Mazda Faces a Steep Uphill Road to EVs

mazda vision study concept
Mazda Faces a Steep Uphill Road to EVsMazda
  • The Mazda MX-30 EV’s 35.5-kWh battery has a mere 100-mile range, but a rotary range-extending engine is on its way to the US early next year.

  • “Converting to battery-electric power, sooner rather than later, will help Mazda’s transition to near-luxury vehicles,” said analyst Sam Fiorani.

  • Mazda has teased (above) its Vision Study Model of a sleek two-door EV sports car, feeding speculation that it’s the next MX-5 Miata, which seems unlikely.

Mazda’s midterm management plan unveiled recently announced a $10.6-billion investment in electric vehicles with the first crop arriving in 2025-27, and the Vision Study Model teaser of an EV sports car posted on YouTube. It’s an encouraging plan for fans of the company that brought us the Wankel rotary engine and the Miata.

In case you missed it, Mazda outlined a three-phase electrification strategy through 2030, when the automaker expects its EV ratio in global sales to reach the 25% to 40% range. That’s quite a wide range.

Phase I will “use technology assets comprising multiple electrification technologies to achieve both a reduction in our environmental footprint and produce attractive products.”

The MX-30 EV with Wankel rotary range-extending engine is on its way to the US early next year, according to multiple sources. “We cannot comment on future product but look forward to sharing further details about the 2023 Mazda MX-30 for the US real soon,” Mazda said via a spokesman.

On one hand, the range extender is much-needed: The 2022 MX-30 EV’s 35.5-kWh battery has an uncompetitive 100-mile range. Mazda sold a modest 324 of them this year through October, all in California, and they are sold out, the spokesman said. But Mazda’s longstanding desire to revive its rotary engine, even as a range extender, looks to be short-term.

Phase II of Mazda’s plan is introduction of its new hybrid system—presumably the rotary range extender—and “in China, where electrification is advancing, [to] introduce EV-dedicated vehicles as well as launch battery [electric] vehicles globally.”

Phase III is to “promote full-fledged launch of battery EVs and consider investing in battery production…”

mazda mx30 ev
Mazda MX-30 EV available only in California.Mazda

That last part is confusing, at least, and unlikely. The executive team is quoted saying, “Mazda does not have sufficient expertise and knowledge about developing batteries and manufacturing technologies for [BEVs], so we have decided to directly procure batteries from battery manufacturers” with the necessary expertise and experience.

However it is achieved, Mazda needs to make a large investment in BEV power in its push to move upscale, said Sam Fiorani, vice president of global vehicle forecasting for AutoForecast Solutions.

“Mazda needs to showcase its engineering prowess alongside the power and capability offered by an electric driveline,” he said. “Modern electric drivetrains present a tech-forward image that Mazda needs to present to its prospective buyers. … Converting to battery-electric power, sooner rather than later, will help Mazda’s transition to near-luxury vehicles.”

Mazda will spend nearly $11 billion in this three-phase plan, Reuters reports. While small compared with investments by General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen Group, or Ford, it’s a big budget for Mazda, which broke off from Ford control in 2010 and has been happily independent—if struggling to build sales and profits—ever since.

Like Subaru after GM sold its interest in the Japanese automaker in 2010, Mazda has relied on home-market giant Toyota to help develop important products.

Also like Subaru, that means Mazda has relied on Toyota for its electrification strategy, and the company that broke open the green market nearly two decades ago with the Prius hybrid has more recently faced criticism for lagging in the battery-electric revolution.

Even with its potentially large investment in EVs through 2030, Mazda is not about to go it alone.

“Collaboration with Toyota is ongoing in various areas such as development, manufacturing, sales financing, etc.,” Mazda executives said of the midterm plan. “We … believe that it is important to work very hard when there are opportunities beneficial for both parties.”

Translation? Mazda, well behind the rapidly accelerating move from internal combustion to BEV power, is now pushing Toyota to stop wasting time with interim hybrid development. This past July, Mazda signed an agreement with Fukuta Electric & Machinery to jointly develop advanced motors for electric vehicles, and two weeks ago Mazda announced several other supplier partnerships for additional EV components.

To compete on price in the EV market, Mazda must now source and develop battery materials and assemble EVs in North America for its vehicles to qualify for Inflation Reduction Act tax incentives of up to $7500.

Currently, Mazda’s joint-venture plant with Toyota in Huntsville, Alabama, and its standalone plant in Salamanca, Mexico, are set up only for gas-powered vehicles.

As for the Mazda Vision Study Model unveiled on YouTube, the sleek two-door coupe has fed speculation that we’re looking at the next MX-5 Miata (we’re still waiting for the new RX-7 based on the RX-Vision concept from the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show).

We are not looking at the 2030 MX-5 RF, said AutoForecast Solutions’ Fiorani. “Miata owners are a hardcore bunch, and they want the feel that comes with a lightweight chassis, front-engine/rear-drive setup, and availability of a manual transmission. All these things go away with the conversion to battery-electric power.”

mazda vision study concept
Mazda’s Vision Study concept.Mazda

But the original Tesla Roadster weighed just 2877 pounds, you say? That’s 425 pounds heavier than an ND Miata RF, but it’s also 871 pounds heavier than the Lotus Elise on which it was based.

After all, the next Tesla “Roadster” is more of a 2+2 GT coupe—not unlike the Mazda Vision Study Model.

So here’s a prediction: If Mazda can achieve its suddenly ambitious switch to EV power, the ND Miata will be the brand’s last ICE model offered, possibly rivaling the MGB (1962-81) for length of lifecycle. The Vision Study would be a new kind of Mazda sports car altogether.

Mazda might need to accelerate its EV migration timetable: Its recently announced sales report for 2022, through October, showed deliveries of Mazda’s current vehicles down 40% in China, 25% in Europe, and 18% in the US. The only region with growth, relative to the same period for 2021, is the home market of Japan, where sales were up 3.6%.

Are you confident that Mazda can survive the transition to battery-electric vehicles, and even thrive? Please comment below.