Mazda USA design director Derek Jenkins promises us that the next Mazda MX-5 Miata will look younger, more masculine, and more expensive—and nothing at all like an Alfa Romeo.
Derek Jenkins has spent the last five years wiping away Mazda’s Jack-O-Lantern grin. Since he joined Mazda in 2009, the automaker has introduced three mature, premium-looking vehicles—the Mazda CX-5, the Mazda 6, and the Mazda 3. Up next is his biggest challenge yet, the next-generation MX-5 Miata. Mazda has sold more than 900,000 examples of the MX-5 over more than two decades, but sales of the car have slowed in recent years. Jenkins sat down with Automobile editors Robert Cumberford and David Zenlea to discuss what’s next for the iconic roadster.
Automobile: You’ve managed to give rear-wheel-drive proportions to the front-wheel-drive the Mazda 6 and Mazda 3, but it must have taken lots of work. It must be nice to be dealing with the next-generation design of a car that’s actually rear-wheel drive, like the Mazda MX-5 Miata.
Derek Jenkins: “Who said it will be rear-wheel drive? [Laughs] Absolutely. Having a proper FR [front-engine, rear-wheel drive] architecture to work off of is the dream. And we’re really proud of where that’s headed.
AM: One thing the Miata has never been is on the cutting edge of styling. Will that continue with the next version?
DJ: The next MX-5 needs to be true to the DNA of an MX-5. So much of our energy has to be focused toward that goal.
The challenge we have is evolving the image of that car, which involves expanding the audience of that car. The average buying audience of the MX-5 is continuing to get older and older. That’s something we’ve really been concentrating on. How to reconnect to a younger customer? Honor the tradition of the consummate roadster, but make it fresh enough and new enough that it appeals to a new audience.
AM: The Porsche Boxster, which we think of as sort of a grown up, expensive Miata, has evolved to become more masculine. Is that where the Miata is headed?
DJ: In general, with the new generation of cars, we try to inject a masculine quality. I don’t use the word aggressive in the context of trying to make a beautiful car. We’re not trying to make something that’s a brute or something that’s hyper aggressive. It’s got to be balanced.
AM: One of the things that bothers us about new convertibles is how high the window sills are, which makes the cockpit feel small and confining. Will you keep those low?
DJ: I think our guys will figure that out.
AM: Do you have any input on the styling of the roadster that Mazda is going to build for Alfa Romeo?
DJ:Not really, no. They’re obviously developing their car on the same platform as us, and there’s going to be certainly be certain components of the underlying architecture that will carry over…
AM: Like the cowl location and height, for instance?
DJ: Things like that. Basic platform hard points.
AM: Does the current, more expensive MX-5 Miata model with a power-operated hard top point to where the next-generation Miata as a whole is headed?
DJ: Not necessarily. But the retractable hard top currently represents up to fifty percent of our MX-5 sales. So, we’ll address that going forward.
From the CX-5 forward we’ve had much greater focus on interior design and overall interior layout. And the MX-5 will represent the big step for us in that area. Usability, drivability, attention to detail, material quality—all of that will be at another level.
AM: There won’t be a coupe model, right?
DJ: Well, there never has been. You can be sure that from Mazda MX-5, the focus will continue to be on the convertible.
AM: How about retro cues. It’s got to have retractable headlamps, right?
DJ: [Laughs] Try and get that through pedestrian impact [standards]! I don’t think we’re looking to literally translate any specific elements from the original Miata. But, I’ll tell you this: We did spend a tremendous amount of time focusing again on the first-generation car, and that’s because it has obviously stood the test of time beautifully. The key to that is the simplicity of that car. And it’s got great proportions. Very simple, very pure, and that’s from a surface standpoint as well as from a detail standpoint. That kind of conceptual thinking is more where we’re headed. We looked with the next-generation MX5 to really concentrate on the simplicity and purity of the car.
AM: Is there any input from the Mazda Ibuki concept that debuted in Tokyo in 2003? That car was a very simple section car.
DJ: That car was really more of a precursor of the current car. There’s no relationship to that in where we’re headed.
AM: Will the new Miata open a new chapter in Mazda design or will it be an evolution of the Kodo language we’re seeing on the Mazda CX-5, Mazda 6, and Mazda 3?
DJ: The Mazda MX-5, although it will always be connected to its generation of [Mazda] vehicles, it also sits just slightly on its own. It will have to ride that line.
AM: When will the new Mazda MX-5 Miata debut?
MAZDA MEDIA OFFICER: [Interrupting] Someday. Not today.
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