When Mazda revealed the Shinari concept car in the courtyard of a palazzo in Milan in 2010, the physical expression of the Kodo design language, the future direction of Mazda design was initiated. Its sheet metal is taut, precise, edged; its stance is low, wide, planted. But at the end of the afternoon, when the sun was setting over the villa, the Shinari was still a concept car, the sort of thing that is ordinarily displayed, not executed.
Because the age of concept cars as being truly conceptual and imaginative is largely over, having been replaced by a more production-intent orientation, Shinari seemed to be something that was unlikely to be realized. Provocative, but not to be produced. Sure, design cues are typically picked up here and there from concepts and applied to production vehicles. And if you sort of squint, sometimes you can almost correlate the concept and the car-as-built.
All of which is to say, there is generally a gulf between the sculpture that is a concept and the car that is a manifestation of workaday realities like depths of draw for sheet metal and the necessity of providing a useful package for occupants. In the world of concepts, metal forms like liquid and headroom is never an issue. Arguably, however, Mazda has come exceedingly close to Shinari with the 2014 Mazda6, a straight-up production car.
A clone? No. But a close relative? No question. And you don’t even need to squint.
The Shinari concept. Sure, it’s a concept. Exotic. Striking. But the design of this sedan has given rise to the 2014 Mazda6.
Positioning & Synchronization
Tim Barnes, director of Product Planning and Strategy, lays out the positioning of the 2013 Mazda6 compared to others in the midsize segment and where they’ve positioned the 2014. The 2013: “a youthful, sporty image.” The 2014: “a more sporty, sophisticated and premium image.” The word sport and its variants play broadly in the Mazda vocabulary. One way of interpreting the positioning is that the 2014 Mazda6 is a car for responsible adults who may really wish they were still able to buy or clamber into a Miata MX5. This is not an issue of affordability, but of image. So the 2014 Mazda6 provides a platform and appearance of sportiness for a more mature individual.
And while that may seem to be a bit of an exaggeration, Hiroshi Kajiyama, Mazda6 program manager, talks about how one of the development goals during the program was to realize “Jinba-ittai performance,” which is a Japanese term related to man and horse being in complete synchronization, and they’re not talking draft horses. He says they were working to achieve the “driving performance of a MX5 in a C [size] sedan.”
Starting from Scratch
Although many companies talk about “new product development programs,” oftentimes, observes Ruben Archilla, group manager, Advanced Engineering, Mazda R&D, this product development is mainly about taking existing things and then adding to them. There is an existing model, and that becomes the basis of the subsequent. To be sure, there was an existing Mazda6. But that’s not what the new one is based on.
“This is from scratch,” Archilla says of the 2014. New. And for a variety of reasons, both internal and external. The primary external factors, he notes, were (1) the global financial collapse, and the anemic health of the yen, both of which caused serious cost pressures; (2) the separation between Ford and Mazda; and (3) new regulations for safety and fuel efficiency/emissions. Any one of these would have had a massive effect on a product development program. Mazda engineers hit the trifecta.
Then there were the internal factors. Mazda management laid down a directive that Mazda would improve its overall fuel efficiency by 30% by 2015 compared to 2008. Archilla says that there were some options. One would be to add hybrids to the mix. This would necessitate having hybrids represent 50% of the fleet. Another was to add electric vehicles. This would mean that 23% of the fleet would be represented by EVs. They took the third approach: improve everything about their conventional vehicles.
This led to what Mazda calls “SKYACTIV TECHNOLOGY.” Not only is this a suite of singular elements—body, chassis, engine, transmission—but it is best realized as a suite, with each of the elements working best with the others synergistically. That is, in order to achieve the 30% improvement, Archilla says that the weight reductions of the body and chassis contribute 3 to 5%, the engines (there is 2.5-liter gas engine and a forthcoming 2.2-liter diesel) 15% (gas) and 20% (diesel), and the six-speed transmissions, automatic and manual, 4 to 7% or 1%, respectively.
So in developing the car, they went full-on, working toward not only hitting the 30% mark, but doing so in a vehicle that would compete with the likes of the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and Volkswagen Passat (primary) and the Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima and Toyota Camry (secondary).
It is design meets engineering meets manufacturing. Yes, even the manufacturing is, in effect, SKYACTIV.
The 2014 Mazda6 features not only a new look, but is even new right down to its more efficient frame structure.
According to Barnes, one of the things that they sought to create was space between their product and other midsize vehicles through four elements:
1. DYNAMIC STYLING. In addition to the forms of the sheet metal, they’ve done several things to the overall design of the car, such as pulling the A-pillar rearward and having a comparatively short decklid. The face of the car is more distinctive, with the grille shape flowing onto the fenders, not up the hood, and the fascia forms around the fog lamps pulling downward for a more planted stance. This is echoed in the rear, as the tail lamps angle upward and the rear valance downward.
2. DRIVING SOPHISTICATION. This is largely realized through the structure of the vehicle, which even gets to the degree of changing the welding of the front and rear cross members and the design of the corners of the cross members to increase overall rigidity. Spot welding has given way to MIG welding. The corners of the box section have gone from being box shaped (four sides) to being cross shaped (12 sides), thereby increasing the rigidity of the front cross member by 140% and 100% for the rear. They’ve made extensive use of high-strength steel.
3. TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATION. Setting aside the rather clever engineering that is part and parcel of SKYACTIV, the car is available with a variety of new sensor-based technologies, including radar cruise control, front obstruction warning, lane departure warning, high-beam control (automatically switches between high and low beams, depending on conditions), smart city brake support (if the car is traveling at from 2.5 to 18.6 mph and is closing in on a car that’s within 16.5 ft, brakes are automatically activated to mitigate collision), and rear cross traffic alter.
4. METICULOUS CRAFTSMANSHIP. Derek Jenkins, director, Design, Mazda North American Operations, notes, for example, that there was a tremendous amount of time spent on the interior from the macro and detailed levels. For example, there is the now-obligatory stitching of the leather on the seats. But moreover, there is the studied use of materials, such as film insert moldings and satin chrome plating, on the inside of the vehicle that helps elevate both the visual and tactile aspects of the car.
What’s interesting about the whole SKYACTIV approach is that Mazda actually modified its manufacturing operations to accommodate more efficient production (the company is nothing if not interested in eking out improvements wherever possible). That is, they’ve gone from using traditional dedicated production equipment for machining to four-axis CNC equipment. According to Archilla, whereas before they had 45 machining processes necessary to produce gasoline engines (I4s and V6s) and diesels, they now do it with four machining processes. This has resulted in a number of benefits, including a reduction in production time from 6 hours to 1.3 hours. This is predicated on the fact that whereas in the traditional setup a majority of the time required was in non-value-added activities (e.g., clamp/unclamp, transfer, and idle), now the parts spend the better part of the time in station with metal being removed. Another benefit takes the form of reduced capital investment, which Archilla says was reduced by 70% via the CNC installation. In addition to which, they’ve realized production flexibility. The diesel engine demand for the Japan market, for example, turned out to be 500% over plan, and they’ve been able to accommodate that by having the flexible manufacturing system.
As mentioned, there will be a diesel engine, the SKYACTIV-D 2.2-liter, available for the Mazda6 in the U.S. market. It will be made available in the second half of 2013.
In addition to which, there is another technology that Mazda will be bringing to the car, i-ELOOP. Odd name notwith-standing, this is a capacitor-based brake energy regeneration system. The i-ELOOP system has three main elements: a variable voltage alternator for brake energy regeneration, a DC-DC converter, and an electric double-layer capacitor.
So as the car brakes, the alternator generates electricity that goes to the capacitor. The electricity then passes from the capacitor through the DC-DC converter, where it can be used to provide power to the battery. It, too, is coming later and is a contributor to fuel efficiency.
Traction through Innovation
Without question, Mazda is a challenger brand in the market. According to Autodata (motorintelligence.com), in 2012 it had but 1.9% of the U.S. market. Given its comparatively small size, it needs to do things differently. And if the 2014 Mazda6 is any indication—and it undoubtedly is—then it should gain traction through its design, engineering and manufacturing innovation.
CX-5 Gets 2.5, Too
Tim Barnes, director of Product Planning and Strategy, Mazda North American Operations, says that Mazda has had to increase production of the CX-5 crossover three times because worldwide demand has outstripped supply. The 2013 CX-5, the first model available, came with a 155-hp, 2.0-liter engine.
The 2014 CX-5 is being offered with the 184-hp, 2.5-liter engine that’s also being used in the 2014 Mazda6.
One interesting aspect of the 2.0-liter vs. 2.5-liter engines. An all-wheel-drive CX-5 with a 2.0-liter gets 25 city/31 highway miles per gallon. An all-wheel-drive CX-5 with the 2.5-liter gets 24/30 mpg.
Taking the horsepower difference into account, it is evident that the Mazda powertrain engineers have been working to eke out efficiency from the 2.5-liter engine.
2014 CX-5 is available with the 2.5-liter SKYACTIV engine—more horsepower and slightly less mpg compared with the base 2.0-liter offering.
Derek Jenkins on Design
We first met Derek Jenkins in Milan, at the reveal of the Shinari concept vehicle in August, 2010. Jenkins, the director of Design at Mazda North America, was with Volkswagen prior to joining Mazda in 2009, where he worked on a wide range of products, from the Audi A2 to the VW Microbus concept. He is a graduate of Art Center.
When we ask Jenkins about the 2014 Mazda6, he says, “After we did the Shinari concept, there was an effort to bring as much of that car as we could into a product. That was a key element behind the development of the Mazda6. We were able to capture some of the body surface, front fender lines, and some of the rear end.” He admits, “The proportions are not as dramatic as the concept’s,” but adds, “It is a more believable package.”
“Our number-one priority for the Mazda6,” Jenkins explains, “was to provide a more up-market look.” He lists a number of the competitive cars in the midsize segment—the Fusion, Optima, Sonata, among them—(“If you went back five years and said there was going to be a huge change going on in the midsize category, I don’t think anyone would have believed that”), and says, “Our goal with this car is that when it is sitting with those other cars, it looks and feels a class above—both the exterior design and the way it is finished on the interior. I’m not even speaking of SKYTACTIV. Just the design standpoint.”
And while all designers want to create great-looking products, there is a sense of urgency underlying Mazda’s on-going undertaking: “For a brand like Mazda, which prides itself on dynamic design and driver orientation and vehicles that speak the language of performance and driving dynamics, we have to step it up and position ourselves in an authentic way. It’s challenging. For me, making an honest attempt to out-class the other cars is where we have the opportunity. How we do the styling, the material finishes, the proportions, the grille shape, the stance of the car—that’s where we have the opportunity.”
Derek Jenkins, director of Design for Mazda North America, on the 2014 Mazda6: “The car looks and feels like more than you’re paying for.”