Sorting out the design of the mk4 MX-5 wasn’t the work of a moment – we chart what was involved in creating it, and its slow path to production
It takes several years to conceive and refine the design of a brand new car, so let us take you back in time to the dawn of the mk4 MX-5 and trace its lengthy path to production
BEFORE MOST OF US have even the slightest idea that a brand new model is imminent, the shape and structure of that car will have long since been a done deal. Everything about it from its styling to its tyre width was decided many, many months ago. It’s rarer these days, but some manufacturers will occasionally present a concept car at a motor show, and then teasingly claim that if there’s enough public interest, they will consider it for production.
That’s an outrageous deceit.
It costs too much and takes too long to design, engineer, test and productionise a new car for the process to be decided by public whim – that so-called concept car is, in fact, a car that is almost ready for production, with a few detail differences that will be changed slightly prior to its pre-ordained delivery to the showroom.
Some of this you might already have worked out for yourself, but what may come as a surprise is just how far in advance of its appearance on the high street the process of designing a new car begins. And how long it takes to reach the point where the final design is signed off by management and no more changes can be made ahead of the production line whirring and clinking into life for the first time.
We’ve been fortunate to have Mazda grant us access to the timeline for the creation and development of the fourth generation MX-5, the ND. And it reveals a lengthy and painstaking journey from the initial stage of musing that it must surely be time to consider the next generation of Mazda roadster, through to the inhouse design summit where it was proclaimed that the new MX-5 was ready to rock.
The mk4 MX-5 enjoyed its world debut in the USA and Spain on 3 September 2014, and was unveiled on its domestic market the day afterwards. But its genesis can be traced way back to October 2010…
Knowing that it will take four years to get the car from a bunch of dreamy on-paper ideals into a production reality, Mazda management issues a Request for Packaging for the fourth generation MX-5, known internally as the ND. Think of it as an emotional and practical framework for a few key ingredients for the car.
This includes the continuation of the ‘man and machine united as one’ philosophy that has been the backbone of the MX-5’S appeal since the dawn of the original, and the desire for it to have a low, sporty bonnet-line. It must also be a proper lightweight, and be shorter than the mk1. And, a little contentiously perhaps, the version with the electrically folding hardtop should be considered as a standalone model, a fastback, which later will be branded the RF (for Retractable Fastback). For the purposes of clarity in this story, though, we will encapsulate both versions under the umbrella of mk4 MX-5.
The Request for Packaging document is sent to Mazda’s design teams in Japan, America and Europe and the creative process of designing a new MX-5 begins.
With management now convinced that the design brief is solid, the design teams are told to shift it up a gear and move on to more advanced design studies.
The designers’ illustrations become more detailed and more grounded in the world of production car reality, and large scale models are made of the most promising design themes, to check what works in 3D. Although each of Mazda’s design studios is working independently, there are some similarities in their interpretations – how could there not be, really, when working to a common design brief and with an end goal that has to be instantly recognisable as a Mazda MX-5?
A ‘Design Aspiration’ graph is created with axes labelled Simple and Expressive – the mk4 seems to be pushed to the maximum on both lines. Stated aims for the design include ‘beautiful proportions’, ‘roof that opens and closes beautifully’, and ‘details that tickle the minds of enthusiasts’.
The designers are encouraged to think hard about the car’s proportions, the importance of which will soon emerge.
A Design Summit is held to check on progress both of the exterior design and the interior. Work on the latter has already begun, centred on the philosophy that there should be no defining boundary between the inside and the outside of the car.
And as a form of discipline to maintain the designers’ focus on this point, all cabin renderings have to include some of the external bodywork, too: later, when some of the designs have been fashioned into full-sized cabin mock-ups, they have a video monitor placed in front of them playing footage of the open road, to give the sensation of being on the move.
The colour and trim team collaborate with the interior designers from a very early stage on this project; similarly, the instrument panel design is considered crucial to the overall flavour of the cabin and work begins comparatively early on it.
During the Design Summit’s appraisal of the exterior proposals, a crucial decision is made to enhance the MX-5’S proportions – the A-pillar (the windscreen pillar) is to be moved back 70mm, a substantial amount, making the bonnet longer. But it also creates major engineering challenges. The rearward move changes the offset of the door hinge pillars, which has a negative impact on the bodyshell’s structural rigidity that will require rectification. It also brings the windscreen’s header rail into closer proximity to the cabin’s occupants, with implications for crash safety; the cross-section of the header rail will later be reduced to mitigate this issue.
On the positive side, moving back the A-pillar makes for a smaller roof on both the roadster and the RF, so less cabin/boot space has to be sacrificed to store the roof when folded.
The Design Summit also decides not to proceed with Europe’s proposed design direction, leaving Japan and America to compete for the honour of designing the next generation MX-5.
The Japanese studio’s design gets the nod ahead of the
American proposal, but there’s still much work to be done to turn it into a viable design for mass production, and now all the design teams will work together to achieve this.
It’s a double-whammy for the Japanese studio as its interior design also finds favour. However, the Americans’ proposal is deemed to be more driver-oriented, so the two teams are now combined to move the cabin design towards production acceptability.
A key interior design feature, which accentuates the notion of no boundaries with the exterior, is agreed upon – the top sections of the door trim panels are to be body-coloured, to give the impression that the outer door skins are spilling over into the cabin.
The better to visualise this feature, the cabin’s clay styling mock-ups are fitted with some of the car’s external panels.
While the exterior team continues to refine its design for the mk4’s dramatic bodywork, the inside squad hosts an Interior Design Summit, where it’s confirmed that the collaborative approach between Japan and the USA is yielding excellent results – Japan’s clean, neat basic cabin design is being enhanced by the sense of speed and aggression of the US proposal: the teams continue working together.
A lot of effort is being expended by the exterior designers on the MX-5’S nose. They’re shrewd enough to refer to the car’s front end as its ‘face’, recognising that over the years this is an important part of what has given the MX-5 its charm and character. The designers want ‘headlights that emanate expressions of a living creature’, and opt for LED units as the best way to achieve this.
As the MX-5’S design nears completion, the production engineers are brought in; ideally they need a whole year to ensure that every whim of the designers can actually be bent to meet the strictures and potential limitations of mass production.
Another Interior Design
Summit. Some of the detail design is still being mulled over, such as the appearance of the steering wheel, the cabin’s colour combinations, and the style of the seats. It’s confirmed that there will be no glovebox – its absence will help keep the facia low and add to the feeling of open space in the cabin.
A full-size design prototype is taken to Mazda’s Myoshi proving ground in Japan, where it will stay for a fortnight. Here every aspect of its design will be subject to prolonged
exposure in an environment far more ‘real world’ than a design studio. It’s an exercise in nitpicking and thoroughly worthwhile – myriad details are spotted that require further refinement and by late July all of those ‘corrections’ have been incorporated into a final full-size clay model.
This clay model is scanned to provide a comprehensive digital data file, which is what the ‘real thing’ will be engineered from.
Management gives its sign-off for the final design and members of the manufacturing team begin their preparations for mass production a year before the mk4 MX-5 hits the showrooms.
There are still hurdles to overcome, but MX-5 fever has infected the whole of Mazda. That is reflected in a statement by a member of the manufacturing team to the designers: ‘Count on us, as we would bend things that did not bend, for you.’
And in another example of singing from the same songsheet, at one stage it looks as though the armrests on the doors will have to be sacrificed for extra cabin room – working together, the production engineers and designers devise a way of carving more space out of the door trim panels to retain the armrests.
The Mazda MX-5 mk4 makes its global debut as a production prototype on the third of the month in the USA and Spain, and a day later in its home market of Japan; sales proper start in the third quarter of 2015. The newest addition to the MX-5 family tree is universally admired for the way it drives, and for its striking looks: all that time and effort were worth it.
February 2012: For greater realism, a video monitor is placed in front of the cabin mock-up
November 2012: The MX-5’S ‘face’ is considered. Designers want headlights that emanante expressions of a living creature
July/august 2012: Clay styling mock ups are fitted with some of the car’s external panels
February 2012: The interior’s design team hard at work
June 2011: Scale models are made of the most promising design themes
February 2012: Interior design renderings are further refined
October 2011: Design Aspiration graph
February 2012: Design Summit attended by all design teams
September 2013: Mazda MX-5 mk4 makes its global debut
February 2013: External body panels help visualise what the mk4 will be like to sit inside
May 2013: Final clay model with design corrections is scanned
May 2013: Nit-picking done in a more ‘real world’ environment