Photos credit Mazda

We like to say that the Mazda Miata is always the answer, and there’s one big reason for that: it is kind of incredible how, in the Miata’s nearly 30 year history, the company never managed to screw it up.

When you think about other sporting cars one might consider—the Mustang, the GTI, the Camaro, the Nissan Z—it’s very clear that some generations stood far above others, that there are examples you simply don’t want. But all generations of the Miata have been generally excellent; all of them also deliver a remarkably similar driving experience.

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Yet Mazda was determined to go back to something like the super small, super lightweight NA Miata when its designers crafted the current ND Miata that launched in 2016. That meant keeping the size and weight way down, no easy task with modern safety requirements.

Mazda pulled back the curtain on the entire design process of the ND Miata, and it’s worth a read in full. In four parts, the company details how teams from Japan, California and Europe came together as early as the summer of 2011 (which gives you an idea of how long this process takes) with 1/4-scale clay models showing their vision for the new car.

Here’s how that played out:

Program Manager Nobuhiro Yamamoto kicked off their efforts by setting targets for what would define the next-generation MX-5—a vehicle whose size and weight they knew would be more comparable to the first-generation’s than any that had come since, with the objective to “innovate in order to preserve.”

[...] 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.

You can see where this is challenging: the necessity of progress, but also the desire to keep it old school, and sticking to a concept that they knew would work. And it definitely seems like Japan was the driving effort here:

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

And they looked back to the original for inspiration:

Going back to the earliest MX-5s, designers looked at why there were pop-up headlights: To keep the front end low, which made it look especially sleek in its diminutive stature. After time, as exposed headlights replaced the 1990-1997 pop-up units and evolved to meet safety and lighting legislation around the world, the MX-5’s front end became bulky.Again, it was time to go back to the beginning.Of course, pop-up headlights were no longer en vogue, and there was no chance they’d be coming back. But there needed to be some sort of tie to the rest of the Mazda family—simple and clean like the first-gen’s running lamps or almond-shaped like those of the rest of the Mazda family.In the end, the team used cues adapted from the European proposals, giving the MX-5 an expressive face that complemented both objectives.

We all know how it worked out. The new Miata’s a very sharp car, progressive and old school at the same time, and a blast to drive.

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I wonder what this design team thinks about the Fiat 124 Spider; it started with their work and took it in a different direction, one I think looks better even if it doesn’t drive quite as well.

Anyway, Mazda’s series on the design of the car is worth a read, and the pictures are worth ogling. It’s a rare look at just what the car design process entails.