With or Without Ford, Mazda Bets Its Future on Technological Makeover

By Peter Nunn October 25, 2010

You could call it perfect timing. Last week, a week when speculation was rife about the future ofthe Mazda Motor Corp., when media reports suggested that the Ford Motor Co, its long time partner, might be considering all but selling up, the Japanese company came out and laid down a strong and comprehensive marker. Mazda logo - 144.JPG

In the shadow of the Tokyo Dome, home to the Yomiuri Giants baseball team - Japan's own version of the New York Yankees, Mazda gave full boost to a presentation of next generation eco-based technologies called SKYACTIV.

SKYACTIV is nothing less than a total engineering makeover for Mazda going forward, developed in-house and covering every major component (powertrains, platforms. transmissions, body, suspension, brakes), all in one hit.

It's a formula based around major weight saving and rationalization as the next generation cars come to the market, in the years to 2015, while giving Mazda a significant leg up in the green car race, too. 

Biggest Tech Changes in 90 Years

The program gets going in earnest next year with the launch of a new SKYACTIV-G gas engine in the appealing Demio (Mazda2) compact. It will be a light and efficient direct injection unit of around 1.3-liters that Mazda says returns an impressive 30 km/l (70.6 mpg) in Japan's domestic fuel cycle.

Putting that into perspective, that's the same as Honda's new Fit Hybrid now achieves in Japan but Mazda will get there without the need of any of any add-on hybrid motor or battery.

Mazda will build this SKYACTIV G gas engine as a modular series so it will come in different capacities and launch in North America in 2011. It will be followed in 2012 by an all-new clean turbodiesel (SKYACTIV-D) and that too is earmarked for the U.S. duty. As to which vehicles will get the new engines, Mazda won't yet say.

Mazda's new gas engine comes with an unusually high 14:1 compression ratio, giving a 15 percent improvement in fuel efficiency and torque, while the diesel is 20 percent more efficient than now and can meet the toughest emission regs around, including America's Tier2 Bin5 without expensive NOx aftertreatment. What's more, it's cheaper to build than today's diesel equivalent.
 
These redesigned inline four-cylinder engines are just the tip of the iceberg, however. "We will renew our entire line-up of both powertrains and platforms and at the same time, overhaul the planning, production method and sales strategy that supports them," Mazda president Takashi Yamanouchi told the conference.

It's a very big deal for Mazda, then.

"This is the first time in our 90-year history that we have implemented such major change." he added. 

SKYACTIV introduces new lightweight manual and auto transmissions to the Mazda mix as well, and ties in with a planned 20 to 60 percent improvement in Mazda's already lean manufacturing processes in Japan.  

The real headliner, though, may be Mazda's development of new SKYACTIV body and chassis technology.
 
It's not just that the body is 8 percent lighter and 30 percent more rigid than current (while the accompanying new strut/multilink chassis is also 14 percent lighter), it's the way the structure has come together that's also sets it apart. 

Mazda has devised a new platform with simple box pressings under the floor and highly rigid 'ring' structures for the upper part. As well as saving on weight and investment, this platform can be adjusted up or down in size to support the compact Mazda 2 at one end of the scale and big CX-9 crossover at the other.

This new platform can underpin almost every Mazda product, confirms Seita Kanai, Mazda's senior managing executive officer in charge of R&D and its basic concept can also be adapted for rear-drive sports cars like the MX-5/Miata.

Sharing with Ford?

This new cost-savings platform idea seems ingenious but where does it leave platform sharing arrangements with Ford?

"We have shared all our technological knowledge with Ford, " he answered diplomatically. "It's up to them how they are going to utilize them."

Ford for its part has acknowledged collaboration over the current cycle of cars (principally, Mazda2/Fiesta; Mazda3/Focus; Mazda6/Mondeo) has been far less intense than in the early to mid 2000s.

The future?  "While the relationships do continue, we would envisage further divergence into the future as each manufacturer continues to develop their own products," commented Ford spokesman Don Hume. 

Mazda, then, is pushing forward with its own "Building Block" strategy for future product development. That's to say, step-by-step introduction of new models and technology, using mostly its own resources. 

Mazda's Green Car Plan
 
In the green car arena, Mazda has already debuted gas engines with fuel saving i-stop (idling stop) function. Next to come will be regenerative braking. Then, hybrid vehicles (borrowing Toyota Hybrid technology). "Further ahead, we are also considering Plug-In Hybrid and electric vehicles," added Yamanouchi, Mazda's CEO, although those are expected to come beyond 2015.

Well before then, in 2012, Mazda will debut the first model to be completely built up around this lean new SKYACTIV technology and it will be all new from the ground up. That car is expected to the next Mazda6 and the company's recent Shinari concept is said to give a pretty good idea of its design.

Mazda is one of those companies with a colorful past, that in the '90s seriously overreached itself in an attempt to compete with BMW and Mercedes in the premium market and Toyota in the volume business, both at the same time.

Mazda these days is coming from a totally different direction. While it still has a deserved reputation for building stylish, good-to-drive cars, its latest business plan is notable for its down-to-earth rationality and clever cost-savings ideas, rather than bubble-era type irrational exuberance.

Will Mazda's Plan Work?

Will SKYACTIV work? Will it be enough in the face of heated industry competition? Tokyo so far seems yet to be convinced. Mazda's stock price has remained static at 212 yen (Toyota is 2900 yen and Honda 2946 yen, despite the SKYACTIV roll-out and Japan's Nikkei business paper is of the opinion that Mazda "will likely need to find a new partner" now that "Ford has decided to drastically weaken the two firms' capital ties. " Even insiders concede there is only so much Mazda can do on its own.     

Living in the shadow of Toyota and Honda, and getting recognition, remains one of Mazda's biggest hurdles. Continuing to build the bulk of its cars in Japan, thus leaving it exposed to the capricious value of the yen, is another.

Mazda, however, is not a company to be underestimated and it's not everyday a company renews engines, platforms, transmissions, bodies, all major units, and in such a short space of time, and remaps the entire product line in the process.

"It's a tremendous initiative," confirms R&D chief Kanai and what's surely even more remarkable is that Mazda is setting about it with a relatively low level of investment.

"Mazda (might be) a small-scale company but incredible things are now being realized," he smiled.

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blackadder5639 says: 8:45 AM, 10.26.10

I don't see why SKYACTIV won't work! Having hybrid-like fuel economy and performance without the extra complexity and price of a hybrid is a real winner! My only concern would be whether the SKYACTIV engines would be as reliable as regular engines.

My problem with Mazda, especially on the US market, is that it's losing its unique, sporty character. The current Mazda 6, while a fun car, is no longer as unique and exciting as the original.......it is no longer the sportiest non-luxury mid-size car!...where are the V6 manual transmission models and the wagons? Despite all this "softening" of the car, the Mazda 6 hasn't increased in sales volume.
Mazda should just go back to making the sportiest cars in their respective classes. Awesome handling + SKYACTIVE would be an instant winner!

dstppy says: 9:21 AM, 10.26.10

This will only work if they 'do it'. Companies have been flapping their gums about diesel in this country for years . . . step one is actually bringing it here.

If they can do this (bring both these engines here) without shedding their "zoom zoom" image and feel (instead of just stripping the vehicles and leaving them anemic), they could very well become as stable as Subi.

Being they did a vasectomy on the CX-7 and petered out on their "speed" line, I'm guessing they're going to either become the boring Honda-follower . . . or are just paying lip service until the next bubble starts up and green takes a back burner.

Sorry, we've heard about all sorts of things coming to the US that never made it here.

carguy58 says: 3:05 PM, 10.26.10

To the post above the CX-7 is a five year old model now. I'm sure the the next CX-7 will be out in a year or a two. Even Connsumer Reports didn't rate the CX-7 highly. I mean the CX-9 is a good vehicle and is rated highly by CR.

On the Mazda 6 I own the orginal one but that one wasn't big enough to sell in masses that Mazda wanted. I think the current 6 exterior styling doesn;t have the flash that the original one had and thats the problem.

stephen987 says: 7:28 PM, 10.26.10

Mazda is the new Honda. Honda is fast becoming the new Chevrolet.

savetheland says: 2:08 PM, 10.29.10

Cannot agree more with blackadder5639. Mazda6 was fun to drive car, more compact car than midsize. New Mazda6 is larger than Fusion! Mazda moves in the same direction as Honda starting making boring cars to compete with Toyota Camry. Mazda has to think carefully what it stands for. It will never outcompete Ford, Toyota or GM, or even Honda for that matter. They have to appeal to niche.

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