Total MX-5 - - CONTENTS -

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…

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.

JUNE 2011

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?

OC­TO­BER 2011

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.

OC­TO­BER 2012

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.

MAY 2013

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

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