When Ford Motor Co. took control of Mazda Motor Corp. in 1996, industry wags foretold the end of the Japanese automaker's independence. In just a few years, they predicted, Ford would begin creating twin Ford and Mazda products. And with that, the Mazda name would simply fizzle out.
But three years later - even as Mazda and Ford move toward greater platform sharing - Mazda's vehicle development is showing a clear independence. Future products now under wraps in Mazda's Hiroshima, Japan, headquarters reveal an automaker intent on keeping an identity separate from the blue oval.
Martin Leach, managing director in charge of Mazda's product planning, design and programs, assured that Mazda's products won't be just another set of names under the Ford global brand.
'The hardware and common platforms are pretty easy to work with,' Leach said. 'They are just the building blocks. There will be specific technologies underneath that will define the brands. We want Mazda vehicles to be more flexible and have packaging innovations with things people don't expect. That links up with our marketing position as stylish, spirited and insightful.'
To stake out Mazda's separate brand identity, product development executives there spent the past year closely analyzing 23 vehicle attributes. They zeroed in on five areas where Mazda wants to claim a leadership role: quality, design, handling, innovative packaging and braking.
Mazda executives realize they can't be winners in such areas as brute acceleration, but they know which battles they can win.
'There are trade-offs on what you can accept,' Leach said. 'Mazda is going to emphasize our technology and relate them to other Ford divisions and our competition.'
Mazda will embrace product attributes that are different from those of Ford and Mercury products. That means relying on more than sheet metal bends and suspension tweaks to differentiate the families.
'Things like roll stiffness, steering feel, suspension damping and other visual or tactile things will give us a framework for vehicle development,' Leach said. 'Then we mate that to Ford's global cycle plan.'
Leach's plan is backed firmly by Richard Parry-Jones, Ford Motor Co.'s group vice president of worldwide product development.
'Mazda has good engineering and product development people. So it's a good fit for Ford,' Parry-Jones said. 'We have to be appropriately humble when talking with their people. We provide help where requested, but with a light touch.'
Parry-Jones noted that Ford and Jaguar are in their fifth year of collaboration and that Jaguar products have retained their identity and feel, even as Jaguar takes advantage of Ford technology and engineering - not to mention Ford's deep pockets.
Stephen Usher, senior analyst with Tokyo's Jardine Fleming Securities, said Ford and Mazda can have a similar relationship.
'Mazda is going to be increasingly responsible for Ford's small-car side, especially with Kia out of the picture,' Usher predicted. 'What Mazda brings to the party is strong, quick and inexpensive product design skills. So it won't be all Ford platforms. Mazda will contribute some, too.'
Leach acknowledged that long-range goals such as becoming No. 1 in quality and packaging innovation will take some work. He has started the ball rolling with a series of quick fixes he hopes will allow Mazda to break out of the Japanese pack. Among them:
Gas costs less in America, so engines sold here will be tuned more for performance than fuel efficiency.
Japanese cars typically are under-tired for fuel efficiency, but Americans love low-profile tires with wide rubber underfoot. So while the Accord sedan and Camry are stuck with 15-inch wheels and slippery tires, the U.S. version of the 626 will get racier 16-inch wheels with stickier tires.
One way to express a performance image is raw acceleration, but Porsche is equally well known for its strong brakes. So all Mazdas will get bigger discs and calipers to get that message across.
The moves may cost a few dollars, the executive admitted, but it's worth the trade-off in conquest sales and brand identity.
A U.S. UPTICK
But Ford didn't invest in Mazda just for its engineering talents and access to the Asian market. Mazda also has to perform in the U.S. market.
Last year, the U.S. sales arm recorded its first sales uptick since 1994. The cheering is muted, since the 1998 mark is 36 percent lower than 1994 levels. But Leach's plans have Mazda's U.S. management confident.
'Anyone who has less than a 2 percent market share has a real challenge in terms of brand awareness,' noted Richard Beattie, president of the U.S. sales arm, Mazda North American Operations, which has 1.5 percent U.S. market share. 'But if we have competent and exciting products, we can get people to know who we are.'
Does that mean Mazda might be permitted to to bring back the RX-7 sports car?
There is not much of a business case for the car, but Ford is far from saying no.
'We are very aware of the importance of aspirational vehicles, even if they are not high-margin, to anchor the image of the brand,' Parry-Jones said. 'There would have to be some business case for such a car, but our investment in (British racing engine maker) Cosworth shows that we are not afraid to put our hands in our pockets if it's a good investment. But we have to do it right.'