Mazda MX-5 Miata design chief on NC, ND and what comes next

2019 marks both the 30th anniversary of the Mazda MX-5 Miata and 30 years since Masashi Nakayama's joined the company. Join us as we talk about the past, present and future for the iconic roadster.

Tim Stevens Former editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
Tim Stevens
4 min read

Masashi Nakayama would rather show than tell.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

Mazda MX-5 Miata design chief Masashi Nakayama seems happiest with a pen in his hand and a blank sheet of paper in front of him. As we chat at the cafe in the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan, here in Tokyo, he spends far more time doodling away to explain his points than he does sipping on coffee.

"I love to draw," he told me while sketching out the differences between generations of MX-5, drawing from memory the two generations he was most involved with: NC and ND -- the current car and its predecessor. Nakayama-san also loves the MX-5 Miata, which is called the Roadster in its home market. Appropriately, he joined Mazda 30 years ago, in 1989, the very same year the company brought that iconic roadster to market.

Nakayama himself drives an NA, the first generation of MX-5, but it's in the ND, the current generation, that you can see the majority of his handiwork, where he served as chief designer. He worked on the NC as well, but for that previous generation, his proposed exterior design wasn't selected.

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"It looked like the ND," he told me of his concept sketches. "If you look at my proposal for back then, I actually liked to have a sharper design. But my sharper design made the car look bigger." His proposed design was a striking difference from the rather more muted lines that you see in the production NC MX-5 Miata. It was that car's underlying technology that resulted in its shape.

When the NC was being designed in the early 2000s, it was a big step up in size over the previous generations, a change that became somewhat notorious. This was to accommodate things like increased safety structures for more stringent crash test regulations and, of course, new creature comforts desired by modern consumers. The car had to grow, so the designers tried to hide it. "What we focused on was how do we make the car look smaller than actually it was." In the end, he's proud of what the team came up with. "The final design for NC is something that I think is great."

For the ND, though, the goal was to reverse that trend. "The top management made a strong commitment to make the car smaller," he said. "From the beginning, we had this target to make the car's weight one [metric] tonne or below." That's about 2,200 pounds -- exceedingly light by modern standards.

Watch this: 2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata: Refining the Roadster

Wanting to make a car small and actually delivering, however, are two different things. That's where the new technology not available in the NC comes in to play. LED headlights, for example, allowed for a lower, sharper nose. Lower frontal areas, however, can cause more severe pedestrian impacts. So, in markets with more strict pedestrian crash regulations than North America, the ND Miata utilizes what's called a Deployable Hood System, which quickly raises the hood in an impact.

None of this technology is novel, but the deploying of this technology with such an obsessive focus on weight and volume is. Nakayama gave me one more example specifically relating to side impacts. "You need to have a crushable zone to protect the people, so if you just make a space for the crushable zone, you wind up having a wider car." Nobody at Mazda wanted that, so the designers did something different: "All you need to do is put the people's position more towards the inside of the car."

Moving the seats 15 millimeters (0.6 inches) inward created the necessary space, but also required a narrower transmission tunnel. That, in turn, required removal of the usual fins and vanes added to a transmission to give it extra cooling and rigidity. "Our transmission has no hair," he told me, laughing.

When I ask Nakayama about the key elements of the MX-5 Miata -- what needs to stay consistent even as the market changes as radically as it is right now -- he cites cost and weight. For him, these two factors go hand-in-glove: "The car should be affordable, so given that, we cannot mount a big engine. And also the brakes. If you have a big car then you need to have big brakes, as well. That makes the car bigger and bigger and also makes it more expensive ... If you have a lighter weight car, everything goes well."

But is it possible to continue making cars this light in an age of increasingly challenging crash-test regulations, especially in a place like the US, where every other car sold last year was an SUV? Nakayama said that change may be inevitable: "It's like a big wrestler fighting against a small wrestler. The smaller wrestler is never going to have a chance. The smaller wrestler has to grow."

Beware, flying cupholders.

GIF by Tim Stevens/Roadshow

And, finally, I couldn't let Nakayama go without asking about the ND's infamously weird clip-in cupholders, which once physically attacked me on a shoot. "Unfortunately, we have to make sure that we have cupholders located within your arm's reach," Nakayama told me. The smaller transmission tunnel didn't leave much room, however. "I want to make sure you can enjoy the car, so I want to put the shift knob here, and I want to put the handbrake here."

He indicates the ideal position of the shifter and the handbrake with his left hand. Why is the handbrake lever position so important? Nakayama yanks on the imaginary handbrake and mimes countersteering through a lurid slide, even making requisite tire screeching noises. Believe it or not, drifting is high on his list of priorities. 

Rest assured, MX-5 Miata fans, the future of the car you love is in very good hands. Nakayama-san is very definitely a true enthusiast, just like you.