Mazda. Hiroshima. The atom bomb and the rotary engine. Four things which are inexorably linked to each other. Understanding their relationship will bring you to a better understanding of the brand, its core philosophy and its future.
Based in the Hiroshima Prefecture, Mazda was founded in 1920 under the name of Toyo Kogyo Co. by Jujiro Matsuda.
It originally manufactured cork, moving to machine tools, and eventually manufacturing light vehicles and equipment for the Japanese Imperial Military throughout World War II.
Thus Hiroshima was deemed a strategic military location due to its manufacturing prowess and being a coastal town with easy access to the war in Asia and the South Pacific.
The atomic bomb was dropped at the tail-end of World War II, exactly at 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945, killing an estimated 70,000 immediately, including civilians, children and women.
Mazda was critical to the city’s eventual revival, as the company offered its resources to help the citizens of Hiroshima.
And the city has loved and supported the company ever since, thus the deep ties between Mazda, as company and social entity, and Hiroshima, the birthplace of the brand.
Never stop challenging is a popular battle-cry for the small manufacturer, and reflects the company’s deep Japanese values.
Years after the Second World War ended, the Japanese were once again working hard to become independent and a real world power, this time in the field of economics and finance.
In order to do so, the Japanese government wanted to consolidate all its key industries to give financial stability and make better use of the limited resources available to the nation still reeling from the aftershocks of its loss.
Mazda had gained favorable working relations with NSU, which had created the revolutionary Wankel or rotary engine.
Mazda went on to further develop this, and was able to utilize its full displacement or capacity for every revolution, as opposed to regular piston-driven engines that utilize only half their displacement to produce power for every engine revolution.
With Mazda’s decision to defy convention by focusing on a different powertrain, this gave the company the opportunity to be independent and avoid being assimilated into a larger entity.
Since the company’s focus shifted from being merely a vehicle manufacturer and assembler, to a proper engineering and mechanical design firm, it was able to differentiate itself.
From here, we can see how the rotary engine very much created Mazda’s identity and saved its independence.
From the Cosmo Sport, to the RX3, RX4 and various generations of the RX-7, the highly unique brap-brap-brap idle of a ported rotary engine has never been replicated.
The years under stewardship with Ford Motor Company were the company’s dark years: ingenuity and creativity was stunted, and the small Japanese firm played second fiddle to Ford’s whims.
It was a necessity to partner with Ford at that time due to financial difficulties on Mazda’s part, but the company lost focus and had mixed success despite decent sales of underwhelming products.
After gaining independence in 2015, Mazda finally was able to put its destiny again in the palm of its hands.
Today, Mazda is doing very well. In 2016, the company sold 1.53 million vehicles worldwide, 980,000 of which were sold in Japan alone, making Mazda second overall in the Japanese domestic market after Toyota.
With the likes of Toyota, General Motors and the Volkswagen Group hovering at the 10 million cars per year level, Mazda still has a very long way to go.
But its product lineup is perhaps the best, most exciting and most rationalized in all of the automotive universe.
The Mazda 2, Mazda 3, Mazda 6, recently unveiled CX-3, all-new CX-5, and upcoming CX-9, plus of course the MX-5 roadster and RF (retractable fastback) are all impressive and exciting to drive, and that’s no lip service.
We spent a day at MINE Circuit and Proving Ground, Mazda’s exclusive track and testing facility to experience SkyActiv Technology and Jinba Ittai.
The experience was impressive. Mazda’s philosophy of Jinba Ittai, which translates to Horse and Rider as One, can be felt and experienced on even the most dowdy of compact sedans, the Mazda 3 (or Axela in the Japanese domestic market.
Indeed, when Mazda says it wants to make life more enjoyable for the everyday driver in everyday driving conditions, it really means this.
Jinba-Ittai focuses on improving interaction, comfort and intuitiveness between car and driver.
Small things, such as the seating position, pedal layout and seat-design are greatly researched and engineered to provide the best possible driving experience.
Coupled with SkyActiv technology, the current crop of Mazda vehicles are fun, efficient, highly versatile and exciting to drive.
The SkyActiv technology is also another defiance of common norm or convention.
In engineering terms, roughly one-third of energy can be extracted out of liquid fuels, the rest turning into heat and exhaust gasses.
While the rest of the automotive universe are trying to find alternative fuels or pursuing electric energy propulsion, Mazda recognizes that such new technologies will take a generation or two to gain mainstream widespread use, especially in Asean countries and other developing markets.
Supporting infrastructure will be expensive and slow to come online.
By working on existing technology, continually refining and tweaking it, Mazda feels it can realize real-world savings immediately in all markets where it is present.
That is the logic behind SkyActiv; it sounds high-tech, but in reality, is technology that works, is readily available, affordable, and is present in all of Mazda’s vehicles.
Another amazing technology is G-vectoring control. This works by reducing torque and the resulting positive acceleration input to the front wheels by 0.05 Gs, thus allowing the front tires to load up, and improve turn-in and stability mid-corner all the way to exit.
Sounds simple, works seamlessly and you’d think you were such a smooth driver indeed.
The future is exciting for Mazda. Sales are moving briskly, the company has its new models all on sale.
It will be celebrating its centenary year in 2020 and with it, the prospect of a revolutionary rotary engine sports car or grand tourer, unveiled at the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show as a concept, dubbed RX 2020.
A fitting gift for a company that has, for the most part, constantly struggled to find its own way, going against the grain, providing cars that ordinary people can enjoy in everyday driving conditions, and constantly challenging. This is Mazda.
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