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2014 Mazda6 (Mazda)
2014 Mazda6 (Mazda)

Mazda carving its own niche Add to ...

Hiroshi Kajiyami spoke of it first on this fall day, referring to the BMW-like driving dynamics, the “Zoom-Zoom” driving pleasure.

“The first 100 metres will be enough,” he said. In a blink, anyone driving the completely reinvented 2014 Mazda6 mid-size sedan will recognize the “synchronization” between car and driver. When you get your chance to pilot the next Mazda6 early in the new year, your “ordinary life will turn extraordinary,” he argued.

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I’ll praise his passion and accept Kajiyami’s bias. He is, after all, the program manager in charge of developing and bringing to market the “flagship” model of the Mazda brand. Personally, I think the MX-5 Miata roadster is the best rolling metaphor for what Mazda types see in their company and its products. But no.

“The 6,” noted Mazda Canada president Shusuke “Kory” Koreeda, “will speak to what the Mazda brand stands for.”

Really? Koreeda, a 32-year veteran of Mazda, is as well positioned to know as anyone in the company. He’s served in a wide swath of executive positions at Mazda, both in Japan and North America. A soft-spoken veteran of Mazda’s marketing department, few are better placed to speak to what Mazda is and what Mazda stands for and what models best reflect what Mazda is all about. Who am I to argue?

So I instead listen. Here in a conference room at the Château de Méry, once a castle, then a private business retreat owned by Vivendi and now an elegant conference centre with hundreds of years of history behind it, we’re learning all about the reinvention of Mazda four years into the company’s post-Ford journey of discovery. Mazda has a plan and it’s not to become the biggest car company in the world. Mazda will leave that to Toyota.

Mazda’s idea is to carve out a tidy niche aimed at people who value their time behind the wheel, who love to drive, rather than see wheel time as a necessary evil. As with any car company, the products define the brand and, if the recently launched CX-5 crossover and this forthcoming Mazda6 are any indication, Mazda sees itself as something of a downmarket Japanese BMW.

“We’re recognized as a Japanese brand that’s different than other Japanese brands,” says Koreeda, noting that Toyota, Honda and Nissan compete for customers across the board – many of whom want nothing more than a transportation appliance, a commuting machine that is means to go from A to B. Mazda wants buyers who bring some enthusiasm, even passion to their time behind the wheel. The long-term goal is to move Mazda slightly upmarket, but not as far into premium territory as BMW. At least not yet. That would be zooming away from the company’s base.

The essence of it all is the kind of “precise, responsive driving” described by chassis engineer Yoshitada Toyoshima as he digs deeply into his goals for the new 6. Through a translator, he talks about engineering to create “one-ness with the vehicle, unity.”

The tight steering, he says, reflects sophisticated suspension tuning. A highly rigid body structure and effective brakes that don’t ever seem to get hot and fade are all essential, too. Again, it’s all about the drive, he says, echoing all the other Mazda people in the room.

Shin Okamoto, the powertrain engineer sings from the same songbook, also. Of course, the engines and transmissions must be responsive, but they must also have a certain “feel and sound” when you bury the “organ-style” accelerator pedal, which itself must feel just so – harmonious in everyday mode, and dynamic when you push hard, when you want to really go, and go fast.

The point is, Mazda is taking the better part of a morning here to trot out a parade of what you might call witnesses to the cause. Engineers, product planners and managers, marketers – one after another, they are here to testify to Mazda’s authenticity. Mazda’s SkyActiv powertrain technology is in full bloom here, as is the “Kodo” design language in the Mazda6’s new sheet-metal.

First came the CX-5 last year, which Koreeda points out is flying off dealer lots. Next up is the 6, which will add a brake energy regeneration system Mazda calls “i ELOOP.” It improves fuel economy by storing energy in a capacitor, then using it as needed. The idea is not to waste the kinetic energy of braking, but rather to capture and later use it.

As for power, we’ll get two engines for certain: a 2.0-litre gasoline engine with direct fuel injection, one teamed with a six-speed automatic transmission (148 horsepower/155 lb-ft of torque); and a larger 2.5-litre four rated at about 189 hp and 189 lb-ft of torque. Combined fuel economy for the former should come in below 6.0 litres/100 km, while the latter – the bigger engine – is aiming for 6.3 or 6.4 litres/100 km combined.

Mazda will also launch the 6 in some markets with a spanking new SkyActiv diesel, though Koreeda will not yet confirm this engine for Canada.

Mazda will most certainly launch a diesel-powered vehicle in Canada for 2014, however. That is confirmed. It could be the 6, though it would probably make more sense to put a gutsy and fuel-efficient diesel into the CX-5 crossover. That would let Mazda beat the Germans at their own diesel game. You see, none of the German premium brands has put a diesel into a compact crossover or SUV, although Mercedes-Benz Canada will do so next year with the GLK. A diesel CX-5 seems so obvious.

Less clear is Mazda’s future as a completely independent car company. Let’s be honest here. Mazda is a small company – selling about 1.2 million units, or just a bit smaller than BMW’s BMW brand, sans Mini and so on. Mazda, based in the south of Japan, in Hiroshima, sells all over the world. It has a big global footprint and that’s costly. Mazda also builds most of its vehicles in Hiroshima and 80 per cent of them are shipped overseas (versus 50 per cent for Toyota and 33 per cent for Honda). With the yen so high, this is costly for Mazda, though a $500-million (U.S.) plant is being built in Mexico to assemble Mazda2s and 3s.

Another problem: Mazda used to be controlled by Ford and that partnership gave Mazda some economies of scale. But Ford sold out to concentrate on its own restructuring, leaving Mazda without a big, global partner. To carry on with a bolstered balance sheet, Mazda has gone to the equity markets twice in the past two years.

All this boils down to a simple truth: the Mazda6, which by the way is a delicious car to look at and to drive, cannot underperform when it arrives early next year to go head-to-head against the likes of the Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, Toyota Camry, Chevrolet Malibu, Nissan Altima and others. Mazda has no margin for error, none at all. The biggest challenge will be to clear away all the clutter created by the competition, to somehow break through the noise generated by rivals with deeper pockets, and get potential customers to taste the new 6.

If they do, they’ll know within 100 metres what Mazda is all about.

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy

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