The Design of a Sports Car
As an automobile enthusiast, I have always loved the idea of the Mazda Miata: a small, two-seat sports car built with a design ethos of being lightweight, nimble, fun, and attainable by the everyday person; it retails around $28K. It wasn’t created just to be another mode of transportation, it was to be a car for the driving enthusiast, for someone who loves to drive. As a design professional, I love the Miata just as much.
The Miata debuted in 1989 and is currently in its fourth design update, the ND. It weighs around 2,350 lbs. For reference, a standard Honda Civic (a compact car by definition) weighs an average of 2,850 lbs., a whopping 500 lbs. more. From a design standpoint, weight is the defining factor for the Miata. Less weight translates into quicker reflexes, or, as in Physics, less weight equals less resistance to change in directional forces. The Miata is a true study of how less is more, a maximizing of efficiency solely to benefit the driving experience.
Sometimes minimalism can feel sterile, but minimalism, in the Miata’s case, leads to a better, closer connection of the driver to the road. The Miata’s convertible top is manually put up and down. It consists of one centrally located lever, just above the rearview mirror, that the driver pulls to release. The driver then simply uses one hand to push the roof back until it clicks into a folded, closed, locked position. This motion is ergonomically comfortable from a seated position and effortless to accomplish. To put the roof up, the driver pushes a release button and a spring pops the roof up to assist in lifting the roof back to a closed position, where the driver pushes a lever to lock the roof back into position. The mechanism for putting the top down is so simple and quick (just a few seconds), to add an electric motor to do the work for the driver would feel pointless, and would add needless complexity and weight to what is already a very simple and smooth solution.
While driving with the top down, it feels like you can see every point of the car, front to back. It gives the driver a feeling of being outside without much wind – just enough to give that magical wind in the hair feeling. On a beautiful sunny day, it is a marvelous sensation, and even on a cold day, just turn the heater on and it will blanket the driver with warm air and still keep the feeling of being outside in nature.
With a length of only 154 inches, the driver is able to sense exactly where the ends of the car are and exactly where each tire is. For reference, the Honda Civic is about 26” longer, a big difference. The small size of the car lends it a feeling of being an extension of the driver’s body, rather than making the driver feel contained in a structure. Each controller or dial knob is easy to reach and has a quality feel to it, and the gear-shift (in this case a six-speed manual) is a natural extension of the driver’s arm movements. The motion of the shifter is one of precision and ease, and simply a thrill to use.
At such a small size, one might think that the Miata is only for small people, but my own 6ft., 185 lb, male frame fit very comfortably. There is ample leg room, and even with the top up, my head didn’t touch the roof.
As for the ride, the idea is not to isolate from the road, but to feel it, hear what it is communicating, and play it. The Miata is a car with the heart and spirit of a dancer. A ballerina, if you will. The Miata personifies graceful, light, and fluid movements, allowing the driver to feel as if the car is simply an extension of their own hands and legs and nothing more, a sensory pleasure without any pretentious fuss or noise to mask the connection to the road.
A Miata is for people who just love to drive and don’t care about what other people think. It is not a car you compensate with, if you know what I mean. The past three generations were not the most masculine car by a long shot. The Miata is a car for the minimalist, the purist, the driving enthusiast. It won’t win many speed challenges in its stock form, but – fun fact – it is the most raced car in the world.
My love affair with the Miata began with the introduction of the fourth generation in 2016. Over the past three generations, the weight had slowly increased from an original 2,070 lbs. (1989) to 2,542 lbs. (2015). Weight increases are normal for modern cars with the need for added safety features, size increases, and a growing list of options, but the fourth generation Miata went on a major diet and lost over 200 lbs., for a final weight in at 2,332 lbs. That kind of weight loss in a car that is reasonably affordable to the middle-class purchaser is an incredible accomplishment.
Imagine what it is like for a child to first learn to walk on their own two feet, the joy, the realization of the freedom that comes. Sure, supercars that cost 3-30x more should be lightweight, with the common use of high-tech materials like carbon fiber and titanium, but the Miata is the “commoners” affordable fun car.
Maybe I’ll even convince my wife to let me buy one someday.