Every time we have had the opportunity to sit behind the wheel of any of Mazda's new generation models, we couldn't help but be impressed again and again.
For nearly four years now, the Hiroshima-based automaker has been showing the automotive world how cars and crossovers are done, and the industry have taken notice. Awards for design, efficiency, dynamic performance and even Car Of The Year titles have become habitual for them, a huge feat considering that they are one of the smaller of the volume Japanese automakers.
But what makes Mazda's cars such achievers?
To answer that question, we headed on over to Mazda's headquarters in Hiroshima for the Mazda ASEAN Media Forum to get a look at what makes Mazda truly special. Surprisingly, it goes far deeper than just the final product.
And it all starts with design.
A day with Kodo
The first day of the Mazda ASEAN Media Forum was dedicated to design, particularly Mazda's Kodo design.
To westerners Kodo may sound like some new, unheard of martial art. Unusually enough, it could be, if interpreted a certain way.
Martial arts are, by definition, different combat fighting forms. Practitioners spend years, decades, or even their entire lives on perfecting their fitness and motions to achieve devastating effects on opponents
Mazda sought to do something similar with their design, and they labored to capture motion, particularly the predatory fighting motion from animals (specifically the cheetah). They then applied those forms to achieve automotive art that looks like its fit, moving, or poised to move, even when parked.
The first result of the Kodo: Soul Of Motion (to use the correct full name) project was initially revealed with the Mazda Shinari concept back in 2010. That concept showcased the new direction of Mazda, and has paved the way for subsequent concept cars such as the Minagi, Takeri and Hazumi. These three concepts were then developed to form Mazda's current line-up with the CX-5 (Minagi-based), the Mazda 6/Atenza (Takeri-based), the Mazda 3/Axela (Takeri-based), and the Mazda 2/Demio (Hazumi-based).
Understanding Kodo and seeing how they drew the concept cars are great, but it was better when Mazda's designers showed us how they took what was on paper and computer screens, each of whom have the title of Takumi, or artisan.
Their artisans then proceeded to reveal several of their work such as the sculptures that inspired their designs and even a full-scale clay representation of the MX-5 roadster, a car that's now in production and ready to be enjoyed on the street... or circuit.
The SkyActiv Edge
The next day, we made our way back to Mazda's HQ for another series of briefings. This time it was all about how new generation Mazda's aren't all about show, but thanks to SkyActiv, their cars have just as much exhilarating go as much as they have efficient go.
Mazda may be known for “zoom-zoom”, but given that fuel economy is now the second most important factor when considering a new car purchase, they couldn't depend solely on being exciting. Normally when the public think of fuel efficiency, the focus is generally on what's under the hood with particular emphasis on displacement. Mazda's R&D, however, took a much more comprehensive view.
Instead of just working on a way to make their existing engines more efficient, they looked at making the whole car more efficient. For that, they went back to the drawing board and the worked on the fundamentals of efficient performance: reduce weight, optimize drivetrain, and improve combustion.
Mazda reduced the overall weight of their vehicles by using much stronger steel to generate the same (if not better) strength while using less metal on the monocoque; less weight equals better fuel economy and a livelier drive.
Their new engines make use of direct injection, conform to Euro-4 emissions standards, and have extremely high compression ratios (a gasoline engine that's 14 to 1, anyone?) for even better efficiency.
Mazda didn't opt for a CVT or a dual clutch gearbox, instead they improved on the conventional torque converter automatic transmission, making it shift better, more intuitively and more efficiently than before. Of course, being a Japanese manufacturer, they also used some tech to get even more mileage like automatic idle-stop and a kinetic energy capture system similar to hybrids.
All of these improvements are designed to make little gains individually, but together, they comprise SkyActiv. And yes it really works, and we'll put it to the test later on.
The Challenger Spirit
From the get-go it's easy to see that Mazda as a company is very different from other Japanese automakers, and it's because of a simple sign of the Mazda Way.
Each and every company's corporate vision may seem unique when read on their own, but generally they revolve around being customer oriented, doing things properly, being team players, continuous improvement, being respectful, proper, honest, and many of the other catchwords and catchphrases that the board of directors have an ear for.
One way or another Mazda's vision includes all those things, but with one major addition: The Challenger Spirit.
It is this mindset to disturb the status quo, innovate and set very high goals and keep challenging to achieve them that will be the key for Mazda... something that became apparent when they took us on a tour of their Hiroshima plant.
In our line of work, seeing cars built is a normal part of the job but Mazda's plant at Hiroshima is different. Normal industry practice for volume manufacturers is to have one assembly line per car model, but Mazda doesn't play by that book because on one line they assemble the CX-5, the new CX-3 and even the Mazda5 MPV. On another line, they assemble a variety of their new SkyActiv engines, including the 3.7L V6 motor from their Ford Motor Company days. It seems simple in theory but doing multiple cars and multiple engines on one line difficult and confusing in practice, especially since the whole thing always moves ever so slowly.
What Mazda really wanted to highlight were the little things they did to make their production more economical and more efficient. For instance, their stamping process was designed specifically to reduce the excesses to a bare minimum when each steel panel is pressed and cut.
Beyond that, Mazda plant employees are encouraged to come up with their own innovative solutions to make their work efficient and easier. An example would be right there on the line, as the workers built a mechanism wherein the car body actually drags along its own parts tray on a roller rig alongside the car as it is being assembled, meaning all the bolts, screws and nuts are always right there when needed. These clever solutions weren't thought of by another corporation and sold to Mazda; no, the workers on the line thought it up themselves. Simple, ingenious, and improves productivity.
The really neat thing about how their plant runs is the sheer focus of the men and women on the line. Even with a bunch of ASEAN automotive journalists taking photos, none of them broke into a pose or a smile. None of them even took their eyes away from what they were doing. Such was the measure of their focus; these guys could give Queen Elizabeth's Guards a run for their money.
Once all the presentations, demonstrations and tours were done, it was time to finally drive.
A Date with the Roadster
The next morning, we headed on over to the Mine Circuit, or what was formerly known as the Mine Circuit. The site itself was a venue for the All Japan Grand Touring Car Championship (JGTC) and its successor, the Super GT. The circuit
Circuit racing at Mine is already relegated to the history books, as it is now owned and used by Mazda Motor Corporation as their proving ground for testing and benchmarking. And so, at the paddock, Mazda had arranged for a few laps aboard the new MX-5 on their proving ground.
The new Mazda MX-5 (or Roadster, in Japan) is already the fourth generation of the nameplate, tracing its lineage back to 1989 when it was revealed at the Chicago Auto Show. The lightweight and fun front-engine rear-wheel drive MX-5 made waves in the market, convincing many to get into open-top driving.
Now the reason behind the drive was a demonstration of another key Mazda train, something they call Jinba-Ittai. Loosely translated it means horse and rider as one, representing the synergy between the car and the driver. Mazda achieves this by optimizing the vehicle's controls to seamlessly integrate with whoever is behind the wheel through ergonomics. Settling into the car makes it apparent that Mazda's engineers did make the driving position much better and more natural than it's predecessor, and so finding a comfortable position for spirited driving was very easy.
These MX-5's area actually not the same ones that we get in the Philippine market; these are 1.5L SkyActiv models versus the more powerful 2.0L variants that we get. Nevertheless, it'll be interesting to see how the smaller powerplant can handle the same body, especially since the original MX-5 had a larger 1.6L under the hood.
Off the line it's surprisingly quick, even with the top down. Thanks to their engine technology, this small 1.5L motor makes 131 PS and 150 Nm of torque, making it one of the most powerful production naturally aspirated 1500cc piston engines around. The exhaust note is a nice touch and the short-throw 6-speed manual gearbox adds to the overall exhilaration with this car.
Brake, blip, and kick down a gear or two for a corner and the MX-5 will not disappoint, scrubbing speed with ease. Cornering stability is excellent, and that nose simply points towards the apex if you got it right. Once you hit the clipping point, you just feed in the throttle and do it all over again for the next one. For late-brakers, corner-carvers and late apex-kissers, this sub 1-tonne car is a rewarding dream to drive.
Mazdas have always been known for fun cars, that's a given. In the last few years this outfit deeply rooted in Hiroshima's history has really elevated the game that they play, and thus zoom-zoom became just one of many great facets to their cars. Maybe this overachieving nature of Mazda could be a two-edged sword, considering how they have raised expectations so much that it's only natural to expect more.
If there's one thing we're sure of, however, this outfit will keep on innovating, and those behind the wheel will keep on enjoying the fruits of that challenger spirit.