Hiroshima’s pride

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

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