Mazda join the European hatchback war

The Assistant Editor reports from Japan on the first Japanese car designed specifically for the European Market

The four main islands of Japan contain 110,000,000 people crammed into an area of 146,000 square miles of which 80% is mountains. Mixed into the dense population areas which consequently ensue on the plains, basins, tableland and coastline are 30,000,000 vehicles, for which there are 35,000,000 licensed drivers. Such huge and concentrated figures mate some of the worst traffic problems in the world, to suit which Japanese driving laws, driving styles and motor car designs have been adapted.

Speed limits are low: the fastest allowed is 100 k.p.h. on motorways; 50 k.p.h. limits spread wide around the sprawling cities. And the police lurk everywhere with radar, random breath tests and spot checks and oft the main highways with Datsun 260Zs and Honda 750 motorcycles. Japanese drivers have got the message and the pace of traffic is pedestrian compared with Europe. There is little evidence of fast cornering, high-speed cruising or late braking, the main road surfaces are smooth enough at the speed the heavy traffic flows, and it is these roads which take the bulk of the traffic, for 69.2% of the country’s roads are unpaved.

The result of these restrictive conditions is obvious as soon as most Japanese cars are thrust into European conditions: poor handling and roadholding, moderate braking performance, indifferent, low-geared steering and shocking ride. On top of that add the Japanese pre-occupation with garish design and trim and it is difficult to imagine why Japanese cars sell well throughout the world, particularly in Europe. But sell they do, last year’s vehicle exports amounting to 3,600,000 units out of a manufacturing total of 7,860,000, an increase of 34% over 1975. Europe alone took 706,600 vehicles. Until now that success has been due largely to keen pricing and a growing reputation for reliability; currency fluctuations have diminished that advantage and manufacturers can foresee a time when the reliability and availability aspects will no longer offset the disadvantages of Japanese car specifications against European requirements. Meanwhile, the Japanese home market is becoming close to saturation point and domestic sales last year fell by 4% to 4,130,000 units, the result of economic uncertainty, higher motor taxes and higher prices because of the implementation of 1976 Japanese exhaust emission standards. Japan is riddled with scrapyards, full of cars which mostly look in excellent condition, but this attitude towards the car as a throw-away commodity is changing, disrupting the automobile life cycle. To absorb the output of ultra-efficient factories extra outlets must be created or existing ones expanded and one particular market the Japanese still regard as wide open, in spite of current political squabbles and pressures, is Western Europe. Yet with increasing consumer sophistication in Europe, the Japanese are going to be hard pushed to maintain their market share, let alone increase it, with their current unsophisticated packages.

Unfortunately for European manufacturers, the Japanese are too opportunist to let the Western market slip away from them so easily; already 1977 is showing a trend towards European specifications in new Japanese models. The new 1,600 c.c. Honda Accord is an extension of the Honda Civic’s hatchback theme, parcelled more attractively and with a great deal of European influence about it. But while Honda dominate the world in the motorcycle market their car division is much smaller proportionally to car manufacturers in Japan or elsewhere, the marketing facilities and philosophy not yet so large or aggressive.

It is towards the Toyo Kogyo Co., of that once atom-bomb-razed city of Hiroshima, that European manufacturers should be looking with most concern. And if Toyo Kogyo doesn’t convey much, try the name of their car product, Mazda, for size. Toyo Kogyo is the third largest motor manufacturer in Japan behind Toyota and Nissan-Datsun and the twelfth largest in the world; its 1976 vehicle production figure numbered 716,000, 12,000 of which found their way to British customers through Mazda Car Imports GB Ltd., a company 43% owned by TKN, the overlord of BMW Concessionaires GB Ltd. Toyo Kogyo has just become the first Japanese manufacturer to design a car specifically for the European market. The Mazda 323, or Hatchback, as it will be known on the British market to avoid numerical confusion, will be flooding into Europe at the rate of 7,000 per month, aimed at that hottest bed in the market, the swiftly expanding 950 c.c. to 1,300c.c. lift-back small car sector. The problem for Europe. manufacturers will not he the direct threat from the Mazda hatchback, but the trend it portends.

If any amplification of the importance and fierceness of competition in that comparatively new, liftback small car market is needed, a glance at my diary for the second week in January will suffice. Monday: Fly Heathrow to Nice with wife; test Ford Fiesta; stay at Hotel de Paris, Monte Carlo; speech by Terry Beckett, Ford GB MD; dinner at Le Cabaret, Le Casino, Monte Carlo. Tuesday : Test Ford Fiesta along Cote D’Azur; coffee at La Valbonne Golf Club; lunch in St. Paul de Vence; fly Nice to Heathrow; Wednesday: Office, write Ford Fiesta story; try to finish February issue. Thursday; Heathrow again, fly JAL 747 to Tokyo, via Anchorage. Friday night: Arrive Tokyo, stay at Imperial Hotel. Saturday morning: Back to Haneda Airport for flight to Hiroshima for introduction of new Mazda 323 Hatchback . . . and It on, till the following Thursday. (The diary does not mention five hours entombed in a snowstorm-delayed Jumbo at Heathrow before an 18-hr. flight, nor the deaths of five crew members and 56 head of cattle in a DC8 at Anchorage the day we arrived, nor the overwhelming pace of life that week—just to make the point that there is some harshness in this cushioned life!)

Heathrow is something of a second home to myself and the other eleven journalists who went with me to Japan, along with Mazda GB Managing Director John Ebenezer, Public, Relations Manager and Mazda-mounted European Touring Car Championship class-winner David Palmer and Parts Manager Duncan Collins, and such hospitality is regarded with blase acceptance. But not on such a scale in one week for the introduction of cars in direct competition with one another. For that we could blame the existence of the VW Polo and Golf, the Vauxhall Chevette, the Opel City, the Renault 5, to name but a few of the cars waging war in this new liftback battlefield.

In size the Mazda Hatchback, which we first saw at Toyo Kogyo’s Miyoshi Proving Ground in the snow-sprinkled mountains 70 km. outside Hiroshima, is parallel to the Vauxhall Chevette rather than the Fiesta or its parallel, the Polo. Its 12 1/2 ft. length and 5.2 ft. width contains a neat, almost droop-snoot, three.or five-door body with a rounded hatchback tail, all very tidy and plain in European small car fashion, with just a hint of Japanese styling excess around the grille area. The Hatchback has followed the Chevette in its disdain for the front-wheel-drive configuration for which most European small-car manufacturers except GM (who, none-the-less, have a small front-wheel-drive car on the way) have gone overboard. The in-line, four-cylinder engine is positioned north-south, has a conventional manual or automatic gearbox attached anti at the rear is a live axle.

There is a choice of 985 c.c. or 1,272 c.c. engines, both derated versions of those familiar in the Mazda 1000 and 1300 saloons and, in the case of the larger engine, in the 818. Both engines have chain-driven single-overhead camshafts and alloy heads on iron blocks. The 1000 has an advantageously short stroke of 64 mm. against a bore of 70 mm. The 1300 has a less sweet ratio of 73 mm. bore against 76 mm. stroke. They have compression ratios of 8.8:1 and 9.2:1 respectively and outputs of 45 b.h.p. at 5,500 r.p.m./51.4 ft. lb. at 3,000 r.p.rn. and 60 bhp. at 5,500 r.p.m./ 68.7 ft. lb. at 3,500 ,.p.m., almost identical to the outputs of the small and large Fiesta engines. These engines have crossflow porting, and five main bearings and burdens to carry of 15.9 cwt. in 1000 3-door form, 16 cwt. in 1300 3-door and 16.6cwt. in the 1300 5-door’s case.

A hydraulically-operated clutch with a newly-developed automatic core-adjusting device in the release bearing drives a four-speed, all-synchromesh gearbox in the case of the 1000 and either four or five-speed manual or three-speed automatic gearbox in the case of the 1300, in theory, at least. In fact, Mazda GB intend to offer only a four-speed manual initially and will restrict the automatic to the five-door 1300. The 1000 has lower ratios in the first three gears than the 1300 .d a 4.1-to-1 final drive against 3.9 to 1.

The rear suspension could be off any General Motors’ draughtsman’s drawing board, with four links, coil springs, a Panhard rod and vertically-mounted telescopic shock-absorbers. A simple McPherson strut, coil spring and anti-roll bar system is fitted to the front. The steering displays that curious Japanese insistence upon recirculating hall, the front disc brakes are a minute 6.6 in. diameter and the rear drums of 8.2 in. diameter, with a dual circuit power assisted by a 6 in. servo.

The Toyo Kogyo engineers have done a good job of interior space utilisation, which seems better than any of it competitors, particularly in respect of rear seat knee-room. The rear hatch wraps around at the corners to give a full-width aperture, but its depth stops at waist height and the boot floor is high to make room for the spare wheel and 8.8-gallon tank. Nevertheless the boot is roomy, the rear parcel shelf removes easily and when the rear seat back is folded the floor space is flat and generous. Split rear seat backs are available, though they might not be offered by the UK importers. The front doors of the three-door are so remarkably long that rear passengers can be taken in without the driver or front passenger moving.

Mazda’s homework in Europe has certainly been effective in cutting out the Japanese plastic-pin-ball-parlour interior horror and the Hatchback’s interior design is neat and unfussy. Tile front bucket seats have inbuilt headrests and the Deluxe versions have plaid cloth inserts to front and rear seats. Even the ordinary model’s level of fitments is far from spartan, while the Deluxe has excellent features like effective side window demisting and electrical remote control opening of the rear hatch from the driver’s seat. To finish off this neat package there is an attractive range of bright colour schemes.

I couldn’t dispute that the Japanese designers had succeeded in creating a European recipe visually. What was more to the point, would chassis behaviour match our requirements too? Here is where the picturesque Miyoshi Proving Ground came in. This 1,500,000 sq. m. facility in the forest-clad mountains on the outskirts of Miyoshi City is claimed to be one of the finest test tracks in Japan. It incorporates a 4.34 km. banked circuit with a hands-off maximum speed capability of 200 k.p.h., a 1.74 km. straight with photo-electric speed measuring equipment, the usual MIRA-type facilities of Belgian block roads, long-wave pitching road etc. (though only short stretches of each, not continuous circuits like those available at MIRA), a 1 km. handling circuit and a steering pad. To the regret of the rallying-orientated members of our journalists’ group, the superb special-stage type, 6 km. cross-country circuit was out of bounds to us, but we were given the free range of the rest of the facilities.

As an aside, Miyoshi houses Toyo Kogyo’s commercial vehicle diesel engine production plant. To make the point that not all traffic from Mazda to the UK is one way, these engines are built under licence from Perkins Engines of Peterborough, with whom Toyo Kogyo maintain the closest of direct liaisons.

Overnight snow was still clinging to the main circuit’s steep banking as Motor’s Mike McCarthy and I gave an automatic, 1300 two-door Hatchback its first taste of European critique. We were immediately impressed by the good visibility and driving position in this left-hand-drive car; the test cars were mechanically idantical to r.h.d. UK cars, still not in production—r.h.d. Japanese cars lose 16% power because of emission equipment. In this automatic form the 1300 had a surprising amount of urge, the engine revving very eagerly on full throttle through smooth upward gearchanges. This JATCO epicyclic three-speed automatic is the result of a joint effort between Nissan-Datsun, Ford USA and Toyo Kogyo. As I understood it, the automatic 1300 had the lower final drive ratio of the 1000, and it showed, engine noise rising to a crescendo through the gears and staying there from 110 k.p.h. upwards, reminiscent of the undergearing displayed by the Hondamatic Honda Accord I tried recently. On the other hand, wind and road noise was subdued to a level which even the Polo would find difficult to compete with amongst small cars. We saw just under 150 k.p.h. (93 m.p.h.) indicated With the help of a slight downgrade, at which speed the stability was excellent enough for hands-off steering on the unbanked parts of the circuit and a tentative venture into the snow on the banking. A five-speed 1300 which we tried next added a couple of k.p.h. and a lower decibel level at the top of the scale, but surprisingly had to be worked hard to match the automatic on acceleration. A slight upgrade forced a change into 4th to stay ahead of an automatic. Nevertheless, this manual “overdrive” version must be the best bet for economy and relaxation and the test car possessed the most beautiful, light-as-a-feather gearchange.

Refamiliarising myself with the rigours of Belgian pave and a multiplicity of pothole types in a Hatchback 1000, I couldn’t help wondering how the internals of Mazda’s test drivers had held together under durability testing of earlier cart-sprung models. Development of the Hatchback, with what proved to be a first-class, though quite firm, ride, must have been like transferring to a magic carpet. These conditions showed a lack of kickback through the steering, effective and quiet bump absorption by long suspension travel and realistic spring rates and a lack of body boom and rattles. As the quickest way to turn around at the end of these straight sections was to spin, I can also confirm the effectiveness of the handbrake…

Next came a transfer to a 1300 four-door, four-speed for the tarmac handling circuit, a 1 km. long, 6 m. wide, tortuous tarmac route through the trees and hillocks, still damp from the melting snow and with mud spread across a couple of the tightest corners from earlier attempts by members of our grouped party. This was to be the real proof of whether or not the Hatchback lived up to European expectations. Obviously, a 1,300 c.c. engine with 60 b.h.p. in a 16.6 cwt. car is not the quickest way to go motoring, but this Mazda acquitted itself well, with rather too much grip from the 155SR 13 Bridgestone tyres for the power, so that its understeering bent simply scrubbed off speed very safely. Try as I might I couldn’t get the tail to shift sufficiently to negate much of the scrub, yet it was easy enough to stop the nose running too wide for comfort. The car rolled a lot under these extremes and the variable ratio recirculating ball steering needed a lot of armwork to cope with the understeer, but the handling overall was responsive and pleasant. On the two tightest corners, admittedly slippery, the car lost ground to wheelspin. I left the car with rounded front tyre shoulders, a lap record and comments from the Japanese of “You have high technique.”

A session on the steering pad with another 1000 Hatchback confirmed something that we were to be told later: that the car performs well on a slalom course, far better, they were to tell us, than cars like the Honda Civic and Datsun 240Z over a timed, measured obstacle course. It also confirmed something that sited found to a lesser degree CM the handling circuit: that the Hitachi downdraught twin-choke carburetter has a severe dislike for hard anti-clockwise cornering. If the Mazda test drivers had not driven the Hatchback quickly enough to find that fault, no wonder I was considered to have a “high technique”, I thought! A switch to another 1300 on the steering pad betrayed the same left-hand cornering cut-out as the earlier 1300 and 1000. However, following everywhere was the inevitable note-book-bearing Japanese, patiently listening to and listing all our comments, I doubt whether that particular fault will remain when the Hatchback reaches Britain.

As well as handling pleasantly, holding the road particularly safely, riding comfortably and stopping without drama, despite those abnormally small-sounding front disc brakes (a bonsai touch to reduce unsprung weight and incorporating specially developed pad material), the Hatchback was easy to manoeuvre at low speeds and gentle in clutch, gearbox and brake pedal operation. I couldn’t dispute the Mazda claim that the Hatchback compares well with any European car in its class. It does, disconcertingly so.

The Toyo Kogyo Factory

The Hatchback originates from a vast, ultra-modern factory stretching for a total of 5.5 km. along either side of the mouth of the Ohta River, traversed by a private bridge, in Hiroshima, in the south-west of Honshu, Japan’s main island. On this ideal site, Toyo Kogyo enjoys perfect communications, boasting its own private port from whence are shipped 93% of vehicles produced, either to any of the Japanese ports for domestic distribution, or direct to export markets.

While Japan has high humidity in summer, in January the air had a crisp, invigorating— though not so cold—Scandinavian-type dryness to it. What surprised me was that the air remained to pure around that huge factory complex, with none of the paint or foundry fumes and smoke associated with car factories. The Japanese have gone overboard on antipollution measures, which this factory exemplified: no windows to let out noise or fumes; filtering of air; re-cycling of water. I can claim to have visited practically every major car factory in Europe (though not the new Rover factory) yet apart from the brand-new Citroen factory at Aulnay-Sous-Bois I’ve yet to see one as clean and efficient as that of Toyo Kogyo.

The company employs 31,000 who enjoy perks such as house loans at 3% interest (but just try buying land in Japan!), car purchase advantages, dormitories for single employees, a “Mazda town” housing 1,200 families, a sports centre and a full-size hospital attached to the factory. According to Kohei Matsuda, President of Toyo Kogyo, the average wage of an assembly worker is the equivalent of £500 per month, for which he works a 40-hour, 5day week, starting at 8.15 am. The factory has just one union, labour problems are practically unknown (Matsuda can only recall one strike, which lasted 45 min.) and there is a two-to-three-month job rotation scheme to avoid boredom on the assembly line. The whole place seems highly automated, with very low labour intensity. However, machines aren’t the be-all-and-end-all of quality inspections and each car goes through no less than 5,700 different checkpoints. Apart from inspectors as such, there is a system whereby men on the line examine each other’s work. All completed engines are run-in and checked out on a bed for an hour, with a two-hour run for 2% of engines.

The man responsible for engineering the new Hatchback was Mr. Watanabe, Director and Assistant General Manager, Research and Development, who staggered us all by disclosing that the model had been developed and put into production in a mere two years. The European hatchback theme had been evolved after market research in Japan in 1973 and another research scheme in Europe in 1974. The same research had revealed that in Japan only a tiny minority of buyers preferred front-wheel-drive and though he admitted that front-wheel-drive is becoming more and more popular in Europe he considered that rear-wheel-drive simplicity had overwhelming servicing and cost-of-running advantages. Throughout, he had some pretty caustic moments to make about the Honda Civic on which most of the research had been based. Production of models such as the Mazda 1000 and 1300 will be decreased to make way for 16,000 Hatchbacks per month, of which 7,000 will be retained for the domestic market, 7,000 sent to Europe and a modest 2,000 to the USA.

President Matsuda turned out to be quite an Anglophile, the owner of an Austin 10 which his grandfather bought new in 1937 and the holder of some very strong views on the lack of British car sales in Japan. He believes the mark-up to be too high to succeed, but if the quality of his friends’ Jaguar and Mini was anything to go by there was nothing wrong in that respect—and his predecessor as President had run a Jaguar too. “British small cars are too expensive for Japan and a few years ago when speaking to Lord Stokes I told him to concentrate on Jaguar and Rover, and that is what I would still say today.” He thought that Leyland’s recent tie-up with Mitsui, the Japanese trading house, would be a thoroughly advantageous move and was scathing about the efficiency of British motor manufacturers, saying that the Japanese car industry was much more efficient. From what our party saw, we could not deny it.

However, even the Japanese make errors, reflected in Mazda’s case by a loss on the 1975 balance sheets, largely the result of the caning the company took on Wankel-engined models after the energy crisis. This doesn’t seem to have deterred Mazda from persevering with the rotary engine, in development of which they are the world leaders and the only mass producers, with 886,000 Mazda rotary-engined cars produced. The general opinion at Mazda seems to be that the tide is turning in favour of the Wankel and no one is more convinced of that than Kenichi Yamamoto, Director and Manager, Rotary Engine Development Division, from whose application and fanaticism as the world expert many other Wankel licence holders are benefiting. Mazda themselves plan to introduce three new Wankel-engined models in the next three years and General Motors, Citroen, Toyota and Audi-NSU (still persevering, in spite of the Ro80 disaster) arc believed to be on the verge of unveiling production units.

Yamamoto’s life has been made hell by legislation and bureaucracy which has persistently dogged the Wankel since Mazda gambled on mass-production in the late ’60s. Now he blesses these obstacles which have resulted in Wankel development being far more advanced than it would otherwise have been. Firstly the engine was hit by emission controls; by 1973 Yamamoto had overcome that problem, but at the expense of fuel consumption, which suddenly became of vital import when the energy crisis arrived. In 1974 Yamamoto guaranteed to improve fuel consumption by 40% within two years, a target he has more than achieved. With those headaches out of the way his aims are now better performance and even better fuel consumption. With improvements in the materials and design of the rotor housings and apex seals he claims durability problems to be a thing of the past and cites Mazda’s 120,000 km. guarantee in the USA on the new RX5 Cosmo to prove it. His current progress is along the lines of direct fuel injection and stratified charge, with production versions probably not too far away. And on another tack he is convinced that a single rotor Wankel offering 40 m.p.g. and around 100 bhp. would be the ideal engine foot cheap mass-produced car. Reading between the lines I suspect that the latter project could become fact in a very short time. Whatever, if the activity and enthusiasm at Mazda is anything to go by the Wankel engine has a much brighter future than its past augured.

The remainder of our visit to this fascinating land of courteous people, absolute cleanliness, early nights and expensive beer (nothing below a £1 a glass, while if cognac is your drink you could buy a glass of Hennessy Extra in our Hiroshima hotel for £12) encompassed a visit to the NGK spark plug factory on the remarkable Bullet Train (a 100 m.p.h. average for 700 km., including stops) a tour of the Bridgestone tyre factory and an interview with the head of the Japanese Automobile Manufacturers’ Association. Perhaps another story another day.—C.R.