I feel like I have taken on the task of preaching to the choir. When I was invited by Miata.net to write a column I felt paralyzed, surprising considering that I am rarely at a loss for words. The paralysis came from the Goliath looking over my shoulder; what could I say about the Miata that has not been said in the last 15 years in publications on nearly every continent and is not already known and felt by the 720,000 owners of the car? Moreover, the Miata community has many tuners, racers, and weekend warriors all of whom know the car much better than I do. I had to ask myself what I had to offer that would add to the depth of Miata.net.
Fortunately, writers are not required to be all-knowing experts. Their job is to entertain, analyze, evaluate, critique, offer reasoned independent opinion, and provide vicarious pleasures. That's what this column will be about, with the MX-5 as a more or less central theme. I hope to talk about existential pleasures of the MX-5, discuss roadsters and the business of roadsters, test drives, industry commentary, modifications and the aftermarket, and so on and so forth. Once in a while, I may pick up on some Forum thread topic to write this column.
A column about the MX-5 has to start with examining the car. Just what is it about our fine four fendered friend that makes it so wonderful. It certainly has the essentials right; its light, compact, rear wheel driven, and open. Any car half competently developed to this formula would be at least somewhat entertaining car to drive. However, any lover of this Mazda will tell you that these traits are essential but not adequate to explain why the MX-5 is so delightful. Sure, its got the 50/50 weight balance, the requisite manual transmission, the double wishbone suspension all around, but the Miata steps beyond the spec sheets and the blue prints into the world of anthropomorphic personality. It is a celebration of motion. To drive the MX-5 is to be seduced by its unrestrained eagerness to play and to please, as if it were a half grown Retriever puppy. Everything you touch in the car, everything you hear, you feel, is alive with sensations and personality. On the move, the car's exuberance is irrepressible. It charms with every move, every input from the driver brings a double fold rewarding response. Quite simply, it makes the driver a part of itself. The very act of driving the car is rich experience for the senses, as if the car grows its nerves into your body and bombards you with everything that its doing and everything its feeling in its veins and sinews. Jinba Itai. Horse and Rider as one. They really do mean it. Its not just marketing pap.
I prefer to think of Jinba Itai directly as the melding of Car and Driver, rather than the metaphorical horse and rider. Lets forget about horses and riders. We are not Mongol horsemen and besides, engines smell better than horses. So what was it that brought Mazda to Jinba Itai for the MX-5 in the first place?? By 1989 Mazda had already been making cars for a while. Hundreds of excellent drivers cars, particularly out of Europe, had for decades provided great pleasures to their drivers, and there has never been a shortage of very able car engineers. So why Jinba Itai now? How was it that the coalescence of man and machine became such a central theme for the MX-5? I remembered that at the time, Mazda advertisements were talking about Kansei Engineering. There was one ad about shift throws, another about exhaust notes, and others, all carrying the message of Kansei. So what is Kansei Engineering exactly?
Google took me to web site of Ergosoft Laboratories, which says that Kansei Engineering is "the translation of consumers' psychological feeling about a product into perceptual design elements. Kansei engineering is also sometimes referred to as "sensory engineering" or "emotional usability." This technique involves determining which sensory attributes elicit particular subjective responses from people, and then designing a product using the attributes which elicit the desired responses." Aha! It makes perfect sense! I have driven many cars that are objectively better driver's cars than the MX-5 but none that is the addictive, deeply pleasurable satisfying drug that the MX-5 is. It was always obvious that when designing the MX-5 Mazda engineers had put the human at the core of the car. Now its clear that Mazda had a formal process in place; engineering whose reward is sensory, subjective pleasure. Everything had been developed and set up to feel good to the driver. I suspect that Jinba Itai came about as an outcome of Kansei engineering, rather than a stated end unto itself. Somewhere along the line, Mazda realized that Kansei engineering done right leads to Jinba Itai.
Incidentally, it may also shed light on why the MX-5 has never been a power hog. It would seem that there is something philosophical about this; a focus on balance, a spiritual contentment with the modest, the rejection of gluttonous greed. Define the focus and endeavor to stay true, resist the dark forces that would seduce you from your path with corrupting temptations of excess. Surrender leads to immediate gratification but ultimate dissatisfaction. Mazda has maintained a meditative focus on the essence of the MX-5. Well done, Mazda.
My intention is not to reduce the worth of faster, more powerful cars, nor of the desires of MX-5 lovers who seek out more performance. One path is not the right one for everybody, and besides, it would be pretty dull if there was only one way. Rather, I want to underline the importance that Mazda stay true to the path that it started walking on nearly 20 years ago. If Mazda got into a performance war, the stakes would eventually be escalated to where we'd be looking at a 280hp MX-5. Some would claim that we were all better off thanks to progress through competition. Unfortunately, if that were to come about, the flame that Mazda has nurtured for so long would have gone out; the spirit of the MX-5 will be dead. That progress I for one do not want. I don't want the MX-5 to stop being what it is. The MX-5 faces competition now and Mazda has the tricky task of meeting the challenge without losing its focus. Lets hope that Mazda's faith in its way will see it through.
Curiously, while I am a fan of the Miata, I have never felt particularly affectionate about Mazda itself. Writing this column, I feel it changing. The MX-5 was no accident. That it ever came to be, and that in a world of accounting sheets and quarterly results, Mazda has stayed true with a religious fervor, make it clear that Mazda is a company with a soul. The MX-5 is evidence of a deep seated passion and character that underlies the harsh realities of profits and losses. Mazda is a treasure.
For this column, I'd like to drive an NC and the NB Mazdaspeed. I have not driven either and am curious about to look at how far the MX-5 has come in 15 years and how much its still the same. It may be worthwhile to explore the larger Mazda sports car philosophy by looking at the RX-8 in the context of the MX-5 and Jinba Itai. It would also be quite useful to compare the Solstice with the NC; Jinba Itai doesn't mean a thing if somebody else does a better job. Naturally all that depends on the availability of cars for me to drive, but it gives you an idea of where this column is going. Its pretty wide open to anything related to the MX-5 and will cover general car and car industry related material as well. I would welcome you to give me your comments, feedback, suggestions, etc. Please use the feedback form on this page.