We take a trip to the home of Japan’s smallest giant
TG’s back in beautiful Japan not just to sample more sushi, but to soak up the Mazda culture.
There are experiences that inspire a reverential silence. Such as the first time you lay eyes on Michelangelo’s Pietà, hear the roar of Niagara Falls, or savor the sweet taste of prime wagyu steak (bloody rare, please) upon your tongue. Moments that leave you breathless in wonder at whatever human ingenuity or natural processes birthed them.
One such experience sits before me now: the 1968 Cosmo Sport, a handcrafted masterpiece of science, art, and the human spirit that leaves this motor-mouthed writer entirely speechless. Something that would occur again at the Hiroshima Peace Museum. And a third time at the Miyajima Temple, at the Island of the Gods.
We’re here in Hiroshima, exploring Mazda Motor Corporation’s values by immersing ourselves deep in its cultural and historical roots. Which is why we eventually find ourselves at a traditional Japanese ryokan in Iwakuni, sharing a beer with Mazda Philippines head Steven Tan. A rare treat for foreigners, because you can’t book a room online.
This focus on the human touch has been with Mazda from the start. In the years after the war, founder Jujiro Matsuda sought to lift his hometown from the ashes of the fateful August 1945 atomic bombing. From auto-rickshaws to the odd and oddly successful T2000 threewheel truck, the Toyo Kogyo company and its Mazda-branded products provided muchneeded basic transport. But in order to maintain financial independence and stay rooted in Hiroshima, Mazda needed something to convince investors to support the brand.
This came in the form of the Cosmo Sport and its newfangled ‘Wankel’ rotary engine, licensed from German corporation NSU. Matsuda’s small but dedicated engineering team perfected the infamously temperamental engine where all others had failed. The Cosmo was pivotal to Mazda’s continued existence. Just as important, however, were humble cars like the 1980 Familia, displayed proudly at the entrance of the Mazda Museum. Sold in the Philippines as the Ford Laser, this was the first ever Japanese Car of the Year, way back in 1981.
Despite such flashes of brilliance, Mazda’s small size had it bouncing from highs to lows and back through the following decades. As corporate communications head Hidetoshi Kudo relates, many employees left due to the company’s difficulties under Ford. But he and many others chose to stay, despite the uncertainty. The rest, as they say, is history. Today’s leaner, greener, independent Mazda is a force to be reckoned with, a technological powerhouse with huge innovations.
At the factory, we get glimpses of Mazda’s innovative Monotsukuri (manufacturing) and Kaizen (continuous improvement) thrusts. By integrating design, manufacturing and logistics, the company has managed to remain competitive with bigger manufacturers. Mazda’s pared-down stamping and awardwinning painting processes deliver shorter turnaround and less wastage. Its flexible assembly line, tooled up in conjunction with the new Skyactiv platforms, allows for different models on the same production line with quick and simple adjustments of assembly jigs.
Mazda’s tightly integrated systems ensure on-time delivery instead of relying on volume purchases of parts and ‘channel stuffing’ to keep the wheels turning. As Steven notes: Mazda is less vulnerable to market shocks like excise-tax swings or the current OR/CR woes at the LTO. Not immune, no, but not crushed underneath boatloads of unsold cars every time
demand drops. This ensures less downtime for valued employees.
A particularly touching sight at the plant is a photo-mosaic of the new CX-5, made up of pictures of the men and women who have helped create and build it. It’s a reminder that a company is composed of people, not just money and machines.
It’s something I ponder the next morning, standing on Kintai Bridge in the crisp morning air. The human experience, central to many of our talks, comes to the fore at the Mine Racing Circuit later in the day. Here, we explore Mazda’s ‘Driving Matters’ philosophy. It’s a riff on the old Jinba Ittai (horse and rider as one) ethos, encompassing driver involvement, comfort and security, using technology to bring driver and car closer, rather than to eliminate the essential human element.
For example, optimized ergonomics, which dictates a common seat and control layout for all Mazda vehicles, and a focus on driver interaction over outright performance, mean that the CX-5 is nearly as fun to drive on the racetrack as the Mazda 3 or even the new MX-5 RF. All this while maintaining perfect long-distance comfort, thanks to a revised suspension, a much longer wheelbase, and a much wider and longer cabin.
Yes, Mazda moves ever forward. It would have been easy to simply slap a motorized roof on the new MX-5 RF and call it a day. Instead, it also sports recalibrated dampers and steering to make it firmer, sharper, and more involving. It’s a fantastic car.
The next day, we return to Hiroshima for a chance to pick the brains of Hiroshi Inoue, current head of the new emerging market operation, and former nuclear physicist and engineer for the rotary-powered, Le Manswinning 787B. He reveals that Mazda’s focus is not on entry-level motoring, like the Mirage-Wigo-Celerio crowd, but on ‘aspirational’ owners who are finally ready to move up to a better car.
Foregoing bargain-bin strategies allows the company to retain its premium image and its customers. This is the philosophy behind Yojin3. Instead of selling at a deep discount, Mazda offers a three-year free-service guarantee that yields similar financial incentives, preserves resale value, and increases owner satisfaction.
Mazda aims to hit 200,000 unit sales in the ASEAN by 2020, while simultaneously rolling out new technologies, such as compressionignition gasoline engines with an incredible 18:1 compression ratio. Inoue hints that while they will still use spark plugs, these are only for cold starts, much like with diesels and glow-plugs. This technology has the potential for diesel-like economy without the high cost of maintenance or production.
Over dinner, we pry Inoue for details of other upcoming projects. A new rotary? Hybrid? Flux capacitor? He simply chuckles and says: “Wait for the Tokyo Motor Show.” One thing is for sure: In a world where technology increasingly sidelines people, we can count on Mazda to focus on the human experience. While complete automotive automation seems inevitable, it’s a fair bet that, in the not-so-distant future, enthusiasts will still find joy behind the wheels of a Mazda, whatever its motivation.
Jinba Ittai, indeed.
‘Mazda’s focus is aspirational owners who want to drive a better car’
We have a thing for secret test tracks. It’s a Top Gear staple Why do we have a feeling that this baby is coming soon?
Within this hallowed design studio, car-guy dreams come true