What do you get when you mix
Honda and Alfa Romeo?

They are at the forefront of gasoline and diesel engine technology, they invent little crazy things to improve handling, they only want to build cars for driving enthusiasts, the cars they build must be great to drive, beautiful to look at. In short, Mazda only wants to build cars that are worth building as they say. Mazda is the new Alfa Romeo - with the only difference being that they don't break down.

words by BOBBY ANG


ack in 2010, Mazda had a global sales volume of 727,000 units. Last year they net a staggering 1.5 million units. 200% rise it is from a percentile standpoint, it's still a far cry from Toyota's 10 million and Honda's 5 million global sales. Mazda as they always remind themselves, is a small independent car maker.

To trace back to the very point where their meteoric rise begins, one has to go all the way back to the 2008 subprime crisis where the big three was faced with an impending chapter 11. While Chrysler and GM took a big loan from the government, Ford under Alan Mullaly decided to go on a product offensive and a thorough restructuring of their business. Selling off Volvo to Geely, Aston Martin to a consortium of investors, and Jaguar, Land Rover to Tata group. Mazda on the other hand, which has been saving up since partnering with Ford, decided to invite its business partners alongside and just buy themselves back from Ford.

Independent again, the road map to gradually relinquish all forms of Ford intellectual properties became clear, and Mazda must bite the bullet to research and develop their own technology to remain relevant in an ever challenging business. Coincidentally, it was also the era where everybody seems to be arriving at crossroads of converging technology, the plethora of new powertrain options such as electrification or hydrogen fuel cell as alternative forms of mobility seems to be perfect for little Mazda, as everyone might look like they have to begin from equal ground, sprinting off from the same starting grid.

But unlike everybody else, Mazda is a very different sort of company, as the only car maker that has mastered the rotary engine and the first to put a miller cycle engine into production, they are a very unconventional car company, one that takes the path less beaten. Mazda put down a road map that seems so absurd, one that draws disbelief from not just outsiders but insiders as well, a decision so painful that many long time engineers quit and left the company thinking that this can never be done - Mazda decided to greatly improve current technology. The gasoline engine as it is, the diesel engine as it is, and the automatic transmission as it is - stuffs that everyone thought had reached such maturity that one has to invest in alternative powertrains to progress into the future.

Likewise what Jack Ma recites "If everyone thinks you're right, it probably isn't a great idea after all."

Under an umbrella term called SkyActiv, Mazda wants to drastically improve everything in one shot. To have the best driving experience, the best build cabin, the best gasoline engine, the best diesel engine, the best automatic transmission and the best design - claims that are easy to substantiate if you're a Malaysian, but not at all simple if you're a Japanese. In fact, the investments into all these are so huge, that Mazda had to raise a further $1.9 billion cash to replenish their capital, one that even dilutes remaining Ford shares to a scant 2%.

And today, we saw the result of this unprecedented achievement. The world's most advanced gasoline engine with a crazy 14:1 compression ratio, and the world's only diesel engine that doesn't require any form of after treatment to pass emission tests, and a super lightweight automatic torque converter transmission as well as an all new manual transmission. Not only just high tech componentry, Mazda decided to benchmark themselves against the European premium marques in terms of design, interior build and safety technology.

This culminates in the current Mazda line up where interior build qualities easily matches up to the likes of Lexus or Infiniti, engines that are far more efficient and powerful, and designs that look more suited to that of Lexus than Toyota. In fact, Mazda had to reinvent the way they build cars in order to be able to save enough costs on manufacturing for the savings to be poured into these high tech, high quality interiors.

Just look at the new CX-5. A car that's supposed to price compete against the likes of the Hyundai Tucson, but comes with Heads up Display, Automatic braking, Lane departure warning, Dynamic headlamps, interiors that would put a Jaguar to shame, and handling characteristics that easily matches up to a BMW. In fact, Caradvice from Australia recently pitched the old CX-5 against the Lexus NX and guess what, without even considering the price advantage, the CX-5 won against the NX based on categorical merits alone. It handles better, it shifts gears more intuitively, it has a better in-car infotainment system, and it has a more superior driving position. The CX-5 took the victory convincingly.

The Jinba Ittai division studies anything from driver seating position, the slight G-Force felt from the neck of a driver when the car moves off or coming to a halt at the traffic lights, to how much the necklace of a passenger pendulums when the car goes through a series of curves. It is from this division that every Mazda vehicle has the perfect driving position, the position of the gear lever, the costly decision to have even premium car features like the organ-type accelerator pedal in their entry level Mazda 2, and now, to using the negative inertia felt from engine torque changes during cornering, to reduce the effect of G-Force - no joke, this is G-Vectoring.

While the word 'Vectoring' might led to many drawing a parallel to the famous Torque Vectoring, it couldn't be further from the truth as torque vectoring is the simple act of either powering the outside wheels more to pivot a car, or braking the inside wheels to pivot a car at certain speeds. G-vectoring on the other hand, works be it you're turning your vehicle at 10km/h or plundering your tyres into a 150km/h bank turn. At the very moment we change our forward inertia to a lateral one, G-Vectoring kicks in, to 'cancel' a portion of the G-Force felt during directional changes. By drastically reducing this, the car stabilises faster, and is ready to take the next input from the steering wheel

Bringing things up another notch, Mazda honed the CX-5 further in the new generation. Sporting a more pronounced and matured rendition of the Kodo design language, the new CX-5 is sharper, more confident in its stance. The ground-breaking Soul Red paint has been given yet another level of depth dubbed Soul Red Crystal, the interior quality now sports a more liberal use of the costly satin chrome finishing that is heavily used in Porsches, and not just the dash or door cards, but the centre console is wrapped in premium, high quality leather while the beautiful aluminium milled switches were retained and carried forward from the CX-5 mark one.

Driving the new CX-5 along Mazda's proving ground in Mine, Yamaguchi; my job was to follow the dancing MX-5 ahead. The engines and transmissions are largely carried forward, so the characteristics are very familiar. Ever so eager to change direction, the new CX-5 now has another trick up its sleeves - the new SkyActiv G-Vectoring (GVC) fitted. Another ground breaking technology from Mazda, GVC was the culmination of a division within Mazda called 'Jinba Ittai' - no joke, the marketing term for the MX-5 is now a division by itself.

Lastly would be the interior sound proofing. The engineers of Jinba Ittai finally gave way to popular customer consensus in that the car is now fitted with much more sound deadening materials - something Mazda engineers never wanted because to be able to listen to the road, to process all forms of visual and aural comunication. I guess this is why I enjoyed so much behind the wheel of the old CX-5 on the track, as it just allows me to hear my tyres, my little tyre squeals, rough patches of the road etc.

The new CX-5 on the other hand, is a product that's honed to perfection. It's quiet inside, it's very high in quality, it drives extremely well, and dare I say this, it's the best looking mid-size SUV out there.

Key changes in this new CX-5, is that the rear seats now can be reclined, there're second-row air conditioning vents on the centre console, the entire car is newly redesigned, interior build quality has been improved vastly, and the rear boot compartment lid is now made of a much better quality material. The full LED lightst front and back, the whole car just reeks of premium finishing through and through. Yes it might not be as spacious as the CRV, Mazda engineers has never been as clever as Hondas when it comes to maximising interior space from packaging, but the same goes for a BMW 3-Series, it'll never be as comfy or as spacious as a Honda Accord. The priorities for premium cars are rather different from the everyday Joe mobile. Design, build, sporty handling characteristics always take precedence in premium cars as opposed to practical run-abouts.

Mazda decided to benchmark themselves against the European premium marques in terms of design, interior build and safety technology.

The sensation can be rather vague at first, as one would doubt whether it's the system kicking in or simply a case of too hard a turn in initially. But repeated tests afforded during this session proves a huge difference in one with or without G-vectoring. The best thing is, it feels completely natural and so intuitive that it sort of disappears in a non intrusive manner. This is grossly different to the Active Body Control of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class Coupe where the car lifts up the suspension of the two outer wheels to 'level' the car - a good theory, but one where the actuators and solenoids couldn't keep up just in time.

The transmission is as good as it has been all along, coming into a corner at 110km/h, a jab of the brake pedal sends the car immediately into a double downshift action. With the locking clutches of the torque converter SkyActiv transmission, the CX-5 holds its gear superbly and leaves the rpm at a desirable rpm range ready for the car to pull immediately out of the corner. The follow up shifts were rapid and precise, the brakes are greatly calibrated to give an exceptionally linear feel, one that is firm yet progressive both in depressing and releasing the pedals.

Lest I forgot, the CX-5 does everything like a premium car, except the pricing. That's Mazda's Blue Ocean Strategy for their next five years. And there's a logic behind. By identifying and positioning themselves as the go-to brand for those who're looking to purchase their second car - but couldn't quite yet afford a premium brand, Mazda is banking on this in hopes to sell more, amortise their immense costs faster, and make better cars, sooner.

You can sense a hell lot of ideological madness in Mazda, but being Japanese, the strategic pragmatism seems to be held tightly within. To cut it short, there's plenty of old Alfa Romeo and a good blend of modern Honda both within Mazda.

...interiors that would put a Jaguar to shame, and handling characteristics that easily matches up to a BMW

The engines and transmissions are largely carried forward, so the characteristics are very familiar

...the CX-5 holds its gear superbly and leaves the rpm at a desirable rpm range ready for the car to pull immediately out of the corner

The new CX-5 on the other hand, is a product that's honed to perfection.