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Checking Out a Used Miata

Original Author: Skip Cannon - April 6, 2008

Also see:
The Used Miata Inspection List(external link)
How to Buy from a Dealer(external link)


Here are some things to look for when checking out a used Miata.

Items to bring along: flashlight, Phillips screwdriver, a ground cloth to lie on while peering at the underside of the car, something to clean your hands with and, if available, a car knowledgeable friend.

Inspecting the dirty side: Start with the front end and lie down on the ground on your back (use a floor mat or the ground cloth to keep clean), stick your head under the front bumper and look up at the structure behind the bumper. Use the flashlight to help you see under here. You are looking for bent metal, evidence of paint overspray in the wheel wells and coil springs, missing pieces, etc. All are evidence of serious accidents. Unless there is a severe shortage of used Miatas in your area, reject any that show damage. While under there, have a look around for evidence of oil leaks, shock absorber leaks and bent suspension. Ask if the car has been wrecked. Many people will lie about this until you point out evidence of the damage.

Repeat the above for the rear end of the car. Check the shocks, CV joint boots, differential, exhaust system and the metal forward of the rear bumper. Look forward at the driveshaft and transmission, looking for leaks and bent pieces. Check the rear suspension for bent pieces. Check the floor pan and rocker panels for large dents and for rust if you are in an area where rust is a problem.

Ask if the car has a salvage title. Stay away from any that do. Cars with salvage titles are hard to insure and finance and are worth about 50% of a non-salvage title car. Many are bought at auction and repaired by people who do a less than professional job. If you have any doubts about the car or its title, go elsewhere.

Using the flashlight, peer through the wheels into the brake calipers. Try to determine how much pad is left. It is sometimes difficult to see just how thick the pads are. It helps to move the car a little to see around the spokes. Are the rotors scored? Replacements can be expensive.

Inside the trunk: Open the top of the vertical fabric panel on the rear of the trunk area. The little round plastic thingies come out easily if you use a fingernail to lift the center piece first and then pull out the whole fastener. Look behind this panel for evidence of bodywork, bent panels, etc. Check down in the jack well on the left for water/rust. The outer skin just above this area is unprotected from junk in the trunk and you can get dents from the inside. Many Miatas have an aftermarket panel bolted in here to protect from this. Check here for signs of repair. Check the battery on the right side of the trunk. Ask if it has been replaced. It should be a sealed battery marked 'Panasonic' on the side and should not have been replaced with a lead acid (normal) battery. Check the area for signs of acid corrosion. If it has been replaced with a lead acid battery, plan to spend the $$s to put the correct battery back in. The long-term effects of the acid in your trunk can be expensive.

Interior: Check for signs of unusual wear. Miata interiors are pretty rugged. The black fabric seats will fade if left in the sun. Look for wear on the driver's seat bolsters where your backside rubs as you get in the car. Check the clutch and brake pedal pads. Do they look like the right amount of wear for the mileage on the speedo? Check the door sill near the certification sticker for another sticker that tells of a replaced speedometer and check the owners manual and warranty manual for notations of a changed speedo. Sometimes this info is scratched into the paint near the certification sticker. Most states require the installer of a replacement speedometer to make notification in one or more of these places. Ask the seller if the speedo has been changed.

Ask the seller(s) if they have the security code for the radio (if it is the stock radio). Ask if the radio is slow to come on when the car is started - if it takes several minutes for the radio to start, it means that the radio has to come out for a "do it yourself fix" (but don't tell them that; the dealer has probably already told them that the radio has to be replaced--use it as a bargaining chip). Try all controls and check all lights. Check general appearance. After you have seen a few Miatas, you will know what a good one looks like. If you are not familiar with the Miata, inspect a new one at the dealer to see what the baseline is.

The convertible top: Inspect the top carefully. Look for wear spots on the underside. Check operation of the zipper. ALWAYS unlatch the top from the windshield header and lift it a little before operating the zipper. Check the window for scratches and brown spots. If you find brown spots, the window is getting ready to become opaque and will require replacement. With the window unzipped, lower the top. Does it go down smoothly? Raise the top. ALWAYS zip up the window before clamping the top to the windshield header. Learn this sequence. Does it clamp easily to the windshield header? Check the exterior of the top for wear, cracks, tears, etc. New tops cost about $1,500 installed at the dealer and a new rear window with zipper is about $450. Figure these into the cost and negotiations if they are bad and you decide to buy the car. (Installation at a convertible top specialist will cost less.)

Inspecting the body panels. Are they smooth and do the seams match well? Sight down the sides of the car in bright light. Do you see any ripples, roughness or other signs of body repair? If possible, check the paint under fluorescent light. It will show sanding marks and other signs of body and paint work. Check the door sill areas and rocker panels for signs of rust. Look for little bubbles in the paint. If the car has metallic door sill plates, ask if you can remove them to look for rust. You will need the Phillips screwdriver for this.

How good is the paint? Do some of the painted panels look fresher than the others? If they do, the car will be two shades of the color after a few years of fading. If you find some discrepancies, ask again about accidents. Inspect the door sills for overspray; check the black rubber parts next to the paint for overspray. All are signs of a repaint which likely means an accident.

Under the Hood: Check for general cleanliness, oil leaks, and missing parts and inspect the area around the radiator and headlights for signs of accident damage. Also look for leaking coolant. Ask if the timing belt has been changed. It is due at 60K mile intervals. Ask if the spark plug wires have been changed; many go bad at about 30K miles.

Consider doing a compression check if the car has very high mileage and/or is running unevenly. You can do it yourself if you have the tools and a compression gauge or you can pay a shop to do it for you. In fact, you can also pay a shop or dealer to go over the whole car and give you a report. The cost for this varies greatly; make sure you have an understanding with the shop about what will be done and what it will cost.

Pull the oil dipstick. Check the oil for visible contaminants. It should be clean but it will darken as the miles add up since the last change. If you see metallic particles sparkling in the oil, stop now and leave. Ask when the oil was last changed. Ask to see maintenance records, especially of oil changes. 3K intervals are great; up to 7.5K intervals are OK. Longer intervals or no records, not so good. If they claim frequent oil changes but have no records, you will have to decide whether to believe them or not.

If the car has an automatic transmission, pull the dipstick and check the cleanliness of the oil. Smell the oil when the transmission is hot. If it smells at all burnt, walk away and find another. If you see sparkling metallic particles, walk away.

Check the fan belts for cracks and obvious wear. Grab the water pump pulley with both hands and rock it back and forth to see if there is excessive wear (unlikely on most Miatas). Be careful; it might be hot. Inspect the brake and clutch fluid reservoirs for proper level and color of fluid. If it is very dark and dirty looking, plan on some $$s for repairs in the future and get the fluids changed as soon as you buy the car. Check the power steering fluid reservoir for level and leaks. Check the air conditioner compressor for oil leaks.

Have someone start the car while you watch the exhaust pipe. Look for smoke. In general, a white cloud indicates water in the cylinders from a leaking head gasket or cracked block. If it pumps out great clouds of smoke, thank the owner politely and leave.

Go back to the front and listen to the engine. Listen for knocks and any unusual sounds. If you are not familiar with the noises engines make, bring along your favorite gearhead friend to help. Turn on the A/C and check to see that both electric fans behind the radiator come on. Listen to the sounds that start when the A/C compressor comes on. Loud knocking probably means replacement of the compressor. Squealing sounds generally mean the belt is too loose. Some Miata A/Cs whistle a little, and that is generally not a problem. Check to see if the A/C blows cold air. On a hot day, you should feel cold air at the vents within 30 seconds. If it takes much longer, there may be a refrigerant leak to fix and a recharge of R12/R134a.

Once the engine is warmed up, grab the throttle valve and rev the engine slowly up, listening for knocking sounds that come on at a certain rpm levels and fade away. Early signs of rod and main bearing wear will show up here. Does the engine idle smoothly without shaking from side to side?

There have been reports of crankshafts failing in the 1990 Miata as well as in a number of 1991 Miatas. It is nearly impossible to check for cracking in the crankshaft without taking things apart, however you can inspect the crankshaft pulley to see if it is wobbling when the engine is running. A wobble could indicate a failed crankshaft or a worn keyway. Low speed loss of power and hesitation can also be a symptom, though it may also simply be worn ignition wires or in need of proper timing.

The test drive: Start with the top up, windows closed and the radio off. This minimizes the wind noise and allows you to better hear the mechanical noises. Again, if you are not familiar with these sounds, bring along your gearhead friend. The Miata is a fairly noisy car with the top up. With it down, the wind noise drowns out the mechanical noises. You will hear whirring sounds from the rear which are usually tire noise. Listen for the sound of dry bearings grinding away. If it changes with road speed, but not with engine RPM as you change gears, it is probably the rear wheel bearings or the differential. Listen to the sounds of the transmission as you go through the gears. High-pitched whining noises in one or more gears are indicative of bad bearings in the transmission. Be sure you try out the reverse gear as well.

Note: I'm leaving out the automatic transmission as I have never driven a Miata with an automatic and have no idea what a normal shift pattern sounds/feels like.

With the car stopped, set the handbrake. Does it feel solid? It should go up about 3 inches. If you feel it hit a solid stop at the top, it is either maladjusted or the rear pads are worn out. Gently try to move the car with the brake applied. Does it seem to hold?

Is the clutch smooth on engagement? Any slippage? Go up and down the gears several times. Any sound or feel of bad synchronizers? Is the acceleration about right (you will have to drive several to get a baseline for this comparison)? Try the brakes. Do they have a solid feel? Does the car stop straight? Do you feel pulsations in the brake pedal? On a deserted road or large parking lot, make some quick left and right turns. Does the car feel solid or does it wallow back and forth?

At about 15 mph in 1st gear, get on and off the gas quickly several times. Do you feel or hear any slack in the driveline? Drive about 45 mph in 5th. Disengage the clutch, rev the engine about 2K above what it was doing and pop the clutch. If the engine immediately drops back to the original rpm area, the clutch is probably good. If it comes back slowly and the car sounds like it has a slipping automatic transmission, you have the first signs of clutch slippage. Be gentle--it's not your car yet and it is easy to cook the flywheel doing this!

Drive at 60, 65, 70 mph and whatever speeds you can safely do under the conditions. Miatas are infamous for the 65 mph shimmy. Check for this. Does the car wander or follow the longitudinal grooves in the road? Does it feel controlled over bumps, or does it wallow like an old Buick?

While you are driving in stop and go traffic, does the engine stutter, misfire, bog down after a shift? All are signs that the plug wires need replacing, or worse.

Summary: All in all, the Miata is a well built, tough little car with an excellent maintenance record. If the car has had good care and maintenance, it will give you good service. If you suspect the car has not had good care, pass on it and find another. If you have been following the list for awhile, you are aware of the few problems that Miatas have. Also, check the Miata.net web page for the Tips from the Garage which cover all the wear/maintenance/problems/rattles etc. of the Miata. The above may be overkill for many people, especially if you are looking at low mileage cars. I'm sure there are some areas I've overlooked. If you are not mechanically inclined, bring along that gearhead friend to help out (if he/she really knows what he/she is talking about). After the purchase: After you have found and bought that perfect (for you) used Miata, and unless you got receipts from the previous owner(s) for recent maintenance, do the following:

Change the engine oil now and at 3k intervals. I use dino oil, others prefer synthetics, either is OK, you decide. Check and replace the air and fuel filters if needed.

If the antifreeze has not been changed recently, change it and use a 50-50 mix of a good quality antifreeze and distilled water.

If the car has high mileage, consider changing the transmission and differential fluids. It would also be a good idea to change the brake and clutch fluids as well, especially if they are dark and dirty. Do any other maintenance per the owners manual. If the timing belt has not been changed and is near the 60K interval, do it now. Clean and detail it (the previous owner probably didn't keep it as clean as you want your new baby to be), and then give it a coat of wax.

Then, enjoy the Miata experience.

Skip Cannon

Miq Millman adds:

So, there I was, relaxing on my flourenscent yellow Jeeper-Creeper, up to my elbows in grease and under carriage bits, dropping the tranny on Basher so's I could replace the clutch. (don't ask why I didn't do this _before_ installing the engine. And don't ask why I put the tranny back after looking at the clutch without changing it...)

Anyhoo. I noticed that the VIN is stamped to the underside of the engine tunnel just rear of the shifter.

This got me to thinking about where all the locations on a Miata are that have the VIN on them, either through a riveted plate or in the form of a sticker. Here's what I came up with with a quick cursory glance at the car and factory workbook:

Front of driver's side dash, in windshield (duh!)
Door jamb next to strike plate (both sides, sticker)
Door next to latch mechanism (both sides, sticker)
Fire wall (1/4" tall stamped letters on welded plate)
Hood (sticker)
Front fender in water run-off gully (both sides, sticker)
Inside front bumper, passenger side, just under turn signal (sticker)
Trunk (sticker)
Inside rear driver's side fender just infront of bumper, under gas fill hose (sticker)
Passenger side of aluminum oil pan (riveted metal plate)
PPF, top side roughly in the center (stamped letters)