• Oct 29th 2010 at 11:29AM
  • 36
What Happens To Mazda Without Ford?

Barring a last-minute hitch, it looks like Ford and Mazda will soon be severing the ties that have bound them for the last four decades. Though the U.S. maker has yet to issue a formal confirmation, it's negotiating a deal that would have it sell off most or all of the remaining 11 percent stake it holds in its Japanese affiliate.

It appears that Mazda is as eager as Ford to go its own way.
No, it isn't a bitter divorce. Ford and Mazda will likely still maintain some ties – in Thailand, for example, where their suburban Bangkok plant has just begun producing an all-new generation of compact pickup trucks, including the Ford Ranger. But the two makers are already unwinding their manufacturing alliance in booming China.

And, perhaps most importantly, they'll likely curb future product development programs that helped both companies squeak through the hard times of the not-too-distant past. One of the earliest examples of that alliance was the old Ford Escort, the U.S. maker's first attempt to build a so-called "world car."

More recent examples include the B-car platform that eventually went on to become both the Ford Fiesta and Mazda2. Conventional wisdom is that these are virtually identical subcompacts – but as I was reminded during back-to-back drives this past week, there's a surprising amount of difference between the American and Japanese production vehicles. Though they may have started out working together, the two companies soon branched off, yielding some surprisingly different results in terms of design and, more importantly, driving dynamics.

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Paul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com, and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.

The Ford/Mazda relationship dates back to 1969, when they began a joint venture to manufacture automatic transmissions. A decade later, Ford purchased a 25% stake, which eventually grew to 33.4%.

Ford was Mazda's Western white knight. The Japanese maker has had an unpleasant habit of walking perilously close to the abyss, and in the late 1990s, it foolishly tried to copy the Asian giant, Toyota, by rolling out a flood of new products and even contemplating its own luxury network, to be dubbed Amati. Problem was, a senior official admitted to me at the time, Mazda didn't have the money to market those new products. As one new model hit showrooms, the maker had to abandon an earlier offering, and in the end, sales actually plunged, nearly bankrupting the Japanese maker.

Effectively taking charge, Ford appointed the first gaijin to run a major Japanese company. The six-foot, five-inch Henry Wallace became something of a demi-god in a country that normally looked down on foreigners. And, through a succession of Ford-appointed execs to follow – including Mark Fields, today Ford's President of the Americas – Mazda's health steadily rebounded.

Mark Fields, Ford

Almost everywhere, anyway. What has always surprised serious automotive aficionados is the maker's relative inability to make solid gains in the U.S. While Mazda is now one of the strongest brands in Canada, where it holds a roughly five percent share, it is still a relative also-ran here, at barely two percent. American chief executive Jim O'Sullivan is aiming to boost that to somewhere between three and four percent, but considering the company's well-regarded array of products like the Mazda6 and CX-7, one has to wonder why it can't double that number again.

It's all the more confounding when you consider that few companies other than luxury marque BMW have done a better job establishing their brand image. The zoom-zoom tagline is an advertising icon – and will be carefully maintained even though Mazda recently bounced long-time ad agency Doner.

Ford's Derrick Kuzak bristles at the suggestion the Fiesta and Focus are rebadged Mazdas.
The good news is that its global success has put Mazda in a position to weather what might have been the devastating blow of Ford's departure. Indeed, it appears the Japanese maker is as eager as its Dearborn counterpart to go its own way.

Fans of the brand can only hope. But Mazda has clearly built up a good foundation – in the form of some solid vehicle platforms and a very clear brand strategy – that should carry it forward.

As for Ford, global product czar Derrick Kuzak visibly bristles when an interviewer suggests that new models like Fiesta and Focus are just rebadged Mazdas. Yes, he'll accede, they did start out with some fundamentals in common, but the two makers quickly went back to their own engineering centers to bring those models to production, leaving only a faint trace of common DNA.

CEO Alan Mulally has been driving the separation between Ford and Mazda, having previously reduced the U.S. makers stake to 13 percent shortly after he came to Dearborn in late 2007. It's all part of his One Ford strategy, a concentration on the core Blue Oval that has also led to the sale of Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo and the closing of long-failing Mercury.

With fewer marques to concentrate on, and a strategy of sharing platforms worldwide, Ford can trim overall costs quite sharply and, so it insists, develop future products in-house that absolutely capture the essence of its two remaining brands: Ford and Lincoln.

Ironically, the decision to sever their ties comes just as other makers around the world are stepping up their alliances and cross-platform sharing. Even Daimler AG, which shocked the automotive world by announcing a tie-up with the Renault-Nissan alliance.

Of course, nothing is final until the signatures are on the contract, as one Ford insider emphasized during a recent conversation. Ford's planned sell-off of its remaining Mazda stake could still be scuttled. But that seems increasingly unlikely with every day that passes. And one of the oldest and most extensive relationships in the auto industry seems likely to fade into history before the end of the year.

[Images: (lead) David McNew/Getty, Frank Polich/Getty, Scott Olson/Getty]

Paul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com, and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 4 Years Ago
      "the Noble M300 or M400 (cant remember) uses Fords Duratec 30 v6,"

      A Yamaha design.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Wrong Noble then.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I bought a 6 back in 2004 as a Ford guy because Ford's car line sucked and I knew the 6 was headed to Ford in a couple of years it grew a little bit and became the Fusion.

      We test drove a camry and accord and the other dealers were shocked that we would compare them to the 6.

      We were expecting our first kid and the 6 has been a great car, it has 180,000 on it with little work done,other than a tricky PCV valve replacement.

      I am disappointed in the breakup because the 6 kept me in the Ford family while both companies habve gotten needed products, Mazda got trucks, Ranger and Escape and Ford got the Fusion and help with many other cars. Mazda could easily be the sporty Ford like maybe waht they should have done with Mercury.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Sad to see such a longstanding relationship end.
        • 4 Years Ago
        No. The wonderful news and no damage for the One Ford.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Nice article Paul. I would love to get a better understanding of why Mazda is doing so poorly in the market, considering their great product. The fact that their cars are sporty is not enough reason. BMW has made a killing on that point. Their lack of marketing dollars must be holding them back. (not to mention the new styling scheme.)
      • 4 Years Ago
      CEO Alan Mulally has been driving the separation between Ford and Mazda, having previously reduced the U.S. makers stake to 13 percent shortly after he came to Dearborn in late 2007. It's all part of his One Ford strategy, a concentration on the core Blue Oval that has also led to the sale of Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo and the closing of long-failing Mercury."

      Mulally has done a fabulous job with the Ford brand, but the "One Ford" strategy doesn't really translate into multiple brands.

      - - Mercury should have been replaced with Mazda as Ford's alternative line.

      - - Lincoln should have been replaced with Jaguar Land Rover as Ford's luxury line.

      And, as pointed out, those divested brands don't have a clear future without access to Ford resources. Let's hope they end up in good hands.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Autoblog needs to be a little more thorough in its explanation of the Escort. Th first generation Escort that came to America, the only one that was considered a "world car" was a Ford product from, I believe, the 1981-1990 model years. It wasn't until the 1991 Escort that Mazda had a part in it.
        • 4 Years Ago
        You are correct.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I'm not precisely a fan of Mazda, I'm a big fan/enthusiast of the Miata/MX5, the later model RX-7's and of course the RX-8. I never gave much thought to Mazda's vans or family cars, just wasn't interested. I give their mass consumer vehicles credit for being good cars, sometimes very good cars...but not especially great cars, in the long run not especially better than the competition.

      Mazda in my opinion has several ways to go in the US market, 1.. it dies slowly but surely, 2.. it survives but only as a small niche player with a few specialized vehicles, 3.. it gets bought out and absorbed by one of the larger Chinese companies for its engineering and remaining markets, 4.. it withdraws to its core Asian roots much as Renault did after not surviving the US market.

      With the fragmented US market and Korean and coming Chinese competition, I just don't see Mazda doing much better than it already is.

      • 4 Years Ago
      It's too bad that Mazda never gained a stronghold in America. Their cars are all fantastic. I'm an owner of a Mazda6 myself and it is one of the most fun to drive family sedans on the market. I guess driving dynamics do not translate so much when it comes to overall sales.
        • 4 Years Ago
        My first gen Mazda 6 is the most fun I have ever had driving a FWD car. I loved that thing. Then some idiot had to go and kill it.
        • 4 Years Ago
        I have a Mazda6 wagon, and it's great, but I don't think sport suspensions sell well with most consumers. They want to be isolated from the road, not in touch with it. I'm willing to feel potholes in exchange for better cornering, but most people would rather be encased in a bubble.
        • 4 Years Ago
        You couldn't have said it better... and for those consumers, there a perfect product, right around the corner.



        Thank you Subaru, for entertaining the enthusiasts.

      • 4 Years Ago
      I wonder whether they will hook up with some other brand like Toyota.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I'm interested to see where this goes. Does this mean we'll finally see the European Focus sold in the US? Does this mean the Mazda3 will loose the ford parts it so heavily relies on?

      I tend to think of Mazda as a poor-man's sort of BMW. Sporty but with a concern for value. As such I don't think they'll ever have a big portion of the market. Especially when you consider they don't have offerings in many of the crucial segments. The 6 is really a size below the Camry/Accord. I mean Ford has the Taurus in addition to their Fusion, which uses the same chassis as the '6.
        • 4 Years Ago
        And the 6 used the V6 from the Fusion, they shared transmissions, etc...There are "FoMoCo" stickers all over the components of my 6.

        It was very much a two-way street.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Your attitude is so typical, even salesperson are telling people in Mazda dealerships that "Mazdas are built by Ford". What a nonsense.

        It's the other way round, it was (Euro) Focus that has always relied on Mazda3 and Mazda 323 before. Until recently, all Ford's petrol/gas Duratec i4 engines were rebadged Mazda's MZR units. (BTW, until recently, Ford used PSA (Peugeot/Citroen) diesels in Europe, Mazda began to use its own diesels before Ford). The 2.5 liter engine in Fusion is a Mazda unit.

        Anyway, the two cars, Focus and 3, shared the platform and few other bits, but while the ECU in Mazda 3 is by Mitsubishi (it used to be limited by Ford's policies), Focus uses something else, being a German car made in Belgium, I wanna say Siemens, but I'm not sure.

        Still, the cars had less in common than VW group cars.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I don't know who found the Fusion to be sportier than the Mazda6, but I couldn't disagree more. The 2010 Fusion I drove had vague steering and a transmission that hunted annoyingly in stop and go traffic. The Mazda6 I drove was the V-6, 2009 model, which isn't considered as good as the first gen. Still, the execution was better than the Ford. As for pushing a more Toyota-like approach in the late '90s, Fields took over Mazda's helm in '98.

      The exact heritage of every single nut or bolt isn't that important in the grander scheme of things. Ford will be just fine with Mulally in charge and Mazda will be capable of running it's own show.

        • 4 Years Ago
        "The Mazda 6 was the uncontested "fun to drive" winner of this test. "This feels like a real car!" Editor Chris Walton announced over the radio as he pulled away from the pack during our mountain driving loop. As he went on to write after sending the 6 through the slalom in a test-best 65.9 mph, "Drive this car by itself and you don't realize how capable it is. Put it in the group, however, and it's eye-opening." The steering is communicative and strikes a good weighting balance for enthusiasts and consumers alike. The Mazda 6 is a sporty car, but not so much that it punishes those who simply want to go from A to B."

        They say the Fusion Sport with better tires "could have' changed the "fun to drive" results.
        • 4 Years Ago
        "Starting with Mazda6 hardware, the sizzle came easy. That car's four-wheel multilink suspension, standard four-wheel disc brakes, and rigid chassis have always delighted us. Ford has further improved the rigidity by 10 percent in bending and torsion" - Motor Trend

        I realize I remembered hearing the better performance feel was regarding the first gen Fusion/Mazda 6

        However all I could find regarding the new gen Fusion/Mazda 6 is that if the Fusion had better tires it would have still been better handling than the mazda 6.


      • 4 Years Ago
      Good summary Paul! It seems they will be ending a long term learning lesson that they both benefitted from in the past and both seem ready to run solo. The mid tier manufacturers always seem to come up with the most unique products while trying to be their own. Imagine a BMW, Mazda, and SAAB combination as a flight of fancy for moving into the future. BMW would not have to move down market as they are now talking about going to FWD small cars. Mazda would cover that off already with some of the same driving characteristics BMW would need to develop with the products it already has on the road. I throw SAAB in as they are already in talks with BMW, and they have some of the most unique styling trends coming. It would seem that SAAB would take the middle market, Mazda the volume, and BMW can stay in the luxury market instead of watering it down as they are threatening to do if they don't nail these small FWD cars perfectly. None of this may make sense or it may make perfect sense, either way it is fun to imagine where the chess players will make their next moves.
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