Miata Starter Car Recommendation
Published: December 12, 2016; updated: February 7, 2017
Looking to buy a car for track duty? A Miata is a great choice. Miatas are some of the more popular cars at track days, and with good reason. Here is what a Miata offers:
- A balanced chassis that makes track driving enjoyable for novices and experts alike.
- Low initial purchase cost and low ongoing maintenance cost. Some of this is due to the low power level of the car and hence its low usage of consumables, some is due to commonality of Miatas in general.
- While lack of power may seem like a negative, it emphasizes driving skill and makes it easy as well as rewarding to work on finer aspects of driving a car quickly - the advanced driving techniques.
- A low power car can also be driven more aggressively without excessive risk of injury or damage in an off-track excursion.
- Miata chassis is highly resilient to rough and aggressive driving, whether that is intentional or not.
- Because Miatas are everpresent, if you have a problem with it there is a high likelihood of someone in the paddock knowing how to fix the issue, often with spare parts on hand.
Purchase And Preparation
Assuming you are convinced to track a Miata, this is what you will need:
- Miata itself: $2000 to $5000 depending on the year and condition. 90-93 Miatas with the 1.6 engine are slower; 94-97 are a good bargain as they are faster but often don't cost much more. 99-05 are faster still but command a higher premium. Try to get a car in good condition, as borderline parts tend to fail when stressed at track days.
- A roll bar: $750 new with the harness bar which I recommend getting. If your Miata came with a hardtop, or you are considering buying the hardtop at some point, get a hardtop-compatible roll bar.
- OEM or aftermarket radiator: this is a great preventative maintenance item to do, and if your radiator has any brown color to it you should replace it right away. A new OEM radiator is $70-$80 on Amazon/RockAuto, or get an aftermarket all aluminum unit for $200-$350. A word of warning - some aftermarket radiators do not fit with OEM cooling fans, requiring aftermarket slim fans and associated installation time/labor.
- Timing belt: this is a more time consuming item of preventative maintenance, which can make it rather expensive if you are paying for labor. I personally have not seen any timing belt failures at the track, and if you tow the car to and from events a timing belt failure is not that big of a deal since the engine is of a non-intererence design. If the weather is good you will probably be able to find someone to help you change your timing belt at the track in an emergency for a case of their favorite beverage on Saturday evening.
- Hubs, wheel bearings and ball joints: if any of these are worn out they need to be replaced before going to the track. Inspect them if you know how or have a competent mechanic inspect them. Buying a spare front hub/wheel bearing assembly is not a bad idea.
- Brake calipers, pads and rotors: raise each corner of the car in the air and spin the wheels. They should spin smoothly without catching on warped rotors or being held by stuck calipers. Replace as necessary. Rust on brake rotors by itself is not a cause for replacement; replace the rotors if they have grooves in the pad contact area or ridges on the edges, and get new brake pads if either is the case.
- Brake pads: for your first event street brake pads will probably suffice; as they get worn out, consider a street/track dual purpose brake pad like EBC Yellow, Hawk HPS/HP+, etc. Miata brake pads are relatively affordable and - provided wheel bearings are in good shape - last a long time, especially rears.
- Tires: should not have bubbles on the sidewall or tread, cracks or dry rot. If you are buying new tires look into high performance street tires with 200 treadwear.
The above will set you back anywhere from $4000 if you get a cheaper Miata and do all of the prep work yourself to $9000 if you get a 99-05 and pay for labor.
The first upgrade on any track-driven Miata should be a track alignment. On a reasonably stock car you will probably not be able to get enough camber; my suggestion is to max out the camber, foregoing left to right equality. Unless you are preparing the car to a particular race or time trial class, get extended lower ball joints.
Tires are the easiest upgrade to perform, make a big difference in the car's performance and - with good alignment - will last for a while, thus offering a good bang for the buck. For a dual-purpose street/track Miata, look into high performance street tires with treadwear around 200. For a dedicated track car, Maxxis RC-1 and Toyo RR are my current HPDE favorites. You'll want to have a track alignment done prior to or at the same time as putting high performance tires on your Miata.
If your Miata is a track-only machine, get fixed bucket seats and harnesses - they make a huge difference in the driver's ability to control the car, and hence make the track days way more enjoyable.
My favorite seat is Momo Daytona Safari which is also pretty close to the largest seat that fits in the car. Installation will require massaging the transmission tunnel to make more room as well as custom mounting brackets for the best fit.
A Miata's strength is its handling. Shocks and springs are next on the list; my strong recommendation is to get Xida club sports. Every person I know who bought them has been happy with them, and the few that had other aftermarket shocks wish they got Xidas sooner. This is a great handling coilover and again built as a race part, designed to withstand the rigors of track duty day after day.
After getting Xidas, install the 949racing recommended sway bars and their adjustable end links.
OEM brakes are fine for stock power levels, as long as the brake system is in good condition. 1.8 (94-00, 01-02 non-Sport) brakes are an inexpensive upgrade for 1.6 cars, and Sport brakes (01-02 Sport package, all 03-05 cars) are even bigger but again, neither is required.
If you are looking for more power, intake, header and exhaust are affordable options to get more oomph out of the car.
Want to get faster as a driver? A data acquisition system will tell you where you are fast and where you are leaving time on the table. A great choice is an AiM Solo. It is more expensive than a smartphone but also more accurate and is designed as racing equipment - Solo will not run out of battery in the middle of a day and can be easily operated with gloves on, for example. A Solo costs about 1/4 to 1/6 of a full data acquisition dash like Racepak IQ-3 or AiM MXS.
See you at the track!