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Greater L.A. Auto Show

LOS ANGELES – Cooperation between Mazda Motor Corp. and Ford Motor Co. will stay at current levels, Mazda’s U.S. sales chief says, despite Ford lessening its stake in the Japanese auto maker earlier this week.

“All the other things we’ve been developing over the years remain unchanged and moving forward,” Jim O’Sullivan, president-Mazda North American Operations, tells Ward’s at the Los Angeles auto show.

On Nov. 17, Ford sold 20% of its stake in Mazda to raise cash for its ailing U.S. operations. Ford now controls 13.4% of Mazda.

The two auto makers have shared much technology in recent years, with the current-generation Mazda3 built on the same platform as Ford’s European Focus and the Ford Fusion based on the previous-generation Mazda6.

“It’s still a great relationship,” O’Sullivan says. “It’s still very strong; product programs are still together; we still manufacture jointly.”

Mazda and Ford share plants in China and Thailand. Their AutoAlliance International Inc. joint venture in Flat Rock, MI, is home for the ’09 Mazda6 and Ford Mustang.

Ford “still very much has a great passion for this car company and its place within the Ford family, and that relationship’s going to continue,” O’Sullivan says.

Today, Mazda unveiled the ’10 Mazda3 compact sedan. A 5-door hatchback variant will debut at a smaller auto show later this year and both are expected to go on sale late in the first quarter.

The Mazda3 has been a strong seller in the U.S., and getting a sufficient supply of cars to meet demand has been an issue in the past.

But O’Sullivan is convinced that no longer will be a problem.

If the U.S. auto industry recovers in the coming year, “I can guarantee you Hiroshima can figure out how to make more Mazda3s,” he says, referring to Mazda’s global headquarters in Japan.

Currently one-third of the 380,000 Mazda3s built annually are destined for North America.

With the new Mazda6 already on sale and the Mazda3 on the way, O’Sullivan is confident the auto maker is well positioned in the challenging U.S. market.

The C-segment, where Mazda3 lives, and the C/D sector, home to the Mazda6, still represent huge volumes, he says, and the freshness of the two products should bode well for Mazda in the coming year.

Because of the current harsh environment for new-car sales, O’Sullivan declines to predict where Mazda or the industry will end up in terms of volume for 2008.

“In the next six months, it’s going to be a challenge for everybody in the industry,” he says.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com