The new Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute sport-utilities are built off the same platform and use identical powertrains. They also will be the first big test of keeping the automakers' brand and product identities from overlapping.
Mazda Motor Corp. President Mark Fields said the two companies are working closer than ever to make sure future shared products are distinctive.
'The point of view on the vehicles must be understood by all the brands,' Fields said in an interview at the auto show last week.
So what does Mazda stand for? Spirited performance, stylish design and insightful touches. The goal of combining BMW-style performance with Alfa Romeo-like flair remains.
Fields said the substantial savings Mazda has realized through cost-cutting efforts, combined with Ford's global buying power, have actually allowed Mazda to make its products more differentiated. Ford owns 34 percent of the Japanese automaker.
'The savings we gain in sharing product development costs with Ford get reinvested in suspension, braking and seat feel to make the Mazda different. Otherwise, we end up with mediocrity,' Fields said.
Mazda's former product czar Martin Leach was transferred late last year to Ford of Europe. That could help Mazda because Leach is now in charge of Ford's global small-car platforms, which will increasingly rely on Mazda. The next challenge will be to co-mingle Mazda's Demio/323 with Ford's next-generation B- and C-car platforms.
Replacing Leach in product development is Philip Martens, who came from a similar position at Ford of Europe. Martens feels Mazda needs to maintain the momentum in the product development process.
'We need to reinvest our savings in chassis, body, powertrain and interior. That's the essence of our DNA,' Martens said in an interview.
Martens wants Mazda to use its California design and its research and development facilities to have more autonomy in developing product. The California group was responsible for the Miata. But for the most part it has been a color-and-trim studio.
'We need to focus on styling, customer segmentation and functional development,' Martens said. 'It has to be this and that, not this or that. If we compromise on a product, that leaves us in a hole.'
While making itself different from Ford, Mazda must make sure its Mazda-brand vehicles have the same 'brand DNA' in the Japanese, North American and European markets.
'We have to find our vehicles' personalities to make sure they aren't wildly disparate,' Fields said. 'Of course, there will be minor differences for each market, but the feeling of spirited, stylish and functional must be encompassed in all the vehicles.'
`TALK ABOUT' CAR
That's why Mazda will continue to have products that aren't shared with Ford. The most visible of them will be the trio of vehicles off the next Miata platform. The Mazda RX-Evolv rotary-engined show car seen in Tokyo is a hint at both a sedan and sports car variant that should arrive within the next couple years.
'It may not be a high-volume car, but it will be a real `talk about' car that brings back pride in ownership and embodies the brand,' Martens said. He wants to see those sorts of attributes filter down into more pedestrian products like the 626 sedan.
So how can Ford learn from Mazda? Fields feels that Mazda has superior engineering, manufacturing engineering and product development skills, and that the increased number of joint programs between the companies will highlight those strengths.