LOS ANGELES - Phil Martens, Mazda Motor Corp.'s product development czar, knows the frustration of waiting.
For nearly two years, Mazda has trotted out various iterations of the RX-8 concept sports car to auto show audiences to carry the flag for its marketing mantra - 'stylish, insightful and spirited.' Yet, mainstream products capable of living up to the ideal and to its Zoom-Zoom ad campaign are still waiting in the wings.
Martens knows it's time for the buzzwords to be replaced by actual products that reflect Mazda's aspirations as an automaker.'We have good concepts, but how far are they away from the real world?' Martens asked in a recent interview. 'We have a great aspirational brand, but we need to have cars like the RX-8 - no-excuses cars that carve their positions quite easily.'
To get there, every piece of every Mazda vehicle - from powertrain to interior touches - is under study, as is the entire product range and where vehicles fit in it.
' `Stylish, insightful and spirited' could be anybody. We have to decompose it down to the level of the brake booster and first-gear ratios. We have to take it down to the action level,' Martens said.
But until those new vehicles arrive, Mazda must make do with mid-cycle changes to its existing products. Martens said he has been pleased by the resourcefulness of his engineers, and he's most proud of changes made to the subcompact Protege.
Knowing that rival Honda was not taking full advantage of its youthful following with the Civic, Mazda created the Protege MP3, a performance upgrade both in driving dynamics and audio technology.
Martens admits he was 'not happy' with the 2000 Protege's suspension dynamics, and ordered improvements for crisper handling. The tires were upgraded to stickier rubber, the clutch pedal was stiffened, and the shift throws were shortened for a racier driving feel. The engine intake and exhaust systems were retuned for more torque.
And Kenwood upgraded the audio system to ear-blasting levels. 'The MP3 is not a Band-Aid,' Martens said. 'The Protege had the basis of performance, but we knew we could upgrade to a more sophisticated system. It's hard to have high performance out of the box.'
Steve Odell, Mazda North American Operations senior vice president of sales and marketing, points to the successful launch of the Tribute sport-utility as a success not of the Zoom-Zoom campaign, but for Mazda itself. Last year, Mazda sold 21,048 Tributes after the July rollout, well past target. But one product's success obviously is not enough. In the U.S. auto industry's hottest year ever, Mazda sales were up only 4.8 percent in 2000.
'Zoom-Zoom is going to be a clarion call for designing future products. But are we there yet? No,' Odell said.
Wes Brown, industry analyst for Nextrend in Thousand Oaks, Calif., has doubts about the depth of Mazda's product turnaround. He feels Mazda has been suffering from benign neglect at the hands of its controlling shareholder, Ford Motor Co.
'Ford's focus has not been on turning around Mazda from a product standpoint, as opposed to other divisions within the corporate umbrella. They have been strangled from moving at the rate they want to,' Brown said.
Brown points to the Protege, which he says should share the Ford Focus platform, and to the Mazda 626 and Mondeo platforms, which do not appear to be linking up any time soon.
'Ford doesn't feel the pressure to turn Mazda around as quickly as Mazda would like. Until that happens, Mazda will continue to struggle as a second-tier player because they won't be able to have economies of scale and shared development,' Brown said.
Jason Vines, Ford Motor Co. vice president of communications, bristles at the notion that Ford has not taken care of Mazda.'We have our best and brightest people over there,' he said.
'Mazda's financial improvement has been steady and real, and they are ready to bust out.
'But it all comes down to product, and that's the core and strength of where Mazda is going to go. There is a pretty impressive lineup just around the corner.'