2008 Mazda Tribute Hybrid

2008 Mazda Tribute Hybrid

Mazda is known for its "Zoom-Zoom" tagline, meaning sporty cars that set the bar for enjoyable handling at real-world prices. But the company has repeatedly expressed its lack of interest in electric cars, and its one hybrid is so half-hearted few know it exists.

Now, Mazda may have reversed course. It plans to join the fast-growing wave of automakers hoping to launch battery electric cars and an array of hybrid models. More remarkably still, it may acquire the technology from former controlling shareholder Ford.

Learning from Ford?

Last Thursday, Mazda executive Seita Kanai said at a press event that the company might partner with Ford to develop "electric devices" for better fuel economy. The company had first mentioned its about-face on hybrids at the New York auto show in April.

The new--reported by Bloomberg, among others--is startling because for many years, it was Ford that learned from Mazda. The eagerly awaited 2011 Ford Fiesta, for example, is based on the Mazda2 model sold in Europe and Asia (though not the US).

That car won plaudits for being larger, safer, and offering more equipment while actually cutting out 220 pounds of weight. Mazda has already reduced weight in its vehicles; Ford is one of several companies planning such "light-weighting" for future vehicles.

But Ford has years of experience on its Asian partner in hybrid-electric vehicles, having introduced the Ford Escape Hybrid crossover in 2004. The company has sold roughly 25,000 Escape Hybrids (and variations) each year since then.

More recently, it added the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid midsize sedan, which beats its direct competitor, the 2009 Toyota Camry, in both performance and gas mileage. The Fusion Hybrid has won rave reviews and is selling well.

Ford is also planning two all-electric vehicles: an electric Transit Connect small delivery van, to be launched next year, and an electric Ford Focus compact, due as a 2012 model, that it will build in its Michigan assembly plant.

Hydrogen, not electrons

Unlike Nissan, Mitsubishi, and Subaru, Japanese carmaker Mazda has done little research in electric drive. Its sole alternative-fuel projects, in fact, have focused on burning hydrogen in converted internal-combustion engines.

Just recently, it launched its first hybrid drivetrain, in the low-volume, Japan-only Premacy Hydrogen RE minivan. That van fuels its rotary engine with hydrogen, and complements it with a 110-kilowatt electric drive motor powered by a lithium-ion battery pack.

In light of carbon constraints in Europe and higher fuel-mileage requirements in the US, Mazda plans to improve its average fuel economy 30 percent by 2015. The company said its first hybrid models would appear in the middle of the 2010s, about 5 years hence.

To raise cash, Ford cuts its share of Mazda to just 13.8 percent last November. But executives of both companies have said they will continue to work together to share vehicle platforms.

One lonely, forgotten hybrid

For the record, Mazda does offer one hybrid model in the US already. It's the 2009 Mazda Tribute Hybrid, a lightly redesigned version of the 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid (and its twin, the 2009 Mercury Mariner Hybrid).

The Tribute, Mazda's first crossover, lost importance once the company launched its own designs, the compact CX-7 and midsize CX-9 crossovers--though those models do not offer a hybrid option.

But sales of the Tribute Hybrid are miniscule--far lower than the Mariner Hybrid, whose sales are just 15 percent of the Escape Hybrid's--and few automotive media have ever seen one, much less reviewed the vehicle.

Back to the future?

If Mazda does end up offering hybrid or even electric cars of its own design,  we humbly suggest the company may wish to revisit a much older advertising slogan.

Back in the 1970s, Mazda made its name by offering the sporty, rotary-engined RX-2 and RX-3 coupes, sedans, and even station wagons.

They were fast for small cars, and their rotary engines were so smooth that they became the tagline of a memorable campaign: "Piston engine goes boing-boing, but the Mazda goes hmmmm ..."

Sadly, right around the time their rotor-tip seals began leaking oil and then failing entirely, the 1973 oil crisis hit. Mazda hastily retooled to produce more conventional piston-engined cars, and only the 2009 Mazda RX-8 is left to fly the rotary banner.

But for your viewing pleasure, below, is an early TV ad for the the 1973 Mazda RX-3. Sounds like electric drive to us, hmmmm?

[Bloomberg; Automotive News, subscription required]