Crossovers’ success key to Mazda’s shift to EVs

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HIROSHIMA, Japan — Mazda Motor Corp. could start building its first EVs in the U.S. as early as 2026 — but that hinges on a slew of variables, cautions CEO Akira Marumoto.

Primary among them is a successful rollout next year of the new CX-70 and CX-90 crossovers.

Those upmarket, higher-margin products are positioned to help generate the profits that will power the weighty investment needed to lift Mazda into next-generation electrification.

One hitch: Marumoto says a looming economic slump may undermine the plan for a richer product mix that has buttressed Mazda’s earnings of late, and its lucrative upmarket shift.

“Starting next year, I think we should start thinking about recession,” Marumoto said in an interview at the carmaker’s global headquarters here this month. While the CEO said he’s not “pessimistic” about an economic downturn, a slowdown combined with higher interest rates could dent the recent progress the brand has made in tilting its sales into fully loaded model grades.

“Interest rates are rising, so customer payments may increase,” Marumoto told Automotive News. “So the rich, high-grade mix that we have this year may not be applicable next year.”

Marumoto’s comments underscore the dilemma that some old-school automakers face as they grapple with electrification — how to capitalize on today’s sales to fund tomorrow’s products. And deciding when to time the tipping point to EVs is especially delicate for smaller players such as Mazda.

Even its bigger rival Nissan Motor Co. last month signed a ¥200 billion ($1.48 billion) loan to afford its own electrification plans. Mazda spent less than that on all its global R&D last year.

For Mazda, the rollout of new vehicles such as the CX-70 and CX-90, with their hybrid powertrain options and near premium features and accoutrements, is key to generating the robust revenue needed to fund a host of new technologies. In the case of Mazda, which currently sells barely 1.2 million vehicles a year and holds 2 percent global share, that list is long for its modest size.

Under the updated midterm business plan unveiled this month, Mazda will expand its technology offerings to include no less than the following by 2030:

  • A rotary-engine hybrid
  • A plug-in hybrid
  • A traditional strong hybrid
  • Diesel engines
  • A mild-hybrid Skyactiv-X system
  • Better gasoline power plants
  • A new dedicated EV platform
  • And possibly the company’s own internally developed next-generation electric vehicle battery technology.

“We will make profits from our large vehicles, so that we will save enough funding for full investment in the next stage,” Akira Koga, senior managing executive officer in charge of corporate strategy, said in a briefing this month about the strategy.

“We will use our multi-solution approach to respond during this transition period.”

Mazda’s new road map calls for plowing more than $11 billion into electrification through 2030 through a string of new partnerships that target everything from batteries and motors to computer chips in an attempt to catch up in the global race for new technologies.

Marumoto, speaking in a wide-ranging interview, said the plan will include the electrification of all nameplates by the end of the decade, including the sporty MX-5 Miata roadsters. The “vision study model” teased during the midterm plan announcement previews the next-gen Miata to highlight Mazda’s commitment to keep that car, even in the EV age.

Marumoto declined to say what kind of electrified drivetrain it might get. But tellingly, the renditions released by Mazda show a curvy, rear-slung coupe with no tailpipes.

Separately, Marumoto confirmed that Mazda’s famed rotary engine will finally return to market by March 31, the end of the current fiscal year. It will debut in a plug-in hybrid version of the MX-30.

Marumoto said Mazda eventually needs to build pure battery electrics within the U.S. for its biggest and most important market. That could come as soon as the second half of the midterm plan’s 2025-2027 Phase 2. Production will happen at one of Mazda’s existing factories, either in Alabama or Mexico, not at a new dedicated EV assembly plant.

Still, the timeline for actually doing so is anything but clear.

“There are so many things we need to research and study first,” Marumoto said, noting uncertainties about the supply chain, customer demand, and the local manufacturing and sourcing requirements laid out to qualify for U.S. EV tax credits under the new Inflation Reduction Act.

“Compared with two years ago, customers’ acceptance of EVs has really increased more than we expected,” he said. “I’m sure EV volume will continue to increase. But I can’t predict the timeline of EV penetration because there are so many uncertainties.”

Mazda now expects EVs to make up between 25 and 40 percent of its global sales in 2030. That is up from Mazda’s earlier outlook, which anticipated that EVs would account for just a quarter of all volume. But Mazda kept the target as a flexible range to account for all theunknowns.

Mazda’s Koga said it could take up to 10 years to overhaul the supply chain for EVs.

“Investment in electrification will be huge financially,” he said. “If we made a wrong investment decision, that would have a huge impact and cause trouble to plant workers, local economy overseas, and our suppliers. So we must be cautious, responsible and committed.

“That’s why it won’t be easy to make such a decision.”

In the meantime, Mazda will keep improving its internal combustion technology in a strategy mirroring that of its partner, Toyota Motor Corp. Both companies see plenty of room to reduce emissions by refining internal combustion, first in tandem with electrified hybrid systems and then through the use of carbon neutral fuels.

Ichiro Hirose, Mazda’s global R&D director, said a new in-house hybrid system is in the works.

“A transition to electrification will take more time,” Hirose said at a midterm plan briefing.

“We think it necessary to improve the efficiency of internal combustion engines to the ultimate level. So we are not relenting our efforts on this front.”

Naoto Okamura contributed to this report.