Ford's farewell to Mazda -- what's in it for Mazda?

TOKYO -- Reports that Ford Motor Co. plans to sell off nearly all of its remaining shares in its longtime Japanese partner Mazda Motor Corp. come as little surprise.

Ford's eventual pullout was more a question of when, than if.

But the bigger question is what it means for Mazda, a tiny player on the international scene. Its overseas factories in the United States, Thailand and China, in fact, are operated in conjunction with Ford. And pundits say it simply lacks the size -- and money -- to successfully go it alone.

More reports began emerging today from Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group Inc. The Japanese financial giant will become Mazda's largest shareholder, the bank's chairman said, according to Bloomberg News.

For the record, neither Ford nor Mazda has denied the weekend report by Japan's Nikkei newspaper. Both danced around that by calling it “speculation.”

Ford and Mazda have been drifting apart for years. Ford most recently cut its stake in Mazda in 2008. Today, the companies aim to break up their three-way joint venture in China with Chonqing Changan Automobile Co. and form their own partnerships with the local automaker.

Ford recently even called back the public relations officer it had stationed at Mazda as a fixture -- and symbol of their bond -- over the years. There's still no word on a replacement.

The rumor mill in Hiroshima, where Mazda is based, runs rife with speculation that an up-and-coming, cash-rich Chinese auto manufacturer could even step in to fill Ford's shoes.

And Mazda's overtures to Toyota Motor Corp., through its recent licensing of Toyota's hybrid technology, are no doubt part of a scramble to align with a fellow Japanese company instead.

But not everyone sees hard times ahead.

Mazda has carved out an independent niche of new technology through its new line of Sky-series fuel efficient drivetrains. And released from Ford, Mazda may now be free to play the field in pairing up with other partners, notes Kohei Takahashi, an auto analyst at J.P. Morgan.

“Greater capital independence would help Mazda expand its business with companies outside the Ford group,” Takahashi says. “We would view this as somewhat positive for Mazda.”