TOKYO – It is still too soon to draw any definitive conclusions from Ford Motor Co.’s mid-November drawdown of equity in Mazda Motor Corp., but clearly the relationship has entered another new phase.

Fourteen years after the U.S. auto maker acquired a controlling 33.4% stake, now down to 3.5%, Mazda is basically on its own. So is Ford.

Both companies have declared they will continue to cooperate in areas of mutual benefit. Precisely what that means is not clear, although there can be no doubt areas of mutual benefit are fewer than in the past.

Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan earlier this month, Mazda President and CEO Takashi Yamanouchi reiterates plans to introduce an all-new engine and transmission series over the next five years, along with an overhaul of Mazda’s platform lineup. The combined effect of these activities: an average 30% improvement in fuel efficiency of its cars.

Yamanouchi also notes Mazda will attempt to concentrate more production in Japan, not less, while raising output to more than 1 million units by fiscal 2016, up from 900,000 projected this year. And it will look to the emerging markets of China, India, Brazil and Russia, as well as to the U.S., for future sales growth. In the case of Brazil, India and Russia, it will consider manufacturing there.

There is no mention of Ford involvement in any of these programs and, in fact, a dismantling of several joint projects already is under way.

While Yamanouchi insists Mazda has no intention of seeking a new equity partner, he also notes the auto maker will turn elsewhere for specific projects as the need arises.

Case in point: Mazda will work on hybrids with Toyota Motor Corp., not Ford. In 2013, the auto maker plans to introduce a hybrid based on Toyota’s 2-motor system. Its current offering, the limited-production Tribute Hybrid, is built at Ford’s Kansas City, MO, plant.

Yamanouchi confirms Mazda will begin the rollout of its new platform lineup in Japan during the first half of 2011 with the Demio, a subcompact sold outside Japan as the Mazda2.

In fact, all B, C and C/D platforms will be completely renewed by 2015. In addition to the B-segment Mazda2/Demio, these include the C-segment Axela/Mazda3; C/D-segment Atenza/Mazda6; and several models in between, including the Mazda5, CX-7 and CX-9.

“It may seem counterintuitive in light of the severe exchange rate environment,” Yamanouchi says, “but we believe that the best way to increase efficiency is to fully utilize our Japanese plants.”

In fact, Mazda intends to boost exports from Japan to 85% of its global sales, up from 78% at present, and do so profitably even if the yen remains at record high levels of ¥80:$1.

Not counterintuitive, given the auto maker’s impressive record in lean manufacturing and engineering, is its plan to cut costs 20%.

Presumably, it will realize these savings through a reorganization of its platform development group around a “vertical,” as opposed to a “horizontal,” approach – top-down through its lineup rather than platform type across regions.

Globally, Mazda hopes to sell 1.7 million vehicles in fiscal 2016, according to its midterm business plan announced in April. That would be a nearly one-third increase, 400,000 units annually, from this year’s projected total of 1.3 million.

Yamanouchi sees potential for an additional 300,000 units in the emerging markets of Russia, Brazil and India, where he confirms the auto maker is conducting feasibility studies on setting up manufacturing.

He also advises no announcement has been made regarding media reports Mazda is planning to build cars in Mexico, although his speculation the report came from one of Japan’s big trading houses lends it credence.

In late November, Japan’s Nihon Keizai Shimbun newspaper reported Mazda plans to construct a ¥30 billion-¥40 billion ($353 million-$471 million) plant with capacity for 100,000 vehicles, mainly Mazda2s and Mazda3s, for sale throughout Latin America beginning 2013. No investment would come from Ford, the report says.

Other Yamanouchi comments point toward an increasingly independent operation from the auto maker’s new Skyactive engine and transmission series to its revamped platform lineup, which he says will account for 80% of global sales by fiscal 2016.

The lineup overhaul already is having an effect on past Ford-Mazda projects, as jointly developed small-car platforms are nearing the end of their lifecycles. Included are the Mazda6 platform, on which the Ford Fusion and Edge are built, and the Mazda3/Ford Focus and Mazda2/Ford Fiesta platforms.

One exception is light trucks, where the auto makers will continue to cooperate in developing the Mazda BT50/Ford Ranger pickups produced at their AutoAlliance Thailand Co. Ltd. joint venture.

No immediate plans have been revealed about possible changes in the Thai-built Mazda2 and Fiesta.

However, Mazda ended production of a right-hand-drive version of the Ford Escape for the Japanese market in 2007, as Ford shifted the model to affiliated manufacturers in Taiwan and the Philippines.

That same year, Ford of Europe stopped making the Mazda2 at its Valencia, Spain, plant. Mazda now produces all European cars in Japan, except the BT50 pickup, imported from Thailand. Through October, European sales totaled 183,400 units.

In 2009, the Japanese auto maker pulled out of the U.S. pickup market, as sales of its B-Series, based on the U.S.-market Ranger and built by Ford, had fallen to fewer than 100 units per month.

A similar downtrend is being seen with the Tribute cross/utility vehicle. Through October, monthly sales averaged just 320 units. The Tribute, which is based on the Escape, is produced in the U.S. at Ford’s Kansas City, MO, plant, but Ford is phasing out the current Escape after this model year and there is no sign of a Mazda version off the next-generation model.

While both companies assure they are committed to their Flat Rock, MI, JV, the numbers tell a different story. Through the first 10 months, Mazda6 production at AutoAlliance International Inc. fell to 30,000 units. The plant, in operation since 1987, has capacity of 240,000 units split evenly between the Ford Mustang and Mazda6.

Yamanouchi confirms the operation is losing money and that Mazda and Ford currently are discussing ways to improve utilization. “But it’s difficult to recover fixed costs at current production levels,” he says.

Meanwhile in China, the auto makers are in the process of splitting their joint operation, with Mazda concentrating its efforts in Nanjing with Changan Automotive Group and Ford operating independently in Chongqing. In May, Mazda shifted Mazda3 production to Nanjing where it builds the Mazda2.

Still undecided is the future of a joint engine plant in Chongqing, although Ford independently announced plans in September to build a second plant scheduled to come on stream in 2013.

More than half of Mazda’s China output, on target to exceed 200,000 units this year, comes from the Changchun operation of FAW Car Co. Ltd., where the Mazda6 is built.

Koji Endo, auto analyst at Advanced Auto Japan, sees the changes with Ford as a “maturation” of the relationship.

“Both companies experienced benefits. Both lost opportunities,” he says. “Mazda, in particular, lost opportunities, because it had to synchronize its cycle plan with Ford and defer to Ford’s global product strategy more than it would have liked.”

One example is the Tribute, which met Ford’s needs for a compact CUV in North America but fit poorly into Mazda’s emerging Zoom-Zoom brand strategy and never provided meaningful sales volumes. The peak year was 45,270 in 2001.

Another example is dynamic stability control. Ford wanted Mazda to source its system from two suppliers at most and expected the technology to meet handling requirements of Ford vehicles in North America and Europe. Mazda engineers balked, arguing stability control is a core system and cannot be compromised.

In the end, it was Ford’s success in helping Mazda develop its “Zoom-Zoom” brand philosophy that ultimately led to a divergence of business strategies.

“Before developing our Zoom-Zoom brand strategy, we lacked consistency,” says Seita Kanai, Mazda’s director-research and development. “With every model since the Mazda6, we have applied our brand attributes which, taken as a whole, focus on vehicle dynamics.”

Stability control is one of 25 attributes ranging from steering and handling to braking and noise, vibration and harshness that comprise Mazda’s Zoom-Zoom brand character.

Known for its nifty sports cars and rotary engines, Mazda, the largest employer in the city of Hiroshima, was on the verge of bankruptcy when Ford took control in April 1996. The Japanese auto maker had run up operating losses of ¥69.5 billion ($820 million at current rates) over the three previous years while the company’s debt-to-equity ratio rose to a dangerous 200%.

By the time the hemorrhaging stopped, losses had grown to ¥126.4 billion ($1.5 billion), while the auto maker reported seven consecutive years of negative cash flow as it tried to feed five domestic sales channels and create a luxury channel outside Japan to compete with Lexus, Infiniti and Acura. Meanwhile, domestic production and sales fell 50%.

“It was simply out of control,” Kanai says. “We were going in so many directions that we wound up damaging our brand.”

The years that followed were like a roller coaster – for both companies. With Ford offering management support as team after team of executives passed through Hiroshima, Mazda learned about cash-flow management, the importance of brand and market-driven development and, perhaps most importantly, to live within its means.

Mazda taught Ford about lean engineering and lean manufacturing in the small-car segment. Ford then spread the gospel by returning key executives to Dearborn – including Henry Wallace, Mark Fields, Lewis Booth and John Parker.

Thanks to the relationship, Mazda now has a clearly defined brand and platform strategy and Ford has brought efficiencies to its engineering group and a sharper focus to its market strategy. Both companies weathered the worst recession in nearly 70 years and are back making money.

Ford, which posted a record $1.7 billion third-quarter profit, is on a pace to earn $8 billion for the full year. Between 2006 and 2008 it reported net losses of $30 billion. Likewise, Mazda is back making money although in Mazda’s case the going is tougher because of the record strong yen.

“Of course a $1:¥80 exchange rate will impact earnings,” says Yamanouchi. “But to make the impact less, we are trying to boost sales in emerging markets and of course reduce costs.”

In fiscal 2010, Mazda is projecting operating income of ¥25 billion ($294 million), still well below its fiscal 2007 high of ¥ ($1.9 billion) but on a growth trajectory once again that should be sustainable if the auto maker’s new platform lineup delivers everything promised.

In fact, analysts expect earnings to double again in fiscal 2011 and, if Mazda gets a break on exchange rates, the pace could accelerate.

Yamanouchi is optimistic about Mazda’s future as it tries to steer a course independent of Ford. He has to be.

Nevertheless, if Yamanouchi can deliver on his promise to make Mazda an “indispensable brand” despite its size, the company known for its rotary engines and Hiroshima heritage could stick around for years to come.