Few announcements in recent years have puzzled me quite as much as the one made by Mazda in May 2012.
The next MX-5, due in 2015, would be co-developed with Fiat, spawning a Japanese-built Alfa Romeo sister version with its own styling and engines. Was the market’s pre-eminent power in affordable rear-driven fun really giving away the family jewels? Was one of the most distinctive driver’s cars in the world really to be cloned?
Interviews with several Mazda high-ups at the Frankfurt motor show yesterday presented the chance to ask some obvious questions. First to supply the answers was Mazda chairman Takashi Yamanouchi – surely a man without whose support the deal couldn’t have happened.
I asked if the agreement had anything to do with the fairly dire straights the Japanese manufacturer had been in at the end of the last decade, and whether Yamanouchi would take the same decision again, now that things are looking brighter?
His answer, delivered with an entirely straight face, surprised me. “I would,” he said. “We are a small, independent car-maker; it’s important for us to foster wider links with others and to cultivate relationships like this. I am happy with the deal with Fiat. I’m sure Mr Marchionne is also very happy.” That last line came with a smirk that suggested the man well knew the value of what Mazda was – is – giving away here.
Except that nothing is actually being given away. “We expect to make good profit from all of our new models. The MX-5 can be no different,” Yamanouchi went on. He wouldn’t say exactly how much of the up-front project investment Fiat has supplied, but Mazda’s the one with the rear-drive knowhow and the factory where the cars will be built, so you might reasonably expect Fiat to be holding its end up with the cheque book.
A later conversation with another company veteran more or less confirmed as much: “It’s a deal that’s making a lot of money for the company,” he said. It’d have to be.
There was, of course, another deal just like it not-so-long ago, spawning a pair of affordable rear-drivers also built in Japan, where one partner allegedly brought most of the finance and the other most of the technical expertise. The Toyobaru has been a hit for Toyota and Subaru both critically and in sales terms, so why wouldn’t the likes of Mazda and Fiat seek to emulate it?
Because it’s selling out, isn’t it? That’s what it looks like. It’s taking Granny’s engagement ring off your other half’s finger and swapping it in at the pawn-brokers for rent money. And I still can’t quite wrap my head around Mazda’s talismanic little sports car being used as a cash cow, or having its enduring distinctiveness eroded – even if it is only by the unswervable realities of modern-day car making.
I’m glad we’re getting a new one, don’t get me wrong - and I’m glad it’ll be as affordable as we’re used to. But I don’t like the idea that it’s being defined in any way by an Alfa Romeo – whether that’s directly or indirectly, and in opposition to, or as a complementary sibling for, the Duetto, or the 2C, or whatever Alfa ends up calling it.
Porsche wouldn’t sell off the 911 after all, nor BMW the Mini. Neither would they need to. Part of this, I grant, is a reaction to the injustice of an industry where the best cars aren’t always the most profitable.