If you were to stroll through the Mazda 3 assembly plant in Hofu, Japan, it wouldn’t be unusual to find a bamboo-and-paper shoji door in an engineer’s locker. “It opens and slides without much effort,” explains Hirotaka Takaya, doors development engineer. Nor should you be surprised to find a drawing of the anatomy of a human arm. “We determined which muscles are used to operate [the shift lever],” explains Takao Kijima, former MX-5 Miata program manager, “to balance the amount of strength needed.” Kijima further suggests, “When the car and driver are in harmony, driving is fun.”
So just thinking about pushing the shifter into first gear is seemingly sufficient to get the job done, and, if you so desire, you can make four upshifts without depressing the clutch. Jumping rudely in and out of the throttle produces no driveline snatch. And the steering feels as if it circulates on needle bearings submerged in Jergens lotion.
Of course, some of the 3’s goodness can also be attributed to the company’s Skyactiv program, which so far remains a confounding mystery to consumers and rightly so. In part, it’s a version of simultaneous engineering that says, “The guy who designs the bolt will do so alongside—and with the advice of—the guy who designs the nut.” But in practice, Skyactiv’s mandate is to earn gains by fixing little, boring things that were previously not wholly in Mazda’s cross hairs. The program might better have been called “We pick nits,” although that makes for an unappetizing catchphrase.
One big Skyactiv victory has been the reduction of engine NVH, not by adding sound deadeners but by reducing friction. The more freely a device spins, in theory, the less racket it’s likely to make. In Mazda’s gas engines, for instance, Skyactiv has reportedly reaped a 54-percent reduction in valvetrain friction, a 74-percent increase in oil-pump efficiency, a 31-percent increase in water-pump efficiency, and 13 percent better breathing.
Mazda claims that Skyactiv also has the happy side effect of piquing curiosity. Says Masahiro Moro, an executive of Mazda Japan: “If something is strange, we don’t turn away. We study it.”
One thing that got studied was the manufacture of engine blocks. The 3’s blocks previously passed through 45 machining processes requiring six hours. Now CNC machines do all 45 jobs at only three stations in 1.3 hours. It’s a big deal when you’re producing 150 to 200 Mazda 3s a day, as Hofu does.
It helps, too, that Ford has finally withdrawn its foot from Mazda’s doorjamb. Mazda is back doing what it does best: building small cars (and great-driving crossovers). No trucks or luxury sedans. Look what a carmaker can do when it focuses on the small stuff.