Mazda Motor Corp. May be Shopping for New Partners this Holiday Season

Mazda Motor Corp. may be the next carmaker to strike an alliance following plans by Suzuki Motor Corp. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. to team up with overseas manufacturers, investors and analysts say.

The companies are seeking to share costs for developing new models with the latest technology. Mazda may need to do the same as its 40-year-old ties to Ford Motor Co. weaken.

“Carmakers like Mazda with annual sales of about only a million units need to be exploring partnerships to survive,” said Yoshiaki Kawano, an analyst in Tokyo at auto consulting company CSM Worldwide.

As the demand for hybrid, electric and other next-generation cars increases, carmakers find it too expensive to develop the technology alone, Kawano said. That partly explains why Suzuki agreed last week to sell a 19.9 percent stake to Volkswagen. PSA Peugeot Citroen and MMC are discussing deepening a partnership that would include an equity investment.

“The next candidate will probably be Mazda, following Mitsubishi and Suzuki,” said Yoshihiro Okumura at Chiba-gin Asset Management Co.

“At this point in time, no decision on any alliance has been made,” Mazda spokesman Ken Haruki said.

Mazda, which expects to post a full-year loss of ¥26 billion, raised more than $1 billion for product development from a share sale announced in October. Shares dropped 28 percent during the past six months, making its market capitalization almost half that of Mitsubishi Motors and less than a third of Suzuki.

“It’s unthinkable to have any capital-type relationship with a company other than Ford,” Mazda CEO Takashi Yamanouchi said Dec. 3 at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

Ford reduced its stake in Mazda to 11 percent from 33 percent last year and plans to develop future models without Mazda, Mark Fields, Ford’s president for the Americas, said at the auto show.

“For a lot of designing and engineering, we’re going to be focused on Ford,” Fields said. “Our efforts will be focused on the Ford system as opposed to relying on others such as Mazda.”

Ford, the only major U.S. automaker to avoid bankruptcy, formed an automatic-transmission joint venture with Mazda in 1969 and acquired a 25 percent stake in 1979. The U.S. carmaker took effective control of Mazda in 1996, raising its stake to 33.4 percent.

“If Ford pulls out completely, Mazda will have to find a new partner,” said Yasuhiro Matsumoto, an analyst at Shinsei Securities Co.

As the pool of prospects dwindles because of other combinations, Toyota Motor Corp. may be the only likely possibility, he said.

Hybrids and electric cars comprise less than 2 percent of the global car market — about 65 million units last year. By 2020, battery-powered vehicles will make up 10 percent of the market, Nissan Motor Co. CEO Carlos Ghosn estimated.

Mazda doesn’t own hybrid technology or an electric car. It worked with Ford on models including the Fusion sedan, which is based on the Mazda6.

Mazda has said it plans to introduce its own hybrid car, yet it also is in talks to use Toyota’s system, said Koji Endo, managing director of Advanced Research Japan.

Supplying the system would add volume and cut costs for Toyota, Endo said.

“Even if there were talks of any alliance, I wouldn’t be able to speak about it,” Toyota Executive Vice President Takeshi Uchiyamada said Monday.

With one major alliance already inked and another being discussed, momentum may push a carmaker to snap up Mazda soon, said Christopher Richter, an analyst at CLSA in Tokyo.

Daimler AG Chief Executive Officer Dieter Zetsche said Monday his company may choose a partner early next year to expand the Smart city-car brand and build engines for compact models.

Mazda may appeal to potential partners because of a new flexible vehicle platform it is developing, said Andrew Phillips, an auto analyst at KBC Securities in Tokyo. That technology could be easily adapted at low cost across several different models, beginning with the 2012 lineup, he said.

“The real attraction would be in the vehicle development and production technology,” Phillips said.

The company also touts a high-performance gasoline engine that gets 32 km per liter for its Kiyora concept car. Yet that product can only be relevant for a short time because carmakers are focusing on hybrids and electric cars, Endo said.

In the U.S., Mazda sells the Tribute hybrid, which uses the Ford system. It sold 173 in the first 11 months of 2009. It also developed the Premacy hydrogen-powered hybrid, yet it doesn’t plan to sell it, spokesman Haruki said.

Mazda could buy hybrid systems from Toyota without selling a stake, Endo said. Nissan’s Altima hybrid uses Toyota technology, and those car makers own no stakes in each other.

Still, Toyota has a history of forming equity alliances to forge technology partnerships, owning 5.9 percent of Isuzu Motors Ltd. and 16 percent of Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., the maker of Subaru-brand cars.

“Ford seems to be unwinding its ties with Mazda and that leaves room for other automakers to come in,” Okumura said.

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