On Mazda: The CX-3 & the MX-5

The fourth-generation MX-5 Miata. Staying true to its roots as a driver’s car, in design, engineering and execution.

The Mazda CX-3 subcompact crossover has the long hood, short overhangs, large wheels, and compact greenhouse characteristic of vehicles created with the KODO design language.

Sixty-three percent of the CX-3 body is made with high-strength steel, including grades 780MPa and higher . . . all the way to 1,180 MPa.

The engineers went at the Miata looking to take away every unnecessary gram of mass.

The seats for the Miata are based on a design that is uncharacteristic of cars and more akin to office furniture. They use a net fabric that is both accommodating and cossetting. Importantly, each seat weighs 17 lb. less than the ones they replace.

Mazda’s footprint on a global basis is on the order of 1.2-million cars annually. Which means that it is a comparatively small player in an awfully large industry. Its market share in the U.S. is approximately 2%.

Yes, that small.

That said, for the past few years, Mazda has been punching above its weight when it comes to two aspects of its vehicles: Engineering and Design.

As for the first, it is pursuing what it calls its “SKYACTIV” technology. This encompasses aspects of the body, chassis, and powertrain. The objective, essentially, is efficiency.

Of course, the pursuit of efficiency can lead to a result that may be a technological tour de force, but that is sorely lacking from the point of view of appeal. Which leads to its second pursuit, design. So it has been producing cars with the “KODO—Soul of Motion” design language. As Ken Saward, design manager, Mazda North American Operations, points out, they started with the 2013 CX-5 crossover, the 2014 Mazda6 sedan and the 2014 Mazda3 sedan and five-door, and the 2015 Mazda2, with all but the last available in the U.S. market. (And then there is the 2016 MX-5 Miata, as well.)

Although the CX-3 is, like the CX-5, a crossover, it is a subcompact crossover that’s based on the Mazda2 platform. (Yes, the one that isn’t available in the U.S. as a Mazda2, but which is in the market as a 2016 Scion iA.) Yet Saward points out that when they set about to design the CX-3, there was no intention of making a SUV-like Mazda2 or a mini CX-5.

They worked, he said, to create “Expres-sion that defies category.” They wanted to develop a vehicle that would be “beautiful, well balanced, and yet provide everyday practicality and compactness.”

To develop the surface, Saward says, they created “speed forms,” physical objects that are all about shape and structure without having the limitations of, say, something with an obvious hood or greenhouse or even tires and wheels. This was to create what he describes as “honed expression.” Fast, defined tension. From the front of the car to the rear, “there is no section that is the same. Sharp lines diffuse to soft lines in the rear. There is a strong rear shoulder. We pulled out the track for a stable stance.”

They wanted to create a vehicle that, while taller than a compact Mazda3 by about 3 inches, is made to seem low, by extending the cabin from front to rear with a blacked-out D-pillar so that the cabin seems stretched. The beltline is high for a vehicle in this segment. The grille and headlamps in the front and the tail lamps around back are setup vertically; there are short overhangs. The point is to create a vehicle that while compact still seems long and lean.

On the inside, the concern was to have a space that feels “low and wide. A B-class vehicle is not superwide, but we were able to achieve a feeling of width through design.” For example, they’ve developed an instrument panel that is primarily horizontal that stretches across the front and wraps to the doors; the doors themselves have cutout sections to provide additional space.

As a crossover, there is a slightly higher H-point for the driver and front passenger, more than a car but less than a full-on SUV. Taking into account the fact that there are likely to be rear passengers, the seating position of the rear seats is located closer to the center of the vehicle and the seats are slightly elevated, so those in the back not only have better visibility through the windshield than they otherwise might have, but they’re also able to engage with those in the front better.

Saward says that when creating the cabin, they worked to combine “modernity with craftsmanship” to “merge a feeling of sharpness”—this is, after all, a contemporary vehicle with surprising levels of technological sophistication for what is arguably the entry into the crossover class—“with the warmth of a craftsman’s touch.” This latter, of course, takes manifestation in such things as stitching on surfaces, and because they’re pursuing difference vis-à-vis other OEMs who have products in this segment, the color of the thread varies with the location on the vehicle: red, black, gray.

And speaking of attention to detail in execution, Saward points to the air vent bezel, where there are four different surface treatments on that single part. “That’s the attention to detail we paid to the whole interior,” he says.

Stan Hortinela was equally obsessed about detail in the development of the CX-3. Which is understandable, given that he is the engineering product manager for the vehicle. While Saward and his colleagues are all about KODO, it’s SKYTACTIV for Hortinela and his associates.

Hortinela says that the CX-3 represents “clean-sheet engineering from fundamental principles.” But this isn’t the usual case of one group over there doing the engine, and another group somewhere else doing the body, then another doing the chassis, and still another even elsewhere engineering the transmission. No, Hortinela says that the objective was to make all the elements work together so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

While they had the basic recipes, as the CX-3 is smaller than the Mazda3 (to say nothing of the CX-5) and because it is a crossover unlike the Mazda2 (sedan, hatch), they had to create many new ingredients for the vehicle. 

In terms of the body, they concentrated on making it strong, rigid, light, and safe. The passenger cabin has a ring structure primarily on the verticals; there is a straight frame construction on the horizontal bottom, helping with crash energy management, as does the multiload path created from the engine compartment up the A-pillars and along the beltline and lower sill. Needless to say, there is extensive use of high-strength steels, from 440 MPa to 1,800 MPa (hot stamped).

Because smaller vehicles can be comparatively noisier, they took countermeasures to assure minimal NVH. For example, the front floor, tunnel and rear wheel wells are stamped with thicker sheet metal to help reduce noise transmission. (Yes, there’s also an array of sound-absorbing materials strategically located below the trim.)

As regards the chassis, Hortinela says that subcompact crossover though it may be, it is still a Mazda, which means that handing and ride are important. In the back, there is a torsion beam rear suspension: “A multilink suspension proved to be too large and heavy.” And as the CX-3 is available with the company’s i-ACTIV all-wheel-drive system (again, optimized for the CX-3, as it is 20% lighter than the unit used in the CX-5), it was necessary to design the rear suspension to accommodate that. (The simplicity of the rear suspension is striking as it is a shape that can pretty much be described with three straight lines, with the bottom beam connected to the two vertical shocks, while the setup for the multilink system in the Mazda3 appears to be almost octopus-like in comparative images that Hortinela shows.)

The front uses an independent MacPherson strut setup with stabilizer bar. There is an electric power assist steering system.

The vehicle is powered by an all-aluminum 2.0-liter engine that produces 146 hp @ 6,000 rpm and 146 lb-ft of torque @ 2,800 rpm. It is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. Hortinela says that packaging the powertrain was something of a challenge, given that compared to the Mazda3 and the CX-5, where similar setups are used, the overall length of the CX-3 is 7.3 in. less than the former and 10.4 in. less than the latter. The transmission is 27 mm (1.06 in.) shorter in total length and the distance between the engine and the driveshaft is shortened by 10 mm (0.4 in.).

Dan Calhoun is vehicle line manager for the CX-3. So it should be no surprise that he is bullish on the model. After all, were he not, he probably wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, be the VLM.

But he has good reason to be. For one thing, he notes, it is a new nameplate for Mazda, so that provides some immediate upside. For the first half of 2015, CX-5 sales were up 6.1%. The CX-3 provides a place for people to start with the brand and then to move up.

And then there are the general industry numbers that are being driven by the likes of the Nissan Juke, Chevy Trax, Buick Encore, MINI Countryman, Jeep Renegade, Fiat 500X, and Honda HR-V: Calhoun points out that in 2014 118,900 subcompact CUVs were sold. This year they expect 290,500, or a 144% increase. Then by 2017 it goes up even further, to 458,800 units.

Who doesn’t want to be there?

And then there’s the Miata . . .

At the risk of being run out of town on a rail, the first-ever Mazda CX-3 is arguably a more important vehicle than the fourth-generation MX-5. Yes, as in Miata. (Robert Davis, senior vice president, U.S. Operations Group, Mazda North America, says that there is no prohibition against using the word Miata in referring to the car. In Japan, where the car was designed, engineered, and is being built, it isn’t called the MX-5; it is call the “Roadster.”)

Yes, the Miata has been around since 1989. Yes, the Miata is the world’s most-beloved and best-selling two-seat roadster. Yes, the Miata is a car that can be said in the same breath as the Corvette, Porsche 911 and others and yet has a starting price of less than $25,000 (OK, $24,915). Yes, the Miata is an amazing bit of engineering.

And I could go on.

Davis: “I don’t know of another company that would do a car like this and do it for 25 years.”

And that’s exactly it.

The Miata isn’t just any car. It is a special car.

How special?

Just consider the sales numbers for the U.S. over the past few years for the car:
• 2014: 4,745
• 2013: 5,780
• 2012: 6,305
• 2011: 5,674

Low sales numbers. A ridiculously low sticker price (even for the Grand Touring Automatic, which costs on the order of $35K). So clearly, this is something that isn’t an ordinary production car by any extent. Ron McLaughlin, vehicle line manager, says that 60% of customers cross shop no other car. The car is that special.

There have been more than 950,000 Miatas sold globally during 26 years of availability. That means some 36,538 per year (assuming the same number of vehicles was sold globally on an annual basis). Consider this (and yes, this is a deliberate apples-to-oranges comparison), from January to June 2015, Ford delivered 357,180 F-150s, a number that was down 2% from the same period in 2014 largely because of the ramp-up of the current generation vehicle. Add the 2% and the number is 365,825, or ten times as many Miatas.

Or, to make a more fair comparison, in 2014, General Motors delivered 34,839 Corvettes—in the U.S.

This is not to take anything away from the fourth-generation Miata as a vehicle, as it is a remarkable feat of design, engineering and production. The value proposition for a customer—at least a customer who wants an exhilarating roadster experience, an experience that can be achieved even if the car is a daily driver (Dave Coleman, Mazda vehicle development engineer: “For every generation, there’s the same target: fun to drive in all driving situations, from the grocery store to the race track, for drivers of all skill levels”)—is unmistakable. But how Mazda Motor Corporation does it, as in make any money off of producing the vehicle, is something else entirely.

One of the interesting attributes of the Miata’s development is how much the individual, the person (probably a male, which accounts for >60% of sales) who is going to drive the car, matters.

That is, the engineering approach used is kansei engineering. Which is basically putting numbers and physical attributes to psychological feelings. When it comes to the exterior design of the car, the designers tailored it such that the person driving it would look good, top up or down. And, of course, they went beyond simple ergonomics in laying out everything on the inside from the position of the pedals to the knobs on the audio system: here the term is Jinba Ittai, which refers to how a rider and horse become one.

One of the (many) things that’s different about the fourth-generation car is that it is smaller than its predecessor. While essentially all other cars get bigger, they’ve tightened it up, working to be more true to the spirit of the car than the avoirdupois of the public. That is, the 2015 car is 157.3 in. long, has a 91.7-in. wheelbase, and it 49 in. high and 67.7 in. wide. For 2016, the car is 154.1 in. long, has a 90.9-in. wheelbase, and is 48.6 in. high and 68.3 in. wide. (Yes, it picks up 0.6 in. in width.)

Coleman: “The model got bloated over the years, but we’ve finally gotten back to our weight.”

Consider: a 2015 model with a manual transmission has a curb weight of 2,480 lb.; one with an automatic weighs 2,542 lb. The comparable numbers for the 2016 model: 2,332 lb. and 2,381 lb. And they did that part by part, gram by gram.

They used a greater amount of high-strength steel (780 MPa or higher) in the structure of the vehicle, going from 58% in the third-gen model to 71% in the new one. Exterior panels—save the doors and the windshield frame—are aluminum, cutting the body-in-white weight by some 45 lb. The Herman Miller Aeron chair—that frame and mesh fabric combination that was introduced in 1994, became ubiquitous and copied, and is now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art—is in some ways analogous to the net and urethane seat material used for the Miata; each seat weighs about 17 lb. less than their predecessors, and the seats, which don’t use conventional springs, are 35% thinner so can be located lower in the cabin, helping improve the center of gravity (and providing taller drivers with more headroom). They took 16 lb. out of the transmission, 26 lb. out of the suspension, and on and on. While the vehicle is more svelte, there is no sense that there is sacrifice.

To be sure, a two-seat convertible powered by a 155-hp, 2.0-liter four cylinder engine is not for everybody. 

Which precisely seems to be the point.