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Mazda moves into muscle

Caution to the wind: Mazda product planning chief Phil Martens with our interpretation of how the RX-8 convertible could look and the all-wheel drive twin-turbo 626 MPS show car.

Mazda has been in the wilderness but is determined to return, sportier than ever

22 Oct 2001

MAZDA has dumped its cautious approach of the past decade and is returning to its sports car roots with several spin-offs planned from the forthcoming RX-8 coupe and a separate high-performance series based on its mainstream passenger cars.

And it is even talking about a return to Le Mans.

Now that the Ford-controlled car-maker is delivering on its promise to turn core models into genuine driver's cars - as evidenced with the 626 replacement - senior management wants to boost its image further with a portfolio of performance cars.

"My goal is basically for people to look at Mazda for what its heritage was and what they remember it to be," said Mazda's managing director of product strategy, design and product development, Phil Martens.

"There were a lot of different factors that changed Mazda in the mid-1990s - we struggled and we lost our way. In this decade, I don't want that to be the case."Mr Martens said the modular sports car platform upon which RX-8 is built and a renewed commitment to rotary engine power would allow the corporation to create a number of exciting new derivatives.

"I can see pent-up demand for unique sports car options in the flagship price range," he said.

These "options" include a two-seater roadster, 2+2 convertible, compact hatch and all-wheel drive variants across the range.

RX-8 is also certain to be offered with several tiers of performance following its 2002/3 launch, including an entry level inline four-cylinder and turbocharged versions of the standard 184kW "Renesis" rotary engine.

Up for renewal in the 2004 model year, the MX-5 will shift to the new sports car platform and it, too, is expected to be offered with a range of engines.

On top of the dedicated sports cars, Mr Martens has sanctioned a high-performance MPS touring car series based on the mainstream passenger range.

First off the line will be a turbocharged Mazda 6 MPS, due in about two years.

"It's not an add-on series, it's a separate line-up," Mr Martens said.

"If you do that well you can get a small following but you can really create a different feel for your brand, who you are and what you want to be."Conscious of not returning to a time when Mazda had unsustainable niche models on its hands, Mr Martens said the MPS range would be carefully selected, narrow focussed and well planned.

"You've got to be careful on the communications and dealership strategy and you want after-parts and service, you want accessories, you want everything to line up - and if you explode it too far, you fragment everything and you lose your focus," Mr Martens said.

"We're not going to do that."Mr Martens said turbocharging inline four-cylinder and V6 engines was the preferred method of finding more horsepower for MX-5, sports sedans and the forthcoming large car.

But Mazda president Mark Fields has refused to rule out other options, including the rotary engine, for premium mainstream models.

And none other than Mr Fields himself is the one advocating a return to the Le Mans 24-Hour race.

"We won Le Mans 10 years ago - we're the only Japanese manufacturer to have done that - and I would think our long-term goal should be: how do we get back into that, when we can afford it," he said.

"We have a unique heritage there."

The name game

DISTANCING itself as far as possible from its current generation of cars, Mazda has instituted a new naming policy for its all-new models.

The first example is the forthcoming 626 replacement, which the Japanese manufacturer has called Mazda 6 in all countries outside its homeland. In Japan, it's called Atenza.

Mazda's global marketing chief David Greenberg said: "When we are talking about repositioning Mazda we are talking about moving from a nameplate brand strategy to a primary brand strategy, and that's one of the pillars of our transition." Translation: We would rather have you think about Mazda than the local bus route.

"I don't want you to think of a 626 - I want Mazda to really mean something to you," Mr Greenberg said.

"We think it's a much more effective way to utilise our resources, to communicate our brand and we think it's a much more effective way to build our brand."The core passenger cars will all change name, however the sports cars (MX-5 and RX-8, for example) will survive. The MPV and Premacy nameplates are also expected to remain.

Millennium Plan a family affair

THERE can be no underestimating the importance of RX-8 in Mazda's current rebirthing process.

But with its five-year Millennium Plan (ending 2004), the company is not hanging its hat on one new car.

"A critical juncture in our Millennium Plan, or our product reinvention, is turning over the base of our product family as fast as possible so that we can reintroduce to the market in a short period of time an all-new Mazda," said product planning chief Phil Martens.

"In today's market one product can't pull a company along. You have to have a family of complementary products."Here's what to expect:Mazda 1 - late 2002
THE 121 replacement, in near production form, is set to appear at Tokyo this week. It will not herald a return to the cute bubble car, remaining tall and upright but offering a lot more visual appeal. Expect 1.3 and 1.6-litre engines plus a CVT auto for Australia. An MPS version is not high on the current agenda.

Mazda 3 - late 2003
PLATFORM and panel sharing with Ford is starting to lose favour and Mazda is attempting to keep this one all to itself. It will be a scaled-down RX-8 with some Alfa 147 cues such as hidden rear door handles. Engine choices include 1.8, 2.0 and the new 2.3-litre seen on Mazda 6. A sharper, more clever Premacy and an all-out Mazda 3 MPS will follow.

Mazda 6 - September 2002
THE first fruit of the reborn Mazda will make its debut here around September next year. An all-new bigger and lighter MPV will follow with a more aggressive look, better ingress and egress, and improved rear seats that will fold into the floor when not in use. A Mazda 6 MPS is under way and will arrive in two years.

Mazda 9 - 2004
TO come off the mid-size or sports car platform, the Millenia replacement will be a technological showcase drawing as much as is practicable from the MX Sport Tourer show car. Debates over engines are now occurring: rotary, turbo rotary, V6, turbo V6, or a combination. The Miller Cycle engine will be laid to rest. An MPS version is a sure bet.

RX-8 - early 2003
THE final version of the evocative four-door coupe debuts at Tokyo this week, with production commencing later next year. Powertrain engineers are currently optimising fuel and oil consumption and emissions of the "Renesis" rotary engine. A base inline-four and more powerful (including turbo) versions will follow. Expect roadster, 2+2 cabriolet and compact hatch variants to surface post-Millennium Plan (2004).

MX-5 - 2004
THOUGH we might not get it until 2005, the next generation MX-5 will have more than one performance tier. Expect 2.3-litre and turbocharged variants - and perhaps even a rotary. Mazda's sports car designer also promises a sharper look, which is sure to whip up some angst among the enthusiasts.

Tribute - 2005/6
THE word is that never again will Mazda and Ford produce such a similar vehicle. Upgrades will get the 2.3-litre inline four and the revised 3.0 V6 debuting with the Mazda 6. Expect the next generation to take make a significant departure from the Ford Escape. MPS version? If it works for the Europeans ...

By Ghosn, it's the Z car

DON'T for a moment think Mazda is alone in its quest to tap back into popular culture with lip-smacking sports cars.

As Mazda president Mark Fields unveils the production version of the RX-8 coupe at the Tokyo motor show this week, his opposite number at Nissan, Carlos Ghosn, will unveil this virtually production-ready version of the Z.

Due out late next year - a few months ahead of the RX-8 - the finished Z coupe differs little from the concept car shown at this year's Sydney motor show.

And that's no bad thing.

Just as the Datsun 240Z caused a sensation when it was introduced some three decades ago, the 350Z - as the first, 3.5-litre version is expected to be called - pushes all the right buttons with its bulging body shape and geometrical forms of the headlights and other parts.

And, like Mazda has done, styling cues harking back to earlier times are readily found. Classic Z-car reminders include the long nose, triangular cabin form and the lines extending from the arch-shaped roof to the hatchback opening.

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