Driving the 20th Anniversary of a Great Idea
Let's bring the 2010 Mazda MX-5 Miata onto the stage with a round of applause, shall we?
Some 855,000 examples of the MX-5 Miata have streamed out of Mazda's factory in Japan since the first 1990 model hit the ground in late 1989. In fact, this convertible roadster has a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most popular sports car ever built.
The MX-5 lifted the idea of the lightweight roadster out of obscurity and placed it back on the wish list of car enthusiasts around the world. It single-handedly proved that lightweight sports cars were cool once again, and from this epiphany has come a long list of cars that partake in the Miata's spirit if not its form, like the Audi TT, BMW Z3/Z4, Fiat Barchetta, Mercedes-Benz SLK, Pontiac Solstice, Porsche Boxster and Rover MGF.
Some 20 years on, the feisty little roadster has withstood the test of time and competition. And now just as the rest of the world is getting a glimpse of the 2010 Mazda MX-5 Miata in official Mazda photography, we're on a little road in wintry Japan to actually drive it.
The Magic Comes From Lightness
The secret of the Miata's success lies in its conception. Mazda modeled its small sports car pretty frankly on the rear-wheel-drive 1962 Lotus Elan, which offered a revolutionary combination of lightness and performance even then. And no matter how much Americans and Europeans alike have longed for more passenger room and more power ever since, Mazda hasn't strayed from its original mission. The MX-5 Miata is still a lightweight, balanced and responsive roadster that delivers the very best in wind-in-the-hair driving at an affordable price.
As Takao Kijima, chief engineer of the MX-5, tells us, his team has embraced the philosophy of Jinba-ittai, the feeling of oneness between a horse and its rider that has guided the Mazda engineers from the start of development more than two decades ago.
"When I started working on the original MX-5 back in the mid-'80s," Kijima says, "we knew from the very beginning that it had to be small, as light as possible and rear-wheel drive." Getting that first-generation car off the ground was a battle, Kijima explains, as Mazda's bean counters kept emphasizing to the planners that it would be cheaper to build a car with front-wheel drive like the Honda Civic CRX.
Kijima is very aware of the impact his car has had on the sports car world. Even his down-to-earth personality can't disguise his passion about the planning team's concept of "lightweight sports." He says, "The MX-5 must remain a small, lightweight car. That's its personality." His philosophy hasn't wavered for the last quarter century. In fact, this face-lifted 2010 Mazda MX-5 Miata here is the culmination of his life's work, as he's retiring from the company after 25 years.
Things Left Undone
So in honor of Mr. MX-5, the engineer who cut his teeth under Toshihiko Hirai (the boss who led the team that built the first-generation MX-5), we are going to take some poetic license and unofficially call this revision the 20th-anniversary model.
As we pulled up at Mazda's R&D facility in Yokohama, just south of Tokyo, Kijima greeted us with the keys to our test car, an RS model with a six-speed transmission. This face-lift for 2010 comes two years after the introduction of the third-generation MX-5 (known within Mazda by its engineering code, NC), which captured the Car of the Year award in Japan. And as development for the fourth-generation MX-5 is already under way, but under a new, as yet unnamed chief engineer, the 2010 model is Kijima's last effort in charge of the MX-5. "I wanted to complete everything left undone on the current model," he smiles.
As he counts the number of changes, it's clear Kijima wanted to go out in style. Mazda might call this model only a minor face-lift, but the fact is that every major component of the car has either been redesigned or tweaked. Exterior styling, interior trim and fittings, engine, suspension, transmission, even the exhaust all went under the microscope.
No More Waffling in the Corners
Walking toward the soft-top test car, you're struck by the wide, five-sided grille and the driving light nacelles, which reflect a theme adapted from Mazda's recent concept cars, notably the flowing Nagare.
The headlights are slanted upward more than before, rocker sill skirts have been integrated into the shape, the taillights protrude (it's all the rage in Japan) and a small spoiler is integrated into the trunk lid. The designers have also made the front and rear bumpers wider to redirect the flow of air away from the turbulent area around the spinning tires. As a result, the Cd has dropped 0.01 to 0.34 for the soft top and 0.32 for the hardtop.
Despite his limited budget for improvements, Kijimi really pushed the envelope with the revised car's on-road experience. He felt that the current car lacked in certain areas and he wanted to "fix them."
First he used the Bilstein dampers from the MX-5 NR-A (the racing-specification model in Japan). The increased compression damping in the rear combined with a lower roll center for the front suspension has dramatically improved cornering behavior. The new car magically absorbs that initial waffle or dip in the suspension as you turn into a corner, delivering, instead, a more progressive, precise and faster cornering arc, with less body roll.
Straight-line stability has also been enhanced, although the stiffer suspension settings generate a slight pitching motion at speed and a harsher ride overall. But on winding roads and racetracks, this new suspension setting is superb and cannot be faulted, especially when combined with these grippy 205/45R17 Bridgestone Potenza RE050A run-flat tires.
Next Kijima turned to the MX-5's MZR engine. The 2.0-liter power plant's 170 horsepower arrives at 7,000 rpm, not 6,700 rpm, while the redline has climbed 500 rpm to 7,500 rpm. This enables you to squeeze that little bit extra out of the 2.0-liter inline-4's top end to get the full 170 hp. You really appreciate this upgrade when you exit a corner and want every herb on tap to get a quick escape. And as someone who races an MX-5 in Japan, we'll tell you that the top-end power will be more than welcome when we come out of the hairpin bends at Tsukuba Circuit looking for a quick exit.
To enable such high-rpm punishment, Mazda fitted pistons with full-floating wristpins and a forged crankshaft, technology borrowed from the 2.5-liter MZR engine featured in the new Mazda 6. The corporate specifications sheet says power remains unchanged at 170 hp, and so does the torque rating of 140 pound-feet at 5,000 rpm. But Kijima lets on that these revisions have in fact upped power by around 3-4 hp. As a result, this new engine calibration for Japan (which has 100-octane gasoline) delivers a sprint to 60 mph in 7.4 seconds, marginally quicker than the current model.
Coat a Cone With Carbon
Helping to generate such a time is a modified six-speed manual transmission. The Miata's transmission has produced nothing but accolades from driving enthusiasts, but Kijima still saw room for improvement. Now the outer cones of the triple synchros for 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th gear wear a coating of carbon for slicker shift action, so you can drain every last rpm out of this screaming 2.0-liter.
The chief engineer also revised the MX-5's six-speed automatic, adding Active Adaptive Shift (AAS), which now allows drivers to instantly engage the manual mode while in Drive just by flicking one of the shift paddles on the steering wheel.
To complete his mission to make the MX-5 Miata's driving experience the best it can be, Kijima fitted an induction sound enhancer to the intake manifold. It picks up sound and vibration when accelerating hard and feeds a raspier sound to the cabin, making the whole experience a lot more engaging.
Overall, Kijima's tweaks take the MX-5 to the next level. The car feels more supple and in touch with the road, and when you want a bit more power, just give the sound enhancer a good old stir.
What's Next? Smaller and Lighter, Naturally
Inside the cabin, the 2010 Mazda MX-5 Miata is almost unchanged except for a newly fitted auxiliary socket for your iPod, softer leatherlike trim surfaces and a fuel-economy gauge located between the tach and speedo. And for lanky 6-foot-3 drivers like yours truly, there's a new cupholder within the door pocket that doesn't foul your knees. Recaro sport seats are also optional, as are 17-inch BBS rims.
Whenever you speak with Kijima, you cannot complete more than a few sentences without him mentioning "lightweight sports." But as we inquired whether this philosophy of minimalism can survive the modern era, he replied, "Don't be surprised if the next-generation MX-5 is even smaller and lighter than this one. The market demands it and so do we."
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.