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'Mazda to be Ford's Alfa'

Mazda Europe president Jan Brentebraten is urging dealers to help the company shake off an "ageing, middle of the road" product image and demonstrate its rediscovered driving dynamics and interior quality.

Mr Brentebraten said: "To stabilise the firm's financial situation, Mazda built quickly ageing cars. Fighting with the big guys was difficult, even impossible."

He said the new Mazda 6 and upcoming RX8 rotary engined sports car were the outcome of three years spent redefining the brand.

BMW was the inspiration for the 6 in terms of fit, finish and driving dynamics, but Mr Brentebraten believed Mazda could become the Alfa Romeo of Ford's brand portfolio. "We need to get people in the cars," he said. "Seeing is not enough. Feeling and driving is believing with the new Mazdas."

Mazda could not survive by competing head on with Ford, Opel, VW and mainstream French opposition, said Mr Brentebraten.

Due largely to a 70% appreciation of the yen between 1998 and last year, annual European Mazda sales plummeted from a planned 241,000 in 1998 to 170,000 units this year.

Mr Brentebraten is aiming for 300,000 Mazda sales in Europe within three years (2% of the market).

Mazda has taken direct control of most European distribution, including Britain. "This gives Mazda a different platform on which to bring these new vehicles to market," he said. "Having someone between the company and the network made it difficult to focus on dealer development and other strategies."

"Investing in your own future rather than someone else's is much more of an incentive." UK sales should recover from 16,000 this year to around 26,000 in 2002, he said.

Mazda, he said, had gone from an engineering driven company without enough customers to generate future investment to a "significant partner within the Ford family".

The Mazda 6 shared "architecture and components" with the next generation Mondeo and the Hiroshima-based company is responsible for developing Ford group and 1.8-litre and 2-litre petrol engines.

Mazda engineers are preparing for European production the Demio at Ford's Valencia plant where it will share the new Fiesta's platform.

Hinting strongly that other Mazda products would join the transplant movement in Europe he said: "Over time we will expand our products in Europe, but I will not get into speculation as to what and when."

Mazda plans to build 40,000 Demios a year in Europe from 2003, but company sources believe the eventual aim is to raise that to 100,000 Mazdas by 2005. (November 7, 2001)

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