LOS ANGELES - Mazda Motor Corp. wanted to cut two pounds from the weight of the redesigned 1999 Protege, so it eliminated a reinforcing bar and some padding from the rear bumper assembly.
That is proving to be a case of what might be called pound-wise but megabucks-foolish.
Mazda is now scrambling to find an engineering fix for the 2000 Protege that one manufacturing expert estimates could cost $20 million to $100 million, depending on whether retooling is needed.
The need for the fix follows the disclosure last week of test results showing that the 1999 Protege sustained $4,609 in damages in four 5-mph crashes, by far the worst showing of nine vehicles tested.
In the tests, conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the new Protege suffered $2,837 in damages to the rear bumper from backing into a pole, and $4,609 in total damages when four separate bumper crash tests were combined. That is more than double the damage sustained by competitors in its segment. The previous-generation Protege suffered only $709 in damage in the same bumper-into-pole test, and total damages of $1,930 from the four crashes.
FIX COULD COST PLENTY
A spokesman for Mazda North American Operations declined to say how much it will cost to redesign the bumper assembly, nor would he say what the changes will entail. But he did say that 1999 models will not be retro-fixed by the manufacturer.
'The cars meet all federal safety standards,' the spokesman said.
A manufacturing analyst said that even the most minor changes in the bumper assembly will cost Mazda at least $20 million.
'If they're just going from structural plastic to some type of steel roll form or steel bumper, it won't be too much, but if they have to start affecting the frame with different absorbing techniques, it could get quite expensive,' said Mike Robinet, director of forecast services for CSM Worldwide in Farmington Hills, Mich.
Robinet added that if the new bumper requires changing the Protege's unibody structure, it could cost as much as $100 million for the new tooling, research-and-development expenses and retesting with various safety agencies.
But given the quick turnaround by Mazda, Robinet figures a cheaper quick fix is in the works.
Just the same, the fix is fraught with hassles.
Should the new bumper weigh more, the added weight could affect suspension setups and fuel economy performance, which would require a redesign of those systems as well. Doing that would divert engineers working on other programs.
Mazda spokesman Brian Betz said the bumper design change for the 1999 model was made for fuel-economy reasons, with the old aluminum beam and foam padding replaced by a plastic honeycomb design. It shaved about 2 pounds off the vehicle's weight.
Mazda declined to name the supplier but noted that the bumper was a Mazda design, rather than a supplier design.
Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, blasted Mazda's explanation for the 1999 design.
'How many gallons of fuel a year would an average consumer save by the slight weight reduction in that bumper system?' he asked.
'If they think that's a real savings for the consumer, then they should market the car that way: 'Get a flimsy bumper and save gasoline.' '
Mazda and institute officials were quick to indicate that the slow-speed crash tests measure out-of-pocket damage expenses, which cannot be directly correlated to the safety of the vehicle.
But because the damage to the Protege was much more costly than damage to other cars in the segment, that would trigger higher insurance costs for the car.