Mazda's big gamble: why making the next MX-5 electric is both stupid and genius
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Overnight, it was reported that Mazda was considering making the next generation of arguably its most iconic car — the MX-5 — electrified in some form.
“The lightweighting and compact size are essential elements of MX-5, so even if we apply electrification, we have to make sure it really helps to achieve the lightweighting of the vehicle,” said Mazda managing executive officer for powertrain development Ichiro Hirose, speaking to Autocar UK.
“We need to think about what direction society is going. [...] We want to look at the best powertrain to keep the vehicle lightweight, but because of the diversifying requirements and preference, we need to explore various options… we need to make a vehicle that people can own without worrying that they are not being eco-friendly.”
The Mazda MX-5 has always been one of those unflappable, impossible to dislike sports cars. Hell, you could say that it helped kill off the entire mainstream British sports car segment single-handedly. For something to put the final nail in the coffin of a circle of much loved cars, only to become incredibly loved itself, must mean that it's a very good thing.
Along with the Porsche 911, it's also one of the few enthusiast cars that's fundamentally stayed the same over its lifespan. It's been three decades since it launched, and it's still roughly the same size, it's still naturally aspirated, it's still rear-wheel drive, and it's still analogue in almost every measure (electric power steering be damned).
So the news of impending potential electrification is very interesting to say the least. Electrified versions of much loved sports cars is nothing new, but electrifying a car that's been basically unchanged for 30 years? Hmmm.
So is it time to storm Mazda dealerships with lit pitchforks, or to spam all social channels with anti-EV vitriol? Well, no. There's actually quite a strong case for injecting the MX-5 with a little bit of extra voltage.
For one, it'd solve a problem Mazda has had for a long time with the MX-5. In the same vein as the Toyota 86, the MX-5 has always attracted criticism for engines that sit on the uninspiring side. There's no high-revving VTEC or VVTi hilarity to pass the time when you're in an MX-5; instead you get an obedient, reasonably charming, but 'just okay' four-cylinder.
And that's never been an issue for MX-5 buyers. They'll tell you (and I'll agree with them) that the reason people buy the things is because of the incredible handling balance, the cornering lean, the eager steering, the adorable styling ... the fact that MX-5's have never been shod with iconic engines has never been a sticking point. So, perhaps fitting the MX-5 with an electrified powertrain isn't 'meddling with the formula' at all?
Ichiro Hirose's quote is worth revisiting, too. Particularly the bit about thinking "what direction society is going". The MX-5 still sells reasonably well globally for such a niche product, but it's hard to look at the success of the Tesla Model 3 (particularly among younger buyers) and not think that an EV MX-5 could resonate with a much wider audience.
The other thing to consider is the MX-5's position as, effectively, Mazda's 'halo car'; the centre-point that's meant to encapsulate everything they do best. The reputation Mazda's products have for being 'sportier' and 'more engaging' to drive than equivalent rivals comes directly from the iconic MX-5. If Mazda is wanting to be taken more seriously as an EV or hybrid manufacturer, what better way to do that than reinvent your halo car — the most emotive thing you make — as an EV?
Naturally, the answer to that question is another question; does adding an electrified powertrain completely ruin what gave the MX-5 its emotive edge in the first place?
While the MX-5's past and present internal combustion engines aren't exactly icons in their own right, what they are is engaging. They don't rev high or shake the Earth, but they do encourage the driver to pull their sleeves up and dance. No electric powertrain currently on the market can make that same claim. By and large, EV powertrains actively discourage engagement.
Not just that, but the logistics of adding heavy batteries to the little Mazda could make replicating the unique handling characteristics of models past and present rather tricky. Batteries help for lowering the centre of gravity, but they won't help the outright figure on the scales.
At the end of the day, the MX-5 has to make sense in Mazda's forthcoming plans. The Japanese firm has already stated that it intends all of its vehicles to have some kind of electrified variant by 2030.
That used to sound like such a long wait. Now, it's just a decade away.