Mazda North American Operations CEO Masahiro Moro speaking in front of a Mazda CX-5.
Mazda is the mainstream automaker most synonymous with driver enjoyment. The company makes sure each one of its cars has feel, and enthusiasts like us applaud that. But maintaining that reputation in a world of drastic change—including electric powertrains, automation and shoppers with more interest in smartphone connection than man and machine connection—is difficult, yet it’s the reality today.
To learn more about what road to the future Mazda is going to take, we sat down with Mazda North American Operations CEO Masahiro Moro. And, wouldn’t you know it, racing came up, too. (The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.)
Autoweek: How does Mazda continue to provide driver engagement and also look at these 21st century market trends?
Masahiro Moro: Mazda will continue to provide a fantastic driving experience through our products, regardless of powertrain, including a future EV. We have a very clear differentiating philosophy as we produce our products, which we call human-centric approach or human centricity, which is putting people first—believing in the ability of the human to drive. We don’t 100 percent rely on the technology and the machine. The driver can always take control of the car.
That is the philosophy. And to make that happen, our autonomous technology is there to help and support, to provide confidence to the driver to really enjoy the drive. For example, autonomous driving technology is one thing, but how we are going to apply it is different. We wouldn’t think about putting the steering wheel somewhere else so we can enjoy reading books and drinking coffee. It is not our approach. Our approach is sensing the driver’s situation and if something goes wrong, the system will override to ensure safety. I think this is how Mazda is going to use the technology, to help and support a driver. We like our cars as kind of an augmentation of a driver or passenger, so that the cars feel very natural and go beyond what human beings can do.
In the past, to run faster than a human could, people used the horse. Then horse riding became the car. The horse and rider had an emotional connection. We call it “Jinba ittai,” or “horse and rider as one.” And I like our cars to be modern-day horses, where you can have an emotional connection.
And with the latest technology, I think it’s possible. My wife asked me to buy a Roomba. She tried it and it stopped working. The Roomba was stuck in a gap and sending a signal: I need rescue! So my wife rescued it. She even gave it a name. It’s certainly very strange, but it’s a warm, emotional connection between human and machine.
Even though it’s just a machine, it’s going to interact as if it’s your pet. I have seen many of our customers give their vehicles a name, and I quite like that. I like the warm, human connection. Even when I go to dealerships, I like the idea of taking care of the customer with a human touch. This is going to be a differentiator for the Mazda brand in the future: products focused on delivering a consistent, Mazda-unique driving experience.
AW: Toyota is not an enthusiast brand, generally, and Mazda is a much smaller company than Toyota. And it seems like a partnership is growing, not shrinking. Where are the lines of the partnership? Where are you guys distinct and where are you working together?
MM: Akio Toyoda, he is a car enthusiast. He calls himself the master driver of Toyota. And he came to join our MX-5 race with his son. It’s an annual endurance race with Japanese journalists and others, with 28 cars. And this year he wanted to join, so we gave him a car. And he finished second!
Yes, Toyota is the biggest company. That’s why it has to do everything from A to Z. And Mazda focuses on that narrow segment of car enthusiasts. Regardless of the technology, we ensure every Mazda embodies our design and driving philosophies, always. And it (Toyota) respects that and is somewhat jealous because Akio-san really wants to make that kind of car. But how they approach a car and how we approach a car is very different.
We can share technology. A good example is we have taken their hybrid system and put it into the Mazda 3, in Japan. An older generation, so that we can learn about hybrid systems. We didn’t deploy it to the overseas market, but the Prius and Mazda 3, even with the same hybrid system, they drive completely differently, have very different personalities. It’s an identical system, but the Mazda hybrid drives exactly in line with Mazda driving dynamics and the Prius with Prius’. The customer sees them as very different cars.
We just launched the MX-30 at the Toyko Motor Show last month. That car absolutely has Mazda driving characteristics. And this is how we manage vehicle behavior in line with our Jinba ittai. Mazda is not going to be a mini-Toyota. Mazda will remain Mazda. If we lose that Mazda brand value, the consumer will no longer have a reason to purchase a Mazda.
Here is the Mazda CX-30, a small crossover SUV, revealed at the 2019 Los Angeles Auto Show.
AW: You recently came up with SkyActivX technology. Is this a technology you still see a lot of promise in? Is this technology going to be part of the Toyota partnership? Or is that being pushed over for one aspect of Mazda and the Toyota partnership is separate?
MM: SkyActivX technology remains a unique technology. This is a different way to approach environmental concerns. Toyota has consistently invested in hybrid technology since 1997. And they have worked very hard on this. And Mazda has worked very hard on the internal combustion engine. This is a different approach. We just launched SkyActivX into the European market, to gauge market reaction and measure C02 compliance. Because of their steep CO2 regulation, we’re really focusing on sorting out the issue for the European market first.
AW: Launched in the Mazda 3 in Europe?
AW: With the Toyota partnership, you also just hired Nelson Cosgrove to replace John Doonan at Mazda Motorsport, and I’m curious, is it purely a coincidence that he was at Toyota? And there’s this Toyota partnership? Or is there any connection between Toyota and Mazda that informed the decision to hire Mr. Cosgrove?
MM: Simple, straightforward answer: It’s a coincidence, pure coincidence. You know motorsports is not a big industry. You don’t have many phenomenal names. As you start the search, there are only a few candidates. We have gone through those candidates, and I found Nelson is the best fit, has a phenomenal engineering background and a good reputation managing the NASCAR program for Toyota. He has a very high reputation, and I thought he is the right guy.
AW: Externally, from our point of view, our initial reaction was surprise that is wasn’t an internal Mazda person or that it wasn’t sometime tied to Joest or Multimatic. But tied to Toyota. That was the concern.
MM: For our motorsports strategy in North America, to me, the most important area is grassroots. We continue to strive for making grassroots bigger for our fans. Our MX-5 Cup was a very good success; then there’s spec Miata and now we are going to TCR with the Mazda 3. I need someone really familiar with motorsports in the USA. I picked someone that really understands how the program works. Thinking about IMSA, being familiar with that sanctioning body. Nelson is one of the best guys I’ve ever found.
AW: Under John Doonan in 2019, Mazda finally cracked the code. Happy to see that success and we’d hate to see that go away, just as Mazda finally breaks through.
MM: Certainly, the season was great for us. We won—three times! Finally. We led the most laps and our driver, Oliver Jarvis, got a pole position and track record at Daytona. The decision to release John Doonan was very difficult, very difficult for me. But I feel very honored that a Mazda guy was picked by IMSA.
I think motorsports prosperity is important for us. Personally, it was not an easy decision to accept, but I feel pretty comfortable right now. Sometimes you have to move on. And if that’s the time, you find the right guy to open a new chapter. And when I found Nelson, I knew he had worked for TRD, and the good news is that TRD and we are not competing against each other. That makes me feel better.
AW: Are you happy with Joest?
MM: Of course! You know, we had our best-ever season, and I know they worked very hard. We changed many systems and people, and they continue pushing for us and brought us a great season. I am very thankful.
AW: The rumors about the contract going away in March?
MM: I don’t know where that speculation came up, but we haven’t come to anything. We’re just happy to finish the season and are busy working on transitioning from John Doonan to Nelson Cosgrove. And hoping we are going to have a great season next year, but we always check what worked, what didn’t work, in all we do. That is always the company routine.
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