Why We Should Savor Sports Cars Like the Mazda MX-5 Miata

Motor City Blogman

Can a car become a "life partner for its owner"? Kioyshi Fujiwara, Mazda's managing executive officer hopes that's the case for the 2016 MX-5 Miata. His sentiment, expressed at our first drive of the car, could be taken for marketing-speak hyperbole, yet it does portend a future in which we happy few cling to such real drivers' cars in the face of a non-enthusiast majority buying bland vehicles that do the driving for them.

In the couple of weeks since that first drive, the center of the automotive world has moved just a bit further away from Miata-style driver-car relationships. The new U.S. Transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx, has "set plans" to "encourage development and commercialization" of two autonomous braking systems--crash imminent braking and dynamic brake support--according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website. NHTSA is not yet requiring the technologies, which are currently offered mostly on luxury vehicles, but it is adding them to a list of "recommended advanced safety features."

We are already facing mandated back-up cameras by 2018 in all cars and light trucks sold in the U.S., which makes perfect sense for a big, lumbering sport/utility vehicle, or even sedans with poor rearward vision, but seems superfluous for something like a Miata, a Porsche Boxster or Cayman, or a Toyota FR-S/Subaru BRZ.

At a recent preview for a new sport/utility, a fellow journalist complained to a product planner that the outgoing model has a passenger-side blind-spot warning light, but not one on the driver's side. So you have to turn your head to the left to check the passing-lane blind spot in those old models.

Has the average driver moved beyond physically checking blind spots? I suspect many drivers ignore warnings on the camera screen that they should look around, and instead reverse or change lanes without turning their heads in order to avoid dropping the cell phones squished up against their faces.

The nature of cars like the Miata makes it unlikely you'll drive to work without actually looking around, checking traffic and blind spots. Even in boring stop-and-go traffic, a manual gearbox will get you to put down that phone. And the fact that nearly every car and truck around you is bigger will sharpen your diligence.

What's more, the new Miata's small fixed, triangular side window and the body's side surfacing directs air to the driver's chest and not his or her head, says deputy program manager Hitoshi Takamatsu. While most new vehicles are designed to isolate the outside world, the Miata is designed to enhance the driving experience and make you more aware of your surroundings. Nobuhiro Yamamoto, the Miata's program manager, says the two seats have been moved closer to the center console covering the car's backbone chassis, to make it feel as much like a Formula 1 car as possible.

"The human is the center," Yamamoto says. The tachometer is positioned to be directly in front of the driver's line of sight, with the speedometer to its right and the ancillary gauges to its left. All three are the same diameter, and smaller-diameter air conditioning outlets are further outside and down on each side. It's "completely symmetrical," he says. Mazda put equal importance on getting the pedal and stick-shift lever placement, and the clutch and shifter feel "just right." The gearbox was designed to feel like it's "sucked" into position (no word of what, if anything, Mazda did to give the automatic option tactile feel).

"The lever should stand straight up in neutral," says Tatsunori Iwasaki, staff manager of Mazda's engine design engineering department. He says the rear differential mount bracket is pretty much the only component on the Miata that gained weight - 50 grams, or about 0.11 pounds.

"It was a big struggle," Iwasaki says, like the others, through an interpreter. Mazda built two preproduction cars; one with the heavier mount bracket, and one without, before deciding to add the weight. Mazda uses the vibration of the drivetrain, with the differential mount bracket, to "highlight" the engine's "beat" sound, which corresponds to throttle level, Iwasaki says. Use light throttle to putter around town, and there's very little of this beat sound. But then it rewards your aural senses for applying heavy throttle.

The suspension, too, was set up to make the occupants feel something. It deliberately has some initial compliance, so that it takes a noticeable set going into a corner before stiffening up.

All this makes for a very tactile car in an age in which most new models are designed to shut out anything that distracts from safely operating your infotainment system. Even many modern sports cars let you choose your damper settings, and turn on or off a piped-in exhaust note. The Miata has just one suspension settting; sport.

Let me be clear; the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata isn't the only such car remaining on the market. The others I mentioned above share similar qualities, but I fear we're starting to get some technological overload from some of the more expensive luxury sports cars on the market. The question is, how long will it be before the Miata and FR-S/BRZ and Boxster/Cayman give in to market demand for soul-sapping gizmos, or are forced to meet government mandates that inch us toward full autonomy? Do we have just a few more years to buy cars like this? Will we have to make such cars the only ones we drive for the rest of our lives?

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