Through the window
Dawn's early light, has us up as the headlights of the cars of suburbanite Japanese were slowly trickling in from the many bridges that span the river across 22nd floor of the Rihga Royal Hotel, Hiroshima. And there it was on the top mid corner of my view, the solemn remains of the A-bomb dome, right next to the Mazda Baseball stadium. Hiroshima is a Mazda company town and most of the major structures like stadiums here are donations by the local car company/hero.
After piling into buses, we headed for the Mazda Design Center near the river. Hiroshima has working streetcars and it was quaint to see old rehabilitated pre-war tram cars queuing up with their flush-glazed modern cousins. All them streetcars are computer coordinated but still retain the tram driver as a safety officer. We approach the Mazda factory by crossing the river several times to access bankside streets that would fit our buses. As we enter the factory premises, we were relieved of our phones and herded, country by country, by smiling office girls and suited sararimen. We were showed secret design models of the future as inconsequential "toys". Usual snacks and coffee/tea were prepared. Welcome to the "2010 Mazda Brand Forum".
Zoom to survive
Allied with the maturation of the Japanese automobile Industry and Recession's culling of several revered auto makers, Mazda, Hiroshima's home grown car maker, has been staging a rolling reveal, a coming out party if you will. It has no choice. Having survived the recent upheavals, Mazda has to grow and to grow it has to outdo the competition. To do this, it has to design for the future. It cannot stand still. After all, with its "Zoom zoom" identity, standing still is not an option. What began as a North American advertising tag line evolved into the brand credo of Mazda.
By the time the Asia-Pacific, Middle East, Latin America and South African motoring press started piling into the presentation hall, the mood was more "hush hush". As we were briefed by able marketing men and creative design geniuses, it dawned on all that two simple onomatopoetic words - zoom zoom - has morphed into the cornerstone of a philosophy blending motion and emotion, active lifestyle, excitement and fun. Translating the soul of motion into tactile surfaces is a tall order for design and a taller one for marketing. As the 2nd generation of zoom zoom design models come to market, Mazda is now moving on with "Nagare" evolving into "Kodo". Japanese spiritual terms that can be touched and more importantly, impart fun when it moves.
Within an hour to lunch time, the gathered unveiled a clay model of the new Mazda BT-50 pick up. This is the new Hi-Lux-Navara-D-MAX-Strada sized platform cousin of the new Ford Ranger. While the Ford screams tough truck, the BT-50 whispers lifestyle, active sport utility lifestyle. Naturally, Mazda does not have a truck image to project so their BT-50 was to be a lifestyle pick-up and there was no rush to begin selling the BT-50. The curves and the edges of the BT-50, along with the horizontal orientation of the rear tail light stack are undoubtably life style. Meaning occasional heavy loads and rarely for off roading, even if it can do so as easily as its chassis mate, the Ford Ranger. If there are any doubts as to its role, the CX-9 interior confirms its lifestyle emphasis.
That was not all. Mr. Ikuo Maeda, Mazda's chief of design, came out to present to us his masterpiece: the Shinari. This is a low slung four door coupe in the mold of the Aston Martin Rapide and Maserati Quattroporte. Fresh from its recent outing with the European and North American press, we had an opportunity to touch its many novel features like a unique hand grip toggle for the shift lever and shift manual override. Hidden exterior door pulls. A unique and genuinely floating video console. 3-D look instrumentation and illumination.
After the museum like air at the design center, we were then bused for 2 hours over the Sanyo Expressway into the giant Hofu factory complex. Tunnel after tunnel, viaduct after viaduct, we passed through young green forests, still waiting to change into autumn colors. 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.
Assembly line without assemblers?
The Hofu plant is one of the most highly robotized car plants in the world. For instance there is no job that can be literally back breaking - all those dangerous and heavy jobs are done by robots. No assembly line worker will ever have to turn his back to get parts from a bin. In fact, Hofu's assembly lines are unique in that there are hardly any assembly line workers except in detail trim installation and quality control at the end of the production line. Mazda does not assemble cars on the assembly line part by part. They do pre-assembled sub assemblies or modules outside of the assembly line. These modules are then delivered to the live assembly line and are subsequently installed by robots.
Where are the sparks?
Unlike the robot welders of some of even the most vaunted German brands, Hofu's Robot welders do not produce any spark. Mazda say that, by preventing sparks, the factory remains dust free, which reduces maintenance downtime. Painting in Hofu does not even use an oven as it saves on solvents, power and carbon footprint. Ideas from the shop floor come to reality like magnetized pick up of clusters of bolts and nuts. Or using a simple "pin ball" kind of gravity driven device to sort up to 4 different kinds of plastic fasteners. 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.
Hiroshima at rush hour
Back to the bus for another 2-hour trip to Hiroshima via the Sanyo expressway. Our way back into the city was through the Route 4 expressway which starts up in the mountains as a tunnel and ends as you emerge right beside the river in Hiroshima City itself. Our banquet at the Royal ballroom was another one of those unassuming Rihga buffets where the food looked ordinary but was excellent in the tasting. Imagine such ordinary looking stuff like chow mein noodles, cream of sweet corn, chili prawns, pork stroganoff, beef stew in mashed potato, grilled salmon, crème caramel, etc. but each and every dish was delicious! The recipes may well be royal favorites. Not a single tourist sushi, sashimi or tempura was in sight. Nikka whisky on the rocks tastes better than Johnnie Walker Red anytime.
Nodding off in a train/bus/plane has become a way of life when you barely have 5 hours continuos sleep. We left for Hiroshima airport early in the morning. Instead of heading for the seaside Hiroshima-Nishi airport - which I could see from my window - we headed back up the mountains for an hour to go to the proper Hiroshima airport. Which is on top of the mountain. Its brand spanking new and the grounds look like a manicured Golf Club, which is part of the complex. It has a JAL section and an ANA section. If you recall, JAL has been financially rescued by government money from time to time, while ANA is completely private.
JAL vs. ANA
If one is impressed with the superb Zen service on JAL, ANA is even better. Like JAL, ANA likes its young FA [flight attendants] young looking, smiling but extremely Japanese demur. Skirt lengths are below the knee and not bum fitting tight. Hair is either short or pull tied into a tight bun. They were vests and very pale make-up. No FA fantasies for the fetish here. Check in service was ultra quick and we breezed through security. Fans of ANA - Monocle magazine editor Tyler Brule for instance - always taunt ANA to take over JAL whenever it teeters into insolvency. Our flight was a commuter flight full of suited sararimen sipping complimentary tea in the rather packed 3x4x3 seating of the Boeing 777-300. ANA also does the Emirates, Gulf Air and Etihad gimmick of showing on screen live camera footage of take off and landing.
For all intents and purposes, Haneda or Tokyo International Airport [as opposed to faraway Narita International airport] is a completely new one consisting 2 Terminals on a man made island that is an expansion of the old Haneda. ANA baggage handling was again very thorough and the ground staff - all female- that no old half blind Japanese lady tourists would mistake taking away your bag from the carousel. Driving through Tokyo from Haneda traces Tokyo's first elevated expressway No. 1, built for the 1966 Olympics. This expressway has been retrofitted to the latest Japanese earthquake damage mitigation laws. - concrete pillars and parapets are sheathed with steel plate or sheet which is bolted on. If I am not mistaken, the plate or sheet, prevents the concrete from pulverizing and splitting open the way the concrete elevated expressways of Kobe "burst" during the earthquake. Like in 1967 and my later years as a motoring journalist, we were indeed back in the old New Otani hotel, where thankfully, the old rooms had a bit of sprucing up.
Tokyo Dome Hotel
At the top of the 40th floor of the Otani tower, rainy Tokyo sprawled beneath our feet. Our late big buffet lunch of seafood curry, roast beef, gelato and consomme soup, was consumed with heavy silverware that old hotels in Japan never dispense with. On to the conference at the Tokyo Dome Hotel next to a big amusement park. Here, Mazda announced 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. 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. Skyactiv was born and immediately became an integral part of "zoom zoom".
Sky's the limit
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.
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 the incoming diesel atomized by piezo ignition injectors. A two stage turbocharger rather than a variable scroll turbo not only helps time 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.
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 can. 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.
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%. With the Skyactiv platform, the suspension, fully independent gets the Skyactiv treatment, i.e., lighter, compact and more responsive for a better ride and less NVH. Absolute and total Zoom zoom.
Ground Zero. 1945. To non-Japanese, that is the first ground breaking thing that comes to mind about Hiroshima. Besides being a quiet but powerfully reverential memorial, Hiroshima is your typical Japanese million population port city, where engineering and industry, the powerhouses of the Japanese economy's imperial reach, is in your face. Sixty five years later, Mazda hopes that with Skyactiv, it too can make ground breaking history. By showing the world that zoom zoom and Skyactiv, can make for a fun motoring world, saving the planet without charging cords and battery packs.