Takashi Yamanouchi came to Toronto last month to tell Canadians they'll be able to buy the 2011 Mazda2 subcompact early this summer. This week, the Mazda Motor Corp. CEO is in Geneva for the global unveiling of the new Mazda5 wagon/minivan that will go on sale late this year or early next.
The globe-trotting CEO is having a busy 2010 and so is Mazda - particularly in Canada. Both the 2 and 5 play in chunks of the market where Canadians shop aggressively and seriously.
We are a nation of small cars, wagons and minivans and Mazda wants a bigger share of that business.
So look for the 2 to start around $13,000 and the 5 in the very low $20,000s. In both cases, that's well below the average transaction price for a passenger car in Canada (about $25,000). Mazda is pricing to grow, says Don Romano, Mazda Canada's CEO.
But there is an even bigger agenda: Mazda is making a subtle but clear shift in its product offerings. Until now, Mazda has been all about "Zoom Zoom" sportiness.
The Hiroshima-based company is now moving aggressively to shore up its lagging development of a hybrid system and other technologies to improve fuel-efficiency and reduce emissions.
But unlike in past years, Mazda is developing "green" technologies alone; Mazda's alliance with Ford loosened when the U.S. car maker sold part of its stake in Mazda last year.
Ford's voting rights in Mazda are now down to 11 per cent, from more than 33 per cent.
The Mazda5 is the first all-new product from Mazda since the company got its independence from Ford. Obviously it's important for that reason alone.
But the new Mazda5 is also the first production vehicle to adopt Mazda's Nagare design philosophy. Nagare, the Japanese word for "flow," is a style developed under former Mazda design director Laurens van den Acker and it's being continued by new design chief Ikuo Maeda.
The new 5 will have multiple seat arrangements and a second-row centre seat that can be converted into storage space. Mazda says the new minivan will reduce carbon dioxide emissions 15 per cent thanks to a direct-injection gasoline engine and the introduction of Mazda's "i-stop" start-stop technology.
The question is, will Mazda offer the start-stop system in the Canadian and U.S. versions? The company would like to, says Robert Davis, the product development boss for North America, but government regulators in North America haven't figured out how to give auto makers fuel economy credits for stop-start.
That is, it's obvious that shutting down the engine regularly in traffic makes fuel economy sense, but when official government fuel economy numbers are calculated, they factor in only one stop cycle. So at least in this instance, government types can't seem to keep up with one of the newest "green" technologies.
In short, the stop-start benefits don't show up in official fuel economy numbers. And that makes it tough to explain to consumers why they are facing about a $500 charge for stop-start. After all, there is no official benefit, even though common sense says it's obvious.
This is just one of the many research and development challenges facing Mazda. In the big picture, the auto maker needs to catch up with leading green car makers such as Toyota, Ford, Honda, General Motors and others. Mazda will beef up its own technology development, but reports indicate the company is also looking at a potential new tie-up with Toyota - tapping Toyota for its gasoline-electric hybrid expertise.
Yamanouchi had nothing to say about that in Toronto, but he was very clear that, for the next three years Mazda will work hard on meeting its target of improving the fuel consumption of its overall vehicles by 30 per cent on average by 2015.
And that 30 per cent improvement in fleet fuel economy does not include improvements from idle-stop, regenerative braking or hybrid power train development. In other words, more fuel economy gains are out there to be realized.
The new Mazda5 is at the vanguard of this effort. It will most certainly have a more fuel-efficient engine and transmission combination than the current model. Mazda's new range of gasoline engines will first be seen in the 5, but there is more coming - possibly a diesel, hybrids and, of course, idle-stop technology.
Most important of all, a redesign of Mazda's best-selling 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine will come tied to a new six-speed automatic transmission. City fuel economy could jump by as much as 40 per cent with this combination. Yamanouchi says this development matters most because the 2.0-litre four-banger is used in many big-selling Mazda models.
"We want to provide this technology to all owners, not just through a few eco-friendly vehicles," he said.
Unfortunately, added Davis, the product development boss, the new powertrains cannot be retrofitted to an existing product line. That means the current Mazda3 won't get a new four-banger until that car is redesigned in about three years.
Another area of opportunity: next-generation diesel engines. Mazda is looking at bringing them to North America. While diesels are pretty well accepted in Canada, the United States is a problem. In the U.S., Mazda faces huge marketing hurdles with diesels. Americans just won't accept them in big numbers - at least not yet.
After the Mazda5, Mazda can be expected to launch a redesigned MX-5 convertible. And it, too, will benefit from the new four-cylinder engine lineup.
Meanwhile, Mazda is not giving up on rotary engines, either. Davis hints that the next-generation 1.6-litre rotary should have at least a 30 per cent fuel economy bump. Look for it in the next RX-8 - a car that is also expected to lighter and faster than the current model.
What Mazda won't do is chase V-6 engine development. Mazda's V-6 engines come from Ford Motor and, because they represent a small percentage of total Mazda sales volume, the Japanese company will buy the V-6 work from Ford on an engine-by-engine basis.
Truth is, Mazda's relationship with Ford is fascinating. Many of the most senior managers at Ford cut their teeth at Mazda during the period when Ford was in control.
For instance, Ford's current global product development boss, Derrick Kuzak, once headed product development at Mazda, as did Joe Bakaj, who heads up Mazda product development in Europe. Ford's head for both North and South America, Mark Fields, was once CEO of Mazda, and before that he was Mazda's marketing boss. Steve Odell, the head of Volvo, Ford's Swedish subsidiary which is being sold, is a former senior executive at Mazda, as is Ford's chief financial officer, Lewis Booth. There are other examples, too.
Yamanouchi laughed in Toronto when I suggested that without Mazda, Ford would be in a lot of trouble - that Mazda has been the key executive training ground for Ford. And then he pointed out that while Ford no longer controls Mazda, the relationship is critical and ongoing.
"Of course, when we can work with Ford, we will," he said. "We have various study exchanges with Ford. We have a 30-year relationship with Ford, and many of our senior managers are on a friend-to-friend basis. We see value in the two companies continuing to exchange technology and technical information.
"There are many things that we can do on our own and many things that we can do jointly. But the relationship of trust is one thing that won't change."
The depth of that relationship will get a major test this summer when Mazda launches the Mazda2 and Ford introduces the Fiesta. Both cars share the same Mazda-developed platform, but each will come to market with a slightly different mission - even though the cars are the same size and look fairly similar, from a distance.
Mazda Canada doesn't plan to load up its Mazda2 with as many high-end, high-tech features as Ford. Mazda's marketing will push the affordable and sporty nature of the new subcompact. Ford will put its emphasis on the sophistication of its new grocery getter.
The two may be friendly, but more and more each company is going its own way.