In the past few weeks, I’ve tested two 100th Anniversary cars from Mazda, a Mazda3 sedan and a CX-5 crossover – both white, luxuriously loaded and adorned with commemorative badging. Interestingly, all the 100-years hoopla turned my thoughts not to Mazda’s past, but its future.
But first, a quick recap: the white Mazda3 sedan ($37,850 with freight) is a torquey (320 lb-ft using premium fuel) compact ride with standard AWD (all-wheel drive) and sharp ride manners. I could quite happily live with this nicely kitted car, if I could live with a sedan. I cannot. A sedan does not fit my lifestyle.
Which brings me to the CX-5 100 ($45,631 all-in). Again, you get all markers that signify Mazda’s age and a staggering list of luxury items. The engine here is also a Dynamic Pressure Turbo (250 hp/320 lb-ft torque with high-test fuel) and it’s a gem. The CX-5 is a lively five-seater wagon, and I do like the commemorative bits, such as embossed 100th headrests. Trips to the ski hill in the AWD CX-5 are a pleasant diversion before the main downhill course at Whistler, B.C.
These two and the rest of Mazda’s lineup point to a steady if too-slow commitment to evolve this brand upwards, to a place beyond the Nissan, Honda and Toyota brands – above the mainstream and the everyday, the mundane offers that are too-similar and a little dull. Mazda has the right idea, but the execution remains a race to succeed before the money runs out and the marketplace loses patience.
Money? It’s everything in the car business. Without adequate funding for new-model development programs that take from 3-5 years or more, costing hundreds of millions if not billions, no car company can survive. Automakers that lack a clear vision or starve their product development programs of adequate funding – or both — are destined to wither and die.
Mazda does, indeed, appear to have adequate resources to prop up a growth plan, though since the middle of the last decade, net income per share has all but collapsed. As the COVID fallout began to hammer automakers last year, Mazda sought about $3 billion in loans to bolster its balance sheet – to have the cash to fund an aggressive product and technology initiative stretching out the next decade, post-pandemic.
Like every car company today, Mazda plans to focus on connected technology, autonomous driving, shared services that drive revenue like iTunes, and electrification. Apparently, management now plans to more aggressively push new technologies into its vehicles, from the ground up.
Let’s be honest, however. Mazda is a bit player in the global automotive game. It does note have the resources to compete as a full-line automaker, and delayed investments in hybrids and full electrification have left the company trailing its competition in key areas. The SkyActive technology push has helped Mazda achieve hybrid fuel economy in its basic internal combustion engines, but the marketplace and consumer tastes are rapidly shifting to electrification.
To help, Mazda can turn to Toyota Motor, which owns about 5.0% of Mazda. Toyota plans to provide Mazda with some measure of its hybrid expertise. Keep in mind, however, that Toyota is also playing catch-up in the full electric vehicle game.
For a hint of what’s possible for Mazda, though, consider the MX-30, an award-winning design which is sold in Europe as a smallish battery electric car. Various reports indicate a version of the MX-30 will come to North America as a serious hybrid with a twist – a range-extending rotary engine. The belief is that the rotary will not have a direct connection to the drive wheels, but will instead act as an on-board charger.
We’re also led to believe that Mazda plans to develop a new, larger platform for its bigger offerings, such as the CX-9 and even the CX-5. For now, the CX-9, the much smaller Mazda3 and pretty much everything in between, share their basic underpinnings. I would expect any future Mazda platform to be flexible enough to accommodate various types of electrified models, while also being easy and cost-efficient to manufacture.
Mazda at 100, then, is at a crossroads. Again. I’ve been writing that sentence or one similar to it since 1996, when Ford increased its stake in Mazda to a controlling one, before divesting huge chunk of Mazda shares 12 years later. Yes, Mazda has been on a roller-coaster ride for most its 100 years.
Perhaps things will settle down in the next 100.