An interview with Tsutomu "Tom" Matano

by Dean Rinehart

Originally published by the MX-5 Journal. Reprinted with permission.

Tom Matano is a Miata nut.

If you have attended any of the major Miata events since the car’s introduction 9 years ago, you know what I mean. Chances are he’s been there pressing the flesh (and a couple pedals) with the throngs of happy Miataphiles in attendance. You’d be hard pressed to find another automotive Chief of Design hanging out at auto club events. Given a time when most car designs seem to come from the seemingly out of touch marketing department offices, Tom, responsible for both the first and second generation Miata design, has proven that automobiles can still be stirring and passionate while keeping the corporate bean-counters happy.

I had the opportunity to ask Mr. Matano some questions just after the second generation Miata’s debut. He and Mazda were kind enough to grant permission for newsletter reprints.

What were the driving forces behind the redesign of the Miata?

At Mazda, the life cycle for a sportscar is six to eight years depending on the sales environment. The Miata has certainly more than satisfied our normal life cycle plan.

There were other regulatory factors such as side impact and day light driving light issues, which required some major changes to the original design and structure.

There were more competitors in the market place in the compatible price range in Japan and Europe. They were equipped with higher quality interiors. Miata's dynamic quality could have kept it's competitive edge for a few more years. We wanted the Miata to be the leader in it's class for the next five to six years. The original car would have not been able to keep that edge after another year or two.

How long had the project been in the works?

The official start was Summer of 1995.

Was Ford a help or a hindrance in the process?

Ford was never a hindrance to any of Mazda product development ever since they took control of Mazda. There are many areas which Ford helped Mazda. The second generation Miata project was pretty much left alone for Mazda to develop.

Who's feedback was used to redesign the car?

Feedback from present Miata owners throughout the world was used to improve

areas such as trunk space, interior storage, and glass rear window. Other improvements such as body rigidity, transmission and handling were done by our engineering group who set a target by using the first generation as a bench mark.

What was the target demographic?

Target demographic was same as before. Car lovers, in particular a sporting car lovers of all ages.

What does the Miata mean to Mazda? Where does it fit in the line of products? In the company's Mission Statement?

The Miata took over the RX-7's position as the image leader for Mazda. With our new brand strategy, it fits right in the forefront of this strategy with other sporting vehicles such as RX-7, MX-6, and MX-3 gone from our line up.

Mazda Brand Positioning: The intelligent car that drives your senses.

From the moment you see it,

to the moment you use it,

to the moment you drive it,

it will stir your emotions.

Product: Distinctive Design, Exceptional Functionality and Responsive Handling and Performance.

The Miata represents the best for our Brand statement.

Why are some of the package restrictions so strange (No Bose with Torsen, etc.)?

Selecting features into a particular package was our Marketing group's responsibility.

They normally use customer feedback and actual data of the previous track record.

I've heard you have a nice collection of automobiles... what is your favorite and why?

My current collection consists of;

- 1996 M-Edition Miata, Starlite Blue. I modified the top and interior to light gray to match my gray hair.

- 1995 RX-7 Silver

- 1977 Lancia Scorpion

- 1967 DeTomaso Vallelunga

For the warm sunny days, I take the Miata. Cool crisp evenings, I take Vallelunga, Whenever I want to go fast, I take RX-7. Lancia belongs to my wife. And it is more or less stationary at our front patio.

What should we all do with those tie-down hooks we've removed from our Miatas?

We should ask our parts department.

You try to attend as many Miata events as you possibly can. What benefit do you get out of attendance? What does Mazda get out of it?

I strongly believed from the very beginning of the Miata project that the Miata club is an integral part of the Miata culture. Without healthy club activities, Miata would have been just an another car. But with a strong club body, it put us in the class of other legendary cars.

Therefore, it is my belief that we should support the club as much as we can. I attend as many events as possible to meet with owners in many parts of the country to listen to their stories, see how they use their cars and to have a dialog with them.

Mazda benefits having most satisfied and loyal customers, getting direct responses of customers and build a culture best embodied our Brand Philosophy.

Do you see a market in developing a high-performance 300 hp version of the Miata?

Miata was and still is a pair of jogging shoes. It is an every day sportscar. It should not be a highly tuned professional piece of sports gear. However, jogging shoes have progressed over the last nine years. And so did we with the 1999 model. The original concept of the Miata was simplicity, affordability and total balance to provide the best fun to drive value. We maintained this original concept and spirit of the Miata for the second generation.

Those who have the skill to manage highly tuned sportscars should tune it to suit each individual desire. We provided a very good basis for those who want more out of their Miatas. I personally would like to see us having a motorsports division which could be a consultant to those hard core enthusiasts and others with varying interests level.

Miata magazine is doing some of this function.

What is the tie between Mazda and Mazdaspeed?

I am not 100% sure, but I believe that Mazdaspeed is either partially or 100% subsidized by Mazda.

Is the next-generation Miata on the boards yet?

It is too early to start the third generation yet. We usually wait six months to a year to gather market information before starting the next program. However, one thing for sure is that we should maintain is the original concept which made the Miata what it is today.

How about the RX-7's return to the States? Any plans?

We still produce and market the RX-7 in Japan and export to other right hand drive countries. As far as the RX-7's return to the North America is concerned, there are many people inside the company that want it to be back in the USA. However, there is no firm plan at this point in time.

What do you think of the Miata phenomenon?

It was the right product at the right time to the market. From my point of view, it was a product of the right group of people who happened to be gathered at avery narrow window of time and the most opportune circumstances to create a perfect car. Any one person nor any other time nor other circumstances, it could not have happened.

The phenomenon that followed after the introduction in the market place was simply the icing on this very delicately balanced cake. And the true spirit of that phenomenon should be carried and passed on to future generations to come by the Miata Club and it's members. I believe that this is the legacy of the Miata Club and it's true mission.

Back to Miscellanea

16 June, 1998