Mazda: The Little Company That Can. And Does

Robert T.

Robert T. Davis is senior vice president of U.S. operations for Mazda North American Operations (MNAO). Which means that he has a wide portfolio, ranging from marketing to dealer affairs. What’s interesting to note is what Davis’s position was prior to his current one: he was senior vice president of research and development for MNAO, which means that he had a brief that included everything from future product plans to manufacturing.

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So if you want to get a sense of what’s going on at Mazda, Davis is the guy to talk with, given his scope.

What’s behind the thinking of the CX-9 that was unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show?

What’s going on in the B-segment crossover category, into which Mazda, earlier this year, launched the CX-3?

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What’s this SKYACTIV all about?

And how does Mazda, a company that is certainly small by automotive metrics (according to Autodata, through November, its share of the U.S. market was 1.8%) put a niche vehicle like the MX-5 Miata out of the road?

As he answers these questions and more on this episode of “Autoline After Hours,” it becomes clear that Mazda is a small company that knows that in order to progress that it must out-think, out-design, out-engineer, and out-produce its competitors.

When he talks about the genesis of SKYACTIV, for example, Davis explains that the company decided that it was no longer advantageous to simply take what was and improve on it. Rather, they rethought everything about a vehicle. And when he says “everything,” he means, well, “everything.” Even the manufacturing operations.

They developed more-efficient engines that provide nearly hybrid-like fuel economy while simply running on regular. (Why don’t other OEMs simply take the SKYACTIV engines and drop them into their own engine compartments? Because, Davis says, the engines have a comparatively complex exhaust manifold that doesn’t lend itself to being swapped into an existing structure: remember, they changed everything.)

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They worked hard, gram by gram, to reduce weight.

They engineered their cars and crossovers so that they’re thrifty yet spirited. (Davis doesn’t think that an autonomous vehicle would necessarily be a good Mazda, because Mazdas are about driving.)

This past May Mazda and Toyota entered into a partnership agreement for automotive technology development. During the formal announcement, Toyota President Akio Toyoda said: “As evidenced by their SKYACTIV Technologies and KODO—Soul of Motion design, Mazda has proven that it always thinks of what is coming next for vehicles and technology, while still managing to stay true to its basic car making roots. In this way, Mazda very much practices what Toyota holds dear: making ever-better cars. I am delighted that our two companies can share the same vision and work together to make cars better. I can think of nothing more wonderful than showing the world—together—that the next100 years of cars will be just as fun as the first.”

When a competitor holds you in such high regard even though said competitor is the largest vehicle manufacturer in the world, clearly you’re doing something not just right, but beyond good.

What Davis tells John McElroy, Chris Paukert of CNET and me is most fascinating, as it shows that clever design, engineering and manufacturing really matter.

In addition to which, we discuss a variety of subjects, from whether the recent off-the-charts smog in China may put a damper on electric vehicles in that country (most of the electricity is generated there by burning coal, which leads to a whole lot of tiny, noxious particulate), what the effects of the automotive presence at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas will be on the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, and a whole lot more.