With Ford's reduced stake in Mazda, the signs are ominous and it goes beyond Ford's reduced management footprint on the Japanese company's Board. It continues to badge engineer 'K' cars for the Japan Domestic Market and improves the Wankel engine but it no longer produce commercial vehicles and luxury limousines. After decades of sharing parts modules and platform engineering used for various volume and niche models of both Ford and Volvo, Mazda will now be making things happen for itself. Though successful partnerships like the Mazda2-Fiesta, Mazda6-Fusion-Lincoln and BT-50-Ranger production in Auto Alliance will continue to thrive, Mazda is now more vocal about its own identity.
Zoom zoom is identity
Recession's culling of several revered auto makers has matured Mazda, and all the global makes that survived. Now the focus is on how to grow as the recent economic upheavals have shown that being a medium sized car maker and being independent may not be a sure formula for survival. Mazda has to grow and to grow it has to outdo the competition. To do this, it has to design for the future. The 'Zoom zoom' identity says it all: standing still is not an option. Zoom zoom is no longer the 1997 North American advertising tag line it began. It is now Mazda's brand identity.
At the 2010 Mazda Brand Forum that started in Hiroshima and ended with the launch of Skyactiv in Tokyo, the motoring press were briefed by able marketing men and creative design geniuses. The importance of the two simple onomatopoetic words - zoom zoom - is now the cornerstone of a philosophy blending motion and emotion, active lifestyle, excitement and fun. This soul of motion has to translate into tactile surfaces and fun in motion. Even as it launches its 2nd generation of Zoom zoom models, Mazda is now moving on with 'Nagare' evolving into the next spiritual stage of 'Kodo'.
First unveiled was a clay model of the new Mazda BT-50 pick up, the new Hi-Lux-Navara-D-MAX-Strada sized platform cousin of the new Ford Ranger. Unlike Ford's tough truck image, Mazda wanted theirs to be an active lifestyle pick-up. The curves and the edges of the BT-50, along with the horizontal orientation of the rear tail light stack emphasis this preference. Mazda accepts that heavy loads and off roading, functions the BT-50 is well capable of, is not the priority. Cozying up to the CX-9 like interior confirms this emphasis.
Then after the BT-50, Mr. Ikuo Maeda, Mazda's design chief, stepped up to present the Mazda of the near future: Shinaro. This is a low slung four door coupe looks like a smaller Aston Martin Rapide or Maserati Quattroporte. It abounds in many novel features like a unique hand grip toggle for the shift lever and shift manual override. Hidden exterior door pulls. A unique floating video console. 3-D look instrumentation and illumination.
High tech plant
After spending time at the theatrical Design Center, we took a bus through the Sanyo Expressway to the giant Hofu factory complex. Hofu is like a big man made island surrounded by rice paddies and mountains. Next to it are Mazda employee suburbanite housing, hundreds of factories for Mazda suppliers, a power plant and a huge car docking facility for car carriers. Hofu has been known to produce cars to Mazda's previous credo of making things simple. During the 80's, Hofu built the famous Mazda 323/Ford Laser, the first car to ever unseat the absolute total sales of the indefatigable Toyota Corolla. The 323 also returned compact cars to its lightweight fun to drive roots as Mazda rationalized parts to make cars faster to produce. It returned car making to the virgin days of the post Beetle Volkswagens and the early Alfasud where lightness was synonymous with agility and ergo, fun to drive. The Hofu plant was also the first to introduce different models in random assembly line order. Hofu was one of the first plants in the world to use the cathodic dip primer process.
Robotic Assembly line
Today Hofu plant is one of the most highly robotized car plants in the world. All back breaking jobs were eliminated and taken over by robots. Ditto for all those jobs that involve dangerous lifting of heavy parts. Along the assembly line there are no parts racks where an assembly line worker will ever have to turn his back to get parts from a bin. In fact, the only humans you will see on Hofu's assembly lines are those in detail trim installation and quality control at the end of the production line. Instead of delivering myriads of parts onto the assembly line, Mazda do pre-assembled sub assemblies or modules outside of the assembly line. These modules are then delivered to the live assembly line and installed by robots.
Cleanliness means less maintenance
Unlike the robot welders of the respected German brands, Hofu's Robot welders do not produce any spark. By preventing sparks, the factory remains dust free, which reduces clean up frequency. Painting in Hofu does not even use an oven as it saves on solvents, power and carbon footprint. Ideas from the shop floor like magnetized pick up of clusters of bolts and nuts and a simple 'pin ball' kind of gravity driven device to sort up to 4 different kinds of plastic fasteners are put to practice. Only 15% of Hofu's output of the latest Mazda3 and Mazda6 are destined for the Japanese market as all the rest are loaded to car carriers for export overseas.
Skyactiv and Zoom zoom
After showing us that smart production methods and futuristic design contribute to realizing the image of both fun to drive and planet saving, Mazda introduced Skyactiv, the nuts and bolts of Zoom zoom. With Skyactiv, Mazda is announcing to the world its commitment to the internal combustion engine as improvement in battery range, charging station density and take up of electric cars will with take a long time for infrastructure to catch up with the network of gasoline filling stations. Even if it is in partnership with Toyota to develop hybrid drives, Mazda believes that saving the planet is achieved quicker by reinventing the gasoline engine, the diesel engine, manual and automatic transmissions and making the body structure lighter, stiffer and safer. With this mission vision, Mazda's engineers were told that the Sky was the only limit.
Fun to drive is paramount
In the search for the fun of driving, Mazda will exploit every ecological and high performance efficiency, creating new methods and process or reinventing the old in the search for lightness and efficiency. Skyactiv goes beyond the mere i-stop idling shut down and automatic start at red traffic lights. Skyactiv-G is Mazda's own gasoline direct injection engines, which out perform comparable European engines without the need for a supercharger or turbo. Mazda's Skyactiv G engines have lighter parts with a specially designed cavity piston that stratifies the fuel charge around the spark plug thus allowing extra high compression ratios of 14:1 without fuel knocking. Skyactiv G uses a long exhaust path via a 4-2-1 manifold linked to a distant catalytic converter. Mazda emphasizes that with higher compression ratios and a cooler exhaust path to a catalytic converter farther down the exhaust stream, pre-ignition caused by hot exhaust blow back is reduced. Skyactiv G achieves this through the stratification of the fuel-mixture charge into the special cavity of the pistons. With this, all the engine parts were also optimized to be lighter and smaller. Skyactiv G uses an under square long stroke under square design to maximize the time the fuel charge is stratified.
Diesel goes low compression
Skyactiv-D is Mazda's diesel that uses an unprecedented low compression ratio of 14:1 which is lower than the 18:1 to 22:1 used by many diesel engines today. To reduce soot and NOx, Mazda introduces variable valve lift exhaust which allows some hot exhaust gas to raise the temperature of the incoming diesel atomized by piezo ignition injectors. A two stage turbocharger rather than a variable scroll turbo not only helps timing of the homogeneous ignition of the fuel, but also keeps up with the high performance Euro-brand turbo diesels. With this, incomplete combustion caused by the surge of cold fuel is eliminated. Mazda won't even need any post combustion urea injection to the 2-way catalytic converter to cleanse its exhaust of soot. With reduced compression ratios, Skyactiv D eliminates the hot spots and uneven diesel combustion in the compression stage. It also reduces the need to use highly stressed heavy duty parts for the engine.
The Skyactiv concept also embraces transmissions. Mazda redefined the automatic torque converter to slip only on take off and shifting. Thus 82% of the time the automatic is in drive, it is in full lock-up converter mode unlike 49% that the best of today's lock up converters. The converter itself can now be made lighter, leading to better shift response. Its designed to beat even dual clutch automatics and CVTs at shifting and smooth ratio downshifts. Skyactiv did not leave manual transmissions alone. Aiming for the short throw but light shifting qualities of an MX-5 sports car, Skyactiv manual transmissions do away with the idler gear used for reverse. Closer tolerances and improved leverage of in the use of lighter and smaller parts improve efficiency. In both cases, the Skyactiv manual and automatics contribute to the fun to drive aspect of Zoom Zoom.
Lighter but safer structures
Skyactiv embraces lighter but stiffer and also crash-safer body structures that use continuous framework loops and belts. The Skyactiv body platform is lighter through the use high strength steels which jump from an average 49% to 70% per body structure. With the Skyactiv platform, the fully independent suspension gets the Skyactiv treatment, i.e., lighter, compact and more responsive for a better ride and less NVH. This may look relatively simple but the linking of most of the major cross braces and belts that loop longitudinally and laterally across the body shell has made it not only stiffer, but lighter too.
Ecology and fun do mix
Born in Hiroshima, Mazda is the pride and joy of the City. Mazda's Zoom zoom and Skyactiv may not seem like esoteric headline grabbing technology, but it forces a major rethink of the much maligned internal combustion engine. By creating an entire package aimed at delivering fun to drive zoom zoom, Mazda dared to reinvent and upend commonly held beliefs that hold charging cords and battery packs as the Holy Grail to ecological survival. Considering how quickly Zoom zoom and Skyactiv can make it to production - JDM Mazda2's already have Skyactiv i-stop - Mazda may be right in achieving reduced pollution sooner rather than later in an electrically driven future, without the need to sacrifice the fun of driving.