LOS ANGELES - The first glimmers of Martin Leach's vision for Mazda Motor Corp. are beginning to appear.
Leach, a Ford Motor Co. veteran who is now Mazda's managing director for product planning and design, wants to reinvent the company by combining BMW performance with Alfa Romeo styling. He wants Mazda to be considered a leader in handling, braking, steering feel and design sophistication.
A glimpse of Mazda's direction can be seen in this fall's redesign of the MPV minivan and minor changes on the 626 sedan. Another peek came at the Frankfurt show last month, where Mazda unveiled the Nextourer, a concept wagon and luxury sedan hybrid.
Still more signs will be seen in the vehicles Mazda is expected to display at the Tokyo Motor Show next week: a Mazda version of the 2001 Ford Escape sport-utility and the return of the RX-7 sports car.
'Products like the new MPV deliver the brand promise of class-leading style, spirited chassis dynamics and an ingenious seating and package concept,' Leach said. 'Line up five current and five next-generation products. Each vehicle we are producing comes closer to the core DNA we want to achieve.'
Of course, Leach and Mazda, the world's 14th-largest automaker, have a long way to go. A couple of revamped products are a far cry from a redesigned lineup. The company's financial footing is still tenuous. And that sporty, fun-to-drive territory that Mazda is aiming for isn't exactly wide open; it's the target of every make from Mitsubishi to Oldsmobile.
Leach came to Mazda in mid-1996, when Mazda was hemorrhaging $1 million a day and was being rescued by Ford Motor Co. He came from Dearborn, Mich., where he was a product development director at Ford's Light Truck Vehicle Center. Before that, he spent 15 years at Ford of Europe.
At Mazda, his immediate concern was cutting costs and getting rid of waste.
But with Mazda turning the corner in 1997, Leach let his product-planning instincts take over. As he was promoted from deputy general manager, he mandated that the next wave of products had to be breakthroughs. He set the tone, for example, by tearing up the conservative plans for the upcoming Premacy minivan for Europe.
'The products that we launch from 2001 onward will demonstrate our brand thinking most visibly and concretely,' Leach said. 'Every action is intended to be a step toward the vision.'
Leach, 42, has the 'car guy' qualifications to back up his decisions.
His first ambition was to be a racer. As a boy, growing up in Britain, he dueled in karts against the likes of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. Although Leach made it as far as Formula 2000, a bout of rheumatoid arthritis derailed his dream. So he joined Ford of Europe to stay close to cars.
He since has returned to gentleman's racing, including running the Le Mans-winning Mazda 787B at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, an annual vintage car gathering in England. In short, he knows what a performance vehicle should feel like.
Leach's appetite for speed has crept through to the corporate level. He has insisted that vehicle-dynamics testing should be performed in the markets where the car will be sold.
Previously, Mazda did all its testing in Japan on the same test track. But Leach felt that foreign markets deserved to have cars tuned to their own types of roads. He even did some of the midnight testing of the 626 himself, on Southern California's tortuous canyon roads.
TIP OF ICEBERG
Leach's counterparts in America are encouraged at the early direction.
'What you're seeing this fall is only the tip of the iceberg,' said Jack Stavana, group manager of product marketing for Mazda North American Operations. 'We will not build boring cars again.'
In the past, Leach explains, Mazda program managers had too much autonomy. There was little consistency among the various Mazda products. Without clear direction from product planning or marketing, engineers created toys for their own fantasies.
As a result, Mazda has had some clear misses this decade: an MX-3 coupe with a 1.8-liter V-6; a 929 near-luxury sedan with little trunk space and no glove box; an MPV minivan with doors that swung out rather than slid open.
'Too much stuff was getting through that I felt didn't make the grade,' Leach said.
That Mazda was willing to pattern its next-generation vehicles after two European brands, BMW and Alfa, was a big step for a Japanese company.
However, Jim Hall, analyst with AutoPacific in Southfield, Mich., won't believe Leach's talk of change until he sees the finished products. He says he has seen the visions of too many other automakers fizzle on the way to production.
Hall notes that the grille on the 626 and MPV looks very much like those of Honda, Acura and Toyota. That puts Mazda at risk of being labeled 'Japanese-generic' - hardly the mold-breaker it wants to be.
'Mazda knows it will never sell as many cars as Honda and Toyota, so maybe it has realized it has to go back to designing expressive cars,' Hall said.
The initial signs are promising. The MPV's interior layout is imaginative. Shorter drivers have a better view of the road, because the instrument panel and steering wheel are below the traditional line of sight. The layout of the audio and climate control flows like that of a luxury car.
The packaging and seating arrangements mimic the much-admired Honda Odyssey for ease of use. A 'theater seating' system elevates the rear seats for a better view.
And, in an industry first, the windows of the minivan's second-row sliding doors slide up and down.
The suspension, braking and interior of the 626 have been revised. The changes are significant for a vehicle in the middle of its life cycle.
'We needed to make it sporty and fun-to-drive,' said Gordon Dickie, vice president of engineering, manufacturing and supply for Mazda North American Operations. 'We needed to make subtle but pivotal changes.'
Of course, not all is in place yet. As an example, the MPV initially offers only a 2.5-liter, V-6 engine. That's underpowered for U.S. tastes, but it's a fuel-sipper, which will appeal to Japanese and European customers.
Said Leach: 'When you're the size of Mazda, you don't have the resources to tailor your products to different markets around the world. You have to have a central point of view.'
But despite Mazda's relatively low volume and reliance on Ford for platforms and engines, Leach feels Mazda can create a unique product line that will appeal to Americans.
Hall offers this caveat: 'What matters is whether the final product is emotionally involved. Does it feel good? Or does it feel like it came out of a parts bin? Alfa Romeos look and feel the way they do because no one else has the guts to do what they do.'