It turns out that the Ibuki that Mazda unveiled at the October 2003 Tokyo Motor Show was little more than a tease to the legions of MX-5 Miata lovers around the world who have waited seventeen months to learn if, indeed, the concept car was a thinly disguised version of the third-generation Miata. Now that the real thing is showing its face to the public at the 2005 Geneva Motor Show, it is clear that the Ibuki was not the Miata replacement it was heralded as being by Mazda insiders, journalists, owners, and anyone else who cared to share their opinion in Internet discussion groups. Instead, the Ibuki was a conglomeration of hints, like its body shape that abandoned the tight-waisted, Coke-bottle profile of the first two MX-5 generations in favor of a swelling, slab-sided approach to create more interior room; the hood with its RX-8-style indent and the unhesitating sweep of its leading-edge curve; and the location of the engine five inches farther aft to improve weight distribution and thus handling. Ibuki influences or not, the car you see here is unmistakably a Miata. But will it drive like one?
We don't know yet, but all indications point toward a stellar experience behind the wheel, one that will be unmistakably familiar to anyone who has ever driven a Miata. That's a lot of people, considering that more than 700,000 have been sold since the original, 1990 model entered the scene in 1989. In creating this third generation, Mazda's designers and engineers again were inspired by "Jinba Ittai" (pronounced gin-buy ee-tie), a Japanese expression that translates literally to "oneness between horse and rider." Six key categories guided Mazda's efforts toward the desired "oneness": interior and exterior styling; touching (anything that affects the driver or passenger's tactile sense), listening (not only to the engine but also to the wind through the open cockpit), cornering (handling dynamics), driving (ride quality, throttle response, shifting), and braking.
The Miata always has emphasized balance and finesse over raw strength, with a small, efficient four-cylinder engine mated to a responsive, athletic chassis. That doesn't mean we haven't always wished for at least a bit more muscle under the hood, a desire that Mazda addressed with the current generation Mazdaspeed version's turbo. For 2006, there is no turbo, but displacement has been bumped to 2.0 liters, and output rises to an estimated 170 hp and 139 lb-ft of torque, compared with the outgoing car's 142 hp and 125 lb-ft. Both five- and six-speed manual transmissions will be offered, boasting short, positive throws and triple-cone synchronizers for the first four gears to help reduce engagement forces. The optional automatic transmission adds two additional forward gears, for a total of six.
The double-wishbone front and multi-line rear suspension are tuned to maximize preciseness and nimbleness, promises Mazda. Wider front and rear tracks, increased use of aluminum in suspension components, and carefully tuned rack-and-pinion steering also should improve handling responsiveness. The front strut-tower brace, rather than simply arcing over the engine, is triangulated, with a fixed center point on the firewall. Increased use of high-strength steel in the body structure also contributes to bending stiffness and torsional rigidity figures that are 22% and 47% better, respectively, than before. 205/50R-16 tires are standard, while 205/45R-17 rubber is optional.
A slightly longer wheelbase (up 2.6 inches to 91.7 inches), fractional increases in overall length and height, and a 1.6-inch increase in width provide the new MX-5 with a roomier, more comfortable cabin. The new, T-shaped instrument panel is available with piano black finish, side air bags are offered for the first time, and there is more interior storage, including a handy lockable bin between the two seatbacks. The top is released by a single, center-mounted latch rather than two peripheral ones as before, and it folds into a neater, Z-shaped stack that fits flush to the rear deck. The seating position is ideal, and the steering wheel feels great in your hands. Mazda engineers devoted a lot of energy toward optimizing esoteric ergonomic considerations such as the position of a driver's palm and wrist while gripping the wheel and moving the shifter. Pedal placements should be ideal for heel-and-toe shifting.
Everything about the new MX-5's mechanical specification appears to be spot-on, and the interior clearly should be a more comfortable and rewarding place to spend time. But what about that exterior? The simple, classic lines of the first two generations have been joined to what are, in our opinion, too many RX-8 design cues, and we're not sure how well the marriage is going to work. The swelling wheel wells simply look out of place, even if they do accommodate bigger footwear, and they further emphasize the car's lack of svelteness. There's too much of the Audi TT, now a decade-old design, in the bulbous body panels.
Whether roadster enthusiasts will care about any of that will become known in due course. First, we need to drive the Miata, which happens in June. Our full report likely will appear in the September issue of Automobile Magazine, on newsstands in August. In the meantime, we look forward to hearing what you think about the latest version of the car that is Mazda's heart and soul.