Auto companies make a lot of promises about their products. Promises about performance, value, quality, utility, prestige, even whether a particular car will help you get lucky. Sometimes they keep their promises, and sometimes they don't, in which case the enthusiast populace often shrugs its collective shoulders and moves on. But such is not the case for the Miata. This is a car that, as far as people like us are concerned, was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be pure and simple and an ab-solute joy to drive. Mazda stayed the course for the second generation, but will it continue to build a product that defines what a lightweight sports car should be? So far, it looks as if it will.The third-generation Mazda MX-5 is being shown publicly for the first time at the Geneva auto show as you read this, just a few months after we were given an advance look at final styling and engineering prototypes at Mazda headquarters in Hiroshima, Japan. We haven't yet driven the new roadster, but we've sat behind the wheel and gleaned key design and technical details.
Whether the new MX-5 is as handsome as the outgoing car is a matter of personal opinion, and you can form yours by examining these pictures, which were provided by Mazda. We can report, though, that in a design studio full of jaded scribes, there was a palpable sense of occasion in the air as we awaited the new roadster's unveiling. But when the drape was lifted from the car, hands that had been raised in anticipation of applause fell to journalists' laps as a deathly silence pervaded the room.
"Perhaps your first impression is that it looks like the current car," offered design chief Yasushi Nakamuta. "That would be a compliment to me, because our intention was to retain the current car's looks." Well, yes and no. There's no question that it's an MX-5, but it's one that perhaps has sprouted tumorous growths around the wheel wells. You can call these bits of bulging sheetmetal many things-muscular, athletic, sporty, sinewy-and indeed they are impressively complex in form, with three distinct surfaces adjoining the quarter-panels themselves. But we would call them incongruous. The overall effect is of a Miata that accidentally wandered onto the RX-8 production line. Mazda design studios in North America, Europe, and Hiroshima contributed to the new MX-5, and it's obvious that they were all attempting to imbue the roadster with some Mazda-family design cues.
As everyone in Hollywood knows, sequels can be dicey, but Mazda proved with the second generation that the Miata formula has legs for the long haul. For the third generation, Mazda designers, engineers, and product planners reembraced the now-famous jinba ittai spiritual theme that produced the original, seminal car. Taken literally, jinba ittai means "rider and horse as one," and it refers specifically to the relationship between an archer and his steed. For Mazda's purposes, MX-5 program manager Takao Kijima describes it as "a warm, flesh-and-blood interface . . . a oneness, a tension" between the roadster and its driver. "Like the archer on horseback, we are looking for a similar relationship, a mutual communication, between driver and vehicle." Anyone who has ever driven a Miata knows exactly what he is talking about.
During the media presentation, Mazda mentioned the Porsche 911, the Mini Cooper, and the Volkswagen New Beetle in the context of "keeping concept evolution," the clear implication being that it is doing exactly that with the MX-5. Knowing from the start that the new Miata would not be morphing into some sort of Toyota Camry Solara convertible, Kijima and his crew set about the difficult task of retaining the roadster's lightness, simplicity, and purity of purpose-all that jinba ittai stuff-while increasing engine displacement, introducing the latest safety equipment, and carving out more interior room, yet keeping size and weight similar to the current car's.