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Evolution of an Icon
To renew the MX-5 for its third generation, Mazda engineers focused on evolving the lightweight sports car concept while acknowledging that this new generation must follow the tracks of a modern motoring icon. MX-5 program manager Takao Kijima not only looked ahead to understand how the motoring world’s needs have changed since the original MX-5 was launched, he also looked back to pinpoint what made this Mazda so special in the eyes and hands of car enthusiasts the world over. What he found was an intensity of spirit possessed by very few sports cars.
Recalling the circumstances at Mazda that brought the original MX-5 to life in the 1980s, Kijima notes, “The driving force behind the success of the MX-5 project was the passion of Toshihiko Hirai, the engineer who proposed the car and managed its development. Hirai was convinced that Mazda needed an inimitable product to distinguish it from other Japanese makers so he drew from Mazda’s heritage and adamantly persuaded other managers that the MX-5 sports car was well worth their support. When the MX-5 was unveiled after a few years of Hirai’s dedicated effort, it was the first new lightweight open two-seater in more than a decade.
“Due to the first-generation MX-5’s success, key elements such as the engine, unibody, and packaging carried over to the second generation. I lead the development of that car and found that it was not that difficult to nurture a product that customers truly admired.
“The task of creating an all new third-generation MX-5 was a greater challenge because this project consisted of a blend: previous traditions joined with several innovative updates and state-of-the-art technologies that had the potential of advancing the car to new levels of performance and enjoyment.
“To select the appropriate technologies for the third-generation MX-5, I began by studying exactly how the original car came into being. Naturally, that led me to Mr. Hirai who is retired from teaching at a Japanese university. He and I collaborated on an SAE paper covering the development of the original MX-5 which focused on how Jinba Ittai—the synergy of rider and horse moving as one—was achieved through Kansei Engineering.”
Research into Kansei Engineering began at the Hiroshima University ergonomics laboratory about 30 years ago. In contrast to building automobiles engineered to meet certain specific performance goals, the Kansei approach challenges the engineer’s sensitivity and creativity. Emotional values such as ‘fun’ and ‘beauty’ are a higher priority than the traditional engineering indices. All the senses are involved. Kijima continues, “Instead of zero-to-60-mph acceleration statistics, Kansei Engineering helps us understand how the car feels through the driver’s sense of touch, how it sounds at speed, how it looks with the top folded, and what pleasant scents can be enjoyed during a spring drive. For all intents, Kansei Engineering is the software we used to perfect the MX-5’s hardware.
“We selected the Japanese artistic ritual JInba Ittai as the illustrative symbol of JInba Ittai. In this ritual, an archer mounted on a horse gallops past a target and shoots an arrow. To hit the target’s bull’s eye, the archer and horse must move as one. A natural two-way communication is essential and the horse and rider alliance must also exhibit a high degree of synergy. Updated to the 21st century, JInba Ittai is similar to the bond between a single-seat formula-car driver and his racer or the relationship between a high-performance sport motorcycle and its rider at speed.
“Yabusame stands for the cozy driver-car relationship targeted for the first-generation MX-5. Instead of aiming for sheer speed, the goal was establishing fun-to-drive attributes as the top priority.
“Our paper pointed out that, with Kansei Engineering, the focus is not on direct measures such as performance and quality achievements but rather the intangible virtues such as pleasure, beauty, and emotional attachment. In the end, Kansei Engineering is a navigational tool that leads development engineers to study every aspect of design, mechanical function, and dynamic response in order to achieve the highest possible degree of driving satisfaction.
“To integrate Kansei values into the original MX-5, Hirai created a fishbone chart with head of the fish labeled JInba Ittai and each rib extending from the spine of the fish labeled with key Kansei elements such as integrated feel, linear and direct feel, and so on. Notes depicting specific elements necessary to realize the Kansei attributes were positioned next to the respective rib.
“By working closely with Mr. Hirai on the SAE paper, I gained a deep appreciation of the original MX-5’s developmental process. This understanding became the starting point for my third-generation effort.
“I decided that preserving the JInba Ittai and fun-to-drive character of the first- and second-generation cars was of utmost importance in the development of the new MX-5. One of the first steps with my team was the creation of a fish-bone chart that would clarify developmental goals and spell out the means by which those goals should be realized. Each team member stated in writing how they would realize the JInba Ittai concept within their respective development areas. To formalize their commitments, each team member’s statement became part of a concept catalogue and copies of the final catalogue were issued to everyone participating in MX-5’s development.
“One aspect of support I didn’t have to worry much about was the backing of Mazda’s top management. While sports cars are a lower priority than mainstream models at many companies, such is not the case at Mazda. Top management understands and embraces our sports car philosophy and considers driving fun the very core of Mazda’s Zoom-Zoom strategy. As a result, management and the MX-5 development team worked together as one.