What is it?
The Mazda’s MX-5 Superlight concept – which is taking centre stage on the Mazda stand at the Frankfurt motor show, and which we’ve driven.
It’s a low-emissions, stripped-out, driver-focussed one-off version of the world’s biggest-selling sports car.
The car’s story began when Mazda Europe Head of Design Peter Birtwhistle, designer Hassip Girgin and the team took a 1.8-litre MX-5, stripped it down to its bare essentials – a running chassis with essential body panels only – and invited Mazda’s test engineers to drive it.
Those test drivers reported that the MX-5’s key dynamic traits – its trademark sharpness of response and natural rear-driven handling balance – were only enhanced by the lack of weight.
So they duly set about replacing some of the components they’d taken away with lighter alternatives made from carbonfibre and aluminium. They left the windscreen and roof off altogether, and fitted an alumium bonnet with a carbonfibre extension that incorporates the rearview mirror and covers the instrument cowl.
In place of the soft top, the Superlight has two large rollover hoops with integrated wind deflectors. And because the car is always roofless, the doors don’t need exterior handles. To open them, you pull a leather tie inside the cabin.
Also inside the cabin, the instrument panel is made of fiberglass-reinforced plastic; the gearlever and handbrake out of aluminium partly covered with leather. There’s no HVAC system at all, and no noise and vibration isolation either.
All in all, Mazda’s crash diet has taken 160kg from the kerbweight of this car; as a result it’s half a second quicker to 62mph and 6mpg more fuel efficient too.
What’s it like?
Exposed. That’s how you feel when you strap yourself in. There is no windscreen in front of you, no interior trim panels on the doors. And ahead of you, where the CD player should be, there are two flip switches – one to turn on the fuel pump, the other the ignition – and a starter button. That’s it.
Thumb that starter button. The car’s powerplant comes alive with an aggressive bark. It sounds big and vocal, but it’s actually Mazda’s regular 1.8-litre, 124bhp four-pot equipped with a stainless steel air intake, and a bigger exhaust system from Mazda’s 3 MPS. Instead of adding horsepower, Mazda decided to take the harder route to improving performance for this particular car, in the MX-5’s 20th anniversary year; to add by subtraction.
A helmet and goggles are a must for this test drive. Dip the clutch, throw in first gear using that ornate-looking lever, ease off the mark and straight away you notice the lack of mass. And almost as quickly you’re blown backwards into your seat by the passage of air.
Change into second gear at 45mph and the wind noise around your helmet begins to drown out the engine’s blare; you have to watch the rev counter carefully to avoid slamming into the limiter as you forge forwards.
Mazda doesn’t know the exact weight distribution of this car yet, but it feels as if the centre of mass has moved slightly towards those rear wheels; it could even be 50/50. Turn the MX-5 Superlight into a fast, sweeping bend and the nose tucks in more keenly and quickly than you’re used to. It doesn’t understeer as much as the production car. Which is to say that it doesn’t understeer at all, practically.
Lift the throttle and that playful-yet-benign rear-end starts its familiar entertainment routine. You could go on playing with your cornering line, on and off the throttle, for corner after corner; this thing’s a joy. But there’s excellent road-holding, real composure and great stopping power here too, a result of the 20mm lower ride height than standard, the 200mm wider tracks, the new Eibach anti-roll bars and the new drilled brake discs.
You feel even closer-connected to this machine than you do a regular MX-5. There’s no insulation, no creature comforts; it’s a human-machine interface reminiscent of that of certain vintage machinery.
Mazda hasn’t recorded a top speed for the car yet, but we took it up to 125mph – that’s 3mph faster than the production version goes – and it was still accelerating.
Above 100mph it’s a very demanding car to drive purely because of the wind factor. But with a little more protection fitted – a deflector blade ahead of the instruments, say – it wouldn’t be half as bad.
Should I buy one?
You can’t – but it will influence new Mazda models that you will be able to buy.
"We want to push forward with weight-saving measures, because light cars are fun to drive," says Birtwhistle. "It could be possible to build this car, or one very like it, in limited numbers, but more important will be its influence on our design and engineering agenda. Because wouldn’t it be great if we could make every new Mazda 160kg lighter?".