The Mazda MX-5: Feel the ‘jinba ittai’

There is a certain romance that comes with wind-in-your hair driving: the roar of the engine, the aromas of nature, the feel of the speed on your skin. This is the Mazda MX-5. By Renaldi Hutasoit

The sports car was born not in sunny California, but interestingly, rain-drenched England. Also, the term sports car does not refer to extremely powerful road cars. Those are supercars. The term sports car refers to small two-seat convertibles. And since early on, the genre was dominated by British makes; that is, until 1989.

The sports car was almost extinct in the early 1980s because the cars were not practical and unreliable. Then in 1989, Mazda shocked the whole world by introducing the original MX-5 (at time called the Miata in most markets) and it became an instant worldwide success. Mazda’s sport car was reliable, fun, practical and affordable. It was such a success that sports cars were revived and other brands soon followed with the likes of BMW Z3 and Mercedes SLK. The first two generations of the MX-5 were not made available in Indonesia, but it seems Mazda was saving Indonesia for the best version of the model, the third generation—the one that comes with a folding hardtop roof. This is very important to guarantee its success in this market, because of the additional security and comfort it provides compared to the soft-top option. Like all things Japanese, there is a philosophy behind every design. Mazda designed the MX-5 around the principle of jinba ittai—or “rider and horse as one”—to arrive at a car that is nimble and fun to drive because the driver and car achieve true unity. The principle of jinba ittai is when the archer and horse must move as one.

The MX-5 is also a car produced using something called kansei engineering, where the focus is not on direct measures, such as performance and quality achievements, but rather the intangible virtues such as pleasure, beauty and emotional attachment. In sum, with the MX-5, Mazda wanted a car that pleases the driver and occupant, a car that focuses more on the subjective feeling rather than on paper excellence. After driving the newest MX-5 for a few days, I can honestly report that jinba ittai and kansei, weird and vague as they may sound, are wonderfully effective. The first impression that I got was the MX-5 is rather small, however, once inside it was not at all cramped. Tight fit, yes, but it is more like wearing a bespoke suit. Mazda Indonesia equipped the MX-5 with a pair of body-hugging cloth-and-leather Recaro seats that provide magnificent lateral support and are ergonomically correct.

The instrument panel of the MX-5 is a sight to behold. Nothing flashy here with digital displays, all simplicity and legibility. Being small, all controls are within easy reach. If you subscribed to a proper driving seating position, your back would never have to lose contact with the Recaros to do practically anything. There are also just enough number of storage compartments to store your things. Your could definitely live with the MX-5 as a daily driver as long as you are not in denial of its size—just as you shouldn’t buy a St. Bernard puppy if you live in a studio apartment. The MX-5 is not an outright performance car, although there is more than enough power from the MZR 2-liter, in-line 4-cylinder, 16-valve DOHC engine with Sequential Valve Timing and Electronic Throttle Control. This engine produces 160 horsepower and 188 Nm of torque. Because the car is lightweight (less than 1,200 kg.), even for my power-hungry appetite, I never felt the car needed more power. The MX-5’s Variable Induction System further ensures at least 90 percent of peak torque is available from 2,500 rpm to the 6,700 rpm redline. Wind the engine all the way, as it passes 5,000 rpm, the engine roar changes from a normal 4-cylinder whine to a throaty intake roar reminiscent of, dare I say, the legendary original M3. Power delivery is smooth and linear, and although the low rpm torque is enough for the day-to-day grind, to really extract the power you need to maintain the rpm above 5,000.

The only available transmission in Indonesia for the MX-5 is a 6-speed Activematic automatic with the option of manual sequential shifting through the shift lever or paddles on the steering wheel. Although the MX-5 might be more popular in other markets with a manual transmission, Mazda Indonesia made the right decision here to offer only automatic, since 99 percent of the time in Jakarta or other major cities, you will be in a situation where you will be thankful to have it. As far as driving enjoyment goes, the rest of the car is top notch. The steering is direct and nicely weighted. The car turns as soon as you turn the steering wheel. No waiting, no arguing. The brakes are exceptionally firm, something that I do not find often in other cars bar the multi-billion rupiahs supercars. The Bilstein suspension is also very well tuned for the car. The ride is firm but never jarring. Firm enough to control the car over road undulations and twists, but supple enough to absorb road imperfections. Mazda has also perfected the construction of the MX-5 chassis that I did not notice any scuttle shake—often an issue with convertibles. Mazda’s proper engineering and clever use of materials, has made the MX-5 as stiff as any hardtop car.

Fun does not mean irresponsible for Mazda, as the MX-5 enjoys two types of safety measures—active safety and passive safety—to provide state-of-the-art protection. Active safety comprises of Antilock Brake System (ABS), Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist (BA). It also has Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) and Traction Control System (TSC). The passive safety consists of dual front and side SRS airbags, side-impact door beams, collapsible steering shaft and injury-minimizing brake pedal, and highly acclaimed Mazda Advance Impact Distribution System (MAIDAS) using a rigid unibody design. The folding hardtop roof of the MX-5 is a gem. Opening and closing is a one-button affair. With it raised, the car was just as quiet as any medium-size executive sedan. At one point, with rain falling on the roof, I was noticeably less noise than you’d hear in typical sedan. With the roof down, the car remains as quiet. Wind noise and buffeting is almost non-existent until at least 60 kph. When I drove on the toll road, roof down with both windows up, I could carry on a conversation with my passenger at normal volume. As such, the seven-Bose-speaker sound system does not go to waste, roof up or down. The Bose system is a special piece of kit with the rear speakers mounted in the rear trim next to the top-inboard corners of the seats for optimum audio performance especially with the top down, while full range and tweeter speakers are mounted in the door panels and a full-range speaker mounted atop the dash to enhance audio imaging.

I love driving and love driving alfresco, even more. I drove the MX-5 with the top down as much as I could. Being a convertible, its rareness made most people do a double-take at the MX-5—on the road, in parking lots, top down, top up, and especially when the top was being put up or down. Other drivers let me go by just because they want the full view of this curiously wonderful machine. Further, with the MX-5, I also experienced something different. Unlike with luxury convertibles, apparently people feel that you are more style than snob in the MX-5. It’s like, because you wear that bespoke suit and not the ready-to-wear stuff with highly visible embroidered logos people appreciate it for what it is, not for the brand or the cost. You are exhibiting style, not the thickness of your wallet, and people universally appreciate that. During my time with the car, I must have received at least 10 thumbs-up from fellow drivers and, surprisingly, motorcycle riders. Never before, in decades of driving here in Jakarta, had I received thumbs-up salutes.

The MX-5 was first and foremost designed as a sports car, for which it has excelled. The jinba ittai and kansei engineering philosophies are certainly expressed in the final product. Everything about the car is nicely balanced for a fabulous driving experience. In most parts of Indonesia, however, sadly due to the lack of nice roads to drive on, this aspect is not experience often enough, But the MX-5 is also about self-expression and style. On this front, I don’t think your Rp 590 million could buy anything better. And when you think driving a convertible in Jakarta is not possible because of the heat, I don’t know about other convertibles, but in the MX-5 try top down, both windows up, AC temp at full cold with blower set halfway, and flow distributed 50 percent to the dash vents and 50 percent to footwells. Set as such, I guarantee you will enjoy every second of your roof-down day-time drive. Bring your sunscreen.

Engine: 2-liter, 4-cylinder, 16-valve
Transmission: 6-speed Activematic automatic
Fuel: Gasoline
Power: 160 hp; 188 Nm of torque