“Dull, boring, uninspired” . . . these are words used to describe so many cars today from the everyday family car to the executive saloon. It even extends to what some would call sports cars. By no stretch of the imagination, however, can they be used to describe any Mazda product.
This is not just a question of some ebullient self-promotion, but rather the result of some carefully thought out strategy which has been evolved over the years. While the Japanese motor industry as a whole has garnered a fine reputation for producing marvellous, technically advanced cars, it has been Mazda alone which has run with the ball further than any other manufacturer. One has to look no further than the unique RX-7 to come to this conclusion. Not only is the entire range on a higher plane than its immediate rivals, all the cars have about them an indefinable charisma.
This is not a lucky streak the company has hit upon, but rather the fruits of years of intensive research and development in Hiroshima, Yokohama, Irvine in California and, just latterly, Frankfurt in Germany. These are the names which have become vital for modern day Mazda since they are the locations of its four Technical Research Centres.
John Ebenezer, Mazda UK’s youthful and eloquent Chairman, was keen to explain the role of these important centres. “Few people are aware of Mazda’s total commitment to producing more than just pedestrian cars and the Technical Research Centres are essential weapons in achieving this ambition. What makes them so unique and particularly exciting is that the Japanese have insisted upon a high level of local ideas and input. The result is that while most of the personnel in the Hiroshima and Yokohama centres are obviously Japanese, the Irvine and Frankfurt centres are staffed by more than 80 per cent of Amencans and Europeans respectively. What is particularly pleasing for me as a Briton is the fact that four of the department heads in Frankfurt are British who have all, incidentally, been recruited from Porsche.”
While the Technical Research Centres are obviously the hot bed of new ideas, their role in the corporate scheme of things is far more than just that. As the Mazda UK Chairman explained: “Although part of their brief is to design cars and get the best out of new technology, they are also meant to find out what the people within their sphere actually feel about cars, not just Mazdas but about transport as a whole. The idea behind this is that Mazda feel it is important for its designers, engineers and craftsmen to breathe the same air as the customer and accordingly input that information into their product.
“For example the Miata, as the MX-5 is known in America, is quite different to the car which is now coming into Europe. Both are recognisably MX-5s but both have been adapted by the respective centres to suit local tastes and conditions.”
The importance that Mazda attaches to these Technical Centres does give the lie that the Japanese are only interested in stealing ideas from everywhere and filtering them all back to Japan and thus giving the impression that the whole thrust and dynamism of every Japanese product only comes from that country. “As we have already seen with the MX-5, some dramatic things are coming out of the USA, and this is just the start for everybody.”
While other Japanese manufacturers are going for volume, Mazda has decided to concentrate on producing cars of distinction and flair. This aspect is picked up by John Ebenezer who is quick to confirm this. “There is no doubt about the fact that Mazda is going to be developing distinctive cars with bags of personality over the next few years. Although we believe that we will be doubling the volume of cars sold in Britain over the next few years as the 12 year old Gentleman’s Agreement (between Britain’s SMMT and the Japanese motor industry federation JAMA by which the Japanese manufacturers have voluntary limited their supply of cars to Britain) begins to crumble following the opening up of Europe, Mazda’s long term strategy is less mass market and more selective marketing with cars of individuality. The 323 introduced last year was the first of these cars and the MX-5 the second. There is a whole range of cars coming along in the future which will be just as exciting.”
Mazda’s new models actually stem from a concept that the company has developed over the course of the last few years. In Japanese it is called kansei which has no direct English translation but roughly means ‘total sensitivity’. What this in effect means is that Mazda is trying to create an empathy between driver and machine, a feeling of ‘oneness’, less man and machine, more a spiritual bond if such a thing can exist between a human and an object.
John Ebenezer puts this into context by saying: “The 323 and the MX-5 are the first of the cars which have been developed with this concept in mind. Compared to rival models, our latest cars positively encourage you to treat them almost as if they were an extension of your body. It is not just the look, it concerns the feel, the smell and the whole aura about each individual car. Mazda is not trying to sell worldwide winners in terms of volume, what they are hoping to do is produce cars that are that little bit special, that are different to everyone else’s.”
An interesting aside of the kansei policy is that Mazda is in a better position to exploit niches with a much lower total angle volume than many other manufacturers could contemplate. In the industry generally it is thought that unless 100,000 units of a particular product are produced, it doesn’t make too much sense, but Mazda has got that number down to something in the order of 40,000 units a year for break-even purposes.
Although factors are constantly changing, it was interesting to learn from John Ebenezer just what his thoughts were on the next decade and Mazda’s role in it. “By the year 2000 the Mazda Motor Corporation will be producing cars from a European base as well as from Japan. The present European sales of 270,000 should have more or less doubled and as Europe becomes one large free market, there is every prospect that those countries presently unpenetrable will be opening up. In Britain, in the meantime, we hope to double the volume, increasing the awareness of the marque but never letting the fact that we are selling remarkable and individual vehicles leave our minds so that we and our hard working dealers can always provide that extra-special service.”
The prospects for this new decade are indeed mouthwatering for everyone but especially for Mazda and its lucky customers. William Kimberley