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Mazda's secret plans revealed
ON one level, last week's unveiling of the Mazda CX-5 at the Ritz-Carlton Millenia was the launch of a new car. But the new mid-sized Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV) might turn out to be something far more significant: the relaunch of a carmaker.
Mazda is currently on a roll, with 2016 delivering a third straight year of record profits. Although relatively small, at just under one-sixth of Toyota's size by production volume, the Hiroshima-based brand sold 1.53 million cars last year, the most in its 96-year history.
Meanwhile, Singapore sales have never been higher. Ong Lay Ling, the group managing director of Eurokars Group, which distributes the brand here, says its market share at the end of last year stood at 8 per cent.
When Eurokars took over the Mazda franchise in 2011, its share was languishing at 0.9 per cent. Back then, things looked bleak for Mazda at home, too. The carmaker had recorded its largest annual loss since 2000 and, strapped for cash, was forced to raise capital by issuing new shares and diluting investors' holdings.
Things began to turn around with the launch of the first CX-5, a car whose success took even Mazda by surprise. Minoru Takata, a programme manager for the car from Mazda's product division, calls it a "mega hit". Mazda had hoped to sell 160,000 units a year; instead, it sold 370,000 of them in its final year of production alone.
The car's success is down to factors that have come to shape its maker, according to Hiroshi Inoue, who oversees Mazda's sales for the Asean region. He says the CX-5 was the first model to usher in what are now key brand pillars: Mazda's "Kodo" design language, and a suite of fuel-saving technologies that it labels "Skyactiv".
Kodo, which loosely translates into "soul of motion", gave Mazda's styling department clear direction.
"Up to say, 2012, honestly Mazda's design strategy was the same as other, regular companies'. The premium brands, such as BMW or Mercedes, don't make any significant change with each new model. But in our case, in the same way as Toyota or Honda or Nissan, our strategy was to apply a disposable design - new design, dispose, new design, dispose…" says Mr Inoue.
But if the first CX-5 grew Mazda's fortunes through Kodo and Skyactiv, what can the new one do, and where does the brand go from here?
On the styling front, at least, Mr Inoue says Mazda is largely staying the course. "Brush up Kodo design continuously, that's the current strategy," he says. How? "Beauty by subtraction," is the enigmatic answer.
Mr Inoue likens it to fine Japanese cuisine, where presentation is not about adding decoration but about removing the unessential. "Then a very simple but attractive design factor remains on the dish," he says. As for Skyactiv, Mr Inoue says a more revolutionary approach to fuel efficiency is around the corner. Mazda engineers have been working on a new type of engine that he says will be ready for production in 2018.
Like a diesel engine, it ignites fuel and air by compressing it instead of using spark plugs, but will run on petrol. That innovation could boost efficiency by as much as 30 per cent, and give Mazda's cars class-leading fuel consumption figures.
With that on the way, Mr Inoue is bullish about Mazda's prospects. He says Asean sales could grow nearly 50 per cent to 150,000 cars in just two years. Eurokars, meanwhile, is preparing for growth here, too.
Next year the group will open a new 438,000 sq ft aftersales centre. More than 60 per cent of the floorspace will be used for Mazda operations.
Mazda personnel will be wishing for just one thing with the new CX-5, then, which is for history to repeat itself. If so, last week's launch bodes well; Eurokars had unveiled the first CX-5 at the Ritz-Carlton, too.