Well, this is awkward. MOTOR is sitting in a hotel conference room on Queensland's Sunshine Coast with Nobuhiro Yamamoto – program manager for the new MX-5, the big boss – and his interpreter. The hesitant laughs seem to chill our coffees; one question has hit a nerve.
And unless the conversation goes in a different direction, this interview is over...
It’s the rotary engine. Yamamoto-san might be the father of the new ND, but he’s been with Mazda a rather long time, since 1973, and it was daydreaming about rotaries in high school that drew him to Toyo Kogyo, as Mazda was then known.
He signed up, and before long was on the team developing the Wankel powerplant – a dream come true. In fact, he spent two decades on the rotary engine, refining and perfecting with genuine, studiously Japanese passion.
He worked on the third generation RX-7 (and owned a first-generation car himself) but his eyes seem to light up most recalling his time working on the piston-less, howling quad-rotor 787B – the car that won at Le Mans in 1991.
By the sounds of it, Yamamoto-san’s heart may as well be rotor-shaped. But now any talk of it seems off-limits, as MOTOR found out. Fortunately we sensed as much, and saved such prickly questions for the end.
Saving the probing rotary questions until last meant we were able to cover ground like what Yamamoto-san wanted to do with ND MX-5, but couldn’t. And why you’ll never see a factory high-powered, or coupe version, of Mazda’s famous sports car.
What characteristics of the original NA were you trying to recapture with the ND?
"When NA was first launched, that really shocked everybody because people learned with this first generation NA about the genuine fun-to-drive [feeling], and the joy of owning that car itself. And also the pleasure of customising that car.
That’s really the nature of good things about this car called the lightweight sports, and however as time passed by that pure, genuine nature about having this lightweight sports, that kind of weakened. People started to forget, what’s the real nature about this car and what it’s about.
So for development of ND, we tried to go back to the original basics, the initial fun, the initial joy, that NA had. And of course, using today’s technology, we decided to really recreate the fun of the lightweight sports.
I heard a very good anecdote describing what NA, NB and NC are about: NA is a car that’s best fun to drive, NB is the best handling car, NC is the best performance car, and when it comes to ND, actually has everything of the prior generations I would say, because we set this vision of really giving the best of all those things. That anecdote is really a good one I think."
Is there anything with ND that you wanted to do, but couldn’t?
"Well actually to be honest I wanted to make it a little bit lighter [laughs]. But rather than something I wanted to do but was not able to do, we started the development of this car eight years ago ... and when we started, it’s like climbing a mountain, you come to see many things that you didn’t know before, but once you started climbing the mountain you see the different sceneries and you see far ahead, the far distance from a higher height, and just like that I come to discover maybe we should be doing more here or more there, maybe we can do even more than we are doing now, but it’s not about something I was not able to do, I come to see many potentials."
Do you think we will see a dual clutch MX-5?
"I think your question is a very good one. I believe not maybe dual-clutch, but I thought it’s necessary to provide a two-pedal system and I just looked around the world, what kind of dual-clutch system we could find that could fit in this vehicle, because we thought, if we tried to develop a dual-clutch system in-house, we were going to spend too much resources and we can’t justify that given this vehicle’s scale and those things.
If we could find a supplier to provide the system to us, it’s best, but we were not able to find the proper one for this vehicle because most of the dual-clutch systems are 300Nm or more capacity and this vehicle only has like 200Nm, so we thought it’s not possible for us to put that kind of system in this car.
So we kind of gave up on having it, and we don’t have it. So while we don’t have a dual-clutch system the current one we have in this car, the six-speed system, it has very good response and it has good performance I’d say. I think it’s good that we have it."
MX-5 is often criticised for not having enough power, what would you say to these people?
"[Smiles] I would say, why do you need that power that you won’t be able to use up at maximum level? This car is about having fun, so if you have extra power you don’t really use fully, then it’s a waste I would say! [laughs]"
Do you think the MX-5 could handle more power and more grip?
"This car has a lot of potential but I think it depends on the driver’s skill level. If the driver is like a beginner level, then the person doesn’t need big power or big grip, I guess, but when it comes to the driver being an expert driver, then more performance level should be provided because the person needs that. So it depends on the skill level of the driver itself, I think."
Porsche puts a roof on the Boxster and calls it Cayman, could you do the same with MX-5?
"I think in the past we’ve done the same thing and you’re alluding to that [in the '90s there was a Coupe MX-5 concept car]. The type of car the MX-5 is, is very simple – two-seater, compact, open top car. So if you close the roof like a Cayman does, it’s no longer an MX-5 so inside ourselves, there is no such car."
So we'll never see such a car – an MX-5 Coupe?
"[laughs] If I get replaced by somebody else and that somebody else has different ideas, then I cannot say never, but at least inside my mind or inside Mazda’s philosophy, if you look at them, then I don’t think there will be such an MX-5.
So maybe if there are management in the company that say, 'well, in order to expand the business we need to have a coupe, and we have to make it', then I’m afraid the company’s direction itself will go in a wrong way.
And maybe another point, if the media and journalists start talking about those things, like 'maybe in order to make more money for this manufacturer, this manufacturer needs this kind of type of thing', something funny – funny ideas – if management of the company reads and sees these articles, they get ideas as well, and then the company also goes in the wrong direction, so that’s something I am afraid of as well. [laughs]"
I will be careful then!
People like to make comparisons between the MX-5 and the Toyota 86, and Subaru BRZ. How do you see them in comparison?
"The problem of having those comparisons against those different models, I would say, please compare them as much as you like. But the important thing is, what kind of world view is put in developing those cars.
People talk about acceleration performance, cornering performance, the potential of the vehicles, and just compare based on those things, but the important thing is what kind of scenes will these cars be driven, and I think that’s more important than just looking at the figures of performance."
Would you like to see more Mazda sports cars?
"Of course the answer is yes. Mazda is a tiny company and having a lot of variety of models and selling them in large scale volumes, doesn’t really fit the company Mazda. So I’d say Mazda, I think is more fitting to keep maintaining strong relationships with customers, a fewer number of customers maybe, and just keep being loved by those customers.
So I want to see a sports car but maybe a number of sports models coming out of Mazda is not really something Mazda should be doing... rather I’d like to keep focused on a good connection with customers."
Do you think Mazda should go back to Le Mans?
"[Thinking very carefully about his response] All Mazda employees have this dream that they want to see Mazda someday go back to Le Mans. I think that dream, having that dream itself, is a good thing.
That’s all I have to say. Not just Mazda employees but Mazda fans and all those people involved, they actually want to see Mazda come back and I think that’s a good thing for company employees as well. Last June in UK, Goodwood Festival was held and as a sponsor Mazda put five models over there including 787B and really people loved it and that Le Mans victory was like, 20 years ago.
But still we have such a lot of enthusiasm about that victory, and for the car itself, and people talk about the car being there, a lot. It was really great seeing that, and I was so impressed as well."
What is the future of the rotary engine?
"[Smiling but seeming guarded and hesitant] Today, I’d like to refrain from answering that question because I want to speak to the discussion of the MX-5."
Okay, do you want to see another RX-7?
"[Hesitant, awkward laughing] Again, whatever I say I get misinterpreted when it comes to the question about this car so maybe again today I’d like to refrain from talking about this..."
And then we clumsily wrapped it up and headed out to the car park to poke at some bits under an MX-5's bonnet. Along the way Yamamoto-san relaxed a little, and MOTOR made it known, it'd be great to see another RX-7. Yamamoto-san smiled silently (which, in fairness, could also be because he couldn't understand what we were saying). And we're mixed on how to interpret Yamamoto-san's guardedness.
You'd certainly seem that way yourself if your company was planning a Le Mans return and a new rotary sports car and you were getting asked about it before you could say anything.
We seriously hope it's the former, and it's safe to say we'll know soon enough.
In the shed
What does Mr MX-5 drive?
"Actually two vehicles," he says. "I have an NC [previous MX-5] and also a Mazda 6 that’s called Atenza in Japan. I’m afraid that I said Mazda 6 and not RX-8 [laughs].
"Actually there’s a reason for me buying this Atenza Mazda 6, I have a family and my wife is the kind of person who always wants to sit in the rear seats [laughs] and when it comes to RX-8, if I had an RX-8 then she cannot get in and out easily because of that car's door structure. That’s the reason why I had to buy a Mazda 6.
"Of course when I drive the NC, since there are only two seats available, so she has to sit in the front!"
But then he tickles the classic performance car enthusiast in all of us: "The first generation RX-7 is something I used to own," Yamamoto-san fesses up.
5 engineering morsels: ND MX-5
Cheers for all this, Yamamoto-san
One: Revvy engine
Although diminutive, Mazda's 1.5-litre engine delivers 96kW and is keen as mustard to rev, all the way out to a rorty 7000rpm. Yamamoto-san installed it in the ND MX-5 in a front-mid configuration, placing all its mass behind the front axle line for better chassis balance.
The transmission's distended bellhousing places the gearbox an unconventionally long way behind the engine. That places its weight toward the car's centre of mass, chasing the magic 50:50 weight distribution. It’s another example of of Yamamoto-san’s pursuit of excellence over excess.
Three: Slick Shifting
The manual shift is a delight. Short-throw, buttery and mechanical, it'll take your mind off just how tight the cabin is. Part of its precision is the bridge-like brace between the gearbox and rear axle assembly that eliminates the relative twist between them.
Four: Sitting pretty
Seating position is another asset to the handling and balance. Although the occupants’ seating – hence weight – is low, if you're the kind of person who regularly ducks for ceiling fans, you'll be very happy the MX-5 is a convertible.
Initially the MX-5's softly-softly suspension might catch you off-guard. But the roll, dive and squat teaches you to be super-smooth with your inputs and once you’re in the groove, it’s superb fun. A tight, twisty, relatively slow road is what the MX-5 likes best.