TOKYO -- Mazda Motor Corp. today took another step toward independent product development, agreeing to lease hybrid drivetrain technology from fellow Japanese automaker Toyota Motor Corp. instead of longtime U.S. partner Ford Motor Co.
The deal gives Mazda access to the electric powertrain system used in the third-generation Toyota Prius, which was launched last year and is the world's most popular hybrid vehicle.
Mazda Executive Vice President Masaharu Yamaki said the electric-gasoline powertrain will debut in 2013 in a Mazda-brand hybrid for the Japanese market. Mazda didn't announce plans for overseas versions, but a spokesman said selling the car in North America is a possibility.
The agreement helps Mazda meet its goal of improving fleet fuel economy 30 percent by 2015 compared with 2008 levels. Mazda already has rolled out plans for a more efficient gasoline engine, called the Sky G, and measures such as weight reduction and idle stop technology.
But limited by a relatively small r&d budget, Mazda has trailed rivals in hybrid offerings.
For Toyota, the deal also pushes its hybrid technology closer to becoming a global standard. Leasing it to other companies is not only a cash stream for the world's biggest auto company, it's also a potent way to guarantee volume for its suppliers, which drives down cost.
Subaru also has been developing its own hybrid drivetrain based on technology from Toyota Motor, which owns a 16.5 percent stake in Subaru's parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries. Toyota also supplies the hybrid system used in the Nissan Altima hybrid sedan.
Teaming with Toyota signals another Mazda break from Ford, which reduced its stake in the Japanese automaker to 13 percent, from 33 percent in 2008.
Since then, Ford and Mazda have embarked on largely separate powertrain strategies.
While Ford is chasing greater fuel economy with its turbocharged EcoBoost engines, Mazda is developing its own line of Sky engines, which rely mostly on direct fuel injection.
Mazda currently uses Ford technology in its hybrid Tribute SUV. But Yamaki said that turning to Toyota and domestic suppliers is the quickest way to bring a hybrid to market in Japan.
Yamaki said the deal won't undermine cooperation with Ford.
“This strategic relationship will not change,” Yamaki said at a press conference. “Obtaining the major hybrid components from domestic suppliers is the surest and quickest way for Mazda to efficiently develop and manufacture a hybrid vehicle in Japan.”
Mazda starts producing the Sky G engine next year and plans to mate it with Toyota's hybrid technology for the car due in 2013. Mazda didn't give other details. But the agreement covers the motor, inverter and nickel-metal hydride battery currently used in the Prius.
The four-cylinder, direct-injection Sky-G gasoline engine will range between 1.3 and 2.0 liters and deliver 15 percent better fuel economy than current engines in the same class. Its diesel partner, the Sky-D, will get a 20 percent increase over today's offerings.
The Ford-Mazda partnership is often cited as an example of a successful international alliance of automakers. Ford first took an equity stake in Mazda in 1979 and brought it under its control in 1996 as the Hiroshima-based carmaker struggled to survive. But by late 2008, the tables were turned, and a cash-strapped Ford sold the bulk of its stake to raise capital.