dampers and springs (and optionally sway bars.

    I'm very happy with my heavily modified '09 Touring, but, like I said, each of the cars you are considering has its own pros and cons.

    If you like the '13 Club but want to save some money, I'd look for a 2009-2012 Touring with Suspension Package (which, I believe, all those Tourings have). Like I said, you get the same equipment.

  10. The NC also has side impact airbags while the NB doesn't. Which would help you not die if you were to be T-boned.