2006 Mazda MX-5
Photo: Mazda. Click image to enlarge

By Jeremy Cato

Hiroshima, Japan – We are locked up tight in a gigantic hanger, wide and tall enough to serve as the Hollywood sound stage for James Cameron’s Titanic, where Takao Kijima is explaining how “Jinba Ittai” is the very essence of the third-generation Mazda Miata due to go on sale later this year.

“The direct translation of the idiom is rider and horse as one,” says the program manager for the 2006 Miata. My visit was in preparation for the car’s unveiling at the recent Geneva auto show.

Japanese engineers have a famous fondness for metaphor, imagery and analogy when they set about creating a new product, and Kijima is no exception. In the case of his new roadster, he describes this Miata and its driver as a rider and horse. But it’s not just any rider and horse, and by extension not just any car and driver.

As we walk around a Miata prototype in a guarded building buried in Mazda’s sprawling product development and manufacturing complex, Kijima, through the help of a translator, says that this Jinba Ittai business is quite serious. It comes from a very old artistic ritual ceremony in Japan called “Yabusame”; his designers and engineers took its powerful message to heart when reinventing the 2006 Miata.

A short history of the Miata
On February 9, 1989, the Mazda Motor Corporation showed the world its Mazda MX-5/Miata at the Chicago Auto Show, capturing the simple elegance of classic British roadsters such as the Triumph Spitfire and MGB. In this case, Mazda created a nimble two-seater with the looks of a Lotus Elan and the reliability of…well, one of the better Japanese cars.

The car hit showrooms in the summer of 1989 and was an instant sensation, with many dealers asking for hefty premiums over the sticker price. By May of 2000, the Guinness Book of World Records recognized the Mazda MX-5 as the best-selling two-seat convertible sports car in history, with 531,890 units produced to that date. Today, more than 700,000 Mazda MX-5s have been sold around the globe.

Original Miata designer Tom Matano, now teaching design in San Francisco, says the plan was to create a car that would encourage you to “get up in the morning and go for a drive with the dew still on your cheek.”

Then and today, Mazda’s history has been of engineering prowess and sporty aspirations, so the exciting Miata was not a complete shock.

After all, this is the same company that produced the rotary-powered Mazda Cosmo Sport in 1967 and the RX-7 in 1978. As recently as 2003 Mazda introduced the RX-8, a four-door sports car with a new rotary engine.

The Miata, though, is the one car most closely associated with Mazda. After its launch, Mazda made subtle improvements to the car, but the biggest change came with the second generation in 1998. It got bigger and more powerful, and perhaps most controversially, the pop-up headlights were replaced by fixed lamps with clear lenses.

“It (Yabusame) truly embodies the essence of Jinba Ittai,” he says almost grimly, as the translator tries to make sense of this Japanese way of thinking to my decidedly Western mind.

Imagine, he goes on, an archer galloping on horseback, racing past a target and then letting fly with an arrow, smacking the bull’s-eye dead centre. The synergy, the two-way communication between rider and horse, makes the archer’s expert shooting possible.

Take this idea to the race track and picture Michael Schumacher in his red Ferrari, leading the pack of also-ran F1 drivers around by the nose, turn after turn. Schumacher and his Ferrari have way more Jinba Ittai than all the other F1 teams combined. That is why, for several years now, the others have all spent their Sundays duking it out for second place.

“Jinba Ittai is the essence of Zoom-Zoom,” Kijima sums up, conveniently remembering to mention Mazda’s global marketing tag line.

I am listening intently, though through a haze of jet lag. It is jarring to hear engineers talk like artists, so a strong urge to doze off is held at bay. I am intrigued and even somewhat amused by this talk of Jinba Ittai. The discussion is a welcome distraction after something of a 24-hour forced march of travel to Hiroshima for a one-day Miata seminar.

The trip here included not just the long flight across the Pacific to Osaka, but also a ride aboard a bullet train leading to a seemingly interminable bus ride that finally led to a fitful night in the warmish Prince Hotel.

2006 Mazda MX-5
Photo: Mazda. Click image to enlarge

Then Kijima jolts me yet again by launching into a discussion of Kansei engineering. Huh?

Kansei engineering, he says, allowed Mazda’s engineers to take the subtle imagery of Jinba Ittai and turn it into the nuts-and-bolts reality of a modern car with a body shell, a drivetrain, and chassis components. Huh, again?

Kansei engineering is a tricky concept for a Westerner to understand. It has something to do with being thoughtful and aware, of maintaining a high degree of sensitivity to all the parts as they work and come together to become a whole.

Kijima tells me Kansei underscores every aspect of the design, mechanical functions, and dynamic responses of the 2006 Miata. Together they contribute to driving satisfaction, something critical for this car.

So the new Miata is a very Zen-like two-seater. But then it always has been.

2006 Mazda MX-5

2006 Mazda MX-5

2006 Mazda MX-5
Photo: Mazda. Click image to enlarge

The Miata, or as it is officially known, the MX-5, has never been the fastest, nor the quickest, nor the most comfortable or most stylish roadster. But it is the most popular one in history, with more than 700,000 sold since the middle of 1989, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Chalk it up to global acceptance of Zen and the art of droptop driving.

For Mazda, the Miata is an icon, which is both good and bad for the likes of Kijima. Icons present an unusual blend of challenge and threat to career engineers. If he and his team get it right, they will have accomplished only the expected. If they muck it up, by something like delivering a bloated and overwrought caricature of a Miata (think back to what Ford did to the Thunderbird in the 1960s), they face the prospect of a major career move to, say, running a karaoke bar or a noodle shop in downtown Okayama.

On top of that is the question of a rotary engine. Will the 2006 become the complete Mazda sports car package, joining the RX-8 with its rotary power? Obviously there is pressure on Mazda to tuck a rotary under the hood. But for now and into 2006, there will be no rotary Miata, although the possibility remains for some future but unspecified date. Mazda would need to add capacity to its one and only rotary plant in Hiroshima if the Miata were to go that way, and that’s not in the cards, at least for the time being.

The 2006 Miata will get a new 2.0-litre inline four-cylinder engine in Canada and the United States, while a second 1.8-litre powerplant is planned for Europe. The new four-banger has the expected double-overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, electronic port fuel injection and variable intake valve timing.

2006 Mazda MX-5
Photo: Mazda. Click image to enlarge

Preliminary specs show the 2.0-litre delivers 158 horsepower and 139 lb-ft of torque, a modest improvement over today’s 142 hp and 125 lb-ft. A new short-throw six-speed manual transmission will be offered at launch, while a six-speed automatic, with wheel-mounted paddles, will follow. And as with the original Miata, the exhaust will be tuned to sound like the best blend of 100 classic roadsters.

Kajima makes no apologies for not pumping up the Miata with too much zoom-zoom. That would defeat the whole idea of a simple, fun and friendly sports car which is the very essence of the Miata, he says. In an auto industry obsessed with pumping up horsepower like home-run-hitting baseball players on steroids, he’s bucking the trend led by the latest crop of 400 hp Chevrolet Corvettes and 225 hp BMW Z4s.

It is risky to stay the course in an automotive market that sees 50 or 60 new models introduced each year. But that is what Mazda has done with the 2006 Miata. This updated roadster remains true to its roots as, according to more than one reviewer, “the best British sports car the Japanese ever built.”

We expected this, though. At the 2003 Tokyo Motor Show, Mazda showed the Ibuki concept vehicle. While not a single company official would say so at the time, the obvious conclusion was that this small two-seater signalled the look of the next-generation Miata. In the 2006 Miata you will find unmistakable traces of the Ibuki’s curvaceous nose with its oval air scoop, as well as the sweeping tail and the muscular wheel arches.

There is also a clear family resemblance to the first two generations of the Miata, says Yasushi Makamuta of Mazda’s design division. The Miata could not stray too far from its essence, placing it among such other “design icons” as the Porsche 911 Carrera, the Mini and the Volkswagen Beetle.

2006 Mazda MX-5
Photo: Mazda. Click image to enlarge

“The design theme is of an oval shape sweeping rearward,” he says, reminding us that while the first- and second-generation Miata had a Coke-bottle shape, the new car has a powerfully long nose, big fender bulges, a low, flowing shoulder line and lights that have been moved to the centre of the body. “We have focused on the details,” he adds.

So look closely for the hood bulge, the round parting line for the hood, the mesh grille and a “rear overhang that is quite substantial compared to the front.”

Certain other details are as expected. The convertible roof is still manually-operated and has a single central latch handle. The detachable hardtop has a large, sweeping rear window and the headrests have roll bars behind them. While obviously more substantial than the outgoing 2005 car, this new Miata still carries a light and simple air about it.

That is because the basic layout is unchanged. The engine is up front driving the rear wheels, though to improve the car’s balance, the powerplant has been pushed back 135 mm. Weight distribution is now a perfect 50/50, although overall weight itself is up just 10 kg to accommodate new features such as side air bags.

“Light weight is critical to Jinba Ittai,” says chassis engineer Nabahiro Yamamoto, so to keep excess flab to a minimum, while also boosting torsional or twisting stiffness by 47 per cent, the new car boasts extensive use of ultra-high-strength steel. “We had a gram strategy for the MX-5; reduce weight gram-by-gram. This is very critical,” he says.

Yamamoto says the 2006 Miata will be a quick, nimble and precise sports car, with delightful handling, responsive steering and linear braking. “Where the roadster shines is on winding roads,” he says.

Mazda isn’t providing proof in terms of a test drive today, although that will come shortly. Still, with an increased use of aluminum to contain weight gains, a double wishbone front suspension, multi-link rear suspension and bigger front brake rotors, there is little doubt the new Miata will be, as promised, a treat from behind the wheel.

It will be more comfortable, too, thanks to an adjustable steering wheel, a slightly roomier cabin, dressier instrumentation and controls, new waist-level vents for better ventilation, richer materials and even a set of three storage compartments attached to the rear wall. Cabin space is better thanks to a modest increases in wheelbase (65 mm), length (20 mm), width (40 mm) and height (20 mm).

Naturally, we won’t know the price for this new roadster until we get closer to the launch date, several months away. No one from Mazda here on the “sound stage” is willing to speak about dollars and cents on the record. Still, there is little doubt the car will run from the high-$20,000s to the mid-$30,000s. There it will have a tidy little price advantage over all its possible competitors, from the ‘Vette to the Honda S2000 and the Z4.

By keeping this roadster compact and light, and staying with the classic front-midship, rear-drive layout wrapped in a clean, unadorned body, Kijima and his gang stayed true to their Miata. How delightful it is to see a new car that is less focused on being bigger than it is on being merely better.

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