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Dining with the president

MOTORING

I think motoring writers sometimes forget who motor shows are for.

In the rush between press conferences, unveilings, extravagant lunches and an overwhelming sense of self-importance, it’s easy to overlook the fact that motor shows are actually for the car-buying public – a chance for people to see, touch and sit in the most important new cars of the year.

Motor show media activities are usually limited to a preview day, so they’re an incredibly small part of these events.

I rather like the fact that car companies still go to the trouble of pulling the covers off a new model but, in the age of the internet and constant pre-show publicity, there is little on show these days that we haven’t seen before.

So why do journalists attend motor shows? Tradition. Status, too, because you have to be seen at the big ones and/or say you were there. But it’s also a chance to mix with key people in a global industry in a way that isn’t possible at any other time.

Some companies don’t make that easy. But some are incredibly generous with their time. Mazda, for example. I attended the Australian International Motor Show this month with Mazda New Zealand, ostensibly to go and look at the new Mazda6.

But, really, looking at this car also meant a chance to meet with Takashi Yamanouchi: representative director and chairman of the board, president and chief executive officer of Mazda Motor Corporation.

It’s rare to meet a car company president but I have interviewed Yamanouchi-san several times and attended official dinners with him twice. One involved a $25,000 tuna, but that’s another story.

Indeed, Yamanouchi-san remembers better than I do. He must interact with thousands of journalists every year but recognised me when we were reintroduced in Sydney. I said we first met at a previous Sydney show. He said no, it was in Tokyo. He was right.

Company secrets
It’s absurd to think that a car company head will let anything slip over dinner that he really doesn’t want you to know. But in a relaxed atmosphere, you will get a few illuminating gems that allow you to speculate.

On the subject of the new Mazda6’s more extravagant style, increased exterior dimensions and equipment, Yamanouchi-san said this: “We have the ideal of being a premium brand. Having technology alone is not enough to become premium.”

A small carmaker by global standards, Mazda is on record as favouring one-off alliances for certain projects – such as the next-generation Mazda MX-5 platform being shared with a new Alfa Romeo sports car.

Back in 1979, Ford took a share in Mazda that grew to 33.3%, although since 2008 it has diminished to virtually nothing: just 3%. Would Mazda consider a permanent alliance with another maker?

Yamanouchi-san’s response was surprising: “Ford is still the only automaker that has a share in Mazda. We still have an agreement with them that we can consider each other partners.”

Whose idea was it to collaborate with Alfa Romeo on the next-generation Mazda MX-5? “This is a special case and we have agreed with Fiat that we will not discuss the issue of who initiated talks.”

SkyActiv will remain Mazda’s core engineering technology for the medium term. Yamanouchi-san revealed Mazda will launch six more SkyActiv models in the next four years (in addition to the CX-5 and new Mazda6).

Even counting the next MX-5 and CX-9, that leaves a lot of potential. Among them must be a smaller CX-3 crossover? Sage looks, no comment.

Rotary remains “an iconic technology of ours” and may return in a sports car or in another application (such as a generator for hydrogen vehicles). But not for Le Mans: Mazda remains the only Japanese maker to win the 24-hour race, with the rotary-powered 787B in 1991.

This year, Mazda will supply a 2.3-litre SkyActiv diesel engine to Dempsey Racing for its LMP2 entry. The racing engine has twice the power and torque of the standard powerplant.

Does Mazda plan to return as a factory team? A win would surely boost its premium aspirations. “Don’t forget it took us 20 years of hard work to win last time,” explains Yamanouchi-san.

“We have the technology, we have the history. But we do not have the money.”

Then, quick as a flash, he proudly displays previously unseen images of the Dempsey racer on his iPhone. “Have you seen these?”

Getting to the end
I have attended many functions in Japan, but it’s not until Japan comes closer to home that you really notice some of the idiosyncrasies of business/social interaction.

Our dinner was at the Park Hyatt Sydney, in a private room called The Study. Mazda executives were lined up on one side of the table, looking out at an expansive view of Sydney Harbour. Journalists faced them on the other side.

I hadn’t come for the view but thought the layout odd. Apparently, it is considered a courtesy in Japanese business for guests to have their backs to the window, so they do not have to face the glare. Not important at night, but that’s the rule.

Yamanouchi-san was relaxed and accommodating through the course of the evening, cheerfully answering questions right through his meal despite stern instructions from Mazda public relations people to journalists for some down time.

Then 10.30pm came. According to the invitation, that was finish time. We were halfway through coffee,but suddenly everybody was standing up and moving to the door. Because it was finishing time.

I am told this is also common in Japan, even when the host is not a busy car company president.

So goodbye and thank you, Yamanouchi-san. Until next time. One of the good things about Mazda is that I know there will be a next time.


MAZDA6

What exactly is it? A completely new generation of Mazda’s mid-size model. Also the second Mazda to be designed and produced with the full suite of SkyActiv weight-saving and low-friction technologies.

Mazda6 will be available in just two body styles: sedan and wagon. The hatchback has been discontinued.

Powertrain: 2.0-litre petrol producing 114kW/210Nm, 2.5-litre petrol producing 138kW/250Nm and 2.2-litre diesel producing 129kW/420Nm. Six-speed automatic transmission, front-drive. Combined fuel consumption 6.0/6.3/4.8 litres per 100km.

Anything interesting in the equipment list? All Mazda6 models will have Bluetooth, touch-screen audio and reversing camera.

The GSX and flagship Limited models will also feature the i-Eloop brake energy regeneration system, TomTom integrated navigation and a central command dial that replicates the touch-screen and steering wheel control functions.

The Limited will also carry Mazda’s new i-Activesense safety package, which employs camera and radar assistance. It includes blind-spot monitoring, lane departure warning, automatic high-beam control for the headlights, active cruise control and smart brake support, which can automatically slow or even stop the car if a nose-to-tail impact is imminent.

Price: To be announced. New model on sale March 2013.

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