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Sports car for hire: the key to the Mazda MX-5 Miata’s survival?

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In a contemporary and future automotive world where B and lower C-segment crossover SUVs are the hottest and fastest-growing vehicle classes and most major carmakers are leading an inexorable march towards the holy grail of the fully autonomous vehicle, the traditional lightweight 2-seat roadster sports car is seemingly doomed to become the latest automotive dinosaur. Bucking the odds and fighting for viability, the world’s remaining sports car makers have taken some unorthodox approaches to ensure their survival.

Lotus Cars, for instance, readily offered its assorted rear-mid-engined chassis and models to carmakers large and small as the basis of myriad low-volume or one-off models. General Motors Europe adapted and rebodied the Lotus Elise Series 2 chassis to create the Opel Speedster and Vauxhall VX220, while Chrysler utilized the 21st-century Lotus Europa S (itself an Elise derivative) as the basis for its Dodge Circuit EV Concept. Boutique electric car makers became particularly enamored of Lotus’ Elise Series 2 platform, as it became the basis for battery-powered sports cars past (Tesla Roadster), stillborn (PG Elektrus), aquatic (Rinspeed sQuba) and hopeful future (Detroit Electric SP:01). Those with gasoline in their veins rebodied them (the vaporware Melkus RS2000), stretched and reengined them (the insane Hennessey Venom GT) or stripped them down even further (Ken Okuyama’s kode7 and kode9). The Elise Series 2’s big brother, the Lotus Evora, underpinned Infiniti’s Emerg-E concept and was the probable basis for the Spyker Venator.

Toyota has taken a collaborative alliance approach on its sports car projects. To date, the only one of its rumored trio of sportsers to reach production is the “middle child”, the GT 86 (or Scion FR-S in North America), developed in collaboration with Subaru, which offers it as the BRZ. At the high end, the BMW/Toyota joint venture sports car is now expected to see the light of day as a production Toyota Supra Mk5 inspired by the Toyota FT-1 Concept and as the 3rd-generation BMW Z4.

Meanwhile, Mazda has for over the past quarter-century gone it alone with its iconic MX-5 Miata, far and away the most popular sports car of all time. Given the complexities of 21st-century carmaking and competing in a declining niche segment, even the plucky Hiroshima company announced an alliance of its own in May 2012 for the 4th-gen (ND) MX-5 Miata, this one with Fiat Chrysler. Yet, as the newest iteration of the Miata was reaching showrooms the world over in mid-2015, the confluence of the Toyota/Mazda partnership announcement and the unveiling of the front-mid-engined (just like the Miata) Toyota S-FR sports coupe concept at the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show in late October led to rumors that, perhaps, Mazda might be moving towards a more Lotus-like model and sharing its ND MX-5 platform not just with Fiat (for the just-unveiled 124 Spider) but with Toyota for the production S-FR.

Barely a couple of weeks after the Toyota/Mazda alliance announcement, the sometimes rumormongering Peter Lyon suggested that the next-generation Toyota GT86 / Scion FR-S / Subaru BRZ could move to the ND Mazda MX-5 platform. A follow-up motoring.com.au story dismissed these rumors, as did Tetsuya Tada, Toyota Sport Vehicle Mangement Division chief engineer, when I chatted with him in Miami back in July. OK, so forget any notions that the next GT86 / BRZ will be a Miata derivative. But what about the smaller S-FR? Automotive News‘ Hans Griemel noted that

The S-FR bears a passing similarity to the Mazda MX-5 Miata. That dangles the possibility of a tempting tie-in, given Toyota’s new alliance with Mazda Motor Corp. But the S-FR’s designer, Koichi Matsumoto, says the concept was done completely in-house with no plans for future collaboration with the smaller Japanese partner.

And Australia’s Drive quoted Tada-san as saying that Toyota

…is unlikely to turn to a partner (for the S-FR) like it did with Subaru for the 86/BRZ or the new ‘big brother’ sports car with BMW.

“Partnership is one solution to sports car projects,” he said. “But that’s not always the solution. Some things must be made by ourselves.”

Yet, other Toyota insiders suggest that, indeed, ND Mazda MX-5 Miata bones do lurk under the Toyota S-FR concept, and imply that a potential production version could well be the next collaboration between Mazda and Toyota, after the Mazda Axela/3 Hybrid powertrain and Toyota’s ugly noselift of the Mazda2 sedan for sale as the Scion iA, Toyota Yaris sedan or Toyota Yaris R.

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