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Have a good look at the parts the selector cables actually attach to. The nylon washers surrounding the ball joints wear away leaving a loose feel to gear changing or complete loss of movement. The selector rods can fail too but I've found usually it's just the rubber or nylon washers wearing out leaving very loose movement, sometimes even jamming when the metal parts crunch together. Look under bonnet and get somebody to wiggle the gear stick as you look at where the cables attach to the selector rods and check for loose play at all the components.
Replacement Nylon washer kits are easy to get hold of.
If your problem is a loose shift lever on the Colum ,it is bad shift tube bushings. You can replace just the nylon bushings on the tube. lower the steering Colum (4 nuts under dash hold it ) be care full not to brake the gear shift indicator cable (nylon string). the tube has 2 brackets that hold it to the Colum (torques head bolts). remove bolts and remove old bushings ,install new ones and reassemble the Colum .All so check for lose bolts at the bottom of shift tube ,a bracket is bolted to tube that connects it to the shift cable.
Problem within the gear box or a possible misalignment of the gear stick with the lever movements.
Make sure there is no PLAY on the gear shaft . If so the gear must shift over or else the problem can be the selector jamming within the box.
If there is play in the gear movement then the bushes could be worn out- sometimes nylon bushes gets damaged.
The car has to be on ramps. When under the car have someone operate the shifter so you can see where the slop is in the shift linkages. The bushings that used to be there have disintegrated over time. You can buy new bushings at a Mazda dealership (tell them your car is the same as a 1989 323) and unbolt things and replace them. There is one bushing that won't unbolt and has to be cut out, which is why is fix these the cheap easy way.
Get some thick nylon tie wraps, and thread them into the gaps of the linkages. Keep feeding as many tie wraps as you can into the gaps. When you can;t force anymore in, tie off the straps, have someone operate the shifter and see if you can force a few more in.
When you're done, this repair is as good as the purchased bushings, and should last a long time...
The shifter linkage has a two piece plastic / nylon bushing at either end of the gear shift tube that goes from the gear shift lever to the transmission. As the bushes wear through normal usage the gear shift becomes sloppy. The bushes at the gear shift lever end usually wear out first.
You may have to drop the exhaust pipe to access the underside of the gear lever as there is not a lot of space to work in above the exhaust.
To replace, remove the securing nut and through bolt where the underside of the gear lever U section attaches to the tube. Pull down the tube and the worn bits of the bush will come out. Place the new bushes in either side of the tube and put tube end back between the U section. Replace the through bolt and nut. If still a little sloppy, you may have to do the transmission end bushes as well.
Yes, change the motor out. It has a plastic/nylon bushing in it that some parts houses do sell. However, most parts stores now sell lifetime warranty motors, if youre going through the trouble of taking the motor of to replace the bushing better to replace the entire motor so if the bushing or motor goes bad you get a free replacement.
If it's a later model (post 98), then I have an idea what's happened. On the rounded ball end of the gear stick that goes in the box, there is meant to be a plastic bush that is only a very loose fit on the end of the stick. If it has dropped while either removing or replacing the gearstick, and fallen into the area at the back of where the gearstick actuates the shift rail, then apart from having a very sloppy gearstick, you won't be able to move the shift rail backwards - which is what happens when you move the gearstick forward (1st,3rd,5th). This should be fixable from in the cab. Of course, if you have an earlier model, none of the above applies, as you have the gearstick moving only one of a choice of three shift rails with no bush in that area. The only thing that happens to those is the spring on the gearstick breaks (that can't be replaced on its own!)