Exposed. That's how you feel when you strap yourself into Mazda's MX-5 Superlight concept. There's no windshield in front of you, or any interior trim panels on the doors. And ahead of you, where the CD player should be, there are just two simple flip switches – one to turn on the fuel pump, the other the ignition – and a starter button. That's it.
This is the car that, last month, took center stage on the Mazda stand at the Frankfurt motor show: a low-emissions, stripped-out, driver-focused one-off version of the world's biggest-selling sports car. Mazda took the unusually risky decision to let us drive it the week before the covers came off at Frankfurt; normally we have to wait until after the show is over to get a steer in a car like this, and that's on the rare occasions when we're allowed to drive them at all.
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-liter, 123hp four-pot equipped with a stainless steel air intake and a bigger exhaust system from the Mazda 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.
“We thought the time was right to show the latent sporting ability that's been bound up within this car for so long,” says Mazda Europe's head of design, Peter Birtwhistle. “And we specifically wanted to do it in a way that showed respect for the environment.” So they created an uncompromising track day special, a purist's delight, by taking away as much unnecessary weight from this car as they possibly could.
The car's story began when Birtwhistle, designer Hassip Girgin and the team took a 1.8-liter 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. All of them reported that the MX-5's key dynamic traits – its delightful sharpness of response and neutral 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 carbon fiber and aluminum. They left the windshield and roof off altogether, and fitted an aluminum hood with a carbon fiber extension that incorporates the rear-view 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 are aluminum, partly covered with leather. There's no ventilation system at all, and no noise and vibration isolation either. All in all, Mazda's crash diet has taken 350 lbs from the curb weight, bringing it under a ton; as a result it's half a second quicker to 62mph and 6mpg more fuel efficient, too.
A helmet and goggles, Stirling Moss style, are a must for this test drive. Dip the clutch, select 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 begins to drown out the engine's blare; you have to watch the rev counter carefully to avoid slamming into the limiter.
Mazda doesn't know the exact weight distribution of this car yet, but it feels as if the center of mass has moved slightly towards the rear wheels; it could even be 50/50. Turn the MX-5 Superlight into a fast, sweeping corner 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, basically.
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 grip, 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 better 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 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 blustery.
“Mazda should stand for advanced lightweight technology,” says Birtwhistle when we ask him to rate the car's chances of making it to showrooms. “It used to be one of our mantras, and will become so again. We've got hybrid technology for some of our less sporting models in the pipeline, but we also want to push forward with weight-saving measures, because light cars are fun to drive.
“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 350 pounds lighter?” Juergen Zoellter/Autocar