Japan’s six major auto makers are divided into two camps on future strategies for stability-enhancing driveline technologies: safety benefits vs. performance improvements. The last in this 6-part series examines Mazda’s driveline strategy.

UTSUNOMIYA, Japan – Mazda Motor Corp., which is owned 33.4% by Ford Motor Co., must coordinate its platform-development and procurement activities with Ford in hopes of introducing new technologies at an affordable cost.

With global vehicle production of about 1.1 million units, the auto maker often must wait for its larger partner to give the go-ahead.

So it is with advanced electronic stability control (ESC) technology such as torque-vectoring all-wheel drive and related developments.

“In the past, we tended to rely on mechanical systems,” says Tohru Yoshioka, a manager in Mazda’s chassis dynamics development department. “As we move forward, we will attempt to combine mechanical and electronic controls.”

Mazda’s main benchmark in dynamic performance is BMW AG – a company noted for its chassis responsiveness – but has yet to bring a torque-vectoring AWD system for production vehicles.

Torque vectoring uses selective application of driveline torque to an individual wheel to influence vehicle handling, enabling an extra “layer” of vehicle stability control and, say proponents, improving handling responsiveness.

Yoshioka admits Mazda is behind in AWD technology, but the auto maker expects to rectify that in the future. He notes that to date only one Mazda vehicle employs an electronically controlled AWD coupling – the Atenza Sport.

The researcher declines to comment on when a decision would be made to introduce torque-vectoring and electronically controlled limited-slip differential technologies on a wider basis, noting that parent Ford tends to be “quite conservative.”

Moreover, Mazda likely will introduce these technologies incrementally.

“For the time being, we will not introduce an integrated system like Toyota’s VDIM (Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management),” Yoshioka advises.

Toyota’s VDIM is an advanced suite of complementary stability-control components that includes “active” steering control. But even when fitted to AWD vehicles, VDIM does not incorporate torque vectoring.

Like Honda Motor Co. Ltd., Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp., Mazda sees electronic LSDs as a complementary, not a competing, technology with ABS and ESC. Yoshioka says Mazda’s Dynamic Stability Control improves traction both on slippery road surfaces and at high speeds on windy roads.

“Frankly,” he admits, “we do not have the resources to compete head-on with Toyota in commercializing many of the latest technologies, whether they be environmental or safety. We also cannot allow ourselves to be a Toyota clone, which is where our ‘zoom-zoom’ concept is relevant.”

Zoom-zoom, the tagline given to Mazda’s brand, focuses on expressive styling and sporty driving characteristics.

Yoshioka says ZF Friedrichshafen AG, Ford’s main steering-system supplier, could provide Mazda with an active steering system in three to five years.

Concerning an integrated chassis/drivetrain management system to compete with VDIM, Yoshioka says Mazda could bring parts of a similar system to market in three to five years.

“Again, timing will depend in part on Ford’s plans,” he says. “Dynamic stability control is strongly linked to the car’s braking system, which is a platform item – which means we must work in consultation with Ford and its suppliers.”

A complicating factor for Mazda, just as for Subaru and Mitsubishi, is its lack of a premium brand. Apart from the Miata and rotary-powered RX-8, which sell for $25,000 and $35,000, respectively, Mazda’s top-end model is the CX-9, a comparatively affordable cross/utility vehicle.

While admitting Mazda was a relatively late adopter of ESC, Yoshioka says penetration could reach 20% of its model range by 2010, from 5% today, including standard fitment for the CX-7 and CX-9 CUVs.

Moreover, he says Mazda’s customers are not particularly interested in VDIM-like systems.

“Safety is not just about stability,” he says. “It’s a combination of stability and controllability.”

Like other smaller auto makers, Mazda will limit introduction of the latest driveline technologies to specific models, in keeping with the company’s sporty and fun-to-drive brand strategy.

“And this does not mean limiting introduction to high-performance cars,” says Yoshioka. “It depends on the vehicle’s ‘concept.’”

For instance, Mazda incorporated ESC for the 1.3L Demio when the model underwent a facelift in 1999. ESC currently is standard on the RX-8, the 2.3L Atenza and the CX-7 and CX-9.

The new CX-9, CX-7 and Mazdaspeed6 employ Mazda’s electronically controlled Active Torque-Split AWD, which constantly adjusts drive torque between front and rear axles but does not actively apportion drive torque between wheels on the same axle.