MX-5 RF Stories: In pursuit of a simple dream – MX-5 smiles for all
Take a moment to imagine life with the Mazda MX-5 RF. Imagine the first time you park it in the driveway. Imagine adding to your daily routine the wide open sky, the hush of the closed cabin, and the thrill of the drive. The MX-5 RF is a companion as suited to formal occasions as it is to wind-in-your-hair jaunts.
The spirit of the MX-5 – a car to make everybody happy – has been nurtured over the model’s 27-year history, and it is certainly not exclusive to the overtly playful soft-top model. It is this same passion that drove the people behind the development of the MX-5 RF to ask, “How much joy can a car bring?” Mazda’s engineers want nothing more than to introduce as many people as possible to the joy of driving a car that moves exactly as you expect. This is the story of the people who created the MX-5 RF, all of whom share this goal.
A refusal to compromise set the bar high
The development team didn’t need to be convinced that the ultimate form for the next retractable hardtop MX-5 was a fastback design, with the roof sloping down to the rear in a seductive, unbroken curve. But the decision to pursue this design set the team on a course entailing technical challenges more difficult than they had imagined.
By mid-2013, development of the fourth-generation soft-top was entering its final stages, and the nitty-gritty details, such as the finer points of the Gram Strategy, were being decided. The team’s single-minded determination to pursue beauty of line and surface in a compact package meant the soft-top design would not allow for the stowage of the much bulkier retractable hardtop.
Just as work on the soft-top was winding down, development of the hardtop got into full swing. The team comprised people from departments throughout the company, and they would frequently visit each other’s offices and development sites.
In each of their minds was an image of the next hardtop MX-5, sketched in blue and red ink.
This simple line drawing had determined the course of the development of the future model. It was the solution to the riddle of how the new hardtop could deliver the essentials that have defined the MX-5 since the beginning – light and compact for flawless control, the right wheelbase for Jinba-ittai driving and enough luggage room for a weekend away – just as the new soft-top had.
What it showed was the next MX-5 hardtop with a beautiful fastback roofline.
The team was determined to create the model in that sketch, no matter the challenges involved. And they knew it would require uniting the efforts of many different departments. The co-creation mindset, which had established itself during development of the soft-top, made it easy for the engineers and designers to drop in on each other at the various development sites and design studios where they worked.
Creating new value with the MX-5 RF
The MX-5 had never been a fastback before. Would it be possible to produce that feeling of driving with the wind and sky? What shape for the rear roof would look best in the side-view mirror? And where should it attach to the body? What was the best material for the roof in terms of weight? What about quality? Durability? And reducing noise in the cabin? What adjustments would need to be made to the steering and suspension to preserve the Jinba-ittai driving feel? The engineers faced a seemingly endless series of such questions, and their days consisted of nothing but seeking the answers, one after another.
But no question was more complicated than that of reconciling the design with the presence of the retractable hardtop, which some thought was simply not possible. With the fourth-generation soft-top, beams of light are unleashed from the tip of the nose, along the ridge of the front fender and past the driver’s shoulder to the tail. This striking line is the reason people the world over fell in love with the design. But with a hardtop, the mechanism required to quickly and smoothly fold away the different sections of the roof is extremely complex and usually quite large. The entire contraption somehow had to fit within the diminutive curves of the MX-5. The engineers in charge joined the designers in the studio and explained just how tight the physical restrictions were. Of course, the designers were already well aware of this.
“We need you to put your heads together and come up with something cutting-edge.”
As they looked at a mock-up of the future MX-5 RF, all they could think about was building that car – not seeking compromises in each other’s domain – and they were determined to work together to figure out how to get the car to the people around the world who were anticipating its arrival.
“I guess we don’t have a choice.”
And so, the engineers’ job became even tougher. The layout of the motor, gears, and the linkages that support the roof parts was changed many times, and spaces between parts reduced as much as possible in order to minimize the width of the mechanism. Digital designers tested different patterns for opening and closing, varying the sizes of the roof sections and dimensions of the linkages using a digital prototype. They were concerned not only with its appearance and not disturbing the passengers, but also with the beauty of the choreographed movements of each section. In the end, they came up with a mechanism narrower than anything they’d seen before, one that opens and closes the roof with the grace of a world-class figure skater.
A mock-up of the RF’s hardtop
Checking assembly of the production-ready roof
Built with the cooperation of production line engineers, a car to delight the world
There was something else unique about the development of this car.
As the designers and engineers puzzled over how to incorporate the hardtop without interfering with the essentials of the design, the engineers who would create the production line were working alongside them. Rather than simply waiting for development to take its course, they came of their own accord to the design rooms and the R&D areas, offering advice on the latest manufacturing techniques. Of course, the designers and engineers welcomed them with open arms. At the same time, the manufacturing know-how required to make the car both high-quality and affordable was refined. And the results of this co-creative endeavor will soon be rolling off the production line in Hiroshima.
The MX-5 RF brings together elements that at times seemed impossible to unite: open-top Jinba-ittai driving, a beautiful design and a retractable hardtop to help bring the pleasure of the MX-5 to an even wider audience. It is the product of a co-creation process, which brought together creative abilities across departments, and an aspiration focused unwaveringly on the essence of the MX-5. The day is coming when the MX-5 RF will bring smiles to the faces of both drivers and those who see it on the street.
Be sure to read the next installment in this series, which will feature Masanori Minamisawa, the exterior designer who drew the sketch referred to in this story.
Note: All images show the Mazda MX-5 RF that was exhibited at the 2016 New York International Auto Show.