Automobile Magazine‘s 1990 Man of the Year, Bob Hall, also known as father of our 1990 Automobile of the Year, is part of the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata reveal and is a guest speaker at the Miatas at Mazda Raceway, which hopes to be the world’s largest gathering of the cars, at the Laguna Seca track in Salinas, California. Executive editor Todd Lassa spoke to Bob Hall about the past and, especially, the future of the Mazda Miata sports car.
TL: If you had to develop the Mazda MX-5 Miata from a blank sheet of paper today, what would you do differently? What would you do the same as what was introduced 25 years ago?
BH: I wouldn’t do much differently, actually. I’d have fought a lot harder to retain the 115-hp 1.6 and add a 2.0 instead of the 1.8 that became the sole engine in the car from, I believe, 1994 on in North America. As it ended up, the 1.8 was a big problem in some countries (notably the European Union) because the displacement was actually 1839cc. Being over 1.8 liters placed it in the 2.0-liter tax category and the European importers were screaming. This was important because the U.K. and Germany were usually the third or fourth biggest markets for the car. The addition of the 2.0 would have also helped spread the car to new prospects. Because development of the 95-hp 1.6 for these European markets was rushed, and because that reduced sales of the 1.8-liter globally, the combination of the “emergency” 1.6 project and the 1.8 for everywhere else was more expensive than the cost of a 1.6 and a 2.0 would have been. But, hey, hindsight’s 20/20. (Not 1.6/2.0.)
As for what I’d do the same, well, I think maybe not as much as someone might think. Developing the first car was insanely difficult in some areas, almost too easy in others. Since we had no existing model, we could pretty much do anything and this established some parameters for the car. The people tasked with the subsequent MX-5s had all the hard stuff to deal with that we did (meeting performance targets and keeping it affordable while ensuring its relevance), but add in … that they had to deal with the existing model. There’s a fine line between doing something new and fresh that’s acceptable to the buyers and regurgitating what’s been done before for the sake of consistency. This is something the teams that did the NB, NC, and now ND had to deal with and to be honest I don’t envy them that job. I probably couldn’t have handled it.
By the same token, I really think the ND’s the best of the lot.
I am, of course, very mildly biased towards the NA, but the ND’s a real close second as regards being what I think the ideal MX-5 should be. Taking my own bias out of it, I think the ND’s the best MX-5. Ever. I just wish it had a Miata badge and was available in mariner blue. So I guess they got it kind of right.
TL: How has the Miata’s place in the world’s automotive fleet changed in the last 25 years?
BH: Hugely and, at the same time, not at all. What’s the same is the MX-5 is still pretty much the only game in town as regards an affordable two-seat sports car, just like it was in 1989. The huge changes are what’s happened to the total automotive landscape. Safety and efficiency are now incredibly important to the segment as a whole as well as the overall car market. What was good enough in 1989 sure isn’t now, unless you are starting a car industry in Sierra Leone. The MX-5 has managed to ride the wave of change, which is why it’s lasted 25 years and has remained relevant in such a changed environment. So the ND hasn’t changed its place, but it has changed to keep its place. Kudos to the Mazda people for recognizing that. God knows the people at MG never figured that out over the 18 years the MGB was in production.
TL: What should the next Miata be? What modern technologies should it have; which ones should it eschew?
BH: Well, it’s got to be better than the car that preceded it. That’s really a “must.” I mean, otherwise, why bother? However, technology in cars is often viewed in an improper context. People categorize “new” and “old” technologies and these labels provide an odor to one or the other. The problem is I don’t think it is as important that a car have new or old technology based on the supposed use-by date. It’s really right and wrong tech for the mission the car has been entrusted with. In the case of the MX-5, simplicity in achieving the car’s dynamic targets should arguably come first and if that means tri-multiplexed Digitonic steering works better, put it in. If it means “old fashioned” electro-hydraulic power steering works better, put it in. The choice in some areas needs to be driven (if you will excuse the pun) by the car’s dynamics. In other areas — connectivity, for example — you should be on the leading edge of technology and the “old versus new” argument sort of drops out here. Like any other car, the ND MX-5 needs to appeal to a broad spectrum of buyers, and there are areas such as connectivity that are more important to a younger prospect than an older, more traditional one. Done right (and I think Mazda has done them right) these will not have an impact on the older buyer but will at least get the car on the younger buyer’s radar scope. At the end of the day, the car has to be fun to drive and something you don’t want to get out of just yet. Ensuring that in today’s automotive environment is a lot trickier than it was in 1989 but no less important. I think the ND’s pulled that off.
I don’t see it happening in this product cycle, but I am not against a hybrid MX-5 or even an MX-5 EV. The experience is about the driving, and someday those technologies may mature to the level where they will not only work in an MX-5 but will enhance the performance and the driving exhilaration. To say they should never be there is absurd as the “save the manual” bleating. The MX-5 should have the technology that works best to let it do its job in the market it must live in. That means any engineer worth his salt will work to his task of making the new car better than the last one, not to philosophies that may be outmoded.