Inside Mazda

Redefining a Legend: How Mazda Designed the Fourth-Generation MX-5 Miata – Part 2

Every car comes from somewhere. This is the second part of four covering how the design of the fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 Miata came to be.

Part II: Focusing Energy

After the initial proposals, themes were narrowed down to one study from Japan and one from the Irvine, California-based Mazda Design Americas. Sharing their proposals in February 2012, they began sharpening their focus on what the production 2016 MX-5 roadster would be.

The Mazda Design Americas full-size proposal used sharp, aggressive lines to push the purity and spirit of the roadster. Mazda Design Japan’s design expressed movement through changing surface volumes. Clay modeler Yukiharu Asano worked through Japan’s Golden Week holiday in May 2012 (when the office is ordinarily closed) with MX-5 Design Chief Masashi Nakayama to hone their proposal until Asano had an “ah ha!” moment. Breakthrough. They had found their design.

When the American design team arrived in Japan to share their final proposal, both teams sat down together to go over their designs. Nakayama felt the American proposal didn’t capture raw emotional excitement in a way that would captivate enthusiasts. The U.S. team felt there was still too much of the first-generation car tied up in the Japanese proposal. Progress needed to be made to get this small, yet crucial, vehicle perfect, as it would be the car that would anchor the entire Mazda brand. The fact that the U.S. is the MX-5’s largest market was further ground for keeping the dialogue alive and open between the two design centers.

Conversations also continued to the interior, where the objectives were set around three principles:

  • “No distinction between inside and outside”
  • “Must make it look light”
  • ”No frills”

Both Japanese and U.S. designers worked on an interior theme. Derek Jenkins, who was the U.S. director of the design at the time, and Julien Montousse, the current design director who was the lead on interior design out of Irvine, went to Japan to further refine the U.S.-developed concept.

The Japanese theme was realistic for production but was too voluminous given the fourth-generation MX-5’s slimmed-down exterior proportions. The design Montousse worked on was driver-focused and looked svelte, but it lacked the simplicity Nakayama and Maeda wanted.

Still, it was a start, and the Japanese team requested Montousse spend the next six months in Hiroshima to hone his theme into what would become the MX-5’s interior.

As progress continued in Japan, Montousse and Masato Ogawa, interior design manager in Japan, led development of the MX-5’s cabin with a focus on breaking down the feeling of being contained in a car. One of the ways they accomplished this goal was to make interior panels body-colored, with the fenders feeding a visual illusion that they flowed into the car. Because custom design cues like this can be expensive to produce and lost between the time when the design team creates them and the engineering team builds them for production, the design team positioned the door panels as an aftermarket accessory—buy the car with black panels, and swap them at the dealer. The engineering team supported the idea, thankfully.

In some prototype “mules”—chopped-down third-generation MX-5s that served as testers for the fourth-generation car—designers placed body-colored interior panels at the top of the doors and plastic bumps above the front wheel wells to simulate what the driver of the fourth-gen MX-5 would see. Their goal was to show how the production car would feel to drive, visually, psychologically and emotionally.

On October 3, 2012, all of the teams converged for their final proposals, with the Japanese theme leading the way with overall direction and the U.S. and European themes providing details to make the MX-5 stand out. Mazda designers shared the goal of making a car that looked and felt uniquely Japanese, yet it was globally relevant. Mission: Accomplished.

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