Toyota and Mazda have signed a deal to enter a technology-sharing partnership. Besides bringing together two of Japan’s most renowned companies, the agreement also unites the world’s largest automaker with one of the world’s smallest independent automakers. So what does this mean for Toyotaku and Mazdafarians?
Mazda’s gains are very clear: they want Toyota’s hydrogen fuel cell and plug-in hybrid technology. Mazda has been working on FCVs for years, including a hydrogen powered rotary RX-8, but Toyota is currently the only company with a (relatively) mass production hydrogen car on the market, the Mirai (Japanese for “future”). ToMoCo’s also been dominating the hybrid game for almost two decades, and Mazda has yet to offer one of its own design.
What Toyota seeks to gain is not so clear to those not deep into the rabbit hole of auto nerd-dom. What Toyota wants is a peek at how Mazda — whose entire yearly budgets are no more than rounding errors in its own Scrooge McDuck-like vault of cash — can consistently build cars that are lauded by enthusiasts in every metric from performance to styling.
We’ve consistently heard automakers that are many times the size of Mazda whine about how sports cars aren’t profitable (*cough* Nissan IDx *cough*), and that they have to share platforms (370Z) or branding (GT86/FR-S/BRZ) to make them financially viable. And yet, here’s little ol’ Mazda, whose total US sales numbers are less than that of the Camry, showing the world how it’s done with a dedicated platform in the MX-5 Miata.
Now, any time a whale gets within the vicinity of a guppy people get nervous, and Mazda’s been down this road before. During Ford’s 1990s buying spree, it increased its stake in the Hiroshima-based company from to 33.4 percent from the original 7 percent it acquired in 1979. By Japanese law, any stake larger than one-third is enough to control the boardroom, and in subsequent years Mazda engineers were forced to compromise their performance ideals due to platform sharing.
The result was cars like the second-gen Mazda6, which lacked the sharp handling Mazda engineers wanted but had to settle oor in order to share costs with everything from the Mercury Milan to the Ford Edge crossover.
The two split in 2008, allowing Mazda to start from a fresh slate, now known as the SkyActiv development process. This ushered in what is considered across the industry as Mazda’s greatest renaissance since its nearly all-rotary engine lineup back in the early 1970s.
So how is the tie-up with Toyota going to differ from the one with Ford? Well, for one Toyota is in a very different place than Ford was in 1996. Toyota has more money than some small countries’ GDP, so cutting costs by platform sharing is not high on the priority list.
Mostly, however, we feel positive about this deal because it is well known that ToMoCo CEO Akio Toyoda is a die hard enthusiast (That’s him on the left posing with a TE27 owner). In fact, he’s been trying to steer his grandfather’s gigantic ship back towards its own sports car roots since he took the helm in 2009. His goals, however, have been met with variable levels of success.
At the press conference in Japan today Toyoda remarked, “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 carmaking roots.”
Toyota already knows how to build sedans, crossovers, compacts — everything that Mazda makes. And if sales are any indication of success, Toyota excels at all of them. What Toyoda doesn’t have is Mazda’s prowess of process, how to stay true to a vision when there’s a hundred chefs in the kitchen.
Read between the lines: “In this way, Mazda very much practices what Toyota holds dear: making ever-better cars,” Toyoda said. “I am delighted that our two companies can share the same vision and work together to make cars better.”
It seems that what Toyoda — the CEO, not the company — wants is to see what makes Mazda tick, not force a bunch of its own platforms down its throat. Yes, there was the hideous Scion iA unveiled in New York, based on the Mazda2 sedan. However, that’s Mazda improving Toyota’s flagging Scion brand, selling off some excess production capacity in its Mexico plant and milking a few thousand more sales out of Toyota’s expansive dealer network, not ToMoCo diluting Mazda.
It’s not the first time Toyota has gleaned the expertise of a leaner company to create a fun-to-drive car while leaving the rest alone. Toyota acquired 16 percent of Subaru in 2005 and Imprezas have yet to become rebadged Corollas. Instead, what we got was the GT86/FR-S/BRZ to fill a long-empty lightweight RWD sports coupe-shaped hole in the automotive universe.
Besides, the automotive world is a big and scary place. A small company like Mazda was not going to wander the landscape alone for long without a top-level predator snapping it up. If you’ve been following the drama, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has been making hostile rumblings about merging with another company, and Mazda is already scheduled to rebadge the ND MX-5 as the Fiat 124 Spyder.
That would be truly disastrous for Mazda, as Fiat-Chrysler would likely see it as little more than a collection of highly reliable parts to be stripped for long-suffering projects. Toyota, in addition to being highly profitable already, is at least Japanese, so a Ghosn-like razing of Mazda’s traditional business practices is unlikely.
Toyoda-san said that the union is an engagement, not a marriage, but the thinking is clearly long-term: “I can think of nothing more wonderful than showing the world ― together ― that the next 100 years of cars will be just as fun as the first.” We’ll know more about the partnership as news unfolds in the coming weeks.