The pioneering concept of Kansei engineering has played a major role for Mazda over the years, particularly in the development of the original MX-5 Miata

Story Shogo Hagiwara

Kansei engineering, or emotional engineering, is a key design concept for Mazda, dating back to the days of Toyo Kogyo, the company’s former name. It started manufacturing vehicles in the 1930s, and over the years evolved a theory that emotions such as joy and excitement are as crucial in the development of a vehicle as technical specifications. It was, however, former CEO Kenichi Yamamoto who championed Kansei engineering as a cornerstone of Mazda’s philosophy. Yamamoto was appointed head of the company in 1984, in an era when computers were permeating every aspect of life, including automotive manufacturing. Yamamoto was insistent, though, that technological advancement should not detract from the focus on the driver experience.

With car ownership widespread in the 1980s, many automobile manufacturers had developed models that appealed to a broad market, with compromised results. But Yamamoto believed that a car should have personality and character, rather than mass-market appeal. He said that Mazda should create vehicles that met the needs of each individual, instead of attempting to address a wide range of requirements. The result—Yamamoto’s “Car Culture Theory”—took inspiration from Kansei engineering, which he interpreted as “a psychological action caused through our five senses. The car must captivate not only the driver’s imagination but also that of the occupants.”

The innovative “Car Culture Theory” of Kenichi Yamamoto (above), who became Mazda CEO in 1984, led to the development of the groundbreaking MX-5 Miata. The car was designed by Tom Matano, based on an idea from Bob Hall, who feature in the main picture (top).

This got Mazda engineers thinking: “What is it that only Mazda can do?” The answer soon came: the company started to develop a lightweight sports car, a bold move given the market outlook. The project was managed by Toshihiko Hirai, a chief engineer at Mazda. Development of the car that would become the Mazda MX-5 Miata got underway. The key dynamic concept of the Miata was Jinba Ittai. Still used by Mazda today, this philosophy sees the car as an extension of the driver’s body and is also a product of Kansei engineering.

“While the development phase continued to PRESENT challenges, Hirai’s team persevered with Kansei engineering”

Hirai and his team researched the feelings and sensory experiences encountered while driving the prototype front-engine, rear-wheel-drive Miata, identifying values such as “unity,” “driveability,” and “directness.” They meticulously applied these values to every aspect of the Miata’s design, from the action of the manual transmission to the car’s behavior while braking. While the development phase continued to present challenges, Hirai’s team persevered with Kansei engineering and human-centric design, and the first Miata was produced in 1989. The rest is history…